The Spectrum of Improvisation – A Military Skill Set That Enables Dynamic Leadership In The Chaotic & Unpredictable Business World


One of the most underappreciated and undervalued skill sets military veterans possess for civilian employers is the ability to combine a command-and-control culture with the room and understanding for individual initiative. The combination of an adherence to process, while exercising individual thought and initiative to adapt and adjust as conditions change, is an extraordinary asset in an economic climate characterized by doubt and apprehension.


Civilian employers often have a love/hate relationship with both the command-and-control style of leadership and with a leadership style that emphasizes personal initiative and innovation. In short, employers both want and fear an employee who will either only follow instructions or will only exercise initiative. A common criticism by potential employers is that military veterans are either too established in a command-and-control leadership style to be re-trained or that veterans can’t operate in a world driven by initiative and a rapidly changing landscape.


The truth for employers is that veterans can and do excel in both leadership frameworks.  Veterans know how to follow orders and they know when to step beyond their orders and use initiative to accomplish the organization’s goals.


The Military Skill for Business – How to Combine Plans, Initiative into the Spectrum of Improvisation for Day-to-Day Success


Imagine a small military unit conducting an attack in Afghanistan. The unit employs a great deal of standard procedures in radio communications, orders process, setup procedures for large weapons, and rehearsing how to evacuate casualties.  Leaders and individual soldiers exercise initiative in deciding how to plan and conduct the attack. Conformance to both vital processes and individual initiative are essential components of a successful operation.


The simultaneous conformance to both standard procedures and initiative is what makes military veterans valuable to civilian employers.  A retail store manager will use standardized accounting, inventory and other retail sales procedures as she operates the store. However, retailers like Old Navy and Target, want her to use initiative to identify new trends, clothing styles and potential employees.

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Military and business people have to employ a “Spectrum of Improvisation” when they follow a plan. As they adapt the plan to meet Commander’s Intent (or goals), they do not want to change proven processes and other common work techniques that are part of the plan.  Standard processes for both the military and for business generally strengthen outcomes. Many times the plan is a source of strength; business leaders and military leaders need to adapt only the portions of a plan that require adjustment.


The full business understanding of the Spectrum of Improvisation is to retain processes and systems that support mission excellence and adapt only necessary elements. Military veterans add value to businesses because they know both how to follow a plan, and how to adapt a plan to reach and surpass the business goals.

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Here are three ways the Spectrum of Improvisation can be used for business using these common military skills:


  1. Use Commander’s Intent to Support Individual Initiative


MILITARY DESCRIPTION: Commander’s Intent describes how the Commander envisions the battlefield at the conclusion of the mission. In brief, Commander’s Intent describes what success will look like and thus allows an individual to exercise initiative and adjust the plan or process so that even as conditions change, the goal of the plan can still be achieved.


BUSINESS USE: Businesses and organizations can use Commander’s Intent to maintain relevance and applicability in chaotic, dynamic and resource-constrained environments.  The business leader spells out the description of success so as the business environment and competition change, the plan can be adapted to achieve commercial success.


  1. Use an After Action Review (AAR) to Create Engagement & Learning


MILITARY DESCRIPTION: The purpose of the AAR is to conduct a fact-based and intensive review of an operation to determine what went well, what did not go well and how to improve the operation in the future. The AAR is a vehicle for continuous improvement, and it’s employed in every facet of operations, from supply convoys to data processing to small-unit attacks.


BUSINESS USE: The AAR brings all people involved in an operation together, seeks to understand what happened and why, and then seeks to implement a training plan to correct mistakes and incorporate positive outcomes into future mission execution. The final step of the AAR is to create a defined, understood and time-based organizational improvement plan. And what organization couldn’t use that?


  1. Use Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to Create Best Practices & Encourage Initiative


MILITARY DESCRIPTION: SOPs are an everyday, common and vital activity whose performance is a foundation for the success of the organization.  The SOP should be a step by step process in a checklist or similar format that details from beginning to end how and why a process must be performed.  To be successful and to ensure adoption, SOPs must be based upon employee input and design.   SOP’s should also be refreshed annually, at a minimum, to ensure they continue to work.


BUSINESS USE: McDonald’s is an unrivaled master at common food preparation and food service procedures. The incorporation of employees and management to draft, test and finalize important procedures is essential. The more common the procedures, the greater the value when conditions change.  Customers benefit the most from standard procedures because it ensures consistent customer delivery over time, a key component of customer satisfaction.


Both the Command and Control style of leadership and the pure initiative style of leadership have their place in business success today.  The key is to apply military veteran employees and military skill sets such as Commander’s Intent, the After Action Review, and the SOP to ensure you combine the best of standard procedures and initiative to allow the best performance in a dynamic and competitive business environment.

Chad Storlie

Author, Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and Battlefield to Business Success

USAA Member Community, Blogger



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Chad StorlieChad is the author of two books: (1) Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and (2) Battlefield to Business Success.  Chad’s brand message is that organizations & individuals need to translate and apply military skills to business because they immediately produce results and are cost effective.  Chad is a retired US Army Special Forces officer with 20+ years of Active and Reserve service in infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units.  He served in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea, and throughout the United States.  He was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Special Forces Tab, and the Ranger Tab.   Chad is also an adjunct Lecturer of Marketing at Creighton University and Bellevue University in Omaha, NE.  In addition to teaching, he is a mid-level marketing executive and has worked in marketing and sales roles for various companies, including General Electric, Comcast, and Manugistics.  He has been published in over 80 publications including The Harvard Business Review blog, Business Week Online, Forbes, Christian Science Monitor, and USA Today.  He has a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University.