Learning at the Edge

US Army photo

Young Marines are amazing. So many of them are natural problem-solvers who show an entrepreneurial spirit when overcoming challenges (as a nation, I think we’re lucky we continue to attract such ingenious young people into the ranks). The law of unintended consequences sometimes counteracts this ingenuity, but in my experience this spirit often leads to a better way of doing things.

In early 2017, I saw several noteworthy examples of this kind of problem solving during my last deployment to the Middle East. We live in a digital world now and that dynamic extends to the battlefield. At least twice while the Sergeant Major and I were out visiting our units we encountered young Marines who decided they needed to write computer code to either make them more efficient in their job or to stay one step ahead of a clever adversary. (One Marine worked in signals intelligence, the other was an explosive ordnance disposal technician, and neither job required the ability to write code). We were initially astounded when we encountered this. To us their work showed an impressive level of initiative and an amazing level of sophistication.

These events triggered two thoughts for me. The first was how very American this was. Their efforts reminded me of the famous “Rhino Tanks” that were built in France during World War II, when the Allies were struggling to break out from the D-Day beachheads during the summer of 1944. Normandy’s dense “bocage” (hedgerow) severely limited Allied mobility, so a sergeant from the 2d Armored Division welded scrap steel on the front of his unit’s tanks like the tusks of a rhino, which allowed them to successfully plow through the hedgerows without exposing their poorly armored underbellies. Many historians believe this innovation made a major contribution to the breakout that occurred in July and August 1944.

The second thought was to remember a great Harvard Business Review article I read a few years ago, written by George Day and Paul Schoemaker, called “Scanning the Periphery.” It’s a great primer for leaders on learning to recognize how changes in the environment can affect an organization. One of the themes the article emphasizes is for leaders to stay alert for the “weak signals” that come from the edges of an organization. Often times the frontline employees (or soldiers, or Marines) respond to a changing environment long before the organization as a whole responds, and often this happens before their leadership even recognizes the need for change.

With the benefit of history and hindsight, these are some of the lessons I learned from these ingenious young Marines:

1. Like Day and Schoemaker wrote, leaders need to remain alert for the weak signals that come from the edges of their organizations. I suspect many others reading this remember a time when they were exercising “leadership by walking around” and came across a young man or woman who had an idea to solve a problem they had encountered, one that turned out to be useful for the larger organization. These kinds of lessons don’t knock on your office door, you have to go out and find them.

2. After General Bradley saw a demonstration of the Rhino Tank, he quickly put in motion a program that turned scrap metal from beach obstacles into the Rhinos’ tusks. Matching innovations from the edge with the experience and authority of leaders can be powerful. Applying resources to the most promising ideas can even turn the tide in your favor.

3. The Sergeant Major and I enjoyed recognizing our Marine innovators, we had our public affairs section do feature stories about them. We also enjoyed telling their stories to more senior leaders when they came for a visit. To us, celebrating these successes made sense for the individuals involved, but it also encouraged others to come forward and offer their insights from the lessons they were learning at the edge.

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