B2B Book Review: Extreme Ownership – How to Apply It

In this podcast episode, I’m going to discuss lessons from a book that is currently number 1 in the New York Times Best Seller list for business: Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.  Authors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin talk about their experiences leading SEAL teams in Iraq, the challenges they faced, how those challenges led them to develop a series of principles, and how those principles all contribute to the idea of promoting extreme ownership.

B2B Book Review: Extreme Ownership – How to Apply It

Authors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin talk about their experiences leading SEAL teams in Iraq, the challenges they faced, how those challenges led them to develop a series of principles, and how those principles all contribute to the idea of promoting extreme ownership.

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I think the book has a lot to say to researchers, stakeholders and business leaders.

There is a quote in the book that defines their concept nicely: “Extreme ownership. Leaders must own everything in their world. There is no one else to blame.” This quote has been highlighted by 1,075 Amazon Kindle users so far.

For me, the most important takeaways from the book were the principles the authors uncovered, and how those principles apply to business settings.

But first, let’s talk about some of the experiences they had in Iraq.

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The authors had to remain focused and decisive while confronted with a number of obstacles such as developing a solid, decentralized command structure, moving from one strategic position to another while under fire, evacuating wounded team members in challenging circumstances, and even facing “blue on blue attacks,” whereby friendly forces fire on other friendly forces.

Obviously, that alone makes for a pretty interesting read.

The authors go on to show how the principles they developed can be applied to real world business settings.

I’m going to talk about what I think are the two most important principles for market research teams and stakeholders:

  1. Complexity kills.
  2. How to be decisive in the midst of uncertainty.

Let’s talk about the first principle, complexity kills.

Complexity Kills

The story from Iraq goes like this: a team leader wanted to plan a very ambitious and complex mission, and that was fine in principle. The mission would have gone 2 kilometers through some of the most hostile territory in Iraq. None of the roads he would have to travel had been cleared by US mine sweeping teams, so IED’s posed a strong threat. Further, his route passed through the battle space owned by a variety of different American units, which might have complicated his ability to call for help if he got into trouble.

Thankfully, one of the authors convinced this team leader to make his plan a lot less complex. This was fortunate, because 12 minutes after this team leader stepped off the base with his unit, they were in a fire fight. Luckily, they were pretty close to base, and within range of a unit that was easy to communicate with. While casualties did occur, they were more limited than they might have been otherwise.

The book also gives a business story to illustrate how complexity kills.

The book also gives a business story to illustrate how complexity kills. The example talks about a company that had a very complex bonus plan. It had somewhere between 8 to 10 different variables that all interacted in very complex ways. The bonus plan was so complicated, it was impossible for the company to effectively communicate why it should matter to the employees it was supposed to impact. The authors consulted with the company and said that while the company had modeled the complexity of their business pretty well, the team who was supposed to be affected by the bonus plan didn’t understand what getting their bonus depended on.

The result was that the bonus plan didn’t motivate the employees. Hence, no matter how real the plan was, it didn’t generate the desired effect. What ended up happening? They turned the bonus plan into something that was just 2 or 3 variables and actually motivated the employees. The new bonus plan perhaps didn’t model the real world quite as well as the more complex plan, but it was more successful in achieving the desired effect.

This principle of complexity kills also applies to stakeholders and researchers of B2B market research efforts.

For example, how many times have you been in a meeting with a stakeholder and they:

  • Suggest adding a quantitative survey to a qualitative study.
  • Ask for the study to be global instead of just focused on a single country.
  • Turn a 5-minute survey into a 15-minute survey by flooding the list of Key Intelligence Questions.
  • Want in-depth interviews to last 60 minutes when 30 minutes would be sufficient.
  • Add every segment under the sun to the study.

All of the above are examples of complexity muddying the study. To keep the study focused and on track, researchers need to stay focused on coaching stakeholders on exactly what they need to know.

However, B2B market researchers can also have a problem with complexity kills. For example, I have seen research teams that are so focused on constantly feeding and caring for these large tracking studies that they have that they lose sight of other more meaningful research they should be developing. I’ve also seen researchers create very complex research plans that have a lot of different moving parts: a separate quant firm, a separate qual firm, a separate recruiter, and so on.  But they never ask themselves whether they really need all these separate moving parts to accomplish their objective.  In fact, at times, they are merely enamored by their design.

Decisiveness Amid Uncertainty

As the authors discuss decisiveness amid uncertainty, they share another compelling story from Iraq.

They had the impression that they were under threat from a sniper in a particular building.

In this case, the authors’ SEAL team was working with another unit. The other unit found themselves under fire while they were clearing a block in the city of Ramadi. They had the impression that they were under threat from a sniper in a particular building. The authors’ SEAL team, however, was somewhat reluctant to fire on that building because they were unclear if it was really enemy soldiers or whether US soldiers were in there. No fire had actually come from that building, there was just the perception that the sniper, or what thought was a sniper, was an enemy.

What ended up happening? The author’s team was decisive, admitted uncertainty, and ultimately decided not to fire. That was a good decision. In the end, it was found out that that the building was actually occupied by US troops, and if they had fired on it, they could have killed a US soldier.

The related business example in the book talks about a company that had two development leads who were constantly at odds. They were even calling for each other’s dismissal on a regular basis. The company felt trapped. They didn’t want to lose either of them, and even more importantly, they didn’t want to lose the teams that reported to the two rival development leads.

The authors went in and explained that perhaps the issue was a lack of decisiveness. What the company really needed to do was fire them both. Both development leads were contributing to the problem, and neither one was a good person to have in the firm long-term. The company took the authors advice and fired both development leads.

Consequently, the firm set an example for the actions that would be taken against employees who were being difficult. At the same time, the firm was able to move quickly past the problems and grow from there.

How can stakeholders benefit from decisiveness in the midst of uncertainty?

How can stakeholders benefit from decisiveness in the midst of uncertainty?

Here is just one example. Here at Cascade Insights, we may have to tell a client that a portion of their business isn’t pulling its weight, the sales process isn’t working well, the marketing efforts aren’t lined up with what customers want to see, or the product itself is bad. Whoever is in charge of those initiatives often has a really hard time being decisive and saying, “We need to make some changes.” What they often do instead is pick at the data, saying “Well this may, or may not be true, or this may, or may not be true.” They look for the areas where the research has maybe not answered something 100 percent.

The thing is, no research project answers all of the questions an entire company may have. There is always going to be a degree of uncertainty.

Therefore, stakeholders have to be able to look at the data they’ve been given and make a decision.

Researchers, on the other hand, are often pressured to send in research before it’s ready. In essence, they fire on the building when they shouldn’t. It’s better not to pull the trigger if you’re unsure of whether your findings are ready to be shown to the client. Regardless of where the pressure is coming from, don’t present incomplete research as complete.

For example, if you’re a vendor, and the market research team is pressuring you to give the research, find a way to communicate that it’s not the right time. If you’re internal to the company and a stakeholder is pressuring you to give results from an internal study you’re running, the same rules apply.

In war and in business, don’t fire until it’s time.

In war and in business, don’t fire until it’s time.

This podcast is brought to you by Cascade Insights. We specialize in market research and competitive intelligence for B2B technology companies. Our focus allows us to deliver detailed insights that generalist firms simply can’t match. Check out our podcast for more B2B Market Research episodes and articles.

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