How does the army deal with uncertainty and are its methods transferable to business?

How does the army deal with uncertainty and are its methods transferable to business?

The March 6, 2018 conference at Les Invalides was an opportunity for corporate managers to discover the approach that military managers have to uncertainty and their way of preparing for it. The essence of the armed forces is that they are confronted on a daily basis with hazards, contingencies and uncertainty. They have developed a methodology and management to deal with them, however, are these techniques transposable in the management of companies?

Without answering these questions exhaustively, we offer you here a short summary of these exchanges between military executives and company managers.

The important need to differentiate between risk and uncertainty

Laurent Bibard, Professor at ESSEC, stressed the importance of actively differentiating these two notions. While risk can be assessed, simulated and anticipated, uncertainty is inherently unimaginable. Thus, although companies are aware of the importance of taking uncertainty into account in their business management, they are developing defence mechanisms that make them even more vulnerable to hazards.

Hyper-control makes the company increasingly fragile in the face of uncertainty.

Companies too often respond to uncertainty with ever more control, process and reporting. They then become insensitive to weak signals. If a company protects itself from uncertainty through ever greater control, it contradicts its environment and increasingly loses its ability to perceive signals in order to react quickly to hazards.

Hyper-control creates solitude and annihilates any reactivity

Employees focus on what they have to do and on compliance with protocols. Thus, the company individually and collectively prevents itself from feeling the beginnings of uncertainty and paralyses itself, while uncertainty must be countered with great flexibility and responsiveness.

Facing uncertainty is above all a question of posture and mental acceptance of the unexpected.

For General Philippe BERNE, facing uncertainty is a preparation of minds. Individually, each one must be endowed with physical, psychic and moral springs to face the unpredictable.

In the business world, managerial vocabulary is enriched by the terms “agility, volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity” as many magic formulas to face uncertainty.

However, Laurent Bibard insists on the fact that the acceptance of uncertainty must not remain only a question of vocabulary, but must be in facts. Unfortunately, the overbidding of procedures to protect against hazards contradicts this. Indeed, how can employees be convinced that management accepts uncertainty as an inherent part of a company’s life when it locks them into ever more processes and kills any initiative in the bud?

Training all employees to face uncertainty is essential

All military leaders recognize that each individual must be trained initially and throughout his professional life to make decisions in uncertainty. The richness of military training is to prepare men and women to dare, to make decisions and to act in a permanent fog.

Vincent Barale, Supply Chain Director deplores the lack of training in uncertainty management in schools. In this way, employees integrate companies with certainties and methods that are supposed to respond to all situations.

The intrinsic qualities and values of men and women are effective responses to uncertainty

For Augustin de ROMANET, President of Aéroports de Paris, it is better to recruit an employee on his or her qualities and values than on his or her skills alone. While technology and know-how are acquired, values and qualities are not. According to him, since by nature the hazard is not known, which allows the individual to react well to the occurrence of an unforeseen, it is his values and not his skills because they could not yet be tested in this precise situation.

Military managers recommend that, when recruiting, preference be given to profiles who naturally have the qualities to face and react quickly to the unexpected. These potentials must obviously be enriched and reinforced by training.

For General d’armée Gratien MAIRE, now General Manager of ADP Ingénierie, encouraging adherence to a project and a common objective makes it possible to obtain very good results and undoubtedly favours flexibility and reactivity in the collaborators, essential qualities to face the hazard. Hence the importance of surrounding oneself with a middle management of quality and strong values.

Being able to react, the key element in dealing with uncertainty


For military executives, managing uncertainty means being prepared. To do this, the army constantly uses repetition on the basis of simulation. People at all levels are prepared and made aware of uncertainty so that, individually, everyone is on permanent standby to detect weak signals and be able to react in the moment.

Being able to react to the unexpected also means having the intervention reserve not to be caught off guard and having sufficient means to respond quickly.

Companies, for reasons of profitability, tend to manage the company and their supply chain on the basis of costs, while by organising it on a lead time basis, they gain in flexibility and responsiveness.

If the army is often presented as the sanctuary of obedience to orders, its procedures and management are at the service of responsiveness. It also seeks full membership from everyone. The procedure must not lock men up, it serves to make them work together and to get the best out of each individual. The army thinks of itself as an athlete’s body where ligaments, fascias, joints and bones ensure its perfect maintenance, like the procedures in a company and where training develops musculature, respiratory and cardiac capacity to react quickly and with reserve.

Like the military, schools and companies must integrate uncertainty as a component that cannot be controlled and prevented. The idea being that in the event of a hazard, the company and the teams are equipped to react quickly and effectively, rather than to force them into totally useless procedures to protect themselves from the unpredictable.