The U.S military is perhaps the most whale-like organization in the world. There is no greater hierarchy in the world than within the five sides of the Pentagon. Yet inside this massive structure is a surprising amount of innovation in the area of organizational design and decision-making.

As we have written previously, The events of 9/11 led the U.S. military to realize that “it takes a network to defeat a network.” The new enemy was a light, agile, and rapidly evolving network. The hierarchical models of post-cold war design were no longer sufficient. Our military was big, and now it had to be fast.

The thought leaders of this change within the military reconceived the organizational relationships as network-based, versus the traditional hierarchies of the past. They developed a new model that enabled the military to use its size—and its extended network of relationships—as an advantage rather than an impediment.

Four strategies were at the core of this transformation: build relationships, establish shared purpose, create shared consciousness, and foster diversity.

(1) Build relationships

In network terms, relationships are connections between nodes. When viewed as a network, hierarchies have a relatively sparse number of connections. Each individual only has relationships with his or her boss, peers, and direct reports. So the first step is to build more relationships and connections. This change first developed inside the special operations community whose leaders faced the reality of being out-paced by a new type of networked challenger in Al Qaeda, and therefore focused on building the density and diversity of their own friendly network. They orchestrated an unprecedented level of interagency collaboration across organizations that previously had never worked together — a model often referred to as the “team of teams.”

(2) Establish shared purpose

To build relationships, it’s not enough to hold offsites and call bigger meetings. People need a reason to work together — a reason that simultaneously addresses the interests of all stakeholders: customers, community, investors, and employees. In Iraq, the shared purpose was rebuilding a nation on principles of freedom and self-determination. As General Stan McChrystal, one of the leaders of the military’s move to networks, said in a recent TED Talk: “Instead of giving orders, you’re now building consensus and you’re building a sense of shared purpose.”

(3) Create shared consciousness

To get where you are going, you first have to know where you are. Shared consciousness ensures that everyone across the network has a sense of where they are and is acting on the best available information. The formation of “intelligence fusion teams” created unprecedented levels of collaboration between a broad array of military units and many civilian organizations, accelerating the flow of information across the network. These globally dispersed teams were constantly connected and became the epicenter for creating shared consciousness. They gathered data from across the network, then pushed out the information to whomever was best positioned to take swift and effective action.

(4) Encourage dissent

In a hierarchy, obedience is a virtue. In a network, it is a vice. Conformity creates groupthink, stifling innovation and organizational resilience. The antidote is cultural diversity in all its forms: experience, gender, age, ethnicity, geography, profession, etc. The new military-interagency collaboration created an environment in which dissent was not only tolerated, but encouraged. Instead of being chastised for expressing a contrary or unpopular view, team members were reprimanded for withholding it. Individuals were incentivized to present counterpoints, and leaders worked diligently to ensure the environment was safe for the free exchange of ideas.

This new approach turned traditional war-fighting upside down and inside out. Instead of centralizing command and control at the top, information and autonomy was aggressively pushed to decision-makers in the field. Decentralize to the edge of discomfort became the mantra of many of these organizations — setting the conditions for rapid and focused action.

Motivated by a shared purpose and aligned by shared consciousness, the network became denser, more diverse, and more intelligent. The result was unprecedented speed, resilience, and effectiveness — even while surrounded by the chaos of war. Bigger no longer meant slower, and network no longer meant unpredictable.

The “fog of war” describes the uncertainty faced by soldiers in the field of battle. In today’s markets, business leaders face a similar challenge: how to pierce through the “the fog of business.”

Strategy doesn’t give employees enough guidance to know how to take action, and plans are too rigid to adapt to changing circumstances. In rapidly changing environments, you need fog lights to get closer to the ground.

Business leaders recognize the importance of pushing decision-making down the organization and out to the front line. But delegation can lead to invisibility, inconsistency and even chaos. When driving, fog lights work best when there are lines on the road to follow. Similarly, leaders must create mechanisms that keep everyone aligned to the mission and coordinated in the field.

Doctrine is the military’s mechanism for managing the fog of war, pushing decision-making closer to the ground while providing the lines to guide decision-making and action. Doctrine creates the common framework of understanding inside of which individuals can make rapid decisions that are right for their circumstances. We believe doctrine offers a powerful model for executives looking to pierce the fog of business and find new ways of exerting influence without centralized control.

NATO defines doctrine as “Fundamental principles by which the military forces guide their actions in support of objectives. It is authoritative but requires judgment in application.” If strategy defines objectives, and plans prescribe behavior, then doctrine guides decisions.

Consider one example from U.S. Special Operations teams trying to get the most use out of their helicopters, assets with high demand and limited supply. One approach would be to centralize all of these decisions, but that would be too slow. Another would be to have a computer automate the process, but there would be no way to feed enough data into the system in real time. So Special Operations went with a third option … let the human network figure it out and create solutions.

This network became the fog lights, pushing decision-making closer to the ground. But how to ensure the human network made the right decisions? What were the lines to paint on the road?

Military leadership created a common doctrine to frame the organization’s understanding of how helicopters would and wouldn’t be employed, their range, their maximum load capacity, their refueling requirements, etc. With these principles and shared understanding, the network could quickly coordinate across silos and create collaborative solutions.

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One of the most powerful qualities of doctrine is its scalability. Like a Russian matryoshka doll, doctrine can be nested inside other doctrine. For example, the doctrine related to helicopters is nested inside doctrine related to the military’s network-centric approach to warfighting. This higher-level doctrine has four core tenets:

  • A robustly networked force improves information sharing;

  • Information sharing enhances the quality of information and shared situational awareness;

  • Shared situational awareness enables collaboration and self-synchronization, and enhances sustainability and speed of command; and

  • These, in turn, dramatically increase mission effectiveness.

One can see how the distributed approach to managing helicopters flowed from this higher level doctrine, especially in how to achieve self-synchronization. Doctrine provided the many units spread around the battlefield with a shared framework in which they could operate. Units were free to move and take action within that framework. In turn, results were fed back to leaders, who evolved the doctrine to improve performance, enabling a true learning organization.