When the  conversation heads towards professional boxing, it frequently involves the heavyweight division. These are the people who have the potential for a sudden, surprising or even spectacular ending to any fight. Foreman. Frazier. Louis. Liston. Marciano. Ali. Tyson. These guys give new meaning to “heavy hitters.”

ESPN Boxing recounts a 1988 match between Michael Spinks and Mike Tyson, wherein Tyson dispatched Spinks with a knockout in 91 seconds! Sudden. Surprising. Spectacular. Sugar Ray Leonard, a closed-circuit commentator for the fight commented, “He was so destructive he should be locked up.” During the peak of his fighting, Tyson was one of the most destructive boxers ever seen.  Known more for his pugilistic prowess and power, the redoubtable Mr. Tyson is credited with having said:

Everybody’s got a plan until they get hit.

Every business has a plan until they get hit. Things change. The economy tanks. Competitors are more aggressive. Customer are more demanding. Markets are less forgiving. Business is like boxing, you get hit. The idea is to not have anything sudden, surprising, or spectacular.

So, what’s a business owner to do? Plan for the hit. It’s coming. If it doesn’t, be thankful. If (and when) it does, you’ll be prepared. How so? Focus your energies on three things: ensuring clarity and understanding of “strategic intent,” a “70% plan” and execution.

Let’s turn to another “high impact” organization for these lessons: the U.S. Marine Corps. A few years ago it was my great pleasure and privilege to meet Gen. Charles “Chuck” Krulak, 31st Commandant, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.) in connection with a book by David Freedman, Corps Business: The 30 Management Principles of the U.S. Marines.

When it comes to making strategy real, the Marine Corps style of giving direction is to avoid telling someone exactly how to do things when giving orders. Instead, Marine officers provide two clear statements. First, they clarify how they would like the situation to end up, what the Marines refer to as “the end state.” Second, they explain the broader goals they would like to achieve through the entire unit’s actions, information that Marines call “the commander’s intent.” For our purposes, this translates to “strategic intent.”

End state and intent are critical concepts for the Marines because they leave the details of execution up to the doer.

Marines give instructions like these because, in an environment where events are unfolding quickly and unpredictably (like today’s business environment), a particular means to an end can suddenly become unfeasible; but if the end is well understood, then other means can be enlisted.

Managers at most organizations prefer to spell out exactly how they want an employee to accomplish a task because not doing so carries the sometimes considerable risk that the employee will carry it out in an inefficient or even disastrous fashion. This is a trade-off that the Marines make consciously. “I give them the mission and get the hell out of their way,” says Major General Buck Bedard. “If I have to tell a guy how to do something from A to Z, then I don’t need him. We use trust tactics. If you tell me you’re going to do it, then I trust that you will and you’ll trust me that I’ve given you the right mission.”

Marines actually do equip people with specific information about how to perform various types of actions. In fact, Marines are given a vast wealth of knowledge about practices and procedures. But these specifics serve as a foundation on which on-the-fly decision-making is built, not a detailed prescription for dealing with the surprises of the real world. Such rigid prescriptions are sometimes useful for dealing with purely mechanical tasks (field stripping a rifle, for example). But even then, Marines are taught to be prepared to break the rules and improvise (rifles too, after all, can fail in surprising ways). When it comes to dealing with scenarios controlled by people who have wills of their own, explicit instructions can become almost useless. Or worse.

In environments where conditions can quickly flip and where the opposition can regroup and take the advantage in a heartbeat, the Marines consider indecisiveness a fatal flaw. Indecision is worse than making a mediocre decision because a mediocre decision, especially if swiftly rendered and executed, at least stands a chance. In planning missions (strategy), as well as in almost everything else, the point is constantly brought home to Marines that fast and bold is where it’s at. Driven by the notion that there is a cost to every minute spent mulling over decisions, the Marines have worked to push as much inefficiency as possible out of the mission-planning process. If the decision-making loop is more streamlined than the enemy’s, then you set the pace and course of the battle.

The Marines aim for “70 percent solutions,” which are imperfect decisions with the primary benefit that they can be made right now. By promoting 70 percent solutions, Marines do not advocate shoot from the hip decision-making. Neither do they condone fast, foolish, or failure-prone plans. But they do caution again waiting until all the angles are figured out. Instead, when time is of the essence, Marines act as soon as they have a plan with a good chance of working.

The drawback to fast decision-making is that the decision may have to be rendered while information is still sketchy or not yet filtered and analyzed. This fact leads to a sort of organizational uncertainty principle: the faster your decision-making cycle, the less assurance you can have that you’re making the best possible decision. “If you’re going to have a higher tempo than the enemy, you have to accept a higher degree of uncertainty, “ says one colonel.

It all comes to the point of execution; the point of doing. This point requires a clear understanding of the strategic intent (the desired end state), a reasonable plan, and enough flexibility to “deal with the real.” In a really tough fight it’s what allows you to be the last one standing.

In Other Words…

“Sure the fight was fixed. I fixed it with a right hand.” – George Foreman

“An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” – Jack Welch

“I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” — Terry Malloy as played by Marlon Brando in the movie, On The Waterfront.

“The future has a way of arriving unannounced.” – George Will

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses—behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” — Muhammad Ali

“Intellectual property has the shelf life of a banana.” – Bill Gates

“Once that bell rings you’re on your own. It’s just you and the other guy.” — Joe Louis

“Simply pushing harder within the old boundaries will not do.” – Karl Weick

“To see a man beaten not by a better opponent but by himself is a tragedy.” — Cus D’Amato

In The Word…

“As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground. So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.”  – 1 Samuel 17:48-50

In Linked Words…

Tom Peters: the sock solution (something you can implement now)