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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:
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...