Building Teams
March 17, 2019

What We Can Learn from the Military About Building Resilient Teams

I was sitting in my office in Detroit when I got the call. It was my commander.

“Hey, Sean, wanna go to the Philippines?”

Two weeks later, I was flying to a much warmer climate. I was part of a humanitarian mission to build schools in the country, coordinating with political and administrative figures to ensure the project could get finished on time. In four weeks, the schools were completed, and we were playing pickup hoops on the newly finished basketball court.

I have versions of this story I can tell for nearly every single one of my deployments throughout my eight-year Marine Reservist career — supporting economic development in Afghanistan, bringing medical aid in Haiti, even working to rebuild Inuit villages in Alaska. Each time, I was thrust into a mission with complete strangers. But we never had trouble executing.

Though we think of large organizations as glacial behemoths, the U.S. military is actually capable of planning and executing the enormous logistics of massive operations with a speed the private sector can only dream of. At any given time, it is carrying out thousands of different missions, be they humanitarian, conflict mitigation or governance development. Most importantly, the military can quickly pluck the best of its active duty and reserve personnel to execute its missions.

If an organization as large as the U.S. military can do it, then Fortune 500 companies should be able to follow suit. Here’s how.

Invest in human capital

The U.S. military never knows what it’s going to have to face. There could be another natural disaster. A war could break out. But no matter what happens, the U.S. military knows who it needs to pull from its troops to send to their assignment.

Perhaps their missions are different from those in the corporate sector, but the underlying principle remains the same. Corporations today have no idea what challenges they’ll be facing 12 to 18 months from now. Will there be a large disruptive force, an Amazon or Google entering your space? Perhaps the stock market crashes. Maybe a startup changes the marketplace in ways we never imagined.

The military’s secret to putting a team together so quickly? Investment in human capital. The military keeps comprehensive records of its members’ skills and trainings. This allows them to quickly find the best personnel for each mission, from a variety of geographic locations and personal backgrounds.

Modern organizations need to do the same thing. To create a more resilient workforce, you need three things: people, process and platforms. You must have the process and platforms in place to find the right people, instead of relying on who the senior leaders might know, or just grabbing someone who just finished another project and is available.

After all, you use data to drive your decisions in other areas. Why not here?

Let people choose their own adventure

One of my favorite aspects of working on these military projects was the billet. Essentially, a billet is your current role — what you’re expected to accomplish. When I would report for duty, I would be given a list of billets I was qualified for, and I was given the opportunity to select the job I thought would be the most intriguing.

In a way, it’s like choosing your own adventure. If you have the qualifications, turn to page 15.

It’s the perfect model for organizations today. When you’re starting a project, let people rank their preferences. Perhaps a software engineer wants to take on a project role that is more customer-facing, or maybe they want to work on an internal project to build their database skills. Either way, slotting the engineer into either of those positions will increase their buy-in and bring an excitement to the project that might not have been there before.

Additionally, it’s a great, inexpensive way to improve retention. By allowing your employees the ability to broaden their horizons and build new skills, you’re creating a much more dynamic labor pool. Their new skills will allow your organization to build the resilience it needs when the unwelcome disruption signs in at your front desk.

Plan your plan

In the military, there’s an entire division working on “Plans” (sometimes called Future Operations or FOPS). Their mission is to think constantly about future operations (we’re a literal bunch, alright?) and how they might respond to them.

On a tactical level, it’s a concept — or at least an attitude — that large organizations would benefit from. You don’t know what your challenges will be in 18 months, but perhaps you can try to anticipate them. If you’re building a skunkworks team now, do you even know how you’d do it? Do you know what types of people you’d want on your team? Do you leave it completely to the project leader, or do you leverage your human capital to use data to build the best possible team?

Collaboration doesn’t start when people in a room start whiteboarding ideas, it starts by picking who should be in the room in the first place. Do you have a plan for who will be involved in making your plans? (Meta, huh?)

By planning those plans, you can figure out early the types of people you need to be putting into a room. This way, you’re walking into any challenge — no matter how daunting — with the right people to tackle the challenge. An organization that simply reacts with a plan for how they will react is already many steps behind.

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