Napoleon's Corporal
I was shocked this week to find that an expression I have used for decades is not widely known and understood.  The only way something becomes an “expression” is by being mainstream and generally known.  While this may be true, it looks like some of the expressions I have used for most of my life are only mainstream in military circles, and may not be known to the population at large.

When I started working with non-military personnel, I quickly gave up some of my traditional military terminology.  I now say “floor” instead of “deck” and “door” instead of “hatch”.  “The head” was changed to “the restroom” and “hit the rack” became “get some sleep.”  I will still call something a “hooyah” when I can’t remember the term – as in “that hooyah over there” – but for the most part, my military expressions are a thing of the past.

At least so I thought.  Then in a meeting the other day, a question came up regarding the status of our formal quality review process.  It’s in flight, but not yet ready for primetime, so I encouraged my team to use peer reviews in the meantime.  There are two types of informal reviews I recommend to vet the quality of a deliverable – one with someone on your team who is familiar with the subject matter, and someone that can represent your Napoleon’s Corporal.

The person that is on your team and/or familiar with your subject matter can vet a deliverable to find holes in it.  They can remind you of things you hadn’t considered, correct something that may have been misstated, or otherwise help ensure your deliverable is comprehensive with no mistakes.  Only someone familiar with the subject matter will be able to do these things.  When I was editing my book, I asked a Marine read through the material to ensure I had not misstated anything.  Only a Marine could find certain mistakes given my subject matter.

The other peer review is with “Napoleon’s Corporal.”  The story goes that Napoleon used to ask a Corporal to come in and shine his shoes while he and his officers were drawing up battle plans.  When they were done, he would ask the Corporal if their plans made sense.  If the Corporal said “Yes,” then the plans moved forward.  If he said “No,” then the plans were redrawn.

I am not suggesting that you ask a peer to shine your shoes while you’re reviewing a deliverable.  I am suggesting that someone who does not have the same perspective and knowledge that you do can offer insight to the quality of your deliverable.  As someone who knows a particular subject, you will make certain assumptions regarding the subject matter.  You will use certain language and terminology.  You may skip right to the answer, assuming that the problem doesn’t need to be framed because anyone familiar with the topic already knows.

Often, deliverables have to be consumed by individuals at all levels of the organization and with all levels of knowledge regarding the business environment, project, etc.  If someone unfamiliar with the subject matter can understand the deliverable – the context and the information it is trying to convey – it is more likely to be consumed by all intended audiences.  If it’s something that cannot be consumed by anyone outside the few familiar with the subject matter, we run the risk that something is misinterpreted or that those assumptions we made were not safe assumptions at all.

During the editing process for my book, I asked a few civilians to read through the content for this very reason.  It made sense to me – but would it resonate with someone unfamiliar with the military?  Were the stories written in a way that they could relate to, without too much unexplained jargon?  I would not be able to tell, nor would the Marines I know.  Only a civilian, unfamiliar with the Marine Corps, could let me know if the book read in the way I intended to a non-military audience.  Those civilians were my Napoleon’s Corporal.

As I was explaining this second type of review with my team, I started receiving a lot of blank stares.  I stopped talking.  I stopped and asked “Is there anyone in this room that knows who Napoleon’s Corporal is?”  No one in the room knew.  Once I explained, I asked them “Now does this type of review make sense to you?”  I received a lot of yesses and head nods.  “Now you know the reason why having a Napoleon’s Corporal is so important.  I assumed you knew what I was talking about.  I made a reference I thought was universally understood and no one in this room was familiar.  This is why you have to ask someone that does not know your subject matter to review your deliverables.  Your language and assumptions may not be as universal as you think.”

This concept can be used to vet the quality of an idea, not just a deliverable.  I frequently engage individuals outside my area of expertise, or that play a different role than I do, to make sure my ideas are well thought out and I’m not missing something.  I have a list of trusted resources that I turn to, depending on the nature of the idea.  They span a number of roles, levels, and knowledge areas within and outside my organization.  I can identify individuals familiar with what I’m trying to accomplish, who can offer insight I may not have considered.  And I have trusted Napoleon’s Corporals – those that might have no clue about my subject, but can point out flaws in my logic or ask questions that demonstrate I have more work to do to flush out my idea.

I still have a hard time understanding why so few people outside the military know about Napoleon’s Corporal.  We all had history in school, didn’t we?  But I guess when you have a Marine father, history takes on a whole new meaning.  If I’m honest about it, I suppose most kids had normal bedtime stories too, as opposed to Sun Tzu’s “Art of War.”  I might have to remember that the next time our son stays over at Poppa’s house…four might be a little too young to be introduced to strategic thinking in quite that way.