When I was on basic officer training in the Army our instructors would take us on ‘forced marches.’ Sometimes these were in the middle of the night while we were on exercise. Most times, however, this was the favoured way to get to the ranges for a day of marksmanship training. At the end of the day, when we were tired and anxious to get back to clean our rifles and take a nice hot shower, we would have to force march back to the barracks.

I remember finding it ironic that we would march very fast in formation, with all our battle gear on, and then stop for ten minutes every hour in order to rest. What’s the point, I thought, why not just slow down the pace and not take a rest? The idea of a forced march is that you cover a certain distance in a specific amount of time, and do it as a cohesive body of troops. As our instructors said, there’s no point in getting to the objective if we’re alone when we get there.

As I gained in experience as an infantry officer, I realized that there is wisdom in adhering to a demanding schedule—of marching, resting, or whatever else needs to be done. Despite fatigue and other factors, a military unit must be able to cover ground quickly and efficiently, and this makes for predictable results. However, I also learned that it is the easiest and most reliable way to motivate troops to cover the distance quickly. They know they will have to march fast, but they also get a rest every hour. They also know that by getting to their destination as fast as possible that they will be able to get to other important things.

In their book Great by Choice, Jim Collins and Morten Hansen discuss how companies that are consistent about regular and disciplined progress also show the best results over long periods. They call this the ’20-Mile March,’ and they argue it is most effective in chaotic and unpredictable circumstances. Even though the going is tough, a company commits to making small but measurable progress every day, month, and year. The company’s leaders also commit to not overdoing it when the going gets better. That way, they avoid overextending themselves when they are enthusiastic and optimistic, but they also continue to chug along when circumstances get harder and they are prone to a more pessimistic outlook. Collins and Hansen’s ’20-Mile March’ reflects the same philosophy that underlies military forced marching. You commit to predictable and demanding progress, with regular rest periods, and you do it consistently, whether conditions are good or bad.

A product-focused company must be consistent and disciplined about new product development, no matter what the circumstances. A sales team must be consistent about achieving specific objectives for sales activities with proven results, for instance, contacting X number of leads per day, week, or month, following up regularly and quickly on leads, asking for referrals, etc. A manufacturing company must be consistent and disciplined about making small and lasting improvements to its processes, logistics, distribution, sourcing, etc. A warehousing operation must be focused relentlessly on safety and security to minimize workplace accidents and losses due to fire and theft. All companies must be consistent and disciplined about recruiting and developing people for leadership, role redundancy, and succession planning.

You get the idea. Whatever the business objective, you have to commit to a demanding schedule of critical functions or tasks you require that will get you there efficiently and consistently. You then need discipline to maintain that pace through thick and thin. When the going is good, you don’t overextend or overexert yourself, and when the going is rough, you don’t quit or let up. You force yourself to march 20 miles a day, with regular rest periods, whether the weather is great, there is no enemy in sight, and progress is easy, or during storms, darkness, and against enemy resistance. What is your forced march discipline?

© 2013 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with full and proper attribution.

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