Winning by Empowering Leaders: QMN081
Bad news: you're not a genius. Good news: there's a way to overcome that and be a great leader. Delivering a clear, concise Commander's Intent will empower your people to achieve success on their own.
(aka: Hard Problems as a Team, Part IV)
(Today’s report is a 5 minute read)
BLUF: Instead of trying to follow the centralized plans of a rare genius, junior leaders should have a strong, clear understanding of the organization’s goals and be empowered to make decisions in line with those goals, within stated limits. In order to make this happen, senior leaders need to issue clear, concise guidance, and ensure it was correctly understood, and then trust their people to achieve the goals in their own way.
Brady here. Genius is defined as a special ability or gift for doing something - a rare inborn talent, often implying special favor by God or nature. On the battlefield, notable geniuses like Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte or George Patton could “read” a situation and seem to know exactly what to do given the circumstance. When they led armies they seemed to crush anyone who stood before them. Conversely, in business we’ve had geniuses like John D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. They seemed to have a preternatural sense for their industry and could see where it was headed before anyone else. Their creations have defined how we live and work. In both cases, as long as these leaders could communicate their vision to subordinate leaders in a timely manner, they were usually unstoppable.
In the previous three parts of this series, we identified the prerequisites and components of Operational Design and how they can help you lead your team to solve really difficult problems. As a leader you need to be able to visualize, describe and direct what you want to happen, analyze and describe the current state and determine your own center of gravity and your adversary’s center of gravity in order to know what to protect and what to influence. Once you’ve got all these you have to come to a hard realization and choose your next actions accordingly.
Soldiers attending the USAJFKSWCS Combat Diver Qualification Course practice skills needed to perform amphibious infiltration, June 7, 2018, in Key West, Florida. Photo by DVIDS.
As leaders, the truth is that very, very few of us are geniuses about anything. Even worse, we have problems communicating the pretty average plans we do come up with. The good news is that the aforementioned Carl von Clausewitz and his friends and their successors devised a way to be successful leader without being a genius. It takes training, trust and clear communication, but it works. Instead of following the centralized plans of a rare genius, junior leaders should have a strong, clear understanding of the organization’s goals and be empowered to make decisions in line with those goals, within stated limits. Units that followed this idea would make up for what they lacked in God-given talent with speed and effectiveness of action. In essence, you wouldn't need a genius to read the battlefield because every one of your leaders was doing the best thing possible at the right time with what they were experiencing.
As we all know, plans no matter how masterful and detailed are often rendered useless once they're exposed to events and a thinking, changing adversary. This creates a problem: how do our organizations bounce back and act in an organized and purposeful way on the fly? Devised and first carried out in the era of railroads and telegraph, the concept of Commander’s Intent was conceived to handle this uncertainty for large formations over great distances. Senior leaders had brief opportunities to issue guidance, so they had to keep their messages concise and timely. 200 years later, US forces have boiled down Commander’s Intent to a really simple format you can use for yourself:
Explain why the organization is doing what it’s doing. This often points back to a large plan or effort within which today’s plan fits. You don’t necessarily need to go into “Five Whys” but it often helps to give some deeper background regarding causes. Again, the goal is clear and concise, but people need to know that they’re not just stacking rocks, they’re building a cathedral. Keep this to three sentences, five maximum.
The leader writing his or her intent is often the most experienced and highly trained person in their part of the organization - and therefore have seen this type of situation before. This is an opportunity for the leader to identify and explain three to five things that absolutely must happen if the operation is to be successful. Keep key tasks to a bulletized list, or at maximum a sentence each.
Tell people what things need to look like when the whole thing is done - and do it in terms of your own organization, the people you’re trying to influence (usually your customer, in business settings) and the environment or market in which you’re operating. Endstate helps set boundaries and allows junior leaders to determine how to reach the goal on their own. This should look like three direct sentences.
This format is the clear communication part. In order for this to work, a leader needs to be able to trust his subordinate leaders to do the right thing within the Commander’s Intent, and the lower-level leader needs to be able to trust the boss not to punish him for honest mistakes made in good faith. Both of these kinds of trust come from realistic, hard training that not only recreates the stresses of the environment, but poses hard questions to junior leaders so that they’re ready for the types of decisions they'll need to make. Such training should cultivate a sense of initiative and ownership in junior leaders. A business example would be a training event that recreates a customer interaction - such as a pitch or proposal - that requires preparation and quick decision-making. The senior leader should have an opportunity to coach the junior leader in a safe setting for better performance in line with expectations for the real thing.
Groups working with autonomy under a clear Commander’s Intent are a sight to behold. They act quickly, communicate often and truly consider if their actions are meeting the original stated purpose of the effort. Backbriefs help reduce confusion between the leader and those receiving the Commander’s Intent, and help the senior leader ensure that their aims are truly understood. Try using this simple three-part method the next time you’re giving guidance at work, backbrief to ensure it was properly received, and give your people the trust they need to get the job done. And then be impressed with the results. (BJM)
Chad Storlie, former Green Beret officer and leadership consultant, has even more examples of good Commander’s Intent at HBR.
UNREAL: The CIA secretly bought a company that sold encryption devices across the world. Then its spies sat back and listened. (41 min) “The company, Crypto AG, got its first break with a contract to build code-making machines for U.S. troops during World War II. Flush with cash, it became a dominant maker of encryption devices for decades, navigating waves of technology from mechanical gears to electronic circuits and, finally, silicon chips and software. The Swiss firm made millions of dollars selling equipment to more than 120 countries well into the 21st century. Its clients included Iran, military juntas in Latin America, nuclear rivals India and Pakistan, and even the Vatican. But what none of its customers ever knew was that Crypto AG was secretly owned by the CIA in a highly classified partnership with West German intelligence. These spy agencies rigged the company’s devices so they could easily break the codes that countries used to send encrypted messages.” (BJM)
THE RISKS: The Navy SEAL and His Doctor: An experimental brain treatment blows up two lives (65 min) “Newport, like many other providers around the country, practices a personalized version of TMS. They called their treatment MRT, or magnetic resonance therapy. The treatment involves measuring a patient’s heart rate and brainwaves using an electroencephalogram (EEG), employing proprietary software to analyze that data and deriving a treatment plan from it that includes power settings, location and other variables. It’s different from standard TMS, which does not measure brainwaves and, depending on the condition being treated, is applied to the same location of the brain each time, within a limited power range and time span. Though it’s been around for at least 15 years, personalized TMS hasn’t produced enough solid data to gain FDA approval. That means patients generally pay for it out of pocket, instead of using insurance. Desperate and in a self-described “disaster state,” Murphy drove his son an hour north to Newport Beach. He restrained the child while a technician applied a large paddle to the 9-year-old’s head, then flipped a switch.” (BJM)
TWO IS ONE, AND ONE IS NONE: How Redundancies Increase Your Antifragility (16 min) “How redundancies increase our antifragility is obvious: if you only have one of something, and it fails, you can be up the creek without a paddle. Members of the military have a maxim that neatly sums up Taleb’s philosophy: “Two is one and one is none.” If you bring one piece of gear on a mission, it’s bound to break, and when it does, you’ll find yourself in a real pinch. Far better to have not only a Plan A and a Plan B, but a Plan A, B, and C. Former Navy SEAL Richard J. Machowicz calls the intentional creation of strategic redundancies “advantage stacking” – “you want to stack so many of the advantages in your favor that, when the order comes, when the opportunity presents itself, you can’t help but win.” “Two is one and one is none” may sound fatalistic, but it’s also realistic; Murphy’s Law is far too often in effect. Or as Taleb puts it, “Redundancy is ambiguous because it seems like a waste if nothing unusual happens. Except that something unusual happens—usually.”” (BJM)
Remarks Complete. Nothing Follows.
KS Anthony (KSA), Chris Papasadero (CPP) & Brady Moore (BJM)