Wednesday 15 June 2011

Take risks early - lessons from Commando Training

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

Commando training offers lessons that reach far beyond soldiering skills. One of the widely applicable lessons of Commando tactics is the evaluation of risk and return - and the timing of risk-taking.

After a few weeks of learning the basics of field survival, navigation, communications and weapon skills, Royal Marines learn to disappear.

The "tactical" phase of Commando training enables Royal Marines to see without being seen, and to move undetected from place to place. These are vital military skills, and tactical movement gives big advantages on the battlefield and in low intensity conflicts where discretion is required.

One of the most important applications of tactical movement is reconnaissance. It's often said that "time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted" - but this isn't true!

I was introduced to tactical movement on a patrolling exercise called "Long Night". It was well named: we spent every night for a week conducting reconnaissance patrols around Norfolk, and every day planning the next night's outings. We would typically creep around 5 miles per night, silently but at a snail's pace.

Towards the end of the week, we were all very short of sleep, and we asked our instructor, who was an SBS Sergeant, what he thought. His answer has stayed with me ever since:

"If you're going to take risks, take them early"

That night, my 4 man team ran several miles towards our reconnaissance target (by an indirect route to avoid potential ambushes), ghost-walked a few hundred meters, leopard crawled for several minutes, and finally kitten-crawled the last few silent meters into position overlooking our target, where we took detailed notes. Then we reversed the process (though not the route) and were back at our base in time for a good long sleep.

The lesson we learned that night was really about matching risk with expected return over time. In any endeavour, the least bad time to fail is early, when you have invested minimum resources and time, and as you progress towards your goal you should moderate your risk-taking to reflect the value of what you stand to lose.

This trade-off informs both the "fail early, fail fast" approach used by R&D departments to winnow their research and focus on the most promising projects, and also the investment strategies of pension funds, which steadily reduce the risk of their client's portfolios as the pension nears maturity, for example by switching from equities to bonds.

For all of us, it's worth remembering that it's the timing of your risk taking that can be critical - a risk taken early usually puts less value at risk. Get it right and you'll probably sleep better at night too!

This is one of a series of articles on lessons from Commando training.  Here is the full list.

1 comment:

  1. It's a bit like what we were taught learning to fly (or more correctly land!): 'Runway behind you is wasted'!
    Sort your options early
    Wg Cdr JP OBE (RIP)