Extreme Ownership Principles in Practice

I recently finished reading a book called Extreme Ownership. It’s a business book by two Navy SEALs who led the most highly-decorated combat units in the Iraq War in which they share key battlefield lessons, distill them into core principles and map them to specific business scenarios to show how they apply in the boardroom. I had a handful of interesting takeaways from reading this book and noticed a fair amount of idea overlap with another military business book that’s a bit of a North Star at Pagely, Turn the Ship Around. I’ll distill the key Extreme Ownership principles below and share how we’ve implemented some of this thinking at Pagely with the hope that it gives you some ideas on how to apply these concepts in your venture.

The Concept of Extreme Ownership

The book is divided into three parts. The first section lays the groundwork of the philosophy of Extreme Ownership and presents a compelling argument that quality of leadership is the primary determinant of team effectiveness (trumping even team composition). Put simply, Extreme Ownership is the opposite of “it’s not my job,” it’s taking ownership of all aspects of a mission and exercising & proliferating Leader-Leader ideals to ensure a successful outcome. This quote gets at the heart of it of it:

“The best leaders don’t just take responsibility for their job. They take Extreme Ownership of everything that impacts their mission.”

The battlefield example that made this point was a “blue-on-blue” incident of friendly fire in Ramadi that nearly resulted in catastrophe. It was a perfect storm of cascading errors that culminated in US troops mistakenly engaging in a heavy firefight with a SEAL sniper team pinned down in a building in Ramadi. Luckily catastrophe was narrowly avoided and the situation diffused when the author and commanding officer arrived on site and played a hunch going in solo to investigate the building right before it was to be shelled. A friendly fire incident like this typically ends the career of the commanding officer but in this situation rather than shirk responsibility for events outside his control, Jocko owned everything and claimed responsibility, the logic being “if this situation was even possible it meant they didn’t have the right processes, training, communication, protocols, whatever else in place to ensure it’s an impossibility.”

What is an example of a situation with your current employer in which a project you were on failed due to circumstances beyond your control (either internal to your team or external to your company)? Viewing through the lens of Extreme Ownership what could you do to “own the mission result” next time in spite of the issues being beyond your job responsibility? What process changes would be necessary to make it impossible for this type of failure to occur again?

takeaway We recently had a rare situation at Pagely where due to a miscommunication a support ticket fell through the cracks and had gone unattended over a weekend. Despite having bulletproof handoff procedures amongst support reps a perfect storm of errors resulted in the ticket getting “orphaned.” Rather than point fingers, our head of support took Extreme Ownership over the scenario and investigated a workflow that would immunize us against this type of fluke incident in the future. Within days we implemented the Zendesk SLA feature to safeguard against this scenario. Rather than a culture of finger-pointing and CYA as a solution, the Pagely Way is one of quickly implementing a system that solves.

Four Laws of Combat

The meat of the book covers four “design patterns for combat” that work in concert to increase team effectiveness in chaotic, adverse situations. These laws are:

  1. Cover & Move
  2. Simple
  3. Prioritize & Execute
  4. Decentralized Command

Cover & Move

The battlefield example for this one was a rapid evacuation scenario where two separate teams of SEALs had to quickly withdraw from their respective locations and get back to base. One was a substantial distance deep in hostile territory and the other occupied the roof of a tall structure right next to the base. The team deep in enemy territory faced a nasty assault from Iraqi insurgents and made a harrowing escape using their leapfrog “cover and move” maneuver to work their way back. They made it unscathed but having undergone a substantial firefight in the process. Upon debriefing, they were expecting a high-five from the CO for returning with no casualties but instead the squad leader was reprimanded for failing to realize cover & move applies not just to one’s own unit but across units. Had they thought big picture and contacted the other SEAL team perched on the high structure they could have had sniper overlook the entire way back and, therefore, a higher probability of safe egress.

What scenarios have you been in at your job in which you could have benefitted from “air support” from an adjacent department? What inter-departmental awareness and communication would need to exist to enable that type of “cover and move” cooperation across departments in future similar scenarios?

takeaway At Pagely we maintain situational awareness across teams via a weekly virtual standup via Google Hangout and throughout the week via Slack. Each department has its own Slack channel but we cross-pollinate and pull in people as necessary to address issues that straddle departmental divides. It’s a flat company structure and anyone has the ability to pull anyone else into a conversation at their discretion if it’s relevant to the higher mission goal of better-serving customers. If DevOps has a glut of migrations hit at once it can request additional resources from support. Likewise, if support tickets spike, resources can be pulled from DevOps. Sales pull Infosec, Engineering and Onboarding into pre-sales conversations as required and pipes relevant feedback back to Product Dev & Marketing. In this way, teams are able to not just provide Cover & Move within their team but across teams in better support of the mission goal.

Simple

The “simple” principle espouses reducing surface area for mistakes by standardizing, eliminating unnecessary complexity and going with the simplest possible solutions, even if they require some initial overhead to implement. The battlefield example from the book was an anecdote about the procedure the SEALs originally used for intelligence gathering when they cleared the house that had contained a bad guy. They’d basically ransack it and spend about an hour tearing things apart and looking for intel- devices, plans, contact lists – anything that could help track down the next bad guy. The issue though was this process had no method and was inefficient. At first blush forcing a standardized search procedure represented additional overhead of new training and extra work in the field but ultimately once internalized the new method gave the SEALs a systematic way to tear apart a house rapidly and in a consistent manner. Starting high and working to the floor meant they didn’t have to re-search rubbish that had already been cleared on the floor and search times reduced from ~1hr to ~15min. Rooms were systematically dismantled according to a pre-defined methodology eliminating the cognitive load of decision making. The intel collected became more valuable because the systematic manner in which it was gathered allowed it to be logged more accurately increasing its utility to analysts. With the reduced search times units were able to hit two and three targets in an evening as opposed to just one and expand the reach of the operation with the same team sizes.

What are you and your colleagues doing now in your job that’s “shoot from the hip” style but could be systematized with a little effort into a framework or standardized procedure? What ramifications would this have for efficiency and consistency? What could you do to accelerate conception, training and adoption of the new systematized approach amongst your team?

takeawayWhen I started at Pagely over a year ago we didn’t yet have a content marketing workflow. We employed a handful of writers who picked random topics and published stories at will. When I took over the blog I implemented a formal content marketing process using Trello to track the journey of each story. While imposing an editorial framework required some extra work and training, ultimately it led to a more sane and simplified editorial process. Now articles all followed the same linear path with consistent treatment. The imposition of the framework ultimately reduced complexity and provided a sensible, standardized, repeatable workflow that could be easily replicated and taught.

Prioritize & Execute

The battlefield scenario for this one was bananas. An entire SEAL platoon found itself deep in enemy territory hunkered down in a well-fortified building on a mission to deliver a blow deep in enemy territory and degrade their will and offensive ability. It was a tricky situation though in that the building had a single entrance/exit and it was determined that the enemy had placed an improvised explosive device (IED) by the door. They had to find an alternative exit and did so by punching through a concrete wall with a sledgehammer to get onto the roof of an adjoining building. As they filed out onto the roof in darkness the lead guy stepped forward and plummeted 20′ through a plastic tarp (it wasn’t a solid roof at all) onto the concrete floor of a room below. The fuse was already lit on the charge to detonate the IED blocking the main entrance. To get to the fallen man below now required cutting through an iron gate, all while the entire platoon was fully exposed on a rooftop surrounded by higher structures in the heart of enemy-controlled territory with bad guys who knew where they were. Multiple clocks were ticking on the very precarious situation for an entire platoon of SEALs… high pressure would be an understatement for this situation.

“Relax, look around and make a call,” is the mantra of Prioritize & Execute. The platoon leader, Lief quickly formed a mental priority list akin to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid and began executing base up via delegation. “Set perimeter security, get everyone off the roof, breach the door to get to the wounded man, confirm headcount on the ground, flee the scene…” Lief collapsed an infinite potentiality of chaos into a sequence of prioritized steps and executed one at a time until they were all safely out of harm’s way. The entire platoon got out of the building just prior to the detonation of the charge that took out the IED and the entire platoon returned with the only casualty being a deep laceration on the fallen man’s arm.

What’s a situation in your work you’ve faced in which you’ve felt overwhelmed? How might you go about collapsing an infinite array of options into a series of prioritized mission steps that can be executed sequentially to get you to success?

takeaway Last December I was about three months into my role handling sales & marketing for Pagely. We were humming along, lead flow and sales were solid and then one of our main competitors experienced a security breach that compromised the login credentials of their entire customer list. Shortly thereafter this same competitor suffered a prolonged DDoS attack on their upstream provider that rendered nearly every customer website inaccessible for nearly a week. This one-two punch meant we were suddenly inundated with inquiries from their hosting refugees scrambling for a viable home. We powered through working long hours over the holidays doing calls and taking on these battered clients and getting sites back online on Pagely. Going forward I knew I needed help and we needed to scale the sales team and process. I prioritized a project that would give us a scalable knowledge transfer method that could be used internally for training new salespeople as well as self-serve by prospects. I worked with our Engineers and DevOps teams to get our knowledgebase in place. Step-by-step I had our interns extract pre-sales Q&A from calls, emails and internal chats to build a database of 400+ pre-sales interactions. Today the Pagely knowledge base serves as an authoritative reference for pre-sales questions for both internal and external stakeholders, gives us a training hub to scale our sales organization and enables us to more efficiently address a larger volume of pre-sales inquires.

Decentralized Command

The principle of decentralized command is the same “leader-leader” philosophy espoused in Turn the Ship Around. Essentially you want to decision making authority to the edges and invert the traditional top-down control structure where orders flow from above and instead have intent flowing up from below. Doing this effectively requires that everyone down the entire chain of command have a clear understanding of the strategic mission goal and their “left-right boundaries” of responsibility. Subordinates come with intent and have the latitude to execute self-serve within their left/right boundaries in pursuit of accomplishing the overall mission goal.

The battlefield example was the hierarchical org structure they used in the field. A platoon of 16 SEALs was composed of one platoon chief and three squad leaders. Typically it was three “fire teams” of four operators reporting to the squad leader in each platoon. In this way, the fire teams reported to the squad leaders who coordinated with the platoon leader who then coordinated up the chain of command with the platoon chief. In this way, complexity was collapsed to dealing only with 4 max direct reports. This organizational approach is the core premise of the book Team of Teams (we like our military strategy books at Pagely 😉

takeaway Our CEO did a great post of his own here on how we practice the leader-leader Turn the Ship Around philosophy at Pagely. Basically, decision-making authority resides at the edges with the front-lines people who are actuating the mission goal. We all have a clear understanding of the left and right limits of our responsibility and have autonomy to operate within these boundaries as we see fit to accomplish the goals of our respective department and the company at large. Before I had a direct report I had three interns each of whom were performing different functions. For me, to task and train them individually would have consumed all my time and negated the value of our intern program. The approach I used instead was to give them each a metric they were responsible for improving. We did a weekly session on Friday mornings in which we watched an online talk that embodied some important principle for that week and then they were responsible for giving a book report on a chapter from a book I had assigned them relevant to the craft they were practicing. Each intern reported back to the group taught the lessons of that chapter and explaining his/her intent on how to apply those lessons toward the goal of improving that metric. Two of those interns eventually became hires at Pagely (one FT and one PT). In this way, they were indoctrinated firsthand into the leader-leader principle at the dawn of their career.

Wrap up

There’s a final section to this book with a number of chapters on “Sustaining Victory” – patterns and ongoing habits to ingrain that keep a team of teams functioning at peak performance. This post is getting a bit long-winded so I’ll wrap it up here. If there’s enough interest I’ll look at doing a Part II to this and provide the insights from that last section. Bottomline: Extreme Ownership is a great read the reinforces much of the thinking we currently employ within our company. If this philosophy resonates with you and you want to work in a place that practices these principles, we’re hiring.

To hear more from the authors check Echelon Front which is their consulting business. That site has some more deep-dive video content on these principles if you’re interested in learning more. Also, Jocko did a podcast with Tim Ferris and both authors did a Reddit AMA both of which are worth checking out.

If you’ve implemented any of the Extreme Ownership principles successfully in your organization and care to share the method and result, please do so in a comment below.

PS. Hat tip to my friend Chris Peloquin for suggesting this book. He does great video work if you have a high-end video project you’re seeking to outsource.

2 Comments

  1. Dale Reardon
    Dale Reardon

    Hi,

    I really like these business management articles – not just theory but practical examples of how you implement.

    I am building a company and these are very useful.

    Dale.

    Reply

  2. Phillip Blackerby
    Phillip Blackerby

    Great article! I see some parallels with my discipline of Lean Practices.
    “Cover and move” is dealt with by Value Stream Mapping, which follows processes from order to cash, across all departments. It opens participants’ eyes to the whole, and not just their own silo.
    “Simple” is achieved by “A3” process improvement implementation planning. Anyone can use this tool to propose and guide process improvements to eliminate waste and improve efficiency, which is almost always simpler.
    We prioritize by mapping impact vs. ease of implementation.
    I am reminded of the investor’s key criterion, “Are these people capable to execute their business plan?

    Reply