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?
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.