The Veteran Entrepreneur, Part 2: The Perfect Mission
Part 2: The Perfect Mission
by Wes O’Donnell
Plans are nothing; planning is everything.
-Dwight D. Eisenhower
Follow Army and Air Force Veteran and Motivational Speaker Wes O’Donnell in this ongoing series as he opens a business and ecommerce store step by step!
Congratulations. You’re in charge now. Remember all of those times that you watched in quiet amusement as your leadership screwed up an execution. If only they would have listened to you, that disaster could have been avoided… Well, people are listening now.
Make no mistake that, as a small business owner, you are in command. You are responsible for providing the initiative, the acceptance of risk and the rapid seizure of opportunities on the battlefield, ahem… the business landscape. There is no “running it up the flagpole” or waiting on orders from above. You may have business mentors that may advise, but the final decision-making authority rests with you. You have to make yourself comfortable with making life and death decisions. That is, life and death for your company and possibly the livelihood of you and your family. If that thought makes you mildly uncomfortable, that’s normal. If it makes you really uncomfortable, then it’s time for a gut check. The good news is that while in the military, you were exposed to a system of mission planning and mission execution that can be translated perfectly into the business world. I call it “The Perfect Mission”.
In my time in the Infantry and as an Air Force maintainer, there was no “perfect mission”; that is, a mission that was executed without flaw. In the Air Force, I never attended a debrief with an AWACS flight crew and had every crew member report that there were no issues during flight. It’s the same in sports… No baseball player has a batting average of 1000, no basketball game is won without giving up at least some points to the opposing team and, to my knowledge, no one has ever played a perfect round of golf. The most well executed missions were the ones in which all of the contingencies were planned for in advance and handled with professionalism when they arose.
That’s not to say that the idea of a perfect mission is not achievable. My people trained and executed relentlessly in both the Army and the Air Force to get as close to a perfect mission as possible and I know for a fact that the other branches do the same. So why does America win the air, land and sea battle so consistently and so decisively? As a modern military force, using the infantry as an example, we didn’t go out and perform our duty with just a vague outline of the tasks to be performed and improvise everything throughout the mission. What actually happens is a time tested and proven formula of Plan, Execute and Debrief or After Action Report (AAR) and feeding those lessons learned right back into the Planning phase of the next mission. What results is a military force that is under constant improvement; continuously being sharpened to a razor’s edge.
If you’re familiar with Operation Neptune Spear, the operation to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden, then you know that the operators that went into his compound lost a helicopter in the process due to a hazardous airflow condition known as a vortex ring state. The entire raid was planned to take 40 minutes from start to finish. In execution, it actually took 38 from entry to exit, even with the helicopter emergency and its subsequent destruction with explosives to safeguard the classified equipment that would have to be left behind. The SEALs planned for every possible contingency in advance and altered the mission as planned contingencies arose.
This system that has worked so well for our military can and should be applied to your business. When applied to certain “operations” in your company, you will perform at your peak, spend crucial start-up funds wisely, outperform your online competition and increase your chance of succeeding.
The first 12 months of a start-up are called the “valley of death” because this is when anywhere from 25%-50% of them go out of business, (exact numbers are hard to come by because many venture capital firms don’t release statistics). Even the IRS doesn’t expect start-up businesses to make a profit in the first year. Your goal should be to getting to the point of what I call “critical mass”; a point that your company is self-sustaining and can pay for its cost of existence (overhead) with funds that it generates from sales, without you feeding any additional money into it, as fast as possible. Of course it varies depending on your particular business, but on average, this typically takes 12-18 months. With Modern Workspace, I achieved critical mass in 5 months. This was due in large part to my adoption of the Plan, Execute, AAR cycle and applying it to my business. You will need every advantage that you can get and that is why you should apply the perfect mission cycle to your business as well.
It’s worth noting that while writing this manuscript, a friend told me about a company called Afterburner, Inc. led by a CEO named James D. Murphy who drove F-15 Fighters for a living for the USAF. Their specialty is coaching corporations in adopting the system of America’s fighter pilots to “win the battles of the business world”. I investigated their philosophy and I highly recommend picking up a book called “Flawless Execution” by James D. Murphy. The folks at Afterburner, Inc. are teaching a very similar idea to my infantry-based “Perfect Mission” and their ideas are very much in line with the knowledge that I’m trying to impart; the difference being that they’re aimed at enhancing large corporations with many employees and I’m focusing on the start-up, but still… Check them out, they’re doing some great things.
So let’s break down the perfect mission model and see how it can be applied to a start-up ecommerce business using one of my companies, an online store called Modern Workspace, as an example.
Strategic Planning or Mission Planning?
It’s important to realize that the perfect mission cycle of Plan, Execute, and AAR is more appropriate for specific tasks like “increase traffic to my online store by 30% over the next 7 days” instead of being used for your overall “strategic” business objectives. This process can get very granular and detailed and implementing it for a grand strategy statement like “run a profitable ecommerce store” is like the president telling the military to go out and “win the war”. Well, no-duh Mr. President, sir. What’s truly required for this cycle to work is a clearly defined task or objective whose success can be measured with metrics and information that’s learned put back into the planning of the next cycle.
Planning is one of the most important aspects of both the perfect mission cycle and of running a successful business, ecommerce or traditional. In fact, strategic planning is so important, that I’ve dedicated an entire chapter to the actual “strategic business plan”; why you need one and how to assemble it. For now, let’s look at an actual “perfect mission” cycle for a situation at Modern Workspace that took place early in 2013.
Your mission, in this context, is the problem that you’re about to solve. It should be crystal clear, measurable and achievable. For our example we’ll use “Increase traffic to my online store by 30% for customers looking for medical carts, over the next 7 days”.
We’ll cover Search Engine Optimization (SEO) later but for now, understand that it takes months for Google to index your site and begin to show up for certain search keywords on Google on the coveted “Page 1” in what’s called an “organic” search. After all, nobody goes to page 18 of the Google search results to find what they are looking for. Knowing that I had best SEO practices in place and that it was going to take time to rank high, I understood that I needed to get my site in front of as many people as possible immediately using Google Adwords, Google’s advertising engine. It was obvious that I was going to have to pay for my traffic at first, but how was I to know if it was going to be successful? Let’s implement!
Define the Task
It should be crystal clear, measurable, and achievable.
-Increase traffic to my online store by 30% for customers looking for medical carts, over the next 7 days
Examine the competition.
-Performed a Google search for “medical carts” and made a note of the top three companies’ “paid” advertisements. Results are GCX Medical Carts, Custom-Cart.com and MPD Medical.
ID Supporting Assets
Who’s got my back? What are my company assets?
-I have the Google Analytics tool for deep insights into my web traffic. I have dedicated a set dollar amount set aside for advertising weekly at $10/ day for 7 days. Modern Workspace is a certified dealer of Waterloo Inc. and AVTEQ Inc. medical carts, meaning: Waterloo and AVTEQ will support my mission with marketing and promotional material.
Compare your capabilities
Compare my company with my competitors.
-It can be assumed that all three of the top competitors noted earlier have vastly more resources that Modern Workspace. Google anticipates this and attempts to level the playing field for small companies like me, much to my benefit. How? Paid google advertisements are bid on for the top spot. The higher you bid for a certain keyword like “medical carts” the closer to the top of the search page your ad will show up. Obviously, my competitors have deep pockets and can outbid me. But you can set Google to automatically bid on your behalf so that you always rank higher than your competitor, up to a certain budget per day that you set. So, say I set a daily budget of $10.00: I will show up higher in search until my budget is reached for the day… then my ad disappears until tomorrow.
Define when the mission is taking place
-This starts today
Plan for contingencies
What the heck could go wrong and what are my responses? Ask the “what ifs”.
-What if I run out of money for this task? Set money aside specifically for this that can’t be touched by any other part of the company.
-What if I lose my internet connection? Set time limit within Google Adwords to automatically “turn off” this campaign after 7 days.
-What if the US Government hits the debt ceiling causing the economy to systematically collapse across the globe? Stock up on MREs, fresh water and ammunition.
A Note on Task Overload
Before we drive on to the “Execution” phase, we need to take a short detour. Task overload is a very real problem when you use the perfect mission cycle to tackle larger and more complex objectives; much larger than our example of increasing website traffic for Modern Workspace. For instance, if you were attempting to coordinate a new product launch, complete with manufacturing schedules, quality testing, advertising and sales, it’s possible to get bogged down in a virtual quicksand of tasks.
What follows is a to-do list from my company First Sergeant from Fort Campbell circa 2001. Although this particular list is highly specific, it could easily apply to any non-commissioned officer from any military branch and it definitely applies to entrepreneurs everywhere. Take a look and I’ll see you on the other side.
Note: Names have been changed to protect identities.
Shirt’s To Do List:
1. Note to turn in cash collection sheet to Battalion Chow Hall
2. Need computer printout of unit gear from Computerized Movement and Planning System (COMPASS)
3. AR on Assignment of Personnel with EFMP Dependents
4. Receipt for $41.40 for attendance of LT & Mrs. Lewis at a battalion function
5. Officer Course certificate to be given to LT Thompson
6. Have to find my FM on organizational maintenance operations
7. Draft EER for MSgt. Howard
8. Forms, statements, and reports pertaining to theft of two $100 bills for MPs
9. Note from Battalion, informing XO he would be appointed investigating officer for theft listed above
10. Note to XO to round up references (FMs, SOPs, OPLANs) for upcoming Field Training Exercise
11. Letter from Battalion: Buck up performance of officers appointed as Report of Survey Officer, 3-page checklist attached
12. Penciled list of FTX Preparation Actions:
- 07 Feb: Brigade Chemical Officer to check company CBR teams
- 07 Feb: Briefings for dependents on FTX
- 07 Feb: Brigade practice convoy for FTX
- 11-13 Feb: Brigade FTX
- 11-17 Feb: Battalion FM radio update
- 15 Feb: FTX convoy briefings
- 19 Feb: FTX Advance Party depart
- 21 Feb: Submit FTX rail movement data
- 25 Feb: Battalion wheeled convoy departs for FTX
- 28 Feb: Submit FTX air movement data
- 04 Mar: Brigade Communications Exercise
- 07-13 Mar: FTX
- 20-21 Mar: Rail deployment, FTX return
- 22-25 Mar: Air deployment, FTX return
- 24-28 Mar: Wheel deployment, FTX return
13. Note to put concertina around Motor Pool parking lot (Sister Battalion has AGI)
14. DF from Battalion: Staff Duty Officer Roster
15. DF from Battalion: LT Johnson go for Officer Record Brief
16. Battalion SOP on reports
17. EER for Mess SSgt
18. Hand receipt for Mess equipment used to feed mortar section in the field
19. Claim form against soldier who kicked window out of private car
20. Ammo request for mortar training
21. DF from Battalion: Training notes on “lessons learned”
22. LTR from member of unit who had PCS’d 3 months earlier
23. Range request for mortar training
24. Hand receipt for 1 folding cot
25. Bar to reenlistment form for PVT in unit
26. DF from Battalion: Complete OER support forms
27. Article 15 Record of Proceedings on PFC who failed to go to field training
28. Weekly training schedule
29. Note to counsel Johnson, Snuffy, and Johns on reenlistment
30. Equipment Dispatch Annex to Battalion Maintenance SOP
31. Set of handbooks for “PEGASUS” CPX
32. DF on suspension of Article 15 punishment for SPC Sarrault
33. DF from Battalion: Submit handwritten training schedule
34. EER for SSG Ye
35. Make diagrams for combat loading of vehicles
36. Separate ration authorization for PFC Livermore
37. Medical examination report on big toe of PFC Franks , with note from Battalion to complete Line of Duty Investigation of NLT 15 March
38. 1st Platoon loading plans
39. Ltr from Battalion: Composition of FTX Advance Party
40. List of junior NCOs to attend Battalion Leader Development program
41. Ltr from Division: TOW and DRAGON training
42. DA Circular on SQT for FY 2001
43. Ft. Benning text: Platoon Leader Training Management Planning Book
44. Training Circular on mech infantry team
45. Battalion ARTEP
46. Ft. Benning text: Infantry Co. Cmdr.’s Handbook
47. List of men absent from PT
48. Schedule of reenlistment interviews
49. DF from Battalion: Soldier of the Month
50. DF from Battalion: Motor Pool Police Responsibilities
51. DF from Battalion: Staff Duty NCO Roster
52. DF from Battalion: Regional Marksmanship Championships
53. List of personnel requiring yellow fever shots
54. DF from medic: Names of men due overweight weigh-in checks
55. DF on individuals to attend remedial PT on Saturday
56. DF for LT Hawk to take annual medical exam
57. DF from Battalion: School quotas
58. Sick slip for PVT Alverez: with sprained ankle
59. Sick slip for PVT Clark: with lung trouble
60. Academic report on E-5 who completed BNCOC
61. DR from Battalion: Appointment of E-5/E-6 Promotion Board
62. PT Scorecard of Specialist Marks
63. DF listing authorized SD assignments
64. DF listing marksmanship scores of all individuals in the unit
65. Request for school allocations
66. Computer printout of unit SQT Report
67. Request for quota to bus-driving school
68. Notes from 1st meeting of “Things to Do” before FTX
- (1) Load sensitive items at Bldg. 811
- (2) Put out emergency leave procedures to all troops
- (3) Submit Rear Detachment list to Battalion NLT Tuesday, 1200
- (4) Leave extra keys for Rear Detachment
- (5) Send 1 NCO and 2 men to railhead for loading
- (6) Send troops to cold weather classes on 15 Feb
- (7) Submit POV list to Battalion Tuesday
- (8) Advance party: take 1 CONEX (with rifle racks) per Co
- (9) Send 2 men to Battalion S2 for LRRP
- (10) Submit report on Reports of Survey, prior to FTX
- (11) Mark all individual duffle bags prior to FTX (Red)
- (12) XO check drive-trains of all vehicles
- (13) Claims officer to brief troops Monday
- (14) Bring enough trash bags for whole exercise
- (15) Issue luminous tape for all troops
Whew… This is a snapshot from one day in the life of my First Sergeant. Unfortunately, some of my current lists as a small business owner look similar to this. So how do you avoid task overload when entering the “Execute” phase of your perfect mission cycle? Remember these three letters: S.P.S. Standard Operating Procedure, Prioritize and Six Check
Avoid task overload by successfully employing S.P.S.
Standard Operating Procedure- Come up with a common procedure for everything essential that you need to get done that’s a repeat or expected task. This will reinforce your ability to move through tasks with focus and help prevent overload when things get really busy. Once you start hiring employees, Standard Operating Procedure makes the transition from SOP to office policy.
Prioritize– Keep a list of your most common metrics and continue to check and recheck. For instance, in the infantry while performing a combat related task, hundreds of constantly changing variables are bombarding your senses. However, no matter how dynamically the situation changes, there are constant checks that are performed: Liquids, Ammunition, Casualties and Equipment; also known as a LACE report. For Modern Workspace, I’m constantly checking SEO, website traffic, customer satisfaction and weekly sales numbers. No matter what comes across my desk, I’m checking and crosschecking these particular metrics constantly. I don’t want to take a bullet while I am focusing on one seemingly important task.
Six Check- During the perfect mission have coworkers, friends or family constantly check your six for something you missed. When tasks get heavy, you’ll be grateful for the help. A friend can review your website for navigation and usability, a spouse can look over important documents like a distributor contract or a lease agreement for errors or omissions, et cetera.
The AAR is the final and perhaps single most important section of the perfect mission. Much to my amazement, no corporations that I worked for after I left the military do this, despite my attempts to persuade them to adopt it. It seemed odd to me that these large, prestigious companies would want to continue to repeat the same mistakes that was costing them precious capital and in some cases, costing them respect from the customers. Think of the additional revenue they could have been making!
Going back to our example of our clearly defined task of “Increase traffic to my online store by 30% for customers looking for medical carts, over the next 7 days”, let’s take a look and see how we did:
Execution- Compare your results with objectives.
-As we know, our objective was clear, measurable, and achievable. Using Google Analytics, I measured the results of the paid advertising at a budget of $10.00 per day. Website traffic increased 22% over the 7 day advertising push; 8% below my objective.
The goal was a 30% increase shooting for 544 unique visitors for the week. As you can see from the screenshot from Google Analytics, the actual result was 504, a 22% increase.
Analyze- Analyze execution errors. Identify the causes and deeper root causes of the errors
-I noticed that there was a severe drop of traffic on Saturday and Sunday. I realized that this was likely because Modern Workspace sells primarily Business to Business or (B2B) and not Business to Consumer (B2C). If I were selling consumer products, I may have received consistent traffic through the weekend. Obviously, the purchasing departments of the companies that I sell to are not working on the weekends and therefore less likely to see my ad. I didn’t anticipate this drop in my initial objective.
Lessons learned- By using the perfect mission model, I have learned to calculate the weekend days into my planning and cash expenses. I could have saved crucial start-up cash had I known what I know now from analyzing this execution. I assure you that my future ad campaigns won’t make the same mistake.
Push Forward- Transfer lessons learned into forward business planning. Use them to develop a knowledge base and accelerate learning internally. Add your lessons learned to your SOP we discussed from the execution phase previously. In the Air Force, we kept an informal log book for every jet that we worked on. New maintenance teams could come onto the jet and easily look at the history of service on that aircraft. Knowledge is power. If you’re not around to do the job, someone else needs to see your project history, so they can execute without making the same mistake.
And there you have it… I’m personally in love with the idea of the perfect mission as it applies to business and I’ve used it repeatedly with great results. I would be very interested in hearing your successes with it in your future business operations and feel free to email me any of your examples of your perfect mission in action; I’ll include them in future posts in this ongoing series! Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or connect on LinkedIn
I leave you with this motivational interview: