Lessons on Culture and Trust from Military Strategy

Originally published on March 31, 2017.

Effective compliance professionals think a lot about organizational trust: What it is, how it helps a business succeed, and how companies can leverage it to nurture a rigorous ethical culture.

This Memorial Day weekend, I want to dive more deeply into the subject by exploring lessons learned about trust from an unusual source: John Boyd, the man who revolutionized U.S. military strategy after World War II.

Boyd was an Air Force officer in the 1960s and ’70s, who died in 1997. He was an American original for a host of reasons, from his skill as a fighter pilot (superb), to his work reforming Pentagon procurement (which exasperated Defense Department bureaucrats for decades).

Boyd’s biggest claim to fame, however, were the principles of military strategy he developed in the 1970s and boiled into a presentation known as “A Discourse on Winning and Losing.”

Boyd was the first military strategist to understand that victory on the battlefield depended on how quickly soldiers could work through “the OODA Loop”—observe facts on the ground; orient yourself to the landscape; decide what to do; and then act. His crucial insight wasn’t to discern the OODA Loop itself. His breakthrough was to see that success in battle depended on cycling through the loop faster than your opponent.

That is, military success, and strategic success generally, depends on your use of time. If you use time more efficiently than your opponent, you can take more actions and overwhelm their ability to respond.

If that idea sounds esoteric, consider how it works in the business world: A company isn’t defeated by a larger opponent; it’s defeated by a faster opponent who can respond to changing conditions more quickly.

There is not a board of directors in the world that would disagree with that thesis. So what do Boyd’s theories have to do with corporate culture and organizational trust? Everything.

Uncluttering Your OODA Loop

Boyd also understood that his OODA Loop operates like any other process: the more steps you need to take along the way, the more time you need to complete it. So if the goal is to complete the loop in the least amount of time, that decision-making cycle needs to be as uncluttered as possible—and that is true for all people in the organization, whether they are privates first class or five-star generals.

How would that work in a large organization like the U.S. military? Easy, Boyd said. Junior officers focus on tactics and immediate goals. Senior officers focus on overall objectives and unified culture.

The glue that holds those two teams together, of course, is trust.

In Boyd’s ideal military, senior officers focus almost exclusively on setting broad objectives and building a common culture of trust among junior officers and enlisted soldiers. Junior officers then have discretion to act at the local level as they believe best: to seize this hill, to secure that facility, to capture these enemy troops.

Boyd believed in rapid action and rapid response to changing conditions, all within the context of a few broad objectives and mutual trust between higher and lower ranks. It’s a strategy any smart CEO would embrace.

Don’t Worry About Silos; Worry About Trust

We could write whole books on Boyd’s theories (people have) and how they apply to situations well beyond military circles. For our purposes today, let’s just drill further into why trust is so important to large organizations.

Silos are not innately bad. They simply can be bad, if the company has a culture where trust has faltered.

Compliance officers often lament the existence of “silos”—those different pockets of action within a large enterprise, that seem to prefer acting alone rather than in unison. Everyone talks about silos as a menace to corporate culture, and that’s not an incorrect impression. Silos can be terribly destructive.

The solution, however, isn’t so much about breaking down silos, as it is about building up trust. Silos will exist in every organization: different operating units, different seniority levels, different geographic divisions. (Let’s remember that Boyd developed his theories within the hugely complex organization of the U.S. military. He knew silos.)

Silos are not innately bad. They simply can be bad, if the company has a culture where trust has faltered. In that environment, silos amplify second-guessing, doubt and cynicism to dangerous levels—because defeating those threats requires time, the one resource a business wants to preserve above all.

Put simply: an organization that spends all its time bickering and questioning motives gets nothing done. Then a more nimble competitor comes along and steals your market share, outpaces your product development - defeats you.

Ultimately, Boyd believed that success on the battlefield depended on values, culture, training and judgment.

Now, from our perspective as compliance officers—does the phrase “on the battlefield” really matter in that last sentence?

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