Friday, April 08, 2016 at 11am

From Military Operations to Technical Operations Management

operations management

While the world of operations management might not be life and death, having a background in military operations – where outcomes can be much more severe – is a massive help for handling the stress and learning how to be flexible. Military experience taught me the values of resilience, perseverance and having a good old fashioned work ethic that have translated directly into my role as COO and founder of BestReviews.com.

1. Discipline matters

In combat this might be rehearsal after rehearsal prior to a combat mission, as well as thorough planning that is explained in clear terms with the entire team. The same skills are needed in the world of operations management. Poor planning often translates into poor outcomes, and outcomes matter in tech ops. Amazingly, some in the tech ops world downplay this skillset, and as we have learned recently, some of these businesses are not built to last. While the need for speed is imperative (in combat and business), rigor in planning can also pay incredible dividends.

2. Daily habits build culture

What is the most important thing for you to accomplish on a given day? If you are not aware of what that is, or any member of your team is not aware of what that is, then you have failed as a leader in operations management. Leading ops in combat simplified this equation as everyone knew our mission each day because it was written on a board in my unit and drilled into each person over and over. In the same manner, the business mission, and the particular main focus area for each team member requires communication over and over again. If you get this right there is clarity for each person about where they should focus and why this matters. The minute you fail at this task, reduce your expectations for high quality outcomes, as the precious resource of time will be mismanaged.

3. Wake up before the competition

While much is said already about getting an early start, it still matters. While I personally prefer a gym routine and meditation as first tasks, find the rhythm that works for you. Most important, start projects early, end meetings early, and complete tasks early. Use operations management to form a culture of beating the deadlines and delivering more than planned. In many military units there is pride in accomplishing more by 9am than most people do all day. If you can build this same mindset into your operations management culture, you will have created an incredible competitive advantage. Sometimes doing something incredibly ‘hard’ creates corporate value. In many cases, however, executing hundreds of ‘easy’ to ‘medium’ tasks is more than enough to create incredible value.

4. Complacency can cost you everything

In combat you know the enemy is thinking of how to end your existence. In the tech ops world this is probably not the case –  let’s hope not, at least. However, there is always a competitor looking to take market share, or a new entrant looking at ways to disrupt your business model. The day you stop thinking of ways to refine your model, increase efficiencies, and delight customers is the day that you slowly start to cede your position in the marketplace to someone else. Vigilance against complacency is a mindset and way of being. Build it in the DNA, or you are unlikely to succeed.

5. You always control your own attitude

In my current tech ops role as COO of BestReviews.com, it is easy to get incredibly excited about testing out products like rowing machines or electric toothbrushes. However, it is never fun to set up group healthcare, battle through compliance challenges, or work through the many legal and tax wickets that are requirements of every business. With the wrong attitude these less fun tasks become chores that drag you down. However, with the right attitude they are another chance to make a difference. I start my workday with the same line to my co-workers every day, “Another day of unparalleled opportunity” – quote I took from a former army infantry officer I worked with and respected. While the words may seem corny, when the sentiment is real it affects those around you in a positive way and builds a foundation for positive thinking that is contagious, impacting others throughout the day.

6. Nothing is beneath you

In one of the worst portions of my deployment to Iraq, I found myself face to face with a choice. Help my men by cleaning the toilets, or pull the ‘rank card’ and find some other task to fill my time as an officer. I choose to clean the toilets. It mattered. My soldiers viewed me through an entirely different lens after a few weeks of toiling alongside them in less than pleasant conditions that they knew I could have avoided. In tech operations there will be many tasks that require little IQ and no advanced degree. These tasks need to get done, and if you do not get down with your subordinates and accomplish them, you are not a leader but just another person who happens to hold a title of seniority.

7. Resilience

The one certainty in a startup is setbacks. While many things may go incredibly well, something, at some point, will go wrong or terribly wrong. In my own experience it has been incredibly comforting to look back on operations in combat that went wrong and realize just like in those situations, we will succeed. Maybe not in this moment in time - and that is okay. Putting one foot in front of the other is the only way to finish the longest forced road march when it feels like your rucksack weighs a thousand pounds. While in the army I failed at more things more times than I can remember. However, the lasting mark was not those failures – it was the eventual success that came from pushing through to the finish line.  In the same manner, grinding through the setbacks in a startup is the only way to eventually find product/market fit, scale and make the positive impact you envision. Building resilience is often mentally, emotionally, and physically painful, and once you have it you can endure failure after failure and still drive forward to success.

Ben Faw is cofounder and COO of BestReviews, focused on arming consumers with confidence and clarity to make their purchasing decisions. Prior to Harvard Business School Ben attended West Point, and is also a graduate of Ranger, Airborne, and a variety of other military schools.

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