OD and Business Strategy lessons to be learned from the Roman Army

A very interesting article (http://business.financialpost.com/2014/04/14/10-things-that-propelled-ancient-rome-to-greatness-that-can-help-your-business/) by Brad Cherniak of Capital Insight was recently posted in the National Post.  This article examined 10 principles that the Roman Army apparently made use of and their current relevance today. The focus of the article is on business relevance, I will also look at this article’s relevance from an OD perspective as well. Note of caution: I am not sure of the scholarship of this article, but the points raised are intriguing and useful for learning none the less.

Principle 1: Supreme confidence

“The armies took in information voraciously, but too took no input on their core mission and beliefs.”

I believe this is a critical point in terms of high performance in any endeavour. What I find intriguing is the bipolar aspect to this principle, namely that it applies both ways for fanatics as well as those we admire. One of my biggest frustrations in OD is that I see far too many propositions where we should always strive to have more of something (engagement, happiness, openness, etc.) without any acknowledgement that there can and will sometimes be “dark sides” to succeeding in these efforts. When we say that there is too little of something, we are talking about variances. I don’t know about you, but I have not seen or heard o any distribution that only has one tail (not enough <-> ideal). Would love to hear about such phenomena.

This principle, also speaks to in my mind to those who advocate that vision and mission are not that important. This principle guides us in how we can consider the environment of massive available information: test what you observe against your vision and mission, this will guide you to consider what is relevant.

So from an OD perspective, what are the sub-principles that enable us to manage the potential dysfunctional aspects of success? And, for those particularly involved with strategy work, how can we use vision and mission to distill the massive data in environment into useful information?

Principle 2: Losing is literally not an option

“The Roman armies had no conception of accepting a loss in battle – they just hadn’t won yet.

This is possibly a variation on the notion about persistence. In its dysfunctional form persistence is about obstinacy or resistance to change. Yet we know that much in life is worthwhile was accomplished through persistence during difficulties. It is during difficulties that we can be most tempted to move away from what we set to accomplish.

In OD there seems to be a current predisposition to articulating the need to be adaptable, flexible, inclusive, etc. Yet we know that high performance and real progress is often achieved in the face of daunting obstacles and difficulties. So it would be most helpful to appreciate how we chose to persist versus being reasonable in changing courses.

Again, what are the sub-principles in OD that enable us to manage the need to persist vs. the importance of walking away?

Principle 3: Smarter than everyone else, and still outworked them by orders of magnitude

Apparently they were tireless and ruthless trainers, planners and organizers. “The word decimation comes from the Roman practice of eliminating randomly one in ten men of an under performing or undisciplined army.”

WOW! talk about a performance management (PM) system directed at inadequate performance. I consider this in juxtaposition to the fashionable (now becoming scrutinized) PM practice of Forced Ranking. Perhaps inspiration for this practice came form this apparent historical fact. If it did, what a perverse adaptation it is! Forced Ranking is typically applied to the whole population regardless of their overall group performance, the Romans applied this notion to poor performing areas.

PM in OD focuses the discussion on how to get high performance. The discussion on how to deal with poor/inadequate performance to me focuses on such tactics as coaching, changing surrounding processes, being accommodating (I know I am being unfair here). What this suggests to me is that this approach can lead to the notion that your poor performance is somehow my fault. The demarcation between poor performance being the result of poor support (mine fault) or the choices made by the performer are unclear in a lot of PM discussions I have observed and participated in. Yet in law, if one is charged or sued, the issue of liability is almost always a key issue within the suit.

While many organization worry about talent retention issues there are two sub-principles that I think are always useful to consider: deal with poor performers clearly (legally and humanely) as it sends a positive signal to those whose performance is not an issue (i.e., adequate – great performance is actually respected); and weeding out poor performers, creates “space” to potentially improve the team.  Note: I am quite aware that there are many poor – despicable ways of doing this task, and I am not condoning any of these.

The notion of “outworking” intrigues in that it may be a partial antidote to emerging hubris in those who are very smart, accomplished, capable.

Principle 4: Discipline, focus and discretion

“Roman leaders were often respected, but always feared.” “This is a lesson for new paradigm CEOs who risk getting distracted and losing focus – or worse, confusing their brand or even mission – in being too open or social.”

These thoughts would appear to go totally against almost all that is advocated by OD and many others today. The “fear” aspect is one I have many concerns about myself as the dysfunctional aspects of it are so apparent (e.g., the likely destruction of honest feedback on operational and strategic matters, the reduction in taking useful risks, etc.).

This principle again raises the concern I raised earlier about ignoring the dysfunctional aspects or unintended consequences of success in what we propose. Focus is critical to success, but to what point? Being open and engaging have real benefits, but to what point? To me, any advocate of an explicit or implicit doing more and more or even less and less is not that potentially different than someone who says we should be taking more and more vitamins or doing away with intaking any carbohydrates. The panacea or cure-all does not exist.

Again, what are the OD sub-principles for achieving the applicable balance between these important features? For me, part of the answer is found in how we organize around high (usually asymmetrical or idiosyncratic) performers. I had the privilege a number of years ago to work in a R&D facility. The scientists and engineers were world class people in their respective fields. AND, they were most often very quirky  in various personal ways. We didn’t try to change them as people, we organized around them in ways where their dysfunctional behaviours would moderated in the effects of these behaviours.

Principle 5: Aggressively adaptive

“The Romans were keen observers of others’ … innovations. They quickly adopted key elements, but made their versions even better than those they copied.” “The absolute focus should be on the end result – the customer’s experience – rather than the product.”

I would consider the customer’s experience as the outcome, my product as the result/output. If the quote is accurate, the Romans truly did know how to do “best practices” work. It is just not good enough to emulate, one needs to improve upon what is being emulated.

It is one of the biggest tensions in OD (and I suspect many other fields) is how to introduce and install a best practice, but in a manner that is “fitting” to the host and yet a fundamental improvement on the “state-of-the-art”. It certainly has challenged me many times over the years.

The key for me is the “adaptability” in this context is less focused on “flexibility” than “improvement”.

Principle 6: Continuously adaptive

“The armies never stopped the process or sat on a lead, even a big one.”

WOW! This a huge principle. It seems all too common, that when we achieve what we set out to achieve, we run out of “steam”, focus, determination, etc. This is a key PM issue that I have always been fascinated by: how do we leap from one sigmoid curve to the next?

To just focus on how to “sustain” high performance is an admission of failure, you are resigned to trying to not losing ground! Sorry, but entropy will make this strategy a losing proposition. Why? Two reasons: changes in what the state-of-the-art is and our ambition to keep on top of it when it moves beyond just incremental improvement; that someone out there is going to move the state-of-the-art in a disruptive manner.

Yet understanding the notion of inertia seems to be missing in much OD work I have observed. The status quo is the status quo because of all previous investments in it. and some of these investments are difficult to alter, witness:

  • The way we indoctrinate, intentionally and unintentionally in  organizations (often linked to culture) creates “mindsets” that become virtually ingrained in who we are. These ingrained patterns (beliefs, thinking styles, patterned responses to demands, etc.) are in many cases unthinkingly automatic in how we draw upon them.
  • The way we invest in organizational infrastructure sets contextual limits on the range of possible organizational responses. Some of these investments can be virtually impossible to undo and redo.
  • The way we invest in work processes within our infrastructure investments have been honed over many years. They can sometimes take on a “metaphysical truism” to them, the thought of doing something really different can be organizationally, operationally and behaviourally very alien. The process of dealing with the alienness takes time and may not always be successful.

This suggests that how we go into stetting our strategy, organizing, establishing various processes including people related ones with the principle of how can also most easily change, undo, and redo as easily as possible up front. How many organizations (or even us as people) have this principle front and centre?

Principle 7: Fearless in the face of an unexpected challenge

“The bigger the hurdle, the harder the Romans jumped.” For business: “So what if it has never been done before? Sometimes audacity is rewarded and is the only path to success despite the risks.”

At any one point of time, our technology (our knowledge of how to accomplish something) is limited and specific. So how we deal with dealing with such a limit says a lot about us as a person and organization. Being audacious has many implications:

  • How to manage the balance between total commitment and not losing it all if we fail.
  • How to manage the tension between our operational perspective (the way we do it now is “knowingly”  just fine) and use of innovation where data on likelihood of success is near zero (so lets retreat to what we know most about- yet we “rationally” or “intuitively” know it won’t work here either).
  • How to manage keeping current commitments to ourselves and others while redirecting investment energy and efforts to the untried./
  • etc.

Principles 1 and 2 above will be called upon big time.

Principle 8: Committed to innovation even when painful

The Romans committed great resources to the process of innovation – in strategy, logistical supply chain and infrastructure, and troop development and armaments. Roman road systems are remarkable example of this principle.

In OD we talk about the capability to execute and implement. What I find fascinating is while many of us today use the “excuse” (yes, excuse) to forego long term planning (i.e., strategic planning), then how do we ever rationally justify making any significant infrastructure investments.

I suspect that the Romans firmly believed that they could and would rule forever. This meant that they would be predisposed to making significant infrastructure investments like their road systems. In business, this would mean that we picture our organizations lasting many years.

The lesson for me is if you are not predisposed to finding a suitable way to make long range strategic plans, then you will not invest long term, hence you will not last long term. The analogy regarding our physiology. If we are not prepared to think long term about our lives, we will not see any need to invest in health, learning, etc. Statistically speaking, we will age faster and become more readily exposed to life shortening afflictions.

Principle 9: Internally competitive

“The biggest motivator to a Roman general was the glory and rewards it brought” For business the implications are: “truly innovative companies will foster the competition of ideas and the efforts to marshall the resources to execute them (italics added).”

The issue of internal competition is one that is an incredible lever for organizational performance. In fact it may be the equivalent of a nuclear  device. This means, properly deployed and used, great benefits accrue. Improperly deployed and used, great harm ensues.

The reference i made above to Forced Ranking is a glaring example of the improper approach to internal competition. It directs attention to the wrong kinds of accomplishments: besting others within the organizations through politics, focus on where I am within the ranking list regardless of what I have contributed to the organization. Why? Because Forced Ranking only focuses on a ranked order list regardless of business performance. This means my competition  is not a customer or another organization, it is a colleague.

The part I highlighted in italics above is critical to my accepting this principle having potential upside and moderate downside. The competition is over ideas and organizational accomplishments.

Principle 10: Positive feedback loop

“Each of the above principles supported and strengthened the others. There were few unproductive contradictions in Roman thought and action.” I see this balance tension: principles 1 & 2 are balanced by principles 3, 4 & 5; and principle 9 considered how the preceding 8 were used over time with a specific endeavour.

The learning for me:

This article for me was very refreshing: it reinforced some thoughts and concerns I have regarding how we operate within the OD practice; it caused me to reflect on what I tend to hold and believe and encourage me to re-examine them; and to give me an opportunity to apply my OD perspective to a non-OD focused discussion.

More specifically, this article encourages me to continue to refine the basis by which I discern what to recommend and on what basis. This is about strengthening my diagnostic capabilities so I can professionally recommend courses of action without being doctrinaire (sorry for the drama here) about it.

Many thanks





About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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