"General ideas lead to general execution, and that gets sloppy. We have to eliminate doubt, guesswork, and ambiguity. In the military, those things kill people."
I grew up in a military home. My father, like author James Murphy, was a fighter pilot. I remember a host of acronyms like the ones sprinkled throughout this book. I remember watching my dad in his orange flight suit prepare for his mission briefings. I was on base waiting for him the day he safely flew a malfunctioning aircraft to a small airport 300 miles away in an emergency by following the plans laid out in his flight briefing. It doesn’t surprise me, then, that a fighter pilot would connect the dots between military training and business execution.
That’s what James Murphy does in Courage to Execute. He takes elements of his military training and the training of other elite units and applies them to business. It makes so much sense that I am surprised no one has done it sooner.
The Big Idea
It's A Process!
"The U.S. military gets extremely high levels of execution from teams with members who are often under age 21, most with no college education. These teams perform at extremely high levels in the most demanding, high-stakes environments imaginable—and on G.I. pay. Their secret? A simple, replicable process to make them elite warriors."
Even before the introduction to the book was finished, Murphy told us three times that in the military a process is responsible for the successful training and deployment of teenagers in our military’s million-dollar equipment. The training is only as reliable and reproducible as the process is. Since I have teenagers of my own, who make me nervous riding their bikes, he had my attention!
The backbone process of the book he calls “the Flawless Execution engine”: Plan, brief, execute, debrief. It isn’t the novelty of the process that makes it successful, it is the discipline. They do it every time! Work the program and the program works.
The debrief part of the process struck me as important and neglected. The debrief, the after-action evaluation, is a staple of military maneuvers. Little happens that isn’t debriefed. I remember waiting for my dad after a flight while he went and debriefed with other pilots. Murphy points out that a good debrief knows no rank and targets no person. “It’s what’s right, not who’s right. We get the lessons on the table so nobody on the team will repeat our mistakes, and we aim to repeat the high points.”
The older I get and the longer my tenure, I find myself receiving less and less feedback. People seem afraid of my “rank”. I am going to have to create environments, a debrief, where I can get feedback that is nameless and without rank. I need to follow his prescription for building a good debriefing system.
You learn from after-action reflection. To skip that step abbreviates the process (which is why we skip it) but forfeits the potential improvement and learning.
"Complexity is the mortal enemy of good execution, and our world is nothing if not increasingly complex. Good execution demands simplicity, and in the military, we combat complexity with simplicity."
Simplicity begins at the beginning. Simplicity comes from being crystal clear about what we are doing. This “High-Definition Destination”, as he calls it, clarifies the goal and simplifies subsequent decisions. It is especially important when other people need to know the goal – which is almost always! He includes an example of Operation Desert Storm. The U.S. military did not merely want to take control of Baghdad. Rather they aimed to disable it in a way that had the fewest civilian casualties and made for a quick rebuilding process. The clarity of this outcome made multiple decisions throughout several branches of the military not only possible, but in sync with one another.
“Military planners strive to shave down a plan to its essence,” writes Murphy. “The simpler the better. The more complex, the more likely something will go wrong, the more likely you’ll lose focus or make a mistake.”
"We call that [task saturation] the silent killer to good execution. It's the moment you have too much to do and not enough time or resources to do it, and you lose focus on the most important thing."
He tells a compelling tale of pilots flying a plane into the ground because they lost sight of the most important instruments. The increased complexity of an aircraft and all the tasks that accompany flying it lead to what he calls task saturation.
Task Saturation can be combatted by two simple things. First, delegate the lower priority items to a wingman. Offload items clearly and quickly so you can remain focused on the most important priorities.
And, develop a habit of cross-checking. I was on a plane last week. Over the intercom the flight attendant spoke to the captain so we all could hear, “Cabin doors closed and locked. Cross-check complete.” The captain didn’t do all the important things, but relied on a cross-checking crew to make sure those important things got done.
I felt this task-saturation acutely. I read this on sabbatical. I took the sabbatical after years of service at my post. And, I was tired, saturated from doing the same things over and over. I had forgotten simple things that were really important. So, now that I’m back to work, I will delegate more and build in cross-checks to make sure we do the important things.
My mind raced as I read this. Where can I use this? Almost everywhere!
“Remember,” Murphy says, “individual execution is one thing, but organizational execution is everything.”I am writing these book summaries because I want to learn to execute better myself, but I must develop and work a process if my organization is going to execute. A process enables the improved execution to extend beyond just one person.
I realized that I have a great heritage growing up in a military home. The discipline and focus that I often chafed under as a young man is the very thing I need to recover as a leader. I waste so much energy doing work without a process. I reinvent the work every time I do it. If I used his “plan, brief, execute, debrief” sequence, I would work more effectively. But, more than that, I could enlist others with clarity.
Where do you need to build a process to deliver reproducible results?