Learning from unexpected places

By September 21, 2013Uncategorized

Among those I work with, I am well known for not doing much outside work! Recently I have got a little more in the way of work/life balance; well if I am honest it has kind of been enforced by my new puppy. I never thought I would be a dog person, but my little puppy, Russell, has kind of made me one and as a work/life balance tool he enforces a level of time away from work that is healthy!

As well as the puppy I watch a little TV, not much but a little. I watched a TV programme yesterday that featured a drama about an army unit. It reminded me of one of the best business lessons I ever heard given by General Sir Richard Dannatt, the then head of the British Army and now, I think, a Lord – so if I have got his title wrong and he reads this blog column, then I am very sorry, Lord Dannatt.

A business lesson from the army

He spoke about how the army gets things done and explained very, very clearly about the structure that enables them, through hundreds of years of practice, to achieve outcomes. Now please don’t take this as my political view on the army or war or some of the global interventions that the British army has been involved in over the last decade, it is not. It is, however, a reflection on how we can learn about business in the most surprising places. The greatest wisdom on growing a new business is not always learned from management books and start-up seminars. It is learned from those who have deep and long-term experience understanding people and the way in which they operate.

Dannatt spoke about his role in the army and how they get things done and he did that by outlining three very simple modes in which the members of the army operate. There are three modes – strategic, operational and tactical. So the example he gave was in the most recent theatre of operation he had been involved in.


The strategic responsibility was to issue an order informed by knowledge of culture, history, economics, logistics and a whole host of information, an order which would achieve the result of securing a key city. The order was “go and take Basra”. That was it. It is impossible to quantify the knowledge, experience, research and learning that led to that order and it looked like a very short sentence for the work involved. From the CEO of the army, that strategic order was vital.


The operational team then took over and took that order and decided where to place which battalions and divisions and in which directions to move them in order to fulfil that order successfully; a major task of operational, logistic and management skills.


The tactical mode then took over and soldiers on the ground, who knew how to operate the machines, assemble and use the kit, made their way forward.

Dannatt’s point was that each mode was important and that if those at the tactical level began their task by asking questions and re-assessing whether “go and take Basra” was the best thing to do then the army would be paralysed and the task would never be completed. Likewise, if the those operating at the strategic level insisted on every soldier reporting personally to them in order to have their weapons cleaned and serviced then the task would never be accomplished either. His point was to understand the difference between strategic, operational and tactical tasks and not to confuse the roles of who does what in that process.

When you are in the midst of starting up a new business – as I am at the moment – it is very often the case that you, (and only you), are doing everything, strategic, operational and tactical. That is right.

Dannatt was a great leader because he knew what it was like to stand in the firing line, to spend long nights waiting and to clean his own gun and boots, but – and this is a very important but – he knew when it was time to change. When you have started up a business it is easy never to move away from being the person who opens up in the morning then locks the doors late at night. If you don’t, you can become the limiting factor to the growth of the business. Learning to sense the time in your start-up of taking on the right people in the right place at the right time is vital.

If you don’t you might spend for ever cleaning your boots and never take Basra.