Marine Corps

What the Marine Corps Can Teach Us About Agility

I think I learned agility differently than most.  I learned it through osmosis. Through my leaders, I learned what agile looked like, what behaviors were ideal, and which were counterproductive.  The first time someone accused me of being “agile,” I was confused since I had no idea that’s what it was called.  Where most can paint a beautiful picture in words of what agile looks like, I was fortunate enough to see it in action and exemplified by some of the world’s most influential leaders.  The only difference?  We called it leading Marines.

I came to this realization after reading Corps Business by David Freedman where he wrote about the 30 management principles of the U.S. Marine Corps.  He created his list after interviewing a number of inspiring Marine Corps leaders, and I was fortunate enough to serve under many of them during my 10 years as an intelligence operative and martial arts instructor.  Freedman brilliantly describes the principles in simple and straight forward language, and I thought I’d share a few of his principles with you today.  Let’s get started.

#15: Reward failure. Someone who never fails probably isn’t pushing the envelope.

Talent can be a curse.  When we’re good at everything we do, we’re taken aback when something doesn’t come easily.  However, it’s not through our successes that we learn life’s most valuable lessons.  It’s through our failures.  Don’t avoid or deflect these challenging circumstances.  Learn to accept them as the teaching tool they are.  One thing I often tell teams is this:

Fail early. Fail often.  But never fail the same way twice.

As a Marine, I was often placed in situations I wasn’t equipped to handle.  My leaders purposefully placed me in these circumstances ensuring no lives were at stake and the financial cost of the lesson was minimal.  However, what was at stake was my pride.  It was humbling but also helpful.  These circumstances taught me that failure wasn’t to be feared but embraced, and it taught me how to fail gracefully, to be accountable for my actions, and aware of my shortcomings.

#13: Manage by end state and intent. Tell people what needs to be accomplished and why, and leave the details to them.

This one should resonate with many of us. Let the backlog tell the “what,” and we’ll decompose it as a team to figure out the “how.”  If you’ve never read about commander’s intent, I’d encourage you to do so.  MCDP-1 (commonly referred to as “Warfighting”) describes it as:

…a device designed to help subordinates understand the larger context of their actions. The purpose of providing intent is to allow subordinates to exercise judgment and initiative—to depart from the original plan when the unforeseen occurs—in a way that is consistent with higher commanders’ aims.

It’s funny how fighting wars isn’t too different from the world we live.

#1: Aim for the 70-percent solution. It’s better to decide quickly on an imperfect plan than to roll out a perfect plan when it’s too late.

This is the essence of the last responsible moment.  It’s also akin to how many teams plan only a few weeks at a time.  We can make better decisions when we know more, but we also need to recognize that we’ll never know everything.  Indecision is often more expensive than a poor decision.

I could go on, but instead why don’t you pick up the book?  It may be the only time you read about agility without once seeing the word “agile.”  The fresh perspective might be exactly what you need.

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6 thoughts on “What the Marine Corps Can Teach Us About Agility”

  1. Love this post! Very insightful, and interesting to learn that “agile principles” are used in the Marines.

  2. Good post. Even more essential mapping to business is the rapid planning and decision making cycles of the Marine Corps. The core of Scrum is transparency – to see what’s happening – inspect and adapt. Almost identical to maneuver warfare concepts of decide fast and frequently, adjusting to fleeting opportunities.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, you’re hitting on another few of his principles:

      #4: Orient to speed and complexity. The ability to react quickly and effectively to chaotic environments usually trumps other competencies.

      #24: Make tempo a weapon. Controlling the pace of the competition can exhaust and demoralize the competition.

  3. Well said, those are great principals to live by and lead by whether at work or with our families!

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