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On V on Management: Improve the Fighting Position

(On Violence is now taking on management. To read more management posts, click here.)

Imagine two fighting positions--trenches, foxholes, et cetera--in the defense. In the first position, the soldiers sit around waiting for the enemy while their position looks like a teenage bedroom. The soldiers only put up one roll of loosely staked-in concertina wire, dug two foot trenches and barely worked on their fox hole. Trash litters the area.

The other fighting position has triple stacked concertina wire with stakes every three meters (My sapper friend will probably chime in with the exact specifications in the comments.), fox holes dug to chest height, and organized, clean trenches. The second position also has natural camouflage the soldiers put up and they are currently digging alternate fighting positions.

How would you judge the soldiers in each of those positions? How would you judge their NCOs? How would you judge their officers?

The first fails at life; the second might get impact AAMs (an award in the Army). Ranger Instructors evaluating patrol bases would fail the first pair and pass the second. So would commanders visiting COPs, FOBs and VPBs in Afghanistan. We evaluate fighting positions on their cleanliness, defensive strengths, and whether soldiers are actively improving them.

Now pause and imagine the desk in your office (or workspace). Does it resemble the good fighting position or the bad one?

In ROTC, one of the NCOs, a grizzled Master Sergeant, who had jumped into Panama, explained to me four words that differentiate good defense from bad defense:

“Improve the fighting position.”

It applies to squads, platoons, companies, battalions and brigades in the defense. First, get local security. Second, dig a small trench. Third, dig a deeper foxhole. Fourth, emplace obstacles and build alternate fighting positions. Fifth, dig a trench connecting the fighting positions. Constantly improve your fighting position. In a defensive battle, preparation replaces movement, so you can surprise the enemy.

Too few officers apply this sound infantry principle to their offices and work places.

When Eric C first showed up in Italy, I told him that we would execute a plan called, “Improving the fighting position”. No, the Germans weren’t invading; we were improving our apartment. It could always look better, or be better organized. It meant never saying, “Good enough”. My wife and I have a folder for our apartment labeled, “Improve the fighting position”. Make every work space or living area a fighting position (figuratively) and improve it.

While this could be taken metaphorically (constantly improve yourself, constantly improve your team), I mean literally improve the fighting position you occupy on a daily basis. A lot of this is based on “Getting Things Done” principles: the less clutter surrounding you, the less clutter clouding your mind. (In Eric C hippy-feel-good-terms: mental clutter actively saps will power.)

As a benefit, you will look more professional. Imagine a high power CEO. Gordon Gecko. Bruce Wayne’s desk in Wayne Enterprises. The CEO pretending to be Jeff Bewkes on Entourage. Their desks are pristine. They projected control and power over their work, and their companies. Do the same for your office. The vast majority of officers and staffs run offices, not fighting positions but they don’t take the care they would out in the field that they should in their S3, S2 or S1 offices.

Improve your fighting position today with these steps (which apply to all business people and manager and knowledge workers, not just military folks):

1. As I mentioned before, read Getting Things Done first chapter. Download the Manager Tools podcast called, “Decorating Your Desk”. And check out this blog post by MT.

2. If you are moving into a new office, take the weekend before to clean it out. During this weekend, don’t do anything related to work. Simply go through everything in the office to determine what you need and don’t. I don’t recommend having the previous officeholder help you; in many cases he is clinging to junk you don’t need. (More on that in a bit.)

3. If you are already moved in--or you already have an office--schedule a weekend on the calendar and go back to step 2.

4. Make a pile of every paper in the office out of every drawer, and off your desk. Preferably, make this pile outside your office. Actually, make it everything in your office short of furniture.

5. Go through everything and ask yourself, do I need this in my office? Compared to corporate America, the Army has more than enough space. If you don’t need/want it, it can probably go somewhere else. Ask yourself, how do I want to arrange my furniture? What do I want to hang on the walls?

6. Throw away the junk. The goals are getting rid of waste and detritus probably accumulated over years of hoarding. Here are examples I have found in my first S1 office, my second S1 office and as a  intelligence officer job:

- Awards dated before 9/11.
- Training videos on...VHS.
- Over a dozen inoperable printers.
- Four versions of the same manual, with the newest one on top.
- So many classified hard drives that they filled up an entire drawer.

That includes finding junk in lands as far away as Afghanistan and Iraq.

7. The most important step: schedule time to clean and maintain your office every week, and every month. Keeping a clean and organized workplace is exactly like maintaining a defensive fighting position. Do it right, then keep it that way. It doesn’t take a lot, some time on Friday to clean it up and have it good for the next week.

8. Brainstorm ways to improve your office on regular basis. Outside of tossing out the junk littering your office, this is the most important piece of advice. Constantly improve. Ask yourself, “Could this move here? Should I put this there? Should your desk be on a wall so that when you counsel soldiers you aren’t distracted by emails? (Yes.) Can you simplify a file system? Can you find a new bookshelf for the books sitting on a chair?”

The most successful people constantly self-critique and self-improve. Do this for your office too. Then judge your own office and staff section’s office. Is it a good fighting position? If not, start at step 1...

nine comments

You should have a look at 5S principles. We use them extensively in the workplace, and all our desks are immaculate at all times – to the point where we have ONE pen, ONE pencil, no clutter AT ALL. Desks are clear at all times except for what you’re working on at that moment.

It’s a chore, but it is very effective.


3.8 meters. Five paces will get you close.

In 5.5 years I haven’t had the pleasure of my own office (barely even a desk), but the steps certainly apply to my three-ring binder.

Wow, the issue of XOs. A surprising number of company XOs are surprisingly unorganized, considering they run the property book.

And I am not surprised you knew the proper spacing of concertina wire. Perfectly set up concertina wire is a beauty to behold, and near impossible to get through without extensive work.

The 5S system seems very similar to GTD. Different words, but same principles. Discipline seems like the case in either system. And I have a post coming up on Japanese efficiency systems.

The XO issue is one worth discussing. I worked with many that had very organized desks/offices – but they did a poor job because they’re subordinates weren’t able to keep tidy areas.

I might not be the most tidy or organized officer, but I ensured my supply/motorpool/ops guys always had their records straight.

I don’t think it’s important that an office or desk is always free from clutter.

I’d also rather have a subordinate with a messy office (but functioning systems) than one with OCD.

First, and this is a personal pet peeve of mine, OCD is a very rare diagnosis in America. Most people who are “anal” about being clean are not, in fact, OCD.

My main question though, how do you know a person has a good system if their office is a mess? I think there is a high degree of correlation between a person with no organization system and missed deadlines. So a desk doesn’t need to be perpetually clear of clutter, but long term clutter adds nothing to productivity. And if I see someone shuffling through a stack of papers trying to “find something” then they don’t have a system.

When it comes to supply, HR or finances, those lead to financial costs. When it comes to intelligence, it usually means sloppy products, which means bad thinking.

OCD is too strong a term, neurotic might not be.

How could I tell if my supply NCO is organized? Easy. I take the SAV checklist into the supply room and do an inspection. If they have everything available, I have no issues.

I know what you are getting at, and I agree that organization is a good thing.


Far too often a clean desk or office is a gimmick. You’ve quoted ‘Moneyball’ before and much like they weren’t selling jeans- we certainly aren’t selling desks. There is a fine line between an organized/functional office and a spotless office. The 5S link above is, in my opinion, the same as having highly polished boots and keeping your hands out of your pockets. That sort of organization might help the guys at Innitech put cover-sheets on their TPS reports- but it does nothing for an already high functioning manager/leader.

I disagree. I think the Moneyball analogy is slightly off. See, in baseball, it turns out “looking good” was not correlated to success on the field. I believe the same applies to shined boots. I think they are a bad metric to measure success because they don’t correlate well with success in combat (unlike say language skills or intelligence).

However, I believe highly functional, well organized offices with clean desks and coherent filing systems help staff sections (which deal in information) succeed. Having outdated manuals, unfiled paperwork and other detritus limits efficiency and effectiveness. Most ineffective staff sections (think terrible S1 shops) could turn around their performance by simply cleaning their areas. It isn’t causative, but correlative.

I think disorganization is what is bad. I think a completely empty desk is pointless. Who cares if a desk has a nick nack or two? Or a cup with pens in it? The problem is when the papers are every where.

So I guess I fall in the middle. Or I like decoration. I don’t know.