Innovation and the US Marine Corps

OK, test time.

Imagine you are lieutenant in the Marines given the following situation:

In front of you lies a 36 ft. pole in three sections, 300 feet of rope, a truck, five stakes, two shovels, a knife, two clips, and a flag.  Standing at attention is your platoon sergeant and three marines.

List and describe the specific orders you provide to get the flagpole up…


Photo Credit

Got it yet?

The Solution?

Tell the platoon sergeant “Get the flagpole up by the end of the day.”

This is known as the Sandhurst Flagpole Test and has been used by the US Marine Corps as an effective teaching tool to show how leaders should operate in the organization.  Effective organizations are only as good as the people conducting the work, and effective leaders recognize that their role is to train their employees to be successful while granting them the opportunity to be successful in their own way.

What does this have to do with innovation?

The US Marine Corps is over 240 years old. It has managed to be an effective organization despite drastic changes in warfare, weapon technology, military philosophy, and geopolitics.  The organization’s goals have changed drastically over its history (from defending the young republic from pirates to anti-insurgency efforts in the Middle-East) while the structure and strategy have remained largely the same.  As a result, the Marines provide a potent model for leaders that can be used to increase autonomy, initiative, and innovative action at every level of an organization.

The structure of the Marines has evolved over time around the basic goal of creating an organization that accomplishes an objective regardless of what unknowns are encountered.  They have created a system that uses the discipline and training of its members combined with decentralized collaboration to boldly walk into chaos (the model for an innovative system) and be successful.  Much can be learned by investigating their system.

Lesson 1: Complication is the enemy of action

Below is the US Marine Corps manual on strategy (with a deck of cards for scale). This 115-page document outlines the major strategy philosophy by which all Marines should operate. Despite the myriad of situations, locations, objectives, and parameters of a mission that a Marine could face, this booklet contains fundamentally all of the relevant strategy considerations.

Marine Corps Manual

Compare that to a picture of my business textbooks from a typical semester; these are for courses aimed at providing me a general strategy of business.


Due to this clear difference in brevity, I am certain that any Marine today would be able to better articulate the strategies of their organization far more than I could describe the strategy of any of the businesses for which I have worked.

To be clear (and to quote Frank Lloyd Wright whenever possible) “less is only more when more is no good.”  Companies and organizations must have a guiding strategy, but that strategy should be so distilled and focused that anyone in the organization can understand and adhere to it.  This type of strategy allows all members in the organization to follow the principles while improvising on the specific tactics.  Rather than plan the specific actions of each individual person of the organization, leaders must teach the strategy of the organization to each member and let each member decide how best to reach the organizational goal in their area.

Lesson 2: Two up, one down

The Marines are trained to be able at any moment to perform the job of someone two levels above their current rank and one level below. The generally accepted reason for this practice is that “a Marine is only two bullets away from having to take charge of their unit.”  However, there is a side-benefit to this practice from which non-military organizations can benefit.

Training employees above their station broadens their viewpoint and allows them to develop solutions that optimize for their entire department, not just their own work.  Innovation is only as good as it is practical, and new solutions that negatively impact other workers are not solutions at all.  Furthermore, being trained at the position below one’s authority allows leaders to see the effects of their leadership first hand and how they can innovate their strategy to more effectively lead.

Lesson 3: End-state thinking

The test beginning this blog was presented to show how leaders should articulate “orders.”  In an innovative organization, the only thing that matters is the end state; which for most businesses should be “I will make more money than I spent this week/month/year etc.” Direction should only provide two things: an end-state and any constraints (typically time or budget). Directions like “provide a way to reduce costs of this process 20% by the end of the month” or “Find a way to make this widget waterproof for less than $20 per unit” will trigger far more ownership and innovation by employees than the typical manager’s “let’s brainstorm solutions. I will pick the idea I already had and then make you do it.”

Lesson 4: Distributed Leadership: Authority + Responsibility

This blog has and will continue to make the argument that innovation is driven by distributed leadership. Empowered employees will innovate more and make better decisions than centralized planners. However, this is only true (as it is with the Marines) when employees both have Authority and Responsibility.

  • If employees only have Authority and no Responsibility they have no “skin in the game” and will make excessively risky or uninformed decisions.  All employees must be forced to suffer the consequences of their decisions.
  • If employees only have Responsibility and no Authority, they will burn out from lacking control over their own destiny.  If employees are trusted with a responsibility, they must also be trusted with the authority to get the job done (generally to reward and punish people impacting their success or failure).
  • If employees have neither, they will not be motivated.
  • If employees have both, they become the life-blood to an innovative organization.

Full Disclosure: I am not a marine and have never served in the military. My awesome starting strength coach helped a lot with some of the details of this article. He owns Silverback Strength and Conditioning in Reno, NV.  If you are interested in getting stronger you should check them out!

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