How To Grow Your Business With The Discipline Of A Marine

Marines operate by something called the "OODA loop," which, as it turns out, also helps you crush it in business.

If you've read my third book, The Way of Innovation, you know I’ve been fascinated for years about a military framework called the OODA loop, which shows how to better manage strategy in accelerated environments. The OODA loop concept (observe, orient, decide, and act) is now altering military strategy in nearly every corner, but perhaps nowhere more than in the Marines, which has incorporated it as a centerpiece of its DNA.

So when I got a chance to interview Scott Lerner, former Marine and founder and CEO of Solixir, I skipped over the marketing campaign his PR agent wanted us to talk about and jumped right into his experience with OODA. Tugging at the string opened up a fascinating world, a manual, a Marine’s guide for rapidly growing a business.

You can hear my full interview with Scott on my website (click on "interviews"). Here is my 10-minute summary. These principles have thrust Solixir from a crazy idea dreamed up by a former Marine who wanted a 5 a.m. pre-workout pickup into what it is a today: a leading all-natural functional drink. Solixir is out-maneuvering Monster Energy Drink and 5-hour Energy in many markets, giving consumers a botanical, healthy, no-sugar-added alternative. You can find Solixir at Whole Foods, The Vitamin Shoppe, and other retailers in the U.S.

Step 1: Pick a mission you can win.
Scott is not looking to fight with traditional energy drinks. "Our mission is to give consumers a choice," he says. This is an important strategic principle because if your mission is to destroy your competitor, you give them no choice but to fight back. It’s smarter to choose a mission—like "choice"—that creates less competitive resistance.

Is your mission one that your competition could live with? If not, what should your mission be?

Step 2: Set strategic metrics.
Define one or two simple high-level goals that (a) everyone can understand and (b) allow for your team to adjust tactics to achieve them. Solixir focuses on overall revenue and store count. Many companies seek to build out a detailed plan defining where the revenue will come from, but this reduces your tactical flexibility. As Scott said, "Whether that revenue from comes from one market or 10 doesn’t matter." It helps to choose metrics that each part of your company can see they impact. Scott, for example, explained that the company’s sales team is focused on getting product on shelves (i.e., convincing retailers to carry Solixir), while their marketing team is focused on taking them down from shelves (i.e., getting customers to purchase).

What are your one or two strategic goals? Do these goals prescribe how they should be achieved? If so, change them.

Step 3: Set "health" metrics.
Scott distinguishes strategic goals like revenue or store count with general "health" metrics like the number of "likes" Solixir gets on Facebook. Health metrics tell you business is running well, but your team knows they are not the reason your company exists. With my team, we measure website visits and newsletter registrants.

What 3 to 5 "health" metrics will you track?

Step 4: Turn on "OODA."
This, of course, is my favorite part. OODA stands for "observe, orient, decide, act." The principle here is that if you can observe what your competitors do not (Solixir tracks POS data continually), orient yourselves to what is going on (Solixir will see which stores are doing well, where there is a "spark," and where sales are not happening), decide how to respond (Solixir sends local brand-ambassador teams to the stores where are they are starting to see a "spark" underway to stoke the fire), and act (Solixir has a call, reviews the data, makes a decision, and immediately the team is off with samples and promotional material) faster than your competition, then they will fall further and further behind with each OODA cycle. Solixir’s larger competitors don’t move as quickly. To be fair, they don’t have to, because they have enough resources and history with all of the stores that carry them to provide even coverage. But Solixir, acting like white blood cells rapidly concentrating on the precise area of an infection, is able to compete beyond what its scale would suggest. I thought Solixir would hold daily or weekly meetings to cycle through OODA but instead they do it ad hoc, as needed.

How can you shorten your OODA cycle? How can you observe, orient, make a decision, and act more rapidly?

I’ve started implementing these steps in my consulting business, and it has turned growing the business into a fast-paced and fun game. This approach is fundamentally different that the traditional "build a plan and execute it" approach. When your team is clear about its mission—what Scott refers to as "commander’s intent"—and has the structure to rapidly evolve to pursue it, you will be out-maneuvering your competitors at every turn.

For more on Scott’s leadership principles, listen to my interview with him here and follow his blog here.

[Image: Flickr user United States Marine Corps]

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3 Comments

  • Buddy

     Great article.  Thanks for the encouragement to increase the speed of the OODA cycle.

    Awesome photo as well.  The marine who took it is:
    (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alejandro Pena/Released)Best,Buddy

  • Nosybear

    In business, this is called the "plan-do-check-act" cycle and ultimately, it's merely an application of the scientific method to business, or, in the case of OODA, military science.  And OODA is not complete:  There's no validation of the effectiveness of the cycle without assessing battle damage, nor is any business cycle complete without assessing the effectiveness of the actions you took.

  • Anthony Reardon

    Nah, it's not the same as plan-do-check-act. It starts with observation. After action, you do it again. That's why it's called an OODA "Loop".

    Anyways, that's just the tip of the ice burg how the modern military, and especially the Marine Corps, prepares leaders for the challenges of competing in the ever complex and volatile world of business. We're talking full-spectrum domination and precision engagement across everything from technology, information, interoperability, globalization, and whatever else it takes to be a world-class organization.

    Best, Anthony