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What business can learn from the military

Steve Stanley, The CEO Institute
Steve Stanley, The CEO Institute
05 July 2019 3 minute readShare
Steve Stanley, director, The CEO Institute

Making good business decisions should not be a game of chance, and the military’s approach to decision-making has beneficial outcomes for business leaders too, writes The CEO Institute’s director, Steve Stanley.

Is there anything to be gained in the business world from looking at and adopting decision-making techniques used by the military? Having spent over 30 years in both worlds, the answer is a categorical yes.

It is no surprise that decision-making in the military is a discipline that is practised so that there is consistency and all factors are covered in the thought process. Is this the same in the world of business? Rarely.


When the discipline of decision-making is introduced to business, the result is very often surprise and delight. To consider that there is actually some science to making decisions is foreign to most folk who have never been exposed to such processes and thinking methodologies.

Edward De Bono, the Maltese physician, psychologist, philosopher, author, inventor and consultant originated the term lateral thinking. His premise, and practice, is that thinking is a skill that needs to be taught.


Some schools embrace this and teach thinking skills to their students with outstanding results. Where do business leaders learn thinking skills? For the vast majority, the answer is, nowhere.

I retell an occasion in the military when we were conducting a map exercise planning a battle situation. This requires rigorous planning, thought and then decisions. When your plan is presented, the assessor, and fellow students, pick the plan to pieces to ascertain the decision-making that lies behind the final outcome.

On one occasion, an officer on the promotion course was asked by his instructor why he had placed his tanks in a certain location. Without much hesitation, he explained that he had done so using the PIDOOMA Principle.

Clearly, the instructor, not knowing this principle and not wanting to appear ignorant of that fact, told him it was well done. In the vehicle returning to the base, when it was just the students, one asked him what the PIDOOMA Principle was, and where he had come by it, as she’d never seen it in any of the material we studied.



He grinned and said that it stood for Plucked It Directly Out Of My A***. Sadly, this describes how most decisions in business are made.

The Military Appreciation Process is readily transferrable to any decision-making process, especially business. Essentially, it encompasses:

  • being sure of what you are to achieve – the mission.
  • analysing the factors involved – yours and the competition’s.
  • developing courses of action available; modifying and deciding on the plan.

This seems logical, and it is, but it is just not done.

In the military, you are taught not to appreciate the situation. This is a common error and one seen in business consistently. It involves making the decision, then seeking data to support that decision.

What should happen is the collection of the data, the analysis and the decision springing from that analysis.

When working with an AFL football team, we took that one step further and went to the “war gaming” stage. This involved taking the plan, setting up an opposition coach and running through “what ifs” to assist in refining the plan.

An example would be, opposition says — and places the positions on the board — “we are going with a small forward line”. “Friendly” coach then works out their response to that, the opposition then responds, and this process is followed until a sound course of action is developed for that scenario.

This allowed a plan to be developed, based on numerous possible scenarios, that saw reaction quicker than the opposition expected. The pressure then goes on the opposition coach to work their way through scenarios unfolding “on the fly”. Our coaches remain calm, as they have prepared for the developments that are to occur.

There is a building company in WA still performing well in this terrible market for construction, because they have engaged this process. They were ready for a market downturn and had plans to stay in front of any competitors, that were in place before the situation became serious.

Others are floundering trying to make decisions on the spur of the moment in a very reactionary way. One is proactive, the others reactive. Who stays cool, has customers who sense that, and remains ahead of the pack?

Proactivity is the key and can be achieved with a disciplined and controlled approach to making serious decisions with far-reaching impact.

Relying on the CEO to know everything, and get it all right every time, is a recipe for disaster. Even more so when they leave and there is no process for making decisions in the business.

So, yes, military decision-making techniques and discipline do work in business.

Steve Stanley is director of The CEO Institute WA. He had a career in education alongside progressing to the rank of Colonel in the Australian Army Reserve.

What business can learn from the military
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Steve Stanley, The CEO Institute
Steve Stanley, The CEO Institute

Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016. 

The two-time Publish Awards finalist has an extensive journalistic career across business, property and finance, including a four-year stint in the UK. Email Adam at [email protected]

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