Using a military approach to accountancy

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As the person responsible for planning the draw-down of the UK presence in Afghanistan, saying that Chris Paton is an expert at devising and developing strategies in high-pressure environments is an understatement.

Having worked for the Ministry of Defence and served as a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Marines, he now shares his strategy skills with business. In June he’ll lead the How to build a clear and effective business strategy workshop at the AAT Annual Conference, so what can members and the accountancy sector learn from his military approach to business planning and strategy?

What is wargaming?

Quirk Solutions, where Paton is managing director, has developed a version of wargaming – a technique frequently deployed by the military to test plans, which involves a debate between a blue team representing the owners of the plan and a red team representing the stakeholders who will be affected by it. The idea is to encourage a debate between the two which will surface potential problems with the plan and encourage both sides to work together to solve them.

“I was handed the slightly chunky task of getting all the people and equipment out of Afghanistan in two years – that’s more than 10,000 people and 20,000 shipping containers. We ran one wargame on this where we had 20 people on the blue team and 150 on the red team representing every single stakeholder so they could critique what we were doing,” says Paton, who believes this approach can be applied to any business problem.

The technique brings more challenging thinking to the plan building process, which is vital if businesses want to avoid common missteps.

“If you’ve got quite a complicated issue and someone comes up with a nice easy answer, there will be a lack of desire to backtrack or say let’s look at this in more detail. If that decision then turns out okay it can be set as a precedent. We start to find ourselves guided by and thinking in ways which aren’t necessarily correct, but which haven’t yet been proved incorrect,” he explains.

Wargaming allows firms to pressure test plans and think about what could go wrong, why that might happen and how they would deal with it. This is particularly valuable for smaller accountancy firms: identifying potential problems with a new strategy before it’s launched can save them having to spend money to fix issues later.

Paton finds one military exercise particularly helpful to get people to think in this way: “There’s a phrase that the military is absolutely drilled on all the time – “so what?” especially when you’re doing your education and exams on planning. You just keep asking “so what” until you have run out of answers and have got to the bottom of the situation.”

Planning needs a safe space

The right environment is crucial to allow a robust back and forth between both sides, he says, “a safe space so that hierarchies don’t feel threatened”. Creating this “safe space” when discussing a new plan or strategy is particularly important for accountants and financial directors who often find themselves having to ask difficult questions relating to cost and affordability of proposals in front of senior teams or boards.

“If people feel they are in a safe space where this is encouraged and allowed, then it’s fundamentally different to sitting in the boardroom as an accountant who’s always pouring cold water on everyone else’s exciting plans,” he says.

Involve the right people

Who takes part in the wargame or testing process and their role in that safe space is vitally important to the success of a plan, says Paton – something he experienced first-hand whilst serving in Afghanistan: “The version that the military used to use had a huge planning team facing off with just one generally quite junior person representing the enemy. I went through a particular experience in Helmand province where that type of approach meant we missed something quite important and we ended up in a really dangerous and difficult situation.”

By just focusing your plan on the “enemy” or competitor you can overlook how your new plan will affect other aspects of your business, such as your clients, your staff or your firm’s reputation. It’s important to think of all the external and internal stakeholders that a plan will affect and how you are going to involve them in its development.

How you involve employees in building a new plan or strategy can determine its level of success: “If an organisation’s senior people come up with a plan and say to the employees of the organisation this is what we’re going to do, then it’s doomed to fail, because nobody’s bought into it, nobody understands it or sees a reason to deliver it.”

Allowing cross-functional teams from across a company to get involved in the development of a business plan – a kind of “empowered delegation” – is something that the army advocates, says Paton: “There’s a misconception of the military that it’s really hierarchical and full of people barking orders and other people blindly doing what they’re told. If you are asking people to go and risk their lives, they have to feel that it’s important and that they’re doing it for the right reasons.”

Allowing employees to come up with their own ideas and solutions to problems with a plan can improve its chance of success: They are the people who know what will or won’t work and the frictions that might stop a good initiative from happening. You’re not only getting their buy-in, your plan will also be a lot more accurate, deliverable and achievable because it’s based in reality.”

Be vulnerable

Involving the right people and your employees is crucial to the success of your plan, but also to help senior management and business leaders avoid stress and the pressure that can come with the task of devising and delivering new strategies.

“There’s this sense in business leadership that you have to be all seeing, all knowing, and unquestionable. To turn round and say I don’t know how to do all of this, I’ve got a good understanding but I need your help and support, allows you to shed some of that pressure and stress because you’re getting more people involved,” says Paton.

“The military prizes that vulnerability. It would be bizarre for me to say as one individual that I know how to get 10,000 people and 20,000 shipping containers of equipment out of a war zone several thousand miles away. Everybody laughs at that point because it’s so true and yet, in business, we feel the need to present it as otherwise.”

Catch Chris Paton at our 2018 Annual Conference :

During this interactive session you will gain a better understanding of the structure and components of strategic planning and how they relate to successfully achieving your business goals, including;

  • the tools build the foundations of your strategy and what you will need to consider
  • insight on how to implement your strategy successfully to support your business vision
  • An understanding of why some business strategies fail and what you can do to  make sure that yours doesn’t

Laura Oliver is a Freelance Journalist and Former Head of Social and Community at the Guardian.

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