How agile is your business?

One of the keys to increasing agility in operations, whether your core business is warfare or running a chain of restaurants, is divulging responsibility down to where the information lies.

I saw this over and over in the military. As an Australian fighter pilot, I was about as autonomous as any warfighter can be; I would be allocated a piece of airspace to defend, and could then employ my aircraft (and my formation) as I saw fit to achieve the objective.

When I needed to commit towards threat aircraft, I could commit. When I wanted to engage a hostile aircraft, I pulled the trigger. I had the information, and the 'system' empowered me to make the decisions. This was critically important for my tactical effectiveness…when closing speeds are more than 2000km/h, you just don’t have time to defer to higher authority.

In contrast, Eastern bloc fighter pilots were characterised by low autonomy. They would be directed around the sky by their fighter controllers, almost operating as autopilots. They were a means for the controller to employ the jet as the controller saw fit. I'm sure this frustrated the pilots, and at times resulted in inferior tactical effectiveness.

(This is of course a generalisation, but we can see evidence of this autocratic leadership style in the current Russian invasion of Ukraine). With little or no autonomy, leaders must pass information up the chain of command to where the ‘decision maker’ sits, wasting valuable time and reducing agility.

In operations, we plan, we brief, and then we execute. But how often do things go as planned?

As Helmut von Roltke penned in 1871: “Kein Operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus” or, as is used in the army today: 'No plan survives first contact with the enemy'.

So…what’s the problem? Once our plan isn’t valid, can’t the boss just give us a new set of orders?

The obvious issue is that in warfare, we may lose the tactical advantage by waiting. The same goes for business…if we need to contact the boss every time something changes; if we need the boss to make every decision, then we bog down our communications channels, lose the market opportunity, and our team becomes ineffective. The solution is using what is known in the military as ‘Mission Control’.

Very broadly, it goes like this:

1. Set a clear objective. What are we actually trying to do here? What are our resources to do it, and what are our constraints? Communicate this to your team.

2. Empower your subordinates to execute the plan. Divulge responsibility down to where the information lies, and ensure your subordinate leaders are empowered to make decisions.

Number two is often the hard part! For most business owners, the thought of delegating decisions down one or two levels fills them with anxiety. But, ALL high performance teams do this. It requires good training, mutual trust, and a leap of faith.

Of course your subordinates need to provide regular feedback on progress…what the military calls ‘back-briefing’. But, this back-briefing shouldn’t be an opportunity for you to jump in and start changing things unless absolutely necessary. Give your people responsibility, then step back and let them run with it.

To increase agility, provide a ‘commander's intent’, empower your subordinates to make decisions, then get the hell out of the way!

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