U.S. General George Patton said, “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”
I couldn’t agree more. But what did the good General mean by this? In my opinion, this quote strikes at the heart of both leadership and communication and moves dangerously close to my idea of what it means to command. But how do you ensure that you are pleasantly surprised by their results? I think almost everyone can think of a time when the surprising results were astonishing for all of the wrong reasons… In my case, I once encouraged a group of sailors to plan a portion of an operational exercise without first clearly and concretely outlining my expectations. Sure, ships moved, people reacted and the command and control of the event completely dissolved, leaving me with the classic Ron Burgundy-ism – “It’s amazing how quickly that got out of hand.”
First step in achieving a pleasant surprise? Commander’s Intent. This is the one thing that you want everyone to remember when you first start the ball in motion. It’s the one thing that everyone should be able to reach out and touch, that they should be able to use as a measuring stick to make sure their work is moving in the right direction. This intent needs to be clear, concrete and inspiring. The Heath Brothers really nailed this concept in their book, Made to Stick – they go into great detail on exactly why a concrete message enables success and, more importantly, provide outstanding examples. The lofty goal of “Outperform the competition” or other such vague mission statements may initially sound good, but you really can’t do anything with that, can you? You can’t put that on a sticky by your monitor and then use it as a measuring tool to make sure that you project is going well; after all, the statement doesn’t even tell what out-perform means. Your competition might be heading for a financial train wreck; do you want to out-perform them at that and beat them to court? A concrete Commander’s Intent that provides a specific goal – think JFK and “We’ll put a man on the moon by the end of this decade” or the more modern version “We’ll orbit Mars by 2025” – is something that everyone on the team, regardless of role or position, can work towards. Note that JFK didn’t go to NASA and tell them which screwdriver to use – he simply told them what he wanted and then turned them loose.
Second step? Remain Engaged. A note of caution here – many people confuse being engaged with micro-managing. If you’ve done the first step right, your team doesn’t need you to stand over their shoulder, sucking your teeth in anxiety as they pick up each of whatever tools they use to do their jobs. It means that they know you are there, ready to support them with answers to questions and encouragement. Checking in with your team not only lets them know that you care, it keeps you up to date on their progress and any challenges they may be facing.
Try these two things and see if your surprise is a good one.