Extreme Ownership – How military leadership principles can be applied to business context?

Have you ever imagined that military leadership principles could apply in a business context? Two Navy SEALs leaders, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, show in their book, “Extreme Ownership” exactly how this is possible.

After reading it and reflecting on my own experiences, I decided to apply some of these principles to the context of agile scrum and cross-feature teams and share some of my thoughts below:

The leadership mindset

The first principle I would like to start with is the leadership mindset. Jocko states that all responsibilities for success or failure lie with the leader. Take ownership of them, acknowledge mistakes, and admit failures. I couldn’t agree more.

One of the first stepping stones to good leadership is owning up and taking responsibility. This is the key to earning the trust of your directs, your supervisor, or any peer you work with.

Your actions or inactions play a crucial role in the results and happiness of your directs. If they fail, it might be because you haven’t explained clearly enough the value or importance of a project. Alternatively, it can be that you haven’t protected them from repeated interruptions. Sometimes, it can be because you accepted a mediocre performance, and now it became the new team standard. Whatever the reason might be, it is the responsibility of the leader to bring the team to success and develop his people.

Effective Leadership

Next, the author explains what his expectations of leaders on the battlefield are. He states that it is their role to figure out what needs to be done and do it, to tell higher authority what they plan to do, rather than ask what they want to do. Leaders must be proactive, rather than reactive.

“To be effectively empowered to make decisions is it imperative that frontline leaders execute with confidence. Tactical leaders must be confident that they understand the strategic mission and Commander’s Intent, they must have implicit trust that their senior leaders will back their decisions.”

I love this previous quote from Jacko as it reflects a culture that in my opinion, should be nurtured in all organisations. Clear, open communication alongside trust from both directions is a must. That is why no matter if you are a tech lead, engineer manager, head, director, or C level as a leader, you need to be trustworthy, accountable, and precise about the objective.

The book presents the story of how multiple teams of six members are racing on a specialised track having to carry an inflatable boat with them at all times. When one team was failing over and over, the instructors decided to switch the leaders. The results were fascinating since nothing else changed in the team structure, the performance of the team increased, and they were now competing for the first place.

The book mentions how effective leaders focus the team on the most immediate physical goal that lies ahead: the benchmark, the landmark, the road sign, etc. and not the finish line or the days to come.

In scrum teams, the most common duration of a sprint is two weeks. There is value in checking our progress on the yearly roadmap, but good leaders bring focus on the sprint goals, the landmarks from the story. It makes it easier to connect if the goal is clear, visible, and attainable. Pay special attention to planning meetings to set and communicate goals, as this can make the difference between success or failure.

Prioritise and execute

The next principle that I like is related to prioritisation. It is mentioned that Navy SEALs have this saying:

Relax, look around, make a call.

Contrary to my previous section where the team must focus on the immediate goal, a leader must not get lost in the details. Instead, he should look at the strategic picture. Make sure not to get overwhelmed with reactive tasks. Stop and challenge the next thing you plan to do, by asking is this the most important or the most valuable task my team or I should focus on.

Additionally, in scrum teams, this means having two or three sprints prepared ahead, have an overview of critical projects that need to be initiated or delivered in the next quarter. Try to know as much data as possible, like roadmaps of external departments, market trends, competitors, etc. so you are not caught off guard and can make the right strategic decisions.

Discipline

The next principle and one of my personal favourites is having discipline.

It starts from small wins like not hitting the snooze button for 30 minutes more of sleep, working out, practicing your craft, learning and growing every day. With repetition, habits are formed, and with habits comes freedom.

Teams and team members must develop their own habits, so the health and morale of the team are as good as possible. Sprint retrospectives are essential alongside the culture that each leader is responsible for. Pay attention that positive habits are created and bad ones are stopped as early as possible.

Keep things simple

The last principle that I would like to mention here is “Keeping things simple.” Jocko explains how in the military complicating instructions and orders can have extreme consequences. When an important message needs to be passed from person to person or down the chain of command, simplicity is key.

To be honest, making things simple is something I need to improve on and grow. Many times, in my career, I discovered that a message was understood differently by various people. Clear and straightforward statements from leaders can make the information flow much better in all organisations.

Simplicity doesn’t refer only to the communication aspect, but also to the solutions we implement. Is your approach to solving this problem or implementing this next feature a simple one, so even 5-year-olds understand it? If not, challenge it and find a way to reduce complexity. It is hard to keep things simple, but it is definitely worth it.

Summary

Overall, I really enjoyed the Extreme Ownership book and found many cases that I could relate to, even if I never stepped foot in the military. It gives me even more respect for the men and women leading in this organisation. If all leaders have in the back of their mind these principles, and they treat their actions and behaviours as if they had life and death consequences, I feel that it would set a new standard in many organisations and change our industry for the better.


Also published on Medium and LinkedIn.

My Secret Behind Successful Commitments

To commit or not to commit? That is the question asked by many teams in an agile world as well as individuals that set strict goals for their development. The answer must not be taken lightly as the faith and trust in oneself or of fellow team members depend on it.

Is there a way that we can ease the burden of this question or increase the likelihood to succeed?

Yes, I say. And in this article, I would like to share some insights into the elements that I consider essential to reach your commitments: Clarity, Focus and Perseverance.

Clarity

clarity

Commitment goes hand in hand with goals. If you don’t have a goal there is nothing to commit to. Pretty obvious, right?

Even if it sounds trivial, setting good goals is not easy. Start by establishing SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound) goals, then make sure that every member of the team is on the same page. Explain why the goal is important and visualize what it will mean when the task is completed. Ensuring everyone has a shared understanding and view of the goals is critical.

If it is a team goal, have it written down and visible in an accessible location of your team space: on a big whiteboard, or a big screen so that everyone can see it. Don’t rely on a Jira board that shows tasks or current progress. Mention it daily so that it is engraved in everyone’s mind until it is completed. 

If it is a personal goal, have it written down on your desk, on your entrance door, on your bathroom mirror, on your refrigerator. This plants the seeds of success in your mind and focuses your attention on things that will help you achieve your goal.

If there are uncertainties, or unclear elements or even unknown requirements, make sure that they are exposed and dealt with first. Reduce the risk by preparing in advance or consulting specialists that can provide insight or suggestions on how to deal with the unknown.

Clarity of purpose is the stepping stone of any commitment, so make sure you do it right.

Focus

Focus is the next vital element in achieving your commitment. You have your goal, now it is about breaking it into small steps so that each day you get closer to reaching it. Each step becomes a target. Each target requires an explicit focus to reach it.

You have a limited amount of time and energy, and chances are, you’ll never have enough of both to accomplish everything you need to do every single day. Not everything on your list is urgent. Take a moment to identify the most important task. This is the crucial task you must get done, tackle it first. By completing the vital task, you’ll ensure that you’ll have a productive day no matter what.

Do one thing at a time. It is very easy to give in to temptation and start multiple things simultaneously. This might work when doing physical tasks or chores but went you require brainpower, each of us has only a limited bandwidth. When stretched too thin, it will result in a decrease in quality or speed.

Always have a goal or target in front of you. Open your calendar, check for major events, manage your availability, and start setting goals for the month, the week, the day. Keep things simple. Don’t overthink what tool to use, or what structure to have. Pen and paper are good enough, but if you want a digital application, my recommendations are Todoist and Trello.

Start your day by reviewing your goals and targets so they are engraved in your mind, then it will be easy to deflect distractions and achieve your commitment.

Perseverance

Clarity and focus will point the direction, but perseverance is the fuel that you need to reach the finish line. Take action, because you will not be able to achieve anything without it. Action is what makes your goals and dreams come true.

Pace yourself as you require endurance, consistency, and perseverance to make a considerable impact on yourself or your team. Starting strong, but collapsing before the finish line will not help you or anyone in any way. The way how you finish a project is even more important than how you start it.

Have your mind and body in check as you require both mental and physical energy.  Endurance is key – Life is long, small drawbacks and problems are not the end of the world. Success comes when you plan for the long term and do everything in your power to achieve it.

Stay optimistic. Having positive beliefs, hopes, and expectations rule your motivation to persevere. Instead of letting your mind run wild with all the ways how you could fail, excite it with anticipated victories.

Summary

I would like to end the article with a quote from a famous Jedi Master:

“Do or do not. There is no try”

– Yoda

When you are nervous that your plan won’t work, you might find yourself saying, “OK, I’ll try to do it.” By doing that, you are laying the foundation for being unsuccessful from the beginning, giving yourself a way out. Yoda’s statement is a passionate reminder that life rewards those who let their actions rise above their excuses. Clarify intentions, eliminate all doubts, be bold, and say: Yes, I commit!


Also published on Medium and LinkedIn.