With the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, organizations all over the world have been forced to operate with unprecedented levels of trust and coordination. For many, this represents an upheaval of workflows that have reached optimal efficiency over decades, tailored for the culture and style of the organization in which they operate.

Now managing a workforce functioning remotely for the first time, team leaders are charged not only with instantly meeting their near-term needs , but also planning for the longer-term needs of the greater organization. This means workflows must be robust enough to survive a massive shift to remote while bringing post-COVID-19 advantages.

It's an unseen crisis situation for today's businesses, and one that doesn't have obvious answers. And yet, there is a strong example to be found in the military, where teams are built with crisis in mind.

An MIT Sloan Management Review article, "What the Military Can Teach Organizations About Agility", outlined three things managers can do to wrangle a team in the throes of extreme change:

  1. Focus on your lane—or put energy into the decisions only you can make. This promotes process efficiency and individual decision-making instead of time being wasted on decision by committee.
  2. Establish "commander's intent" by communicating a clear "what" and "why", and empowering a bias for action to determine the "how".
  3. Find your "directed telescope". In other words, establish a small, diverse team of trusted advisors at different levels in the organization with eyes and ears in the field.

While these guidelines are simple and straightforward, they come up against a common enemy: tradition. "Overcoming rooted practices" or changes to leadership structures that have served executive leaders well throughout their careers are difficult to change, especially when there is comfort found in familiar things. And yet, change is key to building strong, successful teams when things have become tremendously uncertain.

So how would a military approach help an organization in our current pandemic home-working environment? Based on the April 2020 McKinsey article, "To Weather a Crisis, Build a Network of Teams", an organization leveraging military-style decision making would fare pretty well.

To get out of our comfort zones and embrace change, McKinsey suggests that team leads do the following:

  • Launch teams fast and build as you go. Create teams focused on the organization's current priorities.
  • Get out of the way but stay connected. Set up structures to review team progress while assuming the role of facilitator and coach.
  • Champion radical transparency and authenticity ensuring clear, authentic and timely information across teams and the rest of the organization.
  • Turbocharge self-organization empowering teams to be self-managing, organically creating sub-teams that can provide greater focus as necessary.

It's clear that there's wisdom to be found in the military approach. Let's dive a bit deeper to look at how this could transfer into the emerging hybrid work environment we now find ourselves in:

Assemble Teams

Both the military and business worlds prefer a chain-of-command model where control is centralized within a single leadership team. But in crisis, the need arises to push decision-making authority farther down in the organization, closer to where the action is. While control of the larger organization is still necessary, setting up teams dedicated to key objectives for a business then permitting them to make decisions means that latency between problem recognition and mitigation is reduced, and organizational agility can result.

An organization adopting the three military principles could easily spin off "platoons" for tackling key objectives in managing the challenges facing the business. One platoon (or team) could address employee technology needs while another could engage with the government and keeping up-to-date on the latest crisis news. While still another group could focus on the operational aspects of customer support and service delivery.

According to McKinsey, each one of these teams would need to be cross-functional, incorporating employees from a variety of departments, sponsored by executives back at headquarters. Just like the military might have a medic, a radio operator and a forward observer, a business may build a crisis team with individuals representing HR, IT, sales or other departments. Those teams should also be empowered to create and organize additional, smaller squads to further break down objectives into manageable, achievable tasks.

Establish Objectives and Purpose

Every team needs a crystal-clear objective so the it can be free to operate. The military allows for "commander's intent", or the description of a successful operation. In times of crisis, if decisions need to be made quickly and teams must align and execute, allowing teams to determine how to achieve the goal promotes agility. McKinsey recommends "getting out of the way" and in times of crisis, teams in the heat of the action require that autonomy.

Communicate Broadly and Clearly

That is not to say, however, leadership teams back at HQ should not stay connected. This is about "keeping connection and reducing direction". Communication is still vital to ensuring that decision-making throughout the organization keeps everyone aware of changing situations and how other teams are performing and achieving objectives. So regularly scheduled calls may be necessary to review team progress or a consolidated punch list of tasks can be reviewed by leadership to stay abreast of focus and activity.

The military principle of a "directed telescope" ensures that executive leadership is receiving and processing information from not only teams inside the organization, but also from other available channels. This helps provide a more wholistic view of what's going on in the environment. Then, by providing frequent communications that accurately represent the reality of the crisis and the organization's position in it, teams across the company can decide to accelerate timelines, modify tactics, or reset expectations.

This free flow of information can be a challenge, not just for employees working to mitigate the impact of the crisis, but also for leadership. It's inevitable that things will go wrong or decisions made at the top of the organization will highlight deficiencies in planning, poor decision-making, or lack of coordination that will result in time lost or rework. But in times of crisis there is little room for ego. Leadership must acknowledge the mistake, reset expectations and set forth an objective for solving the new challenge. People will grumble, trust will be lost, but the organization may still have time to recover, and over time, the success of surviving the crisis will soften the sting of the mistake and provide a great lesson that will guide future policy or practices after the crisis is over.

Crisis Mode is Not Sustainable

While it might be nice to have this level of agility at all times, it is not to say that operating this way is sustainable, especially for large enterprises. The heightened level of communication and activity will eventually produce burnout and the organizational structures are best designed for discrete, short-term projects. Eventually, post-crisis, the organization must return to standard operating procedures and re-focus attention back on building greater efficiencies within the organization and competing for new business rather than taking care of one's own.

Optimized for Crisis

All in, organizations adopting military-style strategies for crisis management would have been ahead of the curve based on McKinsey's assessment. They would have had the flexibility to form teams quickly and distribute decision-making, open a variety of communication channels to maintain transparency and situational intelligence, and they would have pushed decision-making where the organization needs it most: to the leaders at the front lines of the crisis.

How is your business managing the COVID-19 crisis? Have you found gaps in your plans that you've had to mitigate? What are your plans for refining your strategy in the future? Are there any lessons you can pick up from the military to give you the type of agility to seamlessly switch to an agile team when the winds of change transform smooth sailing into stormy seas?

Ryan Smith

Content Strategist

Known as "The Voice of Mitel," Ryan is a technology evangelist with a unique mix of software development expertise, marketing strategy leadership and professional multimedia development. A lifelong learner, Ryan's passion for storytelling drives his proven ability to simplify complex concepts for audiences around the world.  

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