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Shape Shifting

Due to an inexorable change in the direction and nature of my activities, as well as certain effects these are having on my discretionary writing schedule, I must herein announce that I will no longer be publishing to this site. The nature of the writing here and the need for regularity in its presentation clearly cannot be met for the foreseeable future.

The site will remain up, as its archives are often visited by readers either browsing from the main page or directed to specific articles by internet searches.

It remains possible that I will write irregularly on a variety of (primarily non-business-related) topics on another site, and if and when that begins a notice regarding it will be reported here.

It has been my great pleasure to have had the opportunity these pages have offered to explore the ideas discussed here. The exercise has afforded clarity and discipline, and at the same time has been both intellectually invigorating and thoroughly enjoyable.

Mostly, however, it has been a source of the most edifying humility to have had the interest, engagement, and support of all of you over the past 10 years. I am deeply honored for your gracious and kind interest in what I have endeavored here, as well as for all the various, principled, and astute perspectives from which you have tendered those attentions.

My most sincere thanks, and surely my best wishes as well, to all of you.

Jim Stroup

High expectations

We’ve been talking about how the military uses the 5-paragraph order as one way to generate activity that is founded in organizationally relevant perspective. We most recently noted that this order-promulgation method isn’t just used at the top – it’s expected that all commanders at all levels use the system in full – from the commander of all forces in theater to every team-leader of even the smallest units.

But there’s one more thing to note about this: It’s not just that commanders are expected by their seniors to give the fully-prepared order – their troops also expect to receive it.

That is more profound a circumstance than you might suspect. Let’s see how it sounds the second time around.

Everyone who receives an order in today’s modern military expects to receive the full 5-paragraph order. A well-written, organizationally relevant (remember, the orders are modified according to the type and mission of the unit they are delivered to, diverging from the original order in contributory, integrative ways), comprehensive 5-paragraph order.

It’s what they will expect. In fact, it’s what they’ll demand. Everyone. At every level. Every paragraph.

They want to know what’s really important – how to adapt if things change: if conditions are other than expected, if a collaborating unit has difficulty meeting its targets in time or space, what resources they can draw on if the opposing force responds in unexpected ways. They want to be armed – with knowledge, with perspective.

And American and other modern military officers and non-commissioned officers make sure they are. It’s not a matter of discipline, mind you. It’s a matter of professionalism and pride.

Does your staff insist on being able to do what’s really needed, to the best and most effective degree possible, no matter how unexpectedly things may develop as they work? Do you want them to be able to do that?

Don’t kid yourself if you think this is too abstract for actual implementation. This form of perspective is absolutely vital. Perhaps you have heard – recently – what happens to military forces that have the most modern weaponry but are not armed with the methods – and the organizational leadership mentality they imply – that we’ve been discussing.

So, with that in mind, let’s ask the question this way: What would you do if there was a palpable expectation throughout your organization on the part of your employees that you will keep them fully informed and briefed in this way? How would you feel about that?

What would be your view about having such employees? Would you display the pride and professionalism they thus demand of you, as you do of them?

Here and there – everywhere

We’ve covered two key elements of the 5-paragraph order used by the modern US military to not only transmit operational instructions to subordinates, but to ensure they have the perspective and context necessary to properly and intelligently carry them out. These are principally the “mission-oriented” nature of this order transmission system, and the detailed situation analysis provided – both of which precede the actual delineation of the tasks to be performed.

This system, and the decentralizing, push-authority-down approach it expresses, are key to the phenomenal performance under incredibly complex and stressful conditions that today’s military performs so magnificently. Many other modern military organizations around the world use this or a similar system.

How many civilian ones do? Does yours?

Well actually, you may object, you do something very much like this when a new project or initiative is launched. All the division chiefs are assembled and a detailed briefing – something like a business version of the 5-paragraph order – is delivered by the CEO’s staff and project planners. It is intricate, involving multiple audio/video techniques to engage the attendees across the full spectrum of learning styles, and it is very professional.

Okay, that’s great. But then what happens?

Bear in mind that in the military this system is expected to be used from top to bottom. And, in plain fact, it is used that way. If a theater commander issues a 5-paragraph order to his immediately subordinate generals, don’t think it ends there, that claims of expediency begin to creep in, causing it at some point to revert to “traditional” blunt direction issuance. Hard-won experience has taught the military that that is a prescription for – really – disaster.

You can take it to the bank: once that initial order is issued, it radiates vigorously, and irresistibly, throughout all the vast reaches of even the most uniquely complex military force structure assembled for a given theater of operations. Gaining force and momentum as it proceeds (and it does this quite rapidly and efficiently), this wave of energy-infusing communications will have blossomed in to full 5-paragraph orders issued to thousands of small 3 or 4 person teams, the teams that are in contact with the environment on which will be executed these orders.

Those orders, of course, are not mere replicas of the original. Each step of the way, they will have been tailored and interpreted according to the roles and expectations of the units to which they are given. Some are aviation, some ground; some are operational, some are support. Each order-issuing unit, in some precisely relevant way, transforms the order it was issued.

And yet, each order inherits essential instructional coding from the one on the basis of which it was written. The theater commander at the beginning and the team leaders at the sharp end have different things to talk about in their situation, mission, and other paragraphs – usually more specific and detailed the smaller the unit. But they all are recognizably the products of the initial order, and they all automatically integrate with it, and set the stage for continuing to do so even if the conditions that make sense of the original taskings begin to change.

So, this isn’t a one-time product, expected only of “leaders” at the top. It’s expected of everyone who commands a unit of any size and type. Every time.

And there’s one more thing about this order system that happens throughout the organization – but we’ll cover that next week. See you then!

Putting it all in context

We’ve been working to offer concrete examples to explain why a primary management task is to impart perspective to the organization.

Last week we looked at just one way the military does that through what is sometimes known as the mission-oriented order. We saw how military commanders don’t simply give “orders” – or instructions – to subordinate units as is often assumed. Rather, they put those instructions in context with a detailed explanation of the mission those tasks are intended to help achieve – and not only that: but also provided are the commander’s intent and concept of the operation. All together, these help the unit advance the overall military goal by enabling it to adapt its assigned tasks as the always changing situation dictates, guided by a thorough and nuanced understanding of the underlying purpose for those tasks.

But, of course, there’s more: the military method of transmitting instructions is actually known as the “five paragraph order.” Only one of those (the third, “execution” paragraph) is dedicated to the instructions and, as we’ve seen, a good part of that covers the commander’s intent and concept of operations. Another one (the “mission” paragraph), preceding that, is the one that comprehensively details the mission. Those were our subjects last week.

Preceding those is today’s topic: the first paragraph, which is perhaps the most important of all, as it sets the stage for, and makes sense of, all that comes after. This is called the “situation” paragraph. When this element of the process is conducted well, the unit receiving the order can practically be seen nodding its collective head in agreement and understanding as the rest of the information, following logically from the situation statement, is laid out in turn.

Here, as you might expect, you learn about the “enemy” situation – composition, strengths/weaknesses, expected course of action, and – importantly – its most dangerous possible course of action. For our purposes, substitute your competition and the market you’re contesting along with a SWOT analysis, for example, and you’ve got the idea.

But, yet again, there’s more: Next in this paragraph is described the “friendly” situation. And that begins with another mission statement – that of the next higher unit; and this is also accompanied by that unit’s operational intent.

Following this is a description of the other units participating in the action and their locations relative to yours (this is intended to facilitate the establishment of liaison/communication with those units, an unmentioned but assumed requirement of all participating units).

Also described are any other organizations that will be specifically tasked to provide various types of support to your unit, as well as any units or individuals with special capabilities that will be directly attached to yours to help you in the forthcoming action, or any that will be detached from your unit to be sent to aid another.

Finally, a detailed analysis and description of the environment is provided for your further planning and as a rationale for what will be described in subsequent paragraphs.

So, you receive a comprehensive description of what the challenge is, how it can influence your efforts to reduce it, the overall mission of your parent unit (well before even getting to yours), who else is participating with you in the struggle, their roles and locations, those who will support you and who you will support, and a detailed description of the environment(s) in which you will be operating.

In short, a precisely crafted method for conveying vital and comprehensive perspective about what is being done so that a unit being assigned a role in doing it will be able to proceed as efficiently and effectively as possible.

And that’s before we even get to the “mission-oriented” elements of perspective that we described last week, and which themselves come before we even begin to cover what the instructions are to the unit receiving this order. (Is it possible that in your organization this last bit is the sum and total of your order-transmission system?)

In fact, after that third “execution” paragraph, at the end of which finally comes the tasks to be performed, come two more paragraphs. These are the fourth – “administration and logistics” – and the fifth – command, control, and communications. These provide additional essential information that facilitates the accomplishment of the assigned tasks. They are an important contribution to the provision of perspective as well; they don’t amplify what has already been presented in the order, but they provide the lines and means of communication that enable all the units involved in the operation to maintain overall organizational perspective as events proceed dynamically.

So: five paragraphs in the order-delivery system, and only one, the third (and only the last part of that), issues actual orders. The first two provide vital perspective necessary to understand and execute the assigned tasks – or to modify them as necessary as events unfold on the ground. The last two provide information about how to maintain the continuous updating of perspective which itself will also change as the operation commences and the facts on the ground begin to collide and transform.

Perhaps that’s not how you do it in your organization. But there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. And as we’ll see soon, there are some strikingly compelling reasons why you should.

We’ll cover that next week, before getting to the second general means managers must use to provide and maintain perspective in their organizations.

See you then!

Making sense of it all

We’ve been arguing that perspective is a principle managerial task. Of course managers need to have perspective themselves – but the actual point here is that a major responsibility they shoulder as managers is to make sure that the organization as a whole has it as well. They do this in two broad ways, and we will take a brief look at the first today and next week.

This is the manner in which management disseminates the general organizational mission and specific instructions.

As mentioned periodically here, the extraordinary circumstances in which military commanders operate make their widespread use as individual models for the rest of us fraught with pitfalls, to say the least. But the same circumstances, as it happens, make military organizations particularly well-suited for study by managers. With respect to our present topic, the way that orders are transmitted in the modern military is of interest.

There is an unhappily stubborn presumption in the “civilian” world that the military is the archetype of a mindlessly hierarchical system. The belief, often reflexively offered to me when a civilian manager learns I have military experience, is that service men and women know how to follow orders without hesitation, without exception, and without question (Oh, they add with what they imagine to be a compliment, how they wish they had such employees!).

The discipline implied in assumptions like this is in fact expected, of course. But the suggestion that execution in the military is robotic or drone-like is decidedly off the mark. Indeed, the very method used to deliver orders to subordinate units turns out to be one of the very best illustrations of this point.

For example, the “mission-oriented” aspect of military orders is frequently singled out as their principle constructive distinction. Yes, their fundamental aim is to present specific actions to be performed. However prior to that the purpose for those actions is clearly laid out: the mission is concisely but completely detailed. And there’s still more before we get to the assignments themselves. First their way is prepared by describing the overall “commander’s intent” and the general “concept of operations.” Only then, finally, are the specific tasks delineated.

All of this both makes sense of the prescribed actions and enables the executing unit to adapt them as necessary in changing circumstances. Its members know the mission and that the real point is not their delivery of a pre-choreographed set of behaviors, but mission accomplishment – that is the point of it all, and it has priority. Moreover, due to the “intent” and “concept” sections, the unit also knows the commander’s interpretation of and approach to the mission, making their adjustment of their actual actions on the ground more fully informed and more likely to attain the desired end despite the inevitable and often profound changes in the environment that occur between mission assignment and execution.

This method of delivering instructions (and, importantly, the necessarily implied expectations as to how they are carried out) is obviously useful for application in non-military settings as well.

For our present purposes, though, there is another aspect of these military orders that is even more meaningful. And we’ll go over that next week. See you soon!