Learning to Take Risks on the Acquisitions Battlefield

Defense One magazine recently published a compelling article about the challenges of getting employees to take an entrepreneurial attitude in organizational roles. In the article, retired U.S. Army Colonel Peter A. Newell likens his battlefield experiences in Iraq to organizations’ difficulties. He cites the need for simulated, real-world training that captures the pressures and risks of employees’ situations daily. Some of the practices from battlefield training that Newell felt could readily be implemented in other environments focused on:

  • Rehearsal
  • After-action reporting
  • Comprehensive contingency plans


Drawing from his own experience, Newell shares how he died time and again on simulated battlefields, each time gaining a deeper understanding of the rules of engagement. His “deaths” were not defeats; they were learnings. He also learned that even the best possible risk planning doesn’t inherently ensure a clear, clean deployment, free of conflict.

These practices are already in effect; “secret shoppers” and similar practices are designed to evaluate compliance, job performance, and customer service. Enabling employees to encounter the most challenging aspects of their jobs safely affords them the ability to see what would happen if they fail and how they can preclude failure in the future. If on-the-job experience isn’t possible, training through a simulated environment is the best alternative that will enable employees to experience daunting scenarios without putting the organization at risk.

After-Action Reporting

Throughout his experience, Newell repeatedly emphasizes the importance of the information gained from after-action reports; Debriefing what transpired opens doors to the panoply of perspectives of employees with shared experiences. The different ways others perceive an experience can unlock insights without putting individuals, departments, or citizens at risk.

One key to doing this well is positivity. If after-action reporting becomes punitive, the value of participation diminishes. Terms like “review” or “lessons learned” ring far less painful than “post-mortem.” People need to know that experiencing failure in simulation makes them less likely to fail in similar real-life circumstances.

Comprehensive Contingency Plans

It was his experience in Iraq that taught Newell that succession plans never seem to go deep enough. The second-in-command of his battalion died, and shortly after that, his commander was killed. Newell relates that each individual must be prepared to assume the mantle of authority in times of crisis or challenge. From colonel to private, and from director to clerk, some degree of autonomy must be enabled. Newell points out that he needed to be ready to act when he assumed responsibility after his commander’s death. Every person in the chain of command needs to know that the entrepreneurism of leadership is not merely an opportunity; it is a responsibility.

Lessons from Newell’s battlefield experiences that can be applied today to facilitate success include:

  • Establish policies that support, rather than punish, individual initiative
  • Provide training that facilitates an entrepreneurial spirit
  • Allow employees to rehearse responding to challenges

Rehearsal reminds us that our experiences are survivable. After-action reporting affirms that others see it the same way. And knowing that others understand and share our experiences opens the door to deliver the mission success.

Written by:
Carl Pritchard
Acquisition & Contracting
Media Type:

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