On Good Ideas and Hard Work

Peter Drucker’s Insight for Military Organizations

Have you ever looked at your team or organization and thought, “Wow, the people are working hard and we’re doing so many good things…but why doesn’t it feel like we’re a well-oiled machine by now?” I certainly have. And you’ve probably also been the one in the middle of the organization looking around you saying, “Despite all this good effort, why does it feel like we’re spinning our wheels?”

Organizations that suffer from this problem often exhibit a common behavioral mistake: they take on too many good ideas and don’t properly implement the ideas they do commit to. Reading Peter F. Drucker, the grandfather of modern business leadership and author of more than 35 books, I found some insight worth sharing.

Soldiers of the 184th Security Force Assistance Team (California National Guard) conduct basic range training
in Tarin Kot, Afghanistan, Sept. 27, 2013. U.S. Army photo by Cpl. Alex Flynn.

Good Ideas Can Hurt

I’ve mentioned it before…military leaders have a hard time saying no to a good idea, even at the expense of stated priorities. Because we care so much about development, we evaluate the idea in light of its contributor instead of in light of the idea’s usefulness to the unit. It’s as if simply having a good idea is the benchmark of high performance. It’s clearly not…but we can’t say no, ideas get implemented, and people get run into the ground because of it.

In his bestseller from 1967, The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker focuses his analysis on the effectiveness of leaders and their organizations. He explains that effort is useless, perhaps destructive, if it does not support organizational priorities. This can happen easily in a culture that doesn’t filter good ideas.

Drucker also draws a sharp line between talent and effectiveness:

…there seems to be little correlation between a man’s effectiveness and his intelligence, his imagination or his knowledge. Brilliant men are often strikingly ineffectual; they fail to realize that the brilliant insight is not by itself achievement. They never have learned that insights become effectiveness only through hard systematic work. (1)

So, the good ideas that proliferate from motivated individuals on the team are not enough to ensure success. The road from “Aha!” to AAR requires hard work, individually and systematically.

Effectiveness is a habit; that is, a complex of practices. And practices can always be learned. Practices are simple, deceptively so; even a seven-year-old has no difficulty in understanding a practice. But practices are always exceedingly hard to do well. They have to be acquired, as we all learn the multiplication table; that is, repeated ad nauseam until “6 x 6 = 36″ has become an unthinking, conditioned reflex, and firmly ingrained habit. Practices one learns by practicing and practicing and practicing again. (24)

This advice applies on the rifle range as much as it does in the boardroom.

Accuracy Over Speed

But even after leaders create momentum to capitalize on good ideas, they must verify that the activity actually achieves the desired endstate. This is organizational effectiveness.

Consider marksmanship as an analogy. A new squad leader joins the ranks of a platoon, bringing with him a wealth of experience for the unit’s upcoming deployment. He is also a shooting hobbyist with years of practice at speed shooting. He is motivated to contribute and upon arriving, sets about teaching his new squad how to quicken their response time with the rifle. The Platoon Leader and Platoon Sergeant value the energy he’s bringing to the unit and don’t hold him back.

The squad spends hours upon hours focused on making faster rifle shots. The Soldiers are quicker for sure, but their accuracy has only improved a little. And now it’s time to deploy.

Two problems. First, the good idea wasn’t properly implemented. What good is speed if the shots miss? A deliberate assessment of the program would have noted that. Second, the unit’s mission in the approaching deployment will be mounted escort, not dismounted patrolling. An effective training plan would have focused on convoy operations and marksmanship with mounted weapon systems.

Implementing a Good Idea

Leaders bear the responsibility of distilling the best ideas from the organization and crafting them into effective activity. In brainstorming the topic, I settled on 4 questions leaders should ask in the pursuit of effectiveness:

  1. Based on our endstate (effects we want to achieve), what practices should we focus on?
  2. What is the best, most efficient program to teach those practices?
  3. What methods can we use to measure the outcome of the training?
  4. How can we measure the resulting effect to achieve our mission?

These questions (necessarily) strip away the excitement of a good idea and evaluate it against the unit’s priorities, the key step to reducing ineffective activity.

Scaling Effectiveness

Drucker also mentions effectiveness as a “complex of practices.” Practices in the military range from reflexive and instinctive at the squad level to complex and interconnected at higher levels. In training for organizational effectiveness, leaders must determine what activity (warfighting as well as staff practices) they can make reflexive and what must remain…for lack of a better term…fluid. Executing battle drills in an operations center should be reflexive; generating ideas during planning, fluid. Reporting logistics status to higher headquarters, reflexive; tailoring the resupply packages to maximize efficiency, fluid.

A leader’s thorough understanding of the organization will allow him/her to connect ideas to habits that support the mission. All else is wasted effort.

Questions for Leaders

  • How could your organization improve the way it filters and implements ideas?
  • Does your team follow through on the ideas it does decide to implement?
  • What is your process for screening organizational effectiveness? Is it working?

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Originally published at www.themilitaryleader.com on May 16, 2015.