Apply firefight survival tactics to your business

  • Fri Jul 20th, 2012 11:57am

By James McCusker Business 101

The U.S. Army in World War II chose a system to replace combat losses in Europe that was a classic example of efficiency vs. effectiveness. As the Army moved inland after the Normandy landing, soldiers fresh out of training would arrive in France and be assigned to the combat units that needed replacements.

It worked very efficiently, especially on paper. The effectiveness of the system, however, was questionable. The new infantry soldiers were sent directly to the front-line combat units where they were most needed. Almost immediately after landing in France, they would be transported to a unit on the line where the sergeant would tell them to dig a foxhole — “over there” — and prepare for a German attack.

Enemy probes and attacks during the night were a way of life, and death, for combat units at that stage of the war in Europe. And, more often than not, the next morning the sergeant would have to gather the dog tags of the replacements who didn’t survive their first firefight.

The sad process was so common that it became a staple of World War II movies. Few, if any, of the combat-experienced troops would bother to learn the names of the replacements. It seemed pointless, and maybe even bad luck, to have any personal contact with those who weren’t going to make it through the night or the next day.

Eventually, the replacement system was restructured. But the nature of combat operations in Europe had already changed.

Combat operations changed again in the Korean War and dramatically so in Vietnam. In our engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan they are changing still.

Dr. Jack Stuster is a psychologist and chief scientist at Anacapa Sciences Inc. in Santa Barbara, Calif. He is the co-author, along with Zail Coffman, a former combat engineer, of a recent article, “Surviving the Adventure of a Lifetime,” (U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings; June 2012) which summarized his research on firefights and survival rates.

What they found was that, much as in previous wars, the first few firefights were the most difficult to survive, although survival rates overall are higher now. After three firefights, though, chances of surviving increased rapidly. In addition, significantly, they found that after the initial experiences there was a strong relationship between firefight survival and the success of a mission.

The analysis had been done for military leaders so that the on-the-ground lessons learned in firefights could be used to develop a more effective combat force with higher survival rates.

While there was no intent originally to draw any parallels to the business world, Stuster says that many of the critical factors they found can apply to business survival and success. There is a big difference between combat and competition, but that does not mean that business can’t learn from military experience.

“There are five categories of factors that contribute to survival in a firefight and each has a lesson for a business that is taking some hits,” Stuster said. “Each of these — weapons proficiency; situational awareness; tactics and drills; use of cover and concealment; and leadership/communications skills — applies to some degree to the business world.”

Weapons proficiency, for example, translates to proficiency in the fundamental, core skills of a company. Managers should know the proficiency levels of their team members and if more training is needed to improve it.

Situational awareness in business means knowing the market position of your company that of the competition. It also means being aware of the internal situation within the company, especially the status of morale and motivation.

Tactics and drills can be most usefully translated into studying and discussing case studies of how other businesses successfully met challenges. The goal is avoid the frozen-in-place or “we’re doomed” reaction to challenge.

Cover and concealment definitely does not mean adopting a dress code requiring camouflage outfits. It does mean, though, that you shouldn’t make it easy for your competition to know your plans or your strengths and weaknesses. Managers should ensure that team members are aware of what information is public and what information needs to remain confidential.

Leadership and communications, of course, are important at all times in any organization, but particularly so in times of stress. What the firefight analysis revealed was that communications between team members were as important as top-down commands and directions.

Because of factors such as complacency, businesses often find themselves ill-prepared to meet a competitive challenge. It isn’t combat but it is definitely a hostile environment. Understanding and using the survival factors learned from combat experience can help us survive and succeed.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and small-business consultant. He can be reached at