Disruptive Thinking: The military is not a business (With a nod to Ex)

Every so often, bright young officers, often frustrated by the US military’s often soul-crushing bureaucracy, turn to the private sector for inspiration.  Businesses seem fascinating to government employees–the private sector is in a constant state of competition, and presumably, only those companies which can adapt best to the market rise to the top.  At times, military writers take business analogies to absurd lengths: Chet Richards, one of John Boyd’s acolytes, once advocated abolishing the Defense Department, and replacing it with private contractors.  Because, you know, because the defense industry is just that efficient and that trustworthy.

Though there’s much the military can learn from private ventures, ultimately, government is fundamentally different from business.  Incidentally, as Andrew Exum points out, the grass isn’t really that green on Wall Street, either.  Believe it or not, the US military can handle innovation–often more adeptly than business.

The Wall Street Journal isn’t Small Wars Journal.

In 2007, US Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling castigated the Army’s promotion system in an essay published in Armed Forces Journal.  The article seems to have not hurt Lt. Col. Yingling’s career; he was promoted to colonel, and taught at the prestigious Marshall School in Garmisch, Germany.  And many of his ideas were incorporated into Army policy, such as “360-degree” evaluations.

He wouldn’t have lasted long if Steve Jobs were his boss, though.

The woes of Apple Store employees don’t sound too dissimilar from the complaints from lieutenants and captains.  Apple stores rarely recognize top performers, with coveted jobs in Apple’s Cupertino headquarters exceedingly rare.  And though the average Apple Store employee brings in nearly half a million dollars in revenue, average employees bring home a paltry $25,000 per year.

So why aren’t we seeing front-page laments in the Washington Post or the Atlantic, bemoaning poor “talent management” at Apple?  Simple:  because Apple, according to the New York Times, actively tries to keep its employees from talking to the media.

In Washington, however, it’s common practice to selectively leak grievances to the press, no matter how frivolous they might be.  The military also condones–even encourages–service members to controversial articles in professional journals (doing so brought Major Dwight D. Eisenhower to the attention of General George C. Marshall).

Traditional civil-military relations are good for democracy, but bad for efficiency.

In many respects, the US military would like to be efficient.  However, the military is clearly subordinate to the whims of the US government.  The entire House of Representatives is up for re-election every two years, the Senate every two, and the Commander-in-Chief every four years.  Since time immemorial, elected officials have held on to their jobs by calling in in special favors from prominent constituents, and pandering to special interests.  The military often finds itself caught in the middle of pork-barrel politics.

Goldman-Sachs never had to put up with the F-35’s second engine.

The military doesn’t get to choose its missions.

Organizations–whether public or private–naturally create a mission set which reinforces a certain identity.  However, private ventures are free to choose their own niche, while government agencies do the bidding of elected officials.

In other words, Chick-Fil-A can choose not to do burgers, but the US military can’t forego nation-building (even if it means picking up the burden for the rest of the US government).


An iconic scene early in the movie We Were Soldiers features Mel Gibson (portraying Lt. Col. Hal Moore) overlooking a training exercise.  As a squad of troops debark their Huey helicopter, he points at the squad leader:

“You’re dead”, shouts Moore, “now he’s in charge.  What do you do now?”

Successful military organizations have learned that a little redundancy is a good thing.  Twelve-men Special Forces teams, for instance, generally cross-train each other on specialties.  It makes good sense to have two medics instead of one–the team can split up into two groups without losing a critical member.  And knowing Murphy’s law, you don’t want the first person shot in a firefight to be the team’s only medic.

In the private sector, though, redundancy isn’t viewed in such a pragmatic light–two people performing the same job translates into double the wages for the same amount of work.

Don’t believe me?  Witness how private-sector employees horde knowledge.  If knowledge is power, they share it like Sauron.

 Job openings in Isengard

Oversight–You can behave unethically in the business world

For-profit universities target naive veterans, while credit card companies hound college students at the beginning of the fall semester.  It’s sleazy, it’s unethical, but it’s business–when your sole measure of effectiveness are your stock quotes, it’s entirely justified.  But though government is far from cherubic, it is subject to a more effective system of oversight and regulation.

Unlike government institutions, good business does not have to produce good customer service.  (See: Bank of America, Vodafone, etc)

Centralized Promotion Boards Have Their Merit

Legions of writers have bemoaned the military’s centralized promotion boards.  Though their complaints aren’t without merit, are we certain that a de-centralized promotion system would be better?  Promotions could get ugly when soldiers know exactly who jilted them during the latest board.

(And, by the way, the Army’s current promotion system seems “blind to merit” not because it’s centralized, but because it promotes everyone.)

Personnel Turnover

The Army’s tendency to move soldiers around every few years might actually make it more innovative.  Try changing a workplace when employees have been in place for decades.

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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5 Responses to Disruptive Thinking: The military is not a business (With a nod to Ex)

  1. Jonathan Lubecky says:

    While I agree with most of your post, amd I am frequently found saying “This isn’t corporate america, this is the military, our job isnt to make money but to fight the nations enemies” however I do find your comment on oversight to be kind of a joke. How many times have you seen high ranking enlisted and officers get away with something that would lead an e-4 to a Courts Martial? Examples: a LTC sleeping with my wife while I was deployed, his command did nothing. Told by a SGM to commit suicide during a Psych Eval, his command did nothing. Being told by JAG that they helped my wife and therefore I needed to get a civilian attorney, this was within 48 hrs of stepping foot on US soil. There is zero accountability once a certain rank is obtained unless it becomes a national news story. And these issues were recently brought to the attention of SMA Chandler who wrote back claiming he “could neither confirm nor deny any allegations” meaning he would not investigate.

  2. Jonathan Jeckell says:

    The title reminds me of people constantly saying “Afghanistan is not Iraq” several years ago. Yes, business models should not be directly or blindly adopted by the military or the government, but some models are worth examining to see if something valuable from them can be adapted. I refer again to this article on “Reflective Practitioner” by Paparone & Schon http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/milreview/paparone_mar08.pdf

    I also disagree that business and government are all that dissimilar in principle. Both are beholden to stakeholders. Businesses must satisfy customers and shareholders or they will cease to exist. Government officials must satisfy their constituents or they will be voted out of office. Businesses are no more prone to unethical behavior than government. That behavior eventually catches up to both of them if it interferes with satisfying their constituents. Businesses also have to put up with the whims of their leaders, and like government officials, it either works out, or they pay the consequences (Steve Jobs had some whacky ideas along with the good ones). Government must satisfy “niche” markets if they have enough demand, just as much as businesses do. New businesses actively seek niches as a profitable opportunity, while politicians might explore it as a campaign issue to differentiate against an opponent. The difference here is that impediments built into the system (like the Senate) prevent “tyranny of the majority” that occasionally lead to disproportionate representation or under-representation of niches.

  3. Pingback: Business and the military « Attempting Denouement

  4. The problem with this whole debate is that (a) it is cast too much as an either/or (military should adopt business practices wholesale or business practices don’t apply at all – aka a strawman debate), (b) too many people in the military feel that we are too morally superior to take lessons from “Wall Street,” and (c) many people in the military seem not to really understand what lessons might even be out there and where they are coming from. I don’t mean to be insulting, but while I agree with a lot of what you say above, your negation of the applicability of business models to military and government seems very simplistic in places.

    I surely do not think that we should process improve to the point that we take away critical combat redundancy and resiliency. Likewise, I don’t think we should be applying business models to most strategic, operational, or tactical paradigms. But we surely can improve the massive amount of non-combat processes that keep growing our tail and hamstringing our tooth. We can allocate our resources far more efficiently, again especially in the tail. And we can adopt smarter ways of shepherding our human capital and managing our talent. What is more, we can understand the challenges our organizations face by comparing them to cases found in business and other institutions. We must learn from business, but we must also be smart in where and how we choose to apply these lessons.

    But we can’t do this if we look at business in a simplistic light. Here, I’m combining some criticisms of your piece above with criticisms of broader trends I’ve seen, especially in discussion of the disruptive thinkers series. First, “Wall Street” does not equal “business.” Wall Street is a small sliver and has little utility for us, except as a strawman as to why we shouldn’t listen to “business.” When I say business lessons, I’m thinking of the positive and negative experiences of the many corporations out there that are the economic engine of the world, actually producing tangible products. We’re not just (or even primarily) talking about GS, MS, etc.

    Second, (and this goes more to the DT debate than your comments in particular) MBAs are not solely investment bankers. They are also management consultants, managers, planners, etc in the many businesses that – again – make our economy worth defending. They aren’t just robber barons and therefore MBAs and MBA schools shouldn’t be lumped wholesale into the evil Wall Street/Enron category.

    Third, we need to stop using negative examples (e.g., bad customer service at BoA) as a reason not to look to business. On this point, (a) if you’re trying to say that the gov’t actually has good customer service then RFLMAO as my kids say and (b) while the market drives some corporations to look solely at the bottom line, those corporations often end up on the rocks. That being said, there is a lesson in BoA’s bad customer service. We can look at cases from business of how to end up bankrupt or out of business and we can also look at positive cases of either how a business turned a troubled operation around or how a business has stayed profitable, with a long-term vision, innovative, and with great customer service and ethical conduct.

    In sum, let’s get past the tired line that we can’t learn from business. Yes, the military is not a business, but it also is not a physics or chemistry lab, a hospital, an IT company, a PR outfit, etc. Nonetheless, we apply principles from all these fields to improve our weapons, defenses, health, operations, etc. We must be able to do the same with our processes and institutions that have business functions as well.

  5. Ingrid says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but the take away I’ve gotten from the majority of the article I’ve read in the past few days about it is not that people are flat out rejecting general business principals being applied to the military, but rather disliking the slide towards using business as the primary source of inspriation for the military as it reforms. There’s a lot of good to be taken from business principals for any organization, as PJM points out above, but I think the major point of these articles is to remember that some of the great strengths of the armed forces (the abillity to *publically* criticize, having multiple people to take on one role, etc) lie in direct contrast with the strengths of a business. And if too much is taken from the business sphere, it comes at the expense of these differences.

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