How the UK military blends agile thinking with decisive leadership
UK Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth
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How the UK military blends agile thinking with decisive leadership

James Lawrence — January 2021
To be responsive to increasingly complex threats — and run operations hyper-efficiently — the armed forces need to be as agile in their business space as they are in the battle space, says Major General Tom Copinger-Symes, Director of Military Digitisation at the UK Ministry of Defence.

In the search for greater agility in the digital age, many large organizations are currently working out how to flatten their structures. By removing layers of bureaucracy, their goal is to accelerate decision-making and insight-to-action in order to take advantage of fast-evolving digital-enabled opportunities.

To external observers, an organization as historically steeped in hierarchy as the UK military may seem at odds this. However, for Major General Tom Copinger-Symes — who, as Director of Military Digitisation at the UK Ministry of Defence, is tasked with leading digital transformation across the entire UK military — that analysis does not ring true.


“Major General Tom Copinger-Symes=
The UK’s Director of Military Digitisation, Major General Tom Copinger-Symes

“It’s not a huge clash of cultures,” he affirms. “Clearly the Army, where I’m from, is a hierarchy. We go so far as to have badges that tell you what rank we are. But think about how we fight: when you’re deployed on an operation, I promise you, when somebody is trying to do you harm, the ego of the leader gets a lot smaller. If the most junior person has a good idea that’s going to help you win, we’ll use it.”

As such, he argues, an effective military unit has a lot in common with an agile, digitally driven business. “The good parts of our cultural structure are inherently flat,” he says. “There is no monopoly on genius that comes with rank. And as for information flows, particularly in the fight, you really don’t care where the good idea comes from — you just want to get it into action as soon as possible.”

“If something doesn’t work, we learn from it and we move on. That’s exactly what agile teams do, and that’s exactly how we fight.”

Copinger-Symes is now actively engaged in bringing this level of operational excellence to the UK Ministry of Defence, in which Defence Digital is a key unit. In so doing, he draws a comparison between a classic ‘discover, plan, act, optimize’ methodology, and some of the most basic military leadership skills he has deployed in his almost 30 years as an Army officer.


“UK troops on patrol Afghanistan=
UK troops on patrol, Afghanistan

“When we get a new task, we fall in love with the problem,” he says. “We spend time doing ‘business intelligence,’ trying to work out the shape of the problem and define it just enough to take the next step. So we might, for example, send out a reconnaissance party — that’s the equivalent of the ‘discovery’ stage.”

The next step, he continues, is to take action based on the information that starts flowing in. “You make a plan and you issue orders. But often there’s a whole bunch of concurrent activity going on around you.”

Therefore, being able to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances becomes critical, he says. “We have a saying in the military: ‘No plan survives first contact.’ So it’s not about the plan, it’s about the planning. You’re constantly iterating as you get new information. If something doesn’t work, we learn from it, and we move on. That’s exactly what agile teams do, and that’s exactly how we fight.”

“Empowering people and setting them up for success has to run through the whole of both our business space and our battle space.”

The big challenge, however, is to find ways of achieving this level of excellence away from the battlefield. “If we do that when we’re on operations, why doesn’t it feel like that when we’re back in the garrison and in the bureaucracy?” he asks. “And I think it’s a fair question. How do we get that sense of agility, urgency and willingness to take sensible risks?”

This is more crucial than ever now, he believes, because of the changing nature of the threats to the UK and its allies, as unfriendly powers are increasing the use of cyber-warfare techniques. “Given that now we don’t just fight ‘over there,’ we are defending the country both at home and abroad, it’s even more important that we get that sense of agility, the sense that leadership is about empowering people and setting your subordinates up for success. That has to run through the whole of our business space and battle space.”
Rediscovering the lost art of experimentation

A key aspect of this is instilling a willingness to experiment alongside a ‘fail fast’ culture, particularly when the stakes can be as high as the security of an entire nation. “A sense of experimentation, learning, adapting and winning, on live operations as well as in training is really important. And if you don’t experiment, and you don’t fail small and fail early, then you can end up with catastrophic failure in due course. This is your best insurance policy against that,” says Copinger-Symes.


“Royal Marine Commando, Exercise Serpent Rock 2020, Gibraltar=
Royal Marine Commando, Exercise Serpent Rock 2020, Gibraltar

Such behavior requires a shift in mindsets, where people should not fear the wrath of superiors if plans go awry. “We need a culture that doesn’t see it as failure but as a chance to learn,” he says. “We’re spending a lot of time and energy thinking about how we redefine what our Chief of the Defence Staff [General Sir Nick Carter] has called ‘our lost art of experimentation.’”

To that end, says Copinger-Symes, effective teamwork and leadership are critical. “What’s more important than any one skill, whether it’s military or technological, is how the multidisciplinary team comes together, and instilling the sense of common purpose and determination that will make a generational change,” he says. “Leadership is absolutely critical, but it’s a team sport.”

First published January 2021
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