Armed Forces Day: What can we learn from the military?

The armed forces evoke many images to different people. For some it conjures up visions of aviator-wearing fighter pilots; for others it might be muddy soldiers trooping through a barren landscape; or grey-hulled ships crashing through a heavy ocean swell. When people think about the military, a lot of the focus (often justifiably) is on the visible operational outputs. Warfare, multinational peacekeeping, search and rescue, counter-terrorism, and humanitarian support—to name just a handful of examples. This is understandable, as these are the glamorous, tangible activities that the military performs.

However, to see the armed forces as simply a group of action men and women overlooks the key skills and attributes that underpin these activities. Many of these qualities are applicable and valuable to organisations across society.

Defining the problem

The first step in a military problem-solving process is to define the problem that needs to be answered. Some initial questions posed would be:

- How long do we have to understand and develop options?
- What is the actual problem?
- What is the current environment and who are the stakeholders?
- What does the future environment look like?
- What is the desired end state?

The aim of this approach is to ensure the right problem is accurately identified and to place a complex or ill-defined situation within a structure which enables effective solutions to be developed. This may seem logical, but how often do teams or organisations jump straight into working on something without being clear about what precisely needs to be achieved?

This can be costly, however, in terms of money, time and effort spent. The internet is littered with examples of expensive failures to understand a problem. Denver International Airport, in the mid-1990s, set out to create a new system for handling luggage. The project quickly lost direction, with many of the aims ill-defined or discovered to be unworkable. In 2005, ten years after starting, the project was scrapped at a cost of US$560 million. Various reviews of the project’s failure had a common theme—a failure to understand the requirement, including the complexity of the task.

Hollywood provides another (relatively) less costly example. When filming for Kevin Costner’s post-apocalyptic action movie Waterworld started, it did so without a completed script. This prevented basic logistics and planning to occur, as the movie’s filming requirements had not been properly scoped. This gung-ho attitude towards production meant the film ran over budget by US$135 million.


Nothing in the military is done without a plan. Be it a unit sports day, an airdrop of supplies, or an amphibious landing, every activity is planned to a high degree of detail. While the frequently quoted cliche “no plan survives first contact with the enemy” is definitely true, it should not be used as an excuse or reason not to plan. A comprehensive planning process provides two key advantages:

- The process provides an opportunity to identify weaknesses in the plan, and time to address them before starting the activity.
- It minimises the likelihood of serious problems occuring.

A robust planning process identifies foreseeable issues and enables them to be mitigated in advance. Military planning follows a logical and methodical process. The requirements for each key aspect (such as communications, intelligence and logistics) are considered and incorporated into the overall plan, meaning that a military exercise or operation is properly supported. This process ensures the people conducting the activity are able to focus solely on responding to the situation as it evolves, for example, an adversary’s reaction or change in sea state.


Initial military training is renowned for being unrelenting. Trainees spend countless hours doing tasks that seem, in isolation, ridiculously pointless or unrealistic. But it makes sense when the bigger picture is understood. Having a barrack floor polished by 0600 is not a rational thing to do, but there is no real-world consequence if it is not completed (other than push-ups for the hapless recruits). But, like everything in a training situation, it is a tool. The recruits are given a challenging, or unpleasant task and they learn to do it, even though they are tired, stressed and the job is difficult or unenjoyable. By working together and getting it done, despite the challenges and mental or physical difficulties, the recruits learn to operate in difficult situations. This means that in an urgent real-life situation, like preparing an aircraft in the middle of the night for a late-notice operation, the maintenance crew are used to completing jobs at unusual times, to a high standard. But resilience does not just apply to spending days living outside in the rain, or walking endless kilometres with a heavy pack. It is also the internal resolve to keep going, to finish a task under stress or time pressure. In the civilian world, this translates to meeting deadlines, completing projects regardless of difficulties, dealing positively with challenging clients, or working productively at off-site locations.


The working world is becoming increasingly specialised, often out of necessity. As technology has become more complex, the skills and education needed to perform roles in the modern workforce have become increasingly defined. While specialism is a good thing (particularly for people doing work they really enjoy), the danger is that organisations lose adaptability and flexibility. The military is also very specialised. Flying aircraft, firing artillery, operating radars and driving a ship are difficult jobs, requiring very particular skills and expertise to perform them. There are also a raft of military people doing jobs found in the civilian world—chefs, electricians, engineers, and IT technicians. But this high degree of specialisation is built on a general base. Military people identify with the organisation first, and their actual role second. So while a navy ship may have helicopter pilots, chefs and radar operators, they all are conditioned to view themselves as ‘sailors first’, and recognise that there are common duties and tasks that they have to perform as a sailor. This mindset creates a proactive culture where everyone recognises the need to contribute to getting the ‘mission’ accomplished, regardless of the task.

The last two attributes are very specific to the military environment and can not transfer directly into the civilian world. But there are some wider lessons that organisations can learn from. Companies can look at ways of helping employees deal with complexity and uncertainty, and to help them perform during times of pressure. Similarly, building a strong company culture—where staff are personally invested in the aims of the business—could generate an environment where people actively look for ways they contribute and assist other teams.

Planning and task definition are two things that every organisation can learn from the military model. Understanding the task gives staff focus and clarity, which—supported by effective planning—enables creativity and ensures adaptable projects. They also provide organisational resilience and flexibility to deal with challenges as they arise.

There are lots of different planning approaches, methods and theories that can be used to suit any company type or size. But the method used is immaterial: the main point is to have a robust process that provides a solid structure to an organisation’s work.

Armed Forces Day, last Saturday (24 June), was an opportunity to reflect on what wider society can learn from how the military does its business. The Armed Forces exist to provide security and conduct operations in the national interest. But it must be remembered that military hard power is based on and supported by a strong organisational culture. This ensures that the people in uniform not only have the skills to do the job but are also supported by strong systems.

Image: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service