“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
I could write an entire book on planning. I’ve spent most of my professional life learning to plan, developing plans, and executing plans. Sometimes successfully, other times not so much. In the late 1960s business schools became enamored of engineering project or process management. Linear, detailed, and easy to understand, a project timeline could be loaded with resource demands, time per activity, and collective project time requirements. Today, project management is a prerequisite for sound management. However, despite its practical allure, this article is not about touting the efficiency and efficacy, of project management.
The U.S. Army has a concept they teach soldiers and officers referred to as commander’s intent. This concept is simple, easy to grasp, and remarkably effective. It goes like this. A team of say, ten soldiers and one officer are given the mission to patrol to a key bridge located on the edge of the battlefield and establish a defensive position there. The intent of the mission is to prevent enemy forces from using this bridge. The team is to control the bridge for forty-eight hours or until relieved by a larger friendly force. On the way to the bridge the team is attacked by an enemy scouting party and the team’s leader is severely wounded. The second in command, a sergeant, rallies his men and continues moving toward the bridge.
When the sergeant arrives at the bridge, he discovers the enemy has placed four soldiers on the bridge to hold it open for their use. A fight ensues and the sergeant is killed taking the position from the enemy. The next in line, a corporal, takes charge and informs his headquarters that his team is in possession of the bridge. The corporal holds the bridge until relieved by a larger force ten hours later. Commander’s intent is the process of communicating the core purpose of an action, a plan, or even a strategy, to everyone carrying out those activities, and I mean everyone. Fighting enemy soldiers in general, wasn’t the intent of the team’s mission. Watching the bridge from a distance wasn’t the team’s mission either. In this example, every person on that patrol knew the point of the mission and knew it was the team’s responsibility, not only the responsibility of their officer, to succeed.
This may sound too simple to be valuable, but you’ll find that many businesses do not communicate the driving purpose behind their daily grind. Most militaries around the world do not practice commander’s intent believing their junior leaders and enlisted troops are too unsophisticated or too untrustworthy to carry on a critical mission without micromanagement and supervision by an elite class of hand-picked leaders. So, what does this have to do with creative planning? Everything. Any plan, creative or not so creative, succeeds or fails in execution. Commander’s intent is a smart way to motivate and then regularly invigorate your leaders and your employees toward a common objective. A way to ensure everybody is aware of the end game, the key performance metrics, and the reasons they are spending precious time and scarce resources on the project.
Commander’s intent is a useful way to keep everybody on their toes and leaning forward. It Comes Back to Training. The SEALs, and all elite military organizations, train all the time. Training for these units is believed to be the differentiator on the battlefield. This holds true for professional sports. Out train an equally talented opponent and you usually beat them. The famous Rocky series of movies leverage this theme. A regular mug from the mean streets of Philadelphia has few skills but a ton of heart. How can he possibly prevail over finely tuned professional athletes? You guessed it; he trains harder. Training becomes the difference for Rocky Balboa between victory and defeat.
So, why don’t businesses train as hard as Rocky? Is it arrogance? Do they feel so powerful and dominant they can do no wrong, never lose a fight? How about the leaders? How about you? When was the last time you sat down and inventoried your strengths and weaknesses? Creativity in planning begins with a focus on the little things. Are your graphics state of the art? Are your financial systems generating accurate data analysis? Do you have predictive analytics software that contemplates the complexity and demands of the new plan? Or are you beginning the fight stale, underpowered, using beer math and PowerPoint shapes to create your manifesto? In my experience, successful leaders are creative leaders, and as creative leaders they are in a near state of continuous planning and cheerleading.
I’ve observed firsthand, master planners, people gifted with vision, seeing a probable future in every detail. Few if any of these architects of change were masterful at project management and the nimble leadership required to turn a plan into reality, but they had a special form of genius, for sure. You do not have to be a genius to create a masterful outcome. The term baby steps were used in the SEALs for advanced training in high acuity activities and tasks requiring precise physical skill. Each SEAL operator represented a list of capabilities and limitations and the sum of these attributes, comprising a two, four, eight, or twenty-man SEAL unit, was a homogenization of these individual operator traits.
The baby steps concept worked like this; first you evaluate capabilities and shortfalls, then you match the evaluation against specific standards of individual performance. Next, you create a personalized plan of corrective training to achieve as nearly as possible, similar operator profiles of superior performance. When this was complete you applied the same process to the team collectively, regardless of size. The team standards and performance requirements were complex but relied directly on the individual performance contributions of each man.
The second application of baby steps is in the detailed training process itself. Each mental and physical task is broken down, like one would do adhering to standard project management work break down schedules. No single SEAL operator would progress to the next micro step until they’d mastered the current one. This means no generic or group training sessions. Think about all the kids left behind in math when in public school they teach at a pace that must be maintained or you fall behind. Not because of aptitude, but because the material is moving at a pace set by teachers with little regard to the needs and capabilities of individuals. The baby steps approach is tedious to design and to implement but it produces superior results. SEALs and other special operations units swear by this process. If you are committed to being a great planner and a great plan leader you need to commit the time to prepare yourself and your planning team.
All the people involved, however slightly, should be run through a baby steps training event before sitting down to create a plan or execute one. The method produces sharpness, a keen edge. It works! When people are tightly dialed in from the start of the planning process their confidence is rock solid, they are energetic, and they are ready to explore the art of the possible. They conduct a more insightful analysis of the external environment and produce a more honest appraisal of your organization’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s hard for people to be creative and open to new ideas when, like our sad sixth grader, they were left behind from the beginning.
Planning Process Compression
Depending on where you sit in your company’s hierarchy, you will often find yourself responsible for designing one plan while simultaneously developing another and executing a third. It’s important to take a step back from time to time to evaluate your planning team’s capacity to execute more than one high-quality planning process. It is easy to say yes to multiple requirements and just as easy to dilute effort and attention by spreading people’s time and energy across too many imperatives. As a CEO responsible for strategy and execution across four businesses, I see this play out over and over. In my opinion, expediency can be achieved without dilution of quality execution by applying the principle of process compression.
Process compression is a technique is used by the SEALs whenever they have quick mission taskings that do not allow for weeks or even months of detailed planning. The method isn’t all that inventive, you just follow the approved quality planning process at high speed, without skipping steps. I’ve performed compressed planning drills in every aspect of my personal and professional life so I’m comfortable with the idea, however many people are not. I’ve performed compressed planning for successful combat missions with as little as an hour to prepare, without skipping a single critical planning element.
I’ve participated in solution design and four hundred page proposal build for a multi-million dollar government bid where we filled a room with experts and a speed typist who captured the solutions to each element of the requirement as they were conceived, in real time. A sort of rapid prototyping approach that completed the bid and proposal in fourteen hours to meet a key submission deadline. We didn’t cut corners and we didn’t skip a proposal process step. It can be done.
One key to successful compressed planning is numbers. You need to assemble a lot of your smartest people and assets. They can feed inputs into the plan, together in a room, through conference calls, video conferencing, or all three. This trick may help to accelerate a plan under development to make room for a new planning demand signal. Or it may allow for more solution design time before committing to compressed plan development.
Learn to Thrive in Chaos
SEALs and entrepreneurs are energetic, hopeful, and disciplined. They see opportunity everywhere and are not afraid of the adversity that being in the arena brings. A sense of humor is a prerequisite for a member of the special operations community, and I suggest as a leader you put time and attention into morale, yours, and everyone else, while planning. Stress is normal. Fear and depression are not. Do not lead by force derived from positional power but instead, lead through humor, poise, and optimism.
I have survived bad plans where lives were lost and bad plans where businesses were severely impacted. I learned by watching these examples and studying many more. This article has focused on creative planning, how to look beyond the project management logic of engineering processes to the intangibles, the people forged into a planning team, and the potential for superior solutions that just might change the world. You can do this. You can relax, be in control, take risks, be accountable, and see and create great outcomes. I have faith in you. Have faith in yourself and your team and you will succeed!
Marty Strong is the author of Be Nimble – How the Navy SEAL Mindset Wins on the Battlefield and in Business www.martystrongbenimble.com