A bitter wind accompanies the dawn sun in California’s Mojave Desert.
It’s only 5:16 AM, but Brigadier General William “Scott” Wallace, commanding general of the U.S.
Army’s National Training Center, has been up for two hours. Accompanied by senior military officers from 30 nations, he’s made his way to a hill that offers a choice view of today’s battle.
Below, across miles of rugged terrain, 4,000 soldiers are preparing to engage an enemy force. For the last 10 days, the two sides have been doing battle with lasers that substitute for real warheads. Now, for the first time, they’re experiencing live-fire — the only way to appreciate the devastation and lethality of modern combat. F-16s scream overhead and drop thousand-pound bombs that literally make the earth move. Tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles face off against each other, and M109A6 Howitzers fire 155 millimeter rounds that don’t merely disable their targets but utterly disintegrate them.
For most people, this is hell on earth. For General Wallace and his troops, it’s just another day at the office — one with a uniquely important mission.
The national training center is more than just ground zero for army war games. It’s the world’s most powerful laboratory for leadership development and organizational change. Refined and perfected over the past 15 years, the NTC is credited with almost single-handedly transforming the post-Vietnam army. Six other countries consider it an indispensable training ground for their riskiest missions. And several of America’s most forward-thinking companies — including Motorola and General Electric — study it as a source of ideas about leadership and learning. The experience of “learning through failure” is the definitive model for preparing for combat –or for the challenges of business.
“I learned more at the NTC in 14 days than I learned in the previous 14 years of my career,” says Major General Leon LaPorte, himself a former NTC commander. The heart of the NTC experience is the army’s willingness — eagerness — to learn from failure. Over a grueling two-week period, a brigade (3,000 to 5,000 soldiers) goes head-to-head with an opposing force of similar size. Some 600 instructors (one for every brigade member with leadership or supervisory responsibilities) shadow their counterparts through 18-hour days, provide personal coaching, and facilitate team meetings as participants struggle to understand what went wrong and how to correct it. These meetings — called After Action Reviews — are the crucible of the learning experience, the place where hardship meets insight, where failure meets growth.
“At every level, every fiber of the organization is stressed for a full 14 days,” Wallace explains. “Some of those fibers break. Those are the ones you hone in on and repair during the training experience. This process allows commanders and their organizations to be brutally honest with themselves about their successes and failures on the battlefield. As a result of that honesty — and the desire to learn from it — the individuals, the unit, and the organization all become better.”
War games at the NTC unfold in a relentless rhythm of planning, fighting, and learning. Each afternoon the brigade commander receives his assignment: “penetrate enemy defenses,” or “defend your sector against a superior force.” Inside crowded command tents, 30 to 40 staff officers and senior fighting commanders study the situation and hammer out a strategy. By late afternoon, the plan begins to filter out to thousands of soldiers dispersed across thousands of square miles. Tank crews and platoons are briefed, minefields laid, artillery and helicopters coordinated, reconnaissance initiated. At midnight, friendly and enemy probes get under way.
By dawn the battle is in full force. the “enemy” (the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment) is permanently stationed at Fort Irwin. These soldiers know the terrain, behave unpredictably, and almost always devastate the unit in training. It’s all recorded: perched on top of surrounding mountains, powerful video cameras zoom in on the battle’s hot spots. Elaborate laser-based technologies track precisely when and where each weapon is fired, electronically disabling any fighting unit that’s hit. Onboard microprocessors record all events going on in the vehicles engaged in combat: location, movement, use of weapons. Audio tapes record communication and confusion over voice networks.
By 11:00 a.m. the battle is over, and the After Action Review begins. In this case, a company team of two platoons — involving two tanks, four armored personnel carriers, and a HMMWV (Highly Mobile Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, the modern version of a Jeep) — has gathered in a tight circle in the shade of a desert outcropping. The crews lean back against tank treads, a flip chart slung over the HMMWV antenna. An observer-controller has created a “sand table” in the ground — a miniature outline of the terrain on which this unit was annihilated. He asks a tank gunnery sergeant to position the company’s armor on the sand table and explain his understanding of the mission.
Sergeant: “Our mission was to destroy the enemy at objective K-2.”
Observer-Controller: “Why was this important? And do you know what your tank’s particular role was in all of this?”
Sergeant: “I’m not sure.”
Observer-Controller: “Can anyone help?”
A trickle of comments gradually builds into a flood of discussion; it becomes evident that only the lieutenant in charge understood the rationale behind the mission. Individual armored units were not coordinated. Nor had they grasped that their main collective task was to drive an enemy column away from a weak point in the defenses into a zone where they were within range of other friendly tanks and artillery.
The flip chart records key learning points for tomorrow. The soldiers leave with a picture of what they were in the middle of that they could not see. Day after day, these reviews reinforce five key themes: everyone needs to understand the big picture; everyone needs to think all the time; always put yourself in the shoes of an uncooperative opponent; prepare yourself to the point where you are not surprised by surprise; and put aside hierarchy, foster self-criticism, learn to work as a team.
Crucial rules for war-fighting — and for business. The army’s “learn-through-failure” approach offers important lessons for competing in a business environment that grows more perilous and unpredictable every day.
The best learning comes from the most stressful situations.
NTC war games are prolonged and intense. This stress and exhaustion — not to mention repeated defeat — unfreezes old patterns of behavior and creates openings for new understandings and behaviors to take root.
“If you face an enemy in training who’s much more capable than any enemy you’re going to face in live combat, you’re going to be successful,” Wallace argues. “It’s like athletes that overtrain, the guy who runs fifteen miles in preparation for his one-mile run.”
Learn about what matters.
A day of tough combat can inspire argument and debate about hundreds of issues. After Action Reviews focus on three: the key tasks that drive success, the conditions under which they must be performed, and the standards of excellence by which they are judged — for example, hit an enemy tank at night within a range of 4,000 yards, moving at 20 mph over uneven terrain, with an 80% success rate. Without this kind of clarity, the army believes, After Action Reviews have no foundation on which to build.
Use hard data to eliminate subjective debate.
The NTC’s laser-based technologies and onboard microprocessors eliminate any disagreements over what really happened on the battlefield. The logic is simple: let the data, not the trainers, point the finger. “We can tell you exactly what happened, because we can show you very definitively with our technology,” Wallace says. “That sweeps the table clean. No one can argue about what happened.”
Learning requires facilitators who coach rather than lecture.
The most important job of observer-controllers is to make it safe to learn. They never criticize or evaluate individual performance. They encourage the team to teach itself. They reinforce the message that this experience is not about success or failure — it’s about what each person takes away.
Promote a learning mind-set that endures beyond the training exercise.
Long-term success, the army believes, comes from every soldier understanding what drives victory; cultivating relentless discomfort with the status quo; and establishing a standard of uncompromising straight talk that promotes feedback and introspection. That means learning must become a part of everyday life, not a one-time event. As an example, Wallace points to the Gulf War, when learning sessions modeled on After Action Reviews broke out spontaneously.
“After the cease-fire was called,” Wallace says, “they held their own After Action Reviews. A platoon leader would get all his boys together and say, ‘We’ve been fighting for a hundred hours. What did we do right, what did we do wrong, and if we have to do it all over again, what will we do differently?’ That’s an indication of the power of the culture, the power of this process.”
Richard Pascale was a faculty member at the Stanford Business School for 20 years, and is now an associate fellow of Oxford University. Based in San Francisco, he is a well-known author, lecturer, and consultant on corporate change and transformation. His article “The False Security of ‘Employability'” appeared in the April:May 1996 issue of Fast Company.