By Tom Peters
Are the Ultimate Rewards heaped upon those who exhibit an unswerving “Bias for Action,” to quote the co-authors of In Search of Excellence? Are your OODA loops shorter than the next guy’s?
Some call the late John Boyd the most original military strategist in 1,000 years. True or not, his influence has been profound. His ideas about “maneuverability” as the sine qua non of military effectiveness, long on the back burner (during the Cold War standoff between sluggish behemoths), have marched front and center in the new age of instability, ambiguity, and terrorism.
At the heart of Boyd’s thinking is an idea labeled “OODA Loops.” OODA stands for the Observe-Orient- Decide-Act cycle. In short, the player with the quickest OODA Loops disorients the enemy to an extreme degree. In the world of aerial combat, for example, the confused adversary subjected to an opponent with short OODA cycles often flies into the ground rather than becoming the victim of machine gun fire or a missile. Boyd is careful to distinguish between raw speed and maneuverability. In aerial dogfighting in Korea (Boyd’s incubator), Soviet MiGs flown by Chinese pilots were faster and could climb higher, but our F-86 had “faster transients”—it could change direction more quickly; hence our technically inferior craft (by conventional design standards) achieved a 10:1 kill ratio. (Read more in Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.)
“Blitzkrieg is far more than lightning thrusts that most people think of when they hear the term; rather it was all about high operational tempo and the rapid exploitation of opportunity.”
—Robert Coram, Boyd
“We must transform not only our armed forces but also the Defense Department that serves them—by encouraging a culture of creativity and intelligent risk-taking. We must promote a more entrepreneurial approach: one that encourages people to be proactive, not reactive, and to behave less like bureaucrats and more like venture capitalists; one that does not wait for threats to emerge and be ‘validated,’ but rather anticipates them before they appear and develops new capabilities to dissuade and deter them.” —Donald Rumsfeld, Foreign Affairs
The application to a war against non-traditional enemies is obviously fertile ground for these notions. But I contend that private enterprise needs a hearty dose of the same medicine that Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is serving to the reluctant Navy and Army and Air Force. (Not surprisingly, at least in retrospect, the Marines take to this stuff like a duck to water.) In other work, my Leadership11 special presentation, I call it, perhaps awkwardly,“metabolic management.”The unconventional idea is that the leader is directly responsible for the organization’s Metabolic Rate—the “quick tran- sients” and “high tempo” which “unravel the competi- tion” in Boyd-world. My hero is actually a draft dodger. That is, Captains of Industry would do well to adopt Ali’s fabled dictum-mantra: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
And if there is one thing that traditional enterprise is not designed to do, especially after bulking up via monster mergers aimed at fending off yesterday’s adversaries, it’s floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.“The lines that we drew on our neat organizational diagrams,” write Frank Lekanne Deprez & René Tissen in Zero Space: Moving Beyond Organizational Limits,“have turned into walls that no one can scale or penetrate or even peer over.” Erasing those lines will arguably be Job One for today’s and tomorrow’s leaders. Among them is IBM’s new chief, Sam Palmisano. At the core of his transformation strategy is instilling an ability, as Fortune reported,“to assemble SWAT teams of hardware, software, services, research, and sales people to cure customers’ headaches.” I.e.: Learning to float like a butterfly and …
“Chivalry is dead. The new code of conduct is an active strategy of disrupting the status quo to create an unsustainable series of competitive advantages. This is not an age of defensive castles, moats and armor. It is rather an age of cunning, speed and surprise. It may be hard for some to hang up the chain mail of ‘sustainable advantage’ after so many battles. But hyper competition, a state in which sustainable advantages are no longer possible, is now the only level of competition.” —Rich D’Aveni, Hypercompetition: Managing the Dynamics of Strategic Maneuvering
Bob Waterman and I cottoned on to a variation of this idea (and our own variety of Deprez and Tissen’s depressing diagnosis) over twenty years ago, as we researched what became In Search of Excellence. We wandered the world of Big Organizations in search of answers—driven specifically by the fact that so many “brilliant” strategies (among them ones that we at McKinsey had helped concoct) were executed so poorly. Fact was, at the “excellent companies” we found a lot less emphasis than we’d expected on the strategy per se, and instead a persistent focus on simply doing stuff, not talking it to death. As I’ve come to call it: “Business Problem One: Too much talk, too little do!” This finding, observed in particular in 1980 at the likes of HP and 3M, was codified as the first of our “eight basics” of excellent performance: A Bias for Action. While some of our ideas have needed substantial bur- nishing in the subsequent two decades, this one, as I see it, remains Exec Job One! By my lights, for example, the abiding and sustaining feature of GE’s success is its determination to get results—and its performance fetish at all levels of the firm. GE was once (the ’70s) known as home to a mass of MBA-strategic planners, but it has been trademarked from Edison to Immelt by an abiding bias for action/results/performance.
The problem is that no “strategy,” no collection of words no matter how brilliant, will make much differ- ence when it comes to this topic. A “bias for action” is a Deep Cultural issue—the Deep Cultural issue, for that matter. Instilling such a bias begins with the front-line recruiting process and continues all the way to the selection of the CEO.“Doers” were probably frenetical- ly doing by Age 7 … and “ditherers” were probably dis- tractedly dithering by Age 7!
Kevin Roberts on “Strategy”:
1. Ready. Fire! Aim.
2. If it ain’t broke, break it!
3. Hire crazies!
4. Ask dumb questions.
5. Pursue failure.
6. Lead, follow, or get out of the way. 7. Spread confusion.
8. Ditch your office.
9. Read odd stuff.
10. Avoid moderation.
Note: Roberts is CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide