Implementing an Essentialist Approach to the “Big Army”


By Matt Lensing, MTI Contributor


Sergeant Major of the Army (SMA) Michael Grinston recently told Army leaders to skip annual web-based mandatory training, and instead, “set priorities for your organization and fight for it.” While this may seem like he’s stating the obvious its actually not what most Soldiers experience in conventional “Big Army,” units. Soldiers are even busier in garrison now than when there were regularly deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, but less proficient at their combat related tasks. 

Focusing on the wrong priorities is the contributing factor as illustrated by SMA Grinston’s assertion that leaders should stop focusing on activities like online training. Even the Chief of Staff of the Army, General McConville, stated that as a Division Commander, “I never did this stuff.” Clearly the two most senior Army leaders in the chain of command recognize the problem. The problem is that commanders are making the wrong decision about how to spend their time and their Soldiers’ time. In other words they are not not embracing the concept of essentialism.

Popularized by the 2014 book “Essentialism” written by Greg McKeown, essentialism is the practice of distilling tasks down to only those that matter for completing a desired goal. Leaders must only say yes to the tasks that are most important to the organization. McKeown describes the steps to embrace essentialism:

  1. Determine what is essential. Leaders should clarify why their organization exists, and the principles that define success for the organization i.e. core values, philosophy, or vision. Then identify the priorities that align with the organization’s principles.
  2. Develop skills to eliminate non-essential. Learn to say no to tasks that will not achieve your desired goals. When selecting tasks if you do not feel a resounding yes to do something then its probably not worth doing. These should be the tasks that have the greatest impact on achieving an outcome.
  3. Create systems to reinforce what really matters. Record how you actually spend your time and see if your choices contributed, or did not contribute to furthering the organization’s core principles.

Leaders make decisions on the demands on their own time and their team members time. Every decision to say yes to something means you will not be able to do something else. Organizations struggle with employees reporting feeling constantly busy, but never accomplishing anything. This is because they are not working on essential tasks, and the Army is not immune to this phenomenon. 


My Batt XO Experience

As a battalion executive officer (XO) I was the stats guy for my commander. I made sure weekly readiness reports were green by hounding subordinates for progress on tasks, which resulted in incremental improvements but it was exhausting. Showing we had picked up all of our parts from the warehouse, or completed our personnel records reviews were my measures of success, but they didn’t actually reveal the companies’ combat readiness. I had failed to eliminate the noise from what was essential.

Technology systems allow rapid access to unit readiness reports, so it was easy for me to become hyper focused on those numbers. Metrics however are merely a surrogate for the unit’s true readiness. I ignored the priorities I knew important as a junior officer in combat, and solely focused on the easily measurable. Fortunately there were times I got it right.

In preparation for the unit’s National Training Center (NTC) rotation our commander provided very simple guidance to the commanders and staff to ensure the battalion would be ready to fight. The priorities were shoot, move, and communicate. While tasks vary by formation most combat units can determine their priorities by looking at these three areas:

  • Shoot – employing your primary weapon system as an individual and member of team. 
  • Move – getting to the fight either through personal locomotion or on a vehicle; which requires physical fitness and equipment readiness.
  • Communicate – using systems to maintain situational awareness across a dispersed battlefield. 

This is a generally accepted framework because it gives Soldiers the foundation to accomplish a variety of more complex tasks when additional time and resources are available.

In the six months leading up to the rotation there was naturally an elimination of all tasks that weren’t going to make Soldiers more proficient to defeat the enemy, get all of our vehicles to get to the fight, or ensure the radios and digital systems worked. I was also more fulfilled professionally because I knew my efforts were directly related to the units success. Without knowing it at the time I had become an essentialist.


How to Say “No” Without Saying “No”

Embracing essentialism during peace time is more critical than wartime. Poor leaders will focus solely on the easily tracked metrics instead of what is essential. Expert leaders will show that they are ready for war by actually going somewhere with all of their Soldiers, weapons and equipment. Subjective readiness reports and data from tracking systems give commanders a false sense of progress. Essentialism will produce actual results when commanders at all echelons set the right priorities and protect time for their subordinates to train.

Determining what is essential is not difficult when commanders can cut through the noise. Army Field Manual 7-0 provides the guidance to commanders to eliminate the non-essential by building training calendars based on a unit’s Mission Essential Task List (METL). They are also instructed to select high-payoff tasks that support more than one of the organization’s mission essential tasks thus maximizing training time. However, when there is a conflict with what a subordinate commander feels is the priority, and what the higher headquarters wants accomplished mid-level leaders need to coach our junior leaders to say no without saying no.

Subordinate commanders at the company level do not have the luxury of telling their higher headquarters that they won’t complete an assigned task because for risk of not being a team player. Junior commanders have to fight to protect training by communicating with their higher headquarters in terms of risk. They need to show how the range or training event they have scheduled will support the higher echelon’s mission essential task. If higher still won’t come off the requirement avoid cancelling the training event, but instead protect the largest element possible to still train. Commanders should have those Soldiers fill support requirements during the next training event in order to allow the rest of your team to train.

Unfortunately I did not do this as a company commander instead I viewed mandatory training as the cost to get Soldiers to the range. I prioritized training after I improved my readiness statistics enough to avoid any negative attention from higher. This meant that at times I did the minimum training to meet the requirements without leaving additional time to increase proficiency after qualification was achieved. If I had taken an essentialist approach my annual requirements completion percentage may have decreased, but my Soldiers would have been more confident in their training instead of just good enough to not get someone hurt.

While junior commanders should not flat refuse higher’s demands, the battalion commander is obligated to protect training for subordinates. Their rank and experience gives them credibility as the senior trainer in their formation to determine what is essential. They should message their priorities both down and up the chain of command to make it clear where they will invest their time, so it’s not a surprise lower priority tasks are eliminated. Inviting higher echelon leaders to observe training is also a technique to get support for their priorities by reminding brigade or division commanders the value of training first hand. Battalion commanders have to be ones to fight for training even if it requires them to stand up to higher, which if it’s truly essential shouldn’t be a fight. In combat they won’t wish they completed more online training instead they will hope the time at the range and in the field was enough for success in battle.

Lastly, units need to create systems that reinforce what really matters. The battalion, brigade, and division commanders need to see the published training calendars, and the schedule of what training actually occurred. Units should conduct quarterly reviews of what the stated priorities were, and how much time actually was spent contributing to those priorities. By repeating this process regularly units will eliminate extraneous tasks from the lists of requirements to focus on doing the right things better. 


Moving Forward

Essentialism is necessary for the Army to maintain supremacy against competitors, and to show junior leaders how to correctly prioritize. In another step towards eliminating the non-essential at the 2022 annual Army conference in Washington, D.C. SMA Grinston proposed to cut the requirement to measure a Soldier’s body composition through height and weight tables if they score a 540 or higher on the Army Combat Fitness Test. Eliminating the additional height and weight screening requirement should give time back to our junior commanders, so it is up to our mid-level leaders to resist the urge to fill the space with more non-essential tasks.

Matt Lensing is an active duty infantry officer who has served in the U.S. Army since 2007.



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