25 October 2010

With more freedom to take own decisions, the ground level will follow orders better (?)

It may sound countersense, but let’s talk about one of the most hierarchical organizations ever: the US military.

The military is (thankfully) not the kind of organization where you want individuals using a lot of their common sense to decide what to do next. Freedom + guns = dangerous. That’s why every order can eventually be traced back to the President of the US. But, on the other hand, a common military saying is “no plan survives the contact with the enemy”, which is quite obvious for anyone who planned anything: things go wrong, unexpected stuff happens, key resources become unavailable. Also you cannot stop an ongoing battle to call your general if the plan doesn’t work – “Eagle 1, here is Loser 6, you said to use the tanks to destroy point A, but, hey, the tanks are destroyed, what do we do? Over.” That wouldn’t work. The military needs to empower the people on the ground to take decisions - and it needs to be the right decisions. So how does the military mix empowerment of the ground level and rigid hierarchy of cascading orders?

The military uses something called Commander’s Intent. It is a crisp, no nonsense and plain talk statement that describes the desired outcome (goal!) of any order/plan. The commander’s intent appears on every page of any briefing. The idea behind the Commander’s Intent is that the plan is a way of accomplishing something, it is not a means in itself. So if the plans go wrong (and they go very often) the people executing the orders can take decisions based on what is the purpose of the operation and change it.

An example of a Commander’s Intent could be: “my intent is to have Third Battalion on Hill 4305, to have the hill cleared of enemy, with only ineffective remnants remaining, so we can protect the flank of Third Brigade as they pass through the lines.” With this, it is quite easy to take decisions: “I am the only one left standing in Third Battalion, should I retreat or try to disable the enemy artillery in Hill 4305? I should disable the artillery, because I need to protect the flank of the Third Brigade.”

The same thing could/should be done in business, NGO and government. If the people on the ground, closer to the factory machines and clients, are empowered to take the right strategic decisions by themselves, then a company’s top level will have much more success in implementing its strategy.

But, to enable people to take decisions on the ground level, they need first to understand very clearly the Commander’s (or CEO’s) Intent. That’s where most organizations fall short. You seen it all: bulky mission statements full of buzz words (“maximize profits while delivering sustainable solutions to stakeholders”), abstract strategies that lack “concreteness” to the people executing the intent (“reach world class customer service”) and all the blab la bla that leaves people guessing or, worse, taking the wrong decisions.

But how to deliver clear messages that empowers the ground level to act correctly? One I talked before, being concrete to avoid the Curse of Knowledge, the others, well, you can read Made to Stick or wait for my good will to keep blogging about this awesome book. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.