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Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, director of the U.S. Army Capabilities Integration Center, speaks during the closing session of the Kellogg on Growth Forum.

Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster uses recent military history to highlight obstacles businesses could face.

What businesses can learn from the military

Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster uses recent military history to provide lessons for companies

By Hal Conick

11/30/2015 - War, like business, can be extremely complex and messy. Few people know this better than Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who spoke during the closing remarks of the first-ever Kellogg On Growth Forum on Nov. 10.

McMaster, current director of the U.S. Army Capabilities Integration Center, addressed the crowd of faculty, students and business leaders on the ways companies can learn from the military’s missteps. His medals include the Purple Heart, Silver Star and the Army Distinguished Service Medal, among others. Time magazine named him as one of 2014’s 100 Most Influential People, in large part for his role as an innovator within the military.

Technology is not the answer

McMaster pointed to the desire for simpler wars — or “future war” as he dubbed it — as something that has haunted the military over the last 30 years. People want war to be simple, clean and easy, opinions that he qualifies as pure hubris.

In the 1990s, the military had a "vision of future war that was derived from a large measure of what was going on in the economy and in business,” McMaster said, pointing to the ability to streamline operations via technology. “This set us up for the difficulties we encounter in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

These recent experiences in war reveal lessons for businesses and innovation, McMaster said. Businesses must know that technology can be a catalyst for future growth, he said, but not the sole driver of change.

“We were too biased in favor of thinking about change and how change would affect war and not thinking enough about continuity in war,” McMaster said.

Focus on actual threats

Next, he said businesses must focus on real problems and competition rather than “some fuzzy theory” of what may be out there. The military ran into this problem in the 1990s, McMaster said, as it failed to put enough thought into real threats.

Executives must also realize that change is “evolution and not a revolution,” he said. Instead of recklessly adopting new technology, workflows and concepts, it is essential to remember that there are teams and people who have to work with the technology and within new perimeters that are set up. Care must be taken to ensure change is done properly.

Develop a ‘deeply realistic culture’

Finally, McMaster said it is important to pursue real change consistent with a “deeply realistic culture” that recognizes the true nature of the market, or in the case of the military, the true nature of war. This means learning from mistakes and challenging conventions.

“In war and in business,” McMaster said, “there are times where you are braced for a fight, but instead, you find opportunity.”

Read more about the Kellogg on Growth Forum: