In Belgium a couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of hanging out with Olivier Blanchard. He is ridiculously smart, and a fellow Que author–his book is called Social Media ROI. It is actually quite a nice complement to Humanize (I think Maddie describes it as “Olivier’s book is the how, and our book is the why”). I used an example in his book during my session that delved into some detail about how you humanize your organization (more on that in another post).

But in my first presentation, I made the point that many organizations fall short when it comes to clarity. We don’t give clear instructions. We don’t provide clear rationales. We aren’t clear about what strategic principles should drive decision making. As Maddie reposted, recently, we’re not clear in our “middle level thinking.” After my session, Olivier asked me if I had noticed that organizations that were better at clarity were led by people who had been military officers earlier in their career.

I didn’t have data on that one, but it was an interesting question. Olivier had been an officer in the French military, and in his officer training the need for clarity was reinforced over and over again. Everyone knew that success in the field depends on the troops being very clear on the “commander’s intent,” because when the bullets start flying you won’t have a chance to double check with anyone. They just held themselves to a higher standard when it came to clarity. In short, they were more disciplined about clarity.

This got me thinking about the word “discipline.” In Humanize, we talk about the need for decentralization and openness. You would think this would make our ideas incompatible with military culture. The military pretty much coined the phrase “command and control,” after all. And a part of that command and control is discipline. Making people do things in a very particular way and pushing them hard to meet the standards.

But I have to be careful not to fall into the trap of viewing the military from a solely “Hollywood” lens, where drill sergeants make recruits do stupid or humiliating things to toughen them up. In my conversation with Olivier, I began to see a more nuanced and powerful understanding of what military discipline really means.

Discipline is not just about making people tough or instilling obedience. Discipline is about knowing that “good enough” is not good enough. Discipline is about higher standards. Discipline is about not falling down when it comes to what is valued. Discipline is really ultimately about clarity. As long as you keep things fuzzy, then discipline is easy. If your values stop at “be good,” then just about anything you do is going to qualify.  But the sharper you draw the lines, the more true discipline is required to keep you on track.

I think that’s a good thing. I think we need more discipline in our organizations. Not in the sense of forced compliance or identity-less conformity, but in the sense of clarity and higher standards. In the sense of not letting us settle for weak strategies and ineffective processes. In the sense of not backing down when there is conflict between departments, but stepping up to the plate and resolving it. In the sense of not accepting age-old performance metrics that don’t work any more, simply because we’ve always done it that way.

Human organizations embrace discipline.

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  1. 16.05.2012 at 9:31 am

    Very good point about high standards. Decentralize without clearly communicated high standards for results is probably a waste of time!

  2. 16.05.2012 at 1:09 pm

    Well said Jamie! As a country we need more discipline too.

  3. 18.05.2012 at 7:10 am

    I try to reframe the “command and control” my brain somehow defaults to when someone mentions the military to the “clarity and commitment” I believe their leadership systems often produce. I value that latter 100% even though I might differ with the former.

    People can’t make a true commitment to a value expectation, not can they be held accountable for failing to meet an articulate standard of performance. As a member of a group I need to understand how we’ve agreed to show up and be with each other, as well as in the work we will do together. As you aptly note, that requires discipline.