Tag Archives: Command

Want to Avoid Mission Creep? Practice.

One of the hallmarks of leadership under pressure is the ability to generate strong, actionable plans without the luxury of either time or all of the facts.  How do you make sure that your team can do this?  Practice.  Followed by more practice.

The Canadian navy uses search and rescue (SAR) response exercises to test this very thing.  Consider this example – a warship at sea off the west coast of Vancouver Island receives a distress call from a sinking fisherman approximately one hour away.  Several things need to happen and they need to happen quickly.  First, the obvious step – move to the scene.  Second, gather all of your expertise (in this case, representatives of all departments in order to blend situational awareness, logistics, medical and technical knowledge all in one place) and assess all of the factors in order to create a plan.  Because the situations are never the same, each plan differs slightly from what could be considered standard operating procedures.  After all, there is nothing standard about a burning fishing vessel in five-metre waves during the dead of night, is there?

Good time to discuss the group dental plan? Mission creep.

My point?  If you place this problem in front of five ship’s teams, they will construct five different plans.  One or two will be outstanding, two more will be realistically achievable and one could be a complete “disasterpiece” in the making.  What causes the difference?  Excellent question; after all, although our teams are made up of different individuals, they all have similar training and experience.  In theory, they should all come up with realistically achievable plans, shouldn’t they?  One direct cause of this difference is something known as “mission creep.”

Mission creep can affect even the strongest of teams.  Wikipedia defines it as “the expansion of a project or mission beyond its original goals, often after initial successes.”  It occurs when our team of heroic leaders are drawn off track by needless details or dead ends within the plan.  In extreme cases, mission creep occurs when we add so much detail to a plan that it literally collapses under its own weight.  Although the term is a fairly modern one, the actual concept has been affecting organizations for hundreds of years.  For example, Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition grew by a factor of five from plan inception to execution.  Definite mission creep…

The SAR response example allows us to see mission creep in action.  What should the priority of search and rescue be?  It should be just that – search and rescue, or more simply put saving lives. Therefore any discussion (and believe me, it comes up every time) about saving the stricken vessel (remember, it’s sinking and people need to get off) is quite clearly mission creep.  That’s not to say that we shouldn’t consider saving the vessel if possible, but with an hour to sort ourselves out while positioning at speed to the scene, an animated discussion of what pumps we need or how many damage control folks to send over by the same boat that should be transporting victims is… you guessed it, mission creep.

Avoiding mission creep can be challenging.  After all, you don’t necessarily want to shut down the bright folks on your team by harshly snapping them back to your mission – they are subject matter experts and bring skills to the table that you don’t have.  My two cents?  Try some team problem-solving exercises when you have the time.  Not only can you streamline your processes, you can tease out mission creep in a smiling environment vice a pressure-charged frowning one.

Three Things You Need in a Leader

Timing is everything.  Even as British politicians sort through the confusion that is a hung parliament to arrive at a coalition government, a leadership conference was taking place well below street level, in the War Room used by Sir Winston Churchill to run operations in 1940.  This conference, staged by the The Said School of Business (Oxford University), included government, industry and military leaders in a forum designed to identify what it takes to lead in the modern world.

What did they come up with?  Well, as noted by the Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the event, they identified these desirable traits:

  • a leader needs moral courage
  • a leader needs to be able to take risks
  • a leader needs passion

Although this seems to be a simplified list when compared with all of the scholarly literature on leadership, it speaks to me.  I admire it for its very simplicity.  In fact, if you can find these three things within yourself, you have what it takes to lead.  If you can’t?  Consider stepping back.

7 Great Leadership Blogs

Now that I’ve managed to post into the double-digits, I’ve discovered that there are some blogs that I keep returning to as I wander my way around the inter-web.  These bloggers are professional leaders, mentors, coaches, and business people.  They work together to discuss leadership and communication issues and respond nicely to new bloggers like myself.  Each approaches the complex ideals of modern leadership in their own way.

Here are some of my favorites (they’re in no particular order, in fact they’re all equally excellent):

  • Wally Bock’s Three Star Leadership Blog.  Wally takes on various issues, indexes his blogs for ease of searching, and responds promptly to questions and comments.  Everyone who takes the time to comment gains additional value from his immediate and welcoming response.  Wally also uses his influence to point to other blogs with a “top five post” every week.
  • Mike Myatt’s N2 Growth Blog.  In his role as a strategic leader, Mike provides tremendous value in his posts.  In fact, his recently posted leadership test provides a great deal of food for thought.
  • Make Work Meaningful.  This collaborative site features many blog authors and serves as a one-stop shopping locale for all things leadership.  Broad topics include coaching, leadership, and organizational culture.  Not only does this group of people provide great value, they welcome the input of others.
  • Gwyn Teatro’s You’re Not the Boss of Me.  I stumbled onto Gwyn’s fantastic blog quite by accident and immediately began following her posts.  As a well-established HR professional, Gwyn has some great thoughts on leadership that I think you’ll find rewarding.  Plus her blog has a great title!
  • Commander, Submarine Group Ten.  Why the heck does this one make my list of favourites?  Well, there’s the fact that it’s a Navy blog.  How cool is that?  The real reason?  Rear-Admiral Bruner is in the process of dealing with some large organizational changes that focus on emotive issues – women in submarines chief among them.  He has a tremendous leadership challenge and is using social media to reach out and engage with his sailors.  His strong leadership shines through on his blog and is worth watching as the USN makes changes.
  • Michael Hyatt’s Leadership Blog.  Michael is the CEO of a large publishing house and provides great value through his blog.  I am not alone in my thoughts on his posts – he routinely makes it through my postrank.com filter unscathed!
  • John Baldoni’s Lead by Example Blog.   I found John’s blog through an article that he wrote for the Harvard Business Review on leadership presence.  I’ve been trying for 2o years to explain the concept of command presence to people and John’s article provided some great guidance.  Definitely worth a look.

Go ahead and let me know if you follow a leadership blog that you think I would enjoy.  I have also changed my wordpress layout and welcome comments/suggestions on the new format.  Thanks!

The Elusive Command Presence

Edward Fox as Lt. Gen Horrocks in "A Bridge Too Far"

Over the last 20 years, I have been assessed on my command presence.  I have been given vague guidance about what this elusive presence is.  I’ve even been told a few times that I don’t have it.  Other times I have been complimented on it.  But what is this thing, this so called “command presence?”

It’s one of those nebulous concept that doesn’t really have a concrete definition.  Command itself refers to concepts like coordination, direction and control.  Presence, in this case, refers to one’s force of personality.  When I combine these two concepts in my mind, my imagination produces someone 12 feet tall.  Unfortunately, I haven’t come across any of these commanding behemoths in my travels, so I guess it’s back to the drawing board. Or is it?

John Baldoni’s recent blog for the Harvard Business Review was all about this very thing – leadership presence.  He breaks it down nicely into manageable chunks that serve to reduce my mental image down to a human of average height.  He concentrates on some broad areas: situational awareness, confidence, humility, and hope.

Have a read of John’s post.  Close your eyes and see if you can conjure up a mental image.  Let me know what you see.

The Symphony Conducter Isn’t All Bad

I just read another great post by Wally Bock on leadership. In his most recent post, Wally takes aim at the management metaphor that is provided by the symphony conductor.  Wally provides a great argument against this leadership example; the conductor stands out in front, above his orchestra and exerts utter control.  To make matters worse, the conductor gets to take the full credit for the orchestra’s performance – in fact, the conductor is often the only performer to take a bow.  When you view it like that, Wally’s right; this model can’t possibly reflect the modern collaborative approach to leadership.  Or is he?

Management or leadership?

Consider the concept of the high reliability organization (HRO).  These organizations are defined by the price of failure.  They are exemplified by places like submarine control rooms, hospital emergency rooms or the flight deck of an aircraft carrier.  For these organizations the price of failure is measured not only in big money, but in lives.  The people who work in HROs, much like our orchestra, are professionals who don’t need to be told every aspect of their job.  They do, however, require someone to coordinate their activities and set the priorities – I can’t see anyone putting together an orchestra, handing out sheet music to provide the goal and then stepping back – the result would be very hard to listen to.  In other words, they need a conductor.

Let’s go over the conductor’s role again.  As the leader, he or she selects the music – or, perhaps better seen as the organization’s goal – and then sets the tempo.  Communicating using nothing but body language, the conductor coordinates the activities of a vast array of highly trained specialists.  With a gesture, he or she influences the outcome – bringing in the violins to take over the melody, initiating the flute sections’ counter-melody, reducing the volume of the percussion section so that Swan Lake can continue to awe and amaze.  As Wally points out, the conductor doesn’t wade through the orchestra pit to begin moving somebody’s fingers around the strings of a violin.  Quite the opposite – as the leader, the conductor steps up so that he or she can see and be seen.  Armed with the whole situational picture that cannot be seen by the 3rd flute, the conductor tweaks the machine to make magic.

So what is the conductor really doing?  Is he or she conducting a management activity? Nope.  When you roll in coordination, influence and communication, the conductor is coming dangerously close to exercising command.

Groupthink – The Enemy of Command

“If everyone’s thinking alike, then someone isn’t thinking.” – George S. Patton

Have you ever wondered how you ended up carrying out a really awful plan?  One that should have easily been cut during the group brainstorming session as someone’s weak attempt at humour?  The likely culprit is a phenomenon known as “Groupthink”.  This special form of dysfunction is the enemy of command because it creates an atmosphere of limited solutions.

Groupthink? Maybe. Bad idea? Definitely.

Groupthink is what happens when we all focus on one solution or pathway to solve a problem.  It can be caused by too many of the same personality type, overly aggressive leadership, or poor communication.  Here’s a pretty good run-down of the symptoms associated with groupthink.

So now you’ve found it, how can you prevent it?

  • Avoid “situating the estimate.” In other words, when faced with a problem, don’t jump to your preferred solution in advance of your team.  Don’t even hint at your preference – let their ideas come out; you may be surprised to find out that your preferred solution is the one that is the least useful.
  • Solicit opinions in reverse order of seniority. Find out what the junior folks think first – this avoids the pressures associated with disagreeing with more experienced members of the team.  Only works if you have created an environment where your junior team members feel comfortable in providing honest input.
  • Use sub-groups. At the risk of sounding like the two Fed-Ex guys trying to get the box to Germany, you may want to break into groups.  Groups working the same problem may widen the solution field.

Have you got an example of groupthink?  What did you do about it and did it work?

Powerpoint Doesn’t Equal Command

Senior U.S. military commanders have come to the conclusion that Powerpoint represents an internal threat to successful warfighting.  As reported by Elizabeth Bumiller in an article in the New York Times, senior officers have been banning the use of Microsoft’s famous presentation software in military operations because, counter-intuitively, the use of bullet points does not lead to understanding.

This false sense of concreteness has been noted before.  After all, as Seth Godin reminded us today, he wrote a book about this seven years ago.  So why the time lag between smart people noticing the issue and smart people fixing it?  Simple: the military culture is a slow-changing animal.  After all, I can tell you from experience that we have spent countless hours perfecting these mammoth bullet-pointed briefings designed to provide information to our teams.  Problem is they don’t.  And they don’t for a reason that I haven’t seen pointed out yet.  These well-tuned forays into PowerPoint warfare fail to yield results because they are repetitive, recycled and non-interactive.

Let me explain further.  Take the team briefing conducted by a warship about to enter a harbour.  Usually held just before the event, it is designed to provide detailed situational awareness and coordinating instructions to the entire team.  It covers everything from navigation hazards to use of mooring lines.  It zigzags from current weather conditions to self-defence.  It may even include what hat to wear.  It seems to be complete; it certainly provides information.  But it fails to engage anyone but the person giving the presentation.  Let’s get out the good old bullets and see why:

  • Repetition – They’ve seen it before.  These briefings follow the same format every time in order to cover all of the bases.  Meaning the card board cut-outs we’ll call the audience are not the least bit interested.  This becomes even more dangerously true if you are operating in and out of your home port.  After all, don’t most accidents happen within something like 2 km of your house?  Repetition breeds complacency
  • Recycled – Because the presentation is always the same, even its preparation by the briefer can fall into the complacency trap.  This one is tricky – most people in an operational military setting don’t have enough time in the day to re-create the wheel over and over again.  But they certainly need to be aware of the dangers involved.
  • Non-interactive – This briefing can’t help but be one way because of the first two factors.  We love to think it’s interactive; we even ask questions afterward in a rehearsed fashion in order to confirm the critical information points have made it out to the team.  Please don’t confuse confirmation questions with engagement; they may answer enthusiastically but, trust me, they are nowhere near engaged!

The only interactive slide in most presentations

Don’t get me wrong – computer-based presentations have their place in broadcasting information.  Just don’t confuse PowerPoint with exercising command.