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Mattis’ Management Principles Apply to Small Businesses

So, I just read James Mattis’ new book, “Call Sign Chaos.” And the former Secretary of Defense’s story prompts a couple of thoughts, one short and one long.

The Short Thought on Call Sign Chaos

Here’s my short thought: Secretary Mattis’ book makes a great holiday gift. Especially for a small business owner.

Mattis and his co-author write well. The book’s stories improve one’s understanding of recent military history. Finally, Mattis’ retrospection shines a spotlight on leadership principles. Many of which apply not just to giant organizations and military conflict, but also to smaller-scale situations. Like starting or running a small business.

So, a great holiday gift.

And this related remark. Secretary Mattis candidly talks about retired commanders-in-chief. But not about the commander-in-chief he served as Secretary of Defense, Mr. Trump. The book therefore should work for readers across the political spectrum.

The Long Thought: Mattis’ Management Principles Apply to Small Businesses

Here’s my longer thought: Lots of Secretary Mattis’ practical discussion of leadership focuses on large organizations. But much of it also applies to the small-scale operations that entrepreneurs work in.

Consider the following three examples…

Clausewitz on War

Mattis discusses Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, and in particular Clausewitz’s observation that “chance, uncertainty and friction” create a “trinity” that makes even first order planning tricky.

Restated in less elegant language: bad luck, variability, and then all the “forgotten details” make planning for even the first step of any venture difficult…

And then by the time we’re talking about the second step?… Or the third?.. Yikes!

That idea seems to me really useful as a business planning principle. And then for simpler operations planning, too.

OODA Decision Loops

Another example of a really useful principle comes from the retired general’s service in the U.S. Marines: OODA decision loops.

The acronym OODA stands for observe, orient, decide and act.

And what Mattis talks about is how organizations, especially large bureaucratic organizations like the military, need to not just make good decisions. They need to cycle through good decisions faster than their adversary.

In a military conflict, obviously, the side that can systematically collect information, process the information, make a smart decision, and then act faster, secures a strategic advantage.

Mattis describes this advantage as “getting inside” the enemy’s “decision loop.”

At first blush, I saw this OODA decision loop stuff as mostly applying to conflicts between large organizations.

Two countries engaged in a cold war: The U.S. versus Russia.

Or giant corporations directly competing in some giant market: Microsoft versus Facebook.

But I wonder now if maybe that thinking gets it wrong. How fast a small business makes good decisions (relative to its small business competitors) surely matters. And lots.

To give you a couple of examples from the small business category I work in… How fast a small CPA firm adapts technology matters. The slow pokes get beat up when they don’t make good decisions as fast as their competitors.

Another example, which is scary even to talk about? How fast a small CPA firm adapts to cyber-security threats matters. Firms who slowly respond to cyber-attack risks are surely more likely to experience a breach.

And a final thought about OODA decision loops, which is really just a hunch on my part. In a few cases, a small business doesn’t need faster OODA decision loops. But rather slower decision loops that allow for smarter decisions. One shouldn’t move so fast one makes bad or dumb decisions.

Reading Lists Build Culture and Values

One other interesting management idea Mattis spends a fair amount of time talking about: reading lists.

You know this if you’ve served in the U.S. Marines, but the Marines (and maybe other branches of the military too) require officers to work through reading lists at each promotion. Long ones. Dozens of books.

And the reason? These reading lists provide a way to build a culture, inculcate values and foster common understandings.

That’s brilliant. More small businesses should do the same thing. Books of business principles and management tactics. Relevant industry coverage. Technical references. You start thinking about this idea and lots of knowledge categories make sense, right? I agree.

I was originally going to share with you an example reading list I’ve started for our small business. Quickly I constructed quite a nice sized list, my enthusiasm growing with each title added.

But then it dawned on me. My reading lists will of course look different from your’s. Even if we’re in the same industry. Even if we’re running similarly sized small businesses.

The reading list for a particular role depends on the people hired and then on the requirements of the job.

So I leave you with this idea: Maybe to start we first emulate Secretary Mattis, becoming voracious readers. And then maybe we simply put the best books we encounter onto an internal reading list for our colleagues.


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