This is part 1 of a 2-part series: “The Power of a Tactical Pause During Crisis”
The military has a process to help train soldiers to make difficult decisions — decisions that can have a big impact on the overall mission of the organization — in conditions they call the “fog of war,” with limited information and geographically dispersed teams, far from headquarters. One principle is called the Tactical Pause. It is contrarian to think that, during a crisis when time is of the essence, it is best to take a deliberate pause. But that is exactly what the military trains leaders to do.
Lieutenant General (Ret.) Frank Kearney is no stranger to VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environments, making difficult decisions and taking tactical pauses when conditions are the harshest — both on the battlefield and in the corporate environment. He served more than 35 years on active duty and in multiple combat and crisis operations as a junior officer through flag rank. He retired as Deputy Director U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and is the interim CEO of Draper Laboratories and an advisor and senior faculty member of Thayer Leadership.
Why does the U.S. Army train leaders to take such deliberate “pauses” in the midst of a crisis or ongoing operation?
Kearney: Military leaders recognize, like any good leaders would, that unilateral decisions made in an emotional, time-pressured crisis are not always our best; deliberately using the tools our teams are trained to use makes more sense. A tactical pause allows us time to get a cross cutting set of options from fellow leaders and subordinates who have expertise in aspects of the situation; they are the team who built the plan and contingencies. It is natural, and frankly expected, that leaders take charge in difficult times, but to think they have all the answers is folly. We know once the boss gives thoughts or guidance, the free flow of innovative ideas shuts down, and we move rapidly to execution. That may work sometimes, but is it a repeatable process for crisis decision-making? Not in my experience. In difficult challenges and time-pressured situations, we use the same disciplined military decision-making process; we just do it more deliberately, which in the long run is probably faster, as it is well thought out. It is often difficult to see the blurred line between reinforcing failure and knowing you need to pause, think and adapt.
The coronavirus crisis is impacting every individual, family and organization in the world. Millions of our corporate leaders and employees are suddenly working from home or taking different roles to support changing marketing conditions (like servers delivering food instead of waiting tables in person or even out of a job altogether) and are looking at possibly changing the way we work forever. The world that existed in January 2020 has changed so dramatically it seems like years ago. We can all learn to take a deliberate pause for ourselves, our families and our organizations.
Upon retirement, working in leader development and training with Thayer Leadership, I have shared my experiences while simultaneously learning from corporate leaders over the past eight years. Oddly, I now find myself thrust into a corporate leadership position in the midst of a global crisis, with its attendant economic challenges, while trying to keep my workforce healthy yet continue to meet our commitments to our clients. This is an opportunity to, again, lead in crisis and practice what I have been sharing about the power of the Tactical Pause with Thayer’s corporate clients and leaders.
How can corporate executives purposely learn to take a Tactical Pause in a crisis?
Kearney: The military trains for crisis with small-unit reflexive battle drills to large exercises; it is what most military leaders and operators spend the greatest time doing during their service. Why? To be successful and save lives in executing the nations wars and operations. I believe corporate leaders need to train for crisis; during crisis organizational reputations are at risk. Are corporate leaders comfortable with the level of preparation for a crisis? In this global pandemic, we are seeing the results in our hospitals, local, state and federal governments, who are ill-prepared for a global pandemic though we have exercised this at the national level decades ago, identified the short fall, and yet did not prepare.
Military leaders communicate with their organizations and stakeholders hourly and daily and have a rehearsed operations center that can be the focal point to monitor, assess, collect information and give guidance. I believe our corporate headquarters, hospitals, first responders and local and state governments need to recommit to such operations centers and use them in daily operations, so the transition to crisis is seamless. Currently, FEMA, state governments, National Guard are working effectively, because past natural disaster response has created the relationships, structure and policies to operate. We learn and forge teams in training but cement them in crisis. Message alignment and consistency is critical, and our people and stakeholders want to know what we are doing and planning.
For the military, crisis-action planning is a compression of the normal planning process. You cannot afford to create a planning process and train them in a crisis; it is too late. Those organizations that do strategic planning can adapt that process in a crisis but need to train and practice. These are obvious distractions to the normal business operations, but our reputations and survival will be tested in a crisis. Can we afford not to plan and train for unpredictable events? Reflect on, “What is your crisis-action planning process?”
What examples can you share from your personal experience in combat that can help explain the power of taking a tactical pause?
Kearney: In early March of 2002 in Afghanistan, I was part of a Special Operations Task Force with a supporting mission to insert reconnaissance in support of Operation Anaconda. For a number of reasons, from maintenance problems to airspace management, the night insertion of the team was delayed and dawn was approaching. So the leadership team made a risky decision to insert without cover of darkness onto the almost 11,000-foot peak that dominated the Shahi-kot valley floor. The original plan was for an early evening insertion offset in the valley and to climb the mountain during the hours of darkness using our night vision advantage. The peak, Takur Ghar, was a decisive piece of terrain that gave a great advantage to whichever side owned it.
Once the team made the decision to insert, reconnaissance platforms over-flew the area and saw no activity, and the risk seemed acceptable. On flaring the helicopter to land, much like a goose or duck coming into land, the enemy emerged from concealed positions and shot rocket propelled grenades wounding the aircraft and causing the operator on the ramp to fall out into the enemy area when the helicopter surged to take off. The lone operator was on the peak without support. The helicopter and back-up bird landed in the valley; the team boarded the spare aircraft to attempt a rescue after gaining permission. They returned and landed on the peak under fire, but the helicopter was able to limp away wounded and land inoperable in the valley. Now a full team was engaged and under fire, ultimately breaking contact and out of radio contact. The situation was becoming a distraction from the main operation it was supporting and now had the attention of leaders from Afghanistan to the White House.
After the rescue attempt failed, a quick reaction force was alerted and launched to the area with a mission to land in the valley and move to the top of Takur Ghar and develop the situation. Because this was all moving with haste and speed in order to try to save lives, the communication and mission were garbled and not understood. As a result, the reaction force was not sure of their task, ultimately causing them to land a third helicopter in the vortex of the enemy’s fire. This was disastrous and left a small fighting force under the leadership of a young officer in his first direct combat experience. Casualties and killed in action were significant, but the situation was resolved. The team had critical casualties and wanted a medical evacuation, but were under mortar fire and a counter-attack, so a leadership decision was presented: a) do I risk resources and lives of another team and hope to save the day, or b) am I reinforcing failure?
We chose to take a tactical pause and deliberately plan a rescue and evacuation under the hours of darkness with little risk to mission but high risk to the casualties on the mountain. The rescue and evacuation went without enemy contact, but we lost another operator due to the decision. If a tactical pause had been taken earlier either before the immediate rescue attempt or the quick reaction force rescue attempt, would we have saved lives and mission essential equipment? Undoubtedly yes. However, emotion, love for fellow warriors and a supreme confidence in our abilities clouded our judgment.
As indicated above, a tactical pause isn’t an option; it is a requirement in a difficult situation.
How do you believe the concept of a deliberate, institutionalized “pause” can positively impact large global organizations?
Kearney: In the military we learn to “go slow to go fast”. Leaders, in most crises, can make better decisions by taking a deliberate pause, to assess what has gone right, what has gone wrong and choose a better path forward. The financial markets did this in 2012 by implementing automatic halts to the markets if they drop 7 percent, 13 percent and 20 percent from the prior day’s close. This is an automated way to allow traders to stop and reconsider why the markets are in free fall and prevent momentum from losing control. This gives the market a time to take a tactical pause and then make better decisions.
Organizations, left to their own devices, will not typically take the time to do so. Tactical pauses need to be institutionalized at every level of the organization. Senior leaders, as well as front line leaders, can benefit by doing so with their teams.
Leaders should take pause not only on the tactical level, but also the operational and strategic levels. The Department of Defense did exactly that after the failed rescue attempt of our hostages in Iran 40 years ago (April 24, 1980). By taking a strategic pause and analyzing what went wrong in the mission in Desert One, we determined that the Marine Pilots had never worked with the Air Force Pilots, who had never trained with the Army’s Rangers and Delta Force. The mission was clearly challenged and high risk from the outset. Through this pause and subsequent After Action Review (a disciplined process to answer four questions: what was the plan, what did we do, what did we learn and who needs to know) conducted by the Holloway Commission, in 1987 the military created the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), which is comprised of special operators from all services, which would become the most competent special operations force on earth.
The result of the strategic pause and assessment was validated during the initial mission and subsequent missions into Afghanistan following the 9-11 attacks. The special operations task force used similar tactics over similar distances and terrain and weather conditions and executed those complex tasks flawlessly for months until able to put forces into Afghanistan on an extended basis. It took almost seven years to overcome the Department of Defense infighting and desire to do business the same; they didn’t see the rise of terrorism sparked by the Iranian Embassy takeover and hostage taking.
A strategic tactical pause to see the future operating environment or marketplace is a key benefit of the strategic pause. Wisely, the Congress intervened as a result of Holloway Commission’s report and established special operations organizations and funding lines separate from the Services. This particular strategic pause led to a vision that has been realized to the benefit of United States interests globally.
Lord Abbett, a privately held asset management firm based in Jersey City, N.J., has also seen the tremendous benefit of utilizing the tactical pause against the backdrop of the Covid-19 crisis in 2020. As Doug Sieg, managing partner, puts it, “Last year, while the Partnership was implementing our five-year strategic plan for the firm, we were also deeply engaged in complex discussions about our office space, regarding current and future capacity, our culture, and potential renovation. Informed by our leadership training with Thayer Leadership at West Point, we ultimately made the decision to take a tactical pause on the real estate front in order to focus on our most important priority: our strategic plan. In light of the wide-ranging impact of the pandemic, this tactical pause has allowed us to be even more thoughtful about Lord Abbett’s future work environment as we reprioritize and refine our five-year strategic plan in preparation for the shaping forces that lie ahead.”
It is during the greatest crisis that come some of the greatest opportunities. Don’t wait for the crisis to be over — leaders should take time now to individually and organizationally pause to think and, as a result, be stronger to carry themselves and their organizations through the fog.
Given your new role as interim CEO for Draper Labs, how are you balancing current operations while taking a tactical pause, and what recommendations do you have for executives who are facing the same challenge?
Kearney: At Draper, we are balancing multiple priorities and clearly articulating them to our organization, board of directors, clients and stakeholders. I outlined my priorities as taking care of our people’s health and welfare and meeting our commitments to our clients as our two interdependent priorities. Third is maintaining our corporate economic viability, and, lastly, maintain our employee’s economic welfare. Our brand will be tested. We have formed process action teams to look at near-term crisis actions and at our strategic future, through key investments that drive our corporate future relevance. Balancing required capital investments against crisis compensation and benefits is a key action.
Since we don’t have a current strategic plan or planning process, we have created a 120-day crisis action planning team to address near-term challenges, with an eye to future opportunities. This team has considered taking on new work that competitors cannot do while working remotely from home, but with our Defense Industrial Base priority, we may be able to execute in our labs and facilities. We are in the contracting process now to retain a firm to assist us in training and developing a strategic planning process and a plan. We cannot wait till the current crisis abates to begin. These process action teams are my way of taking a deliberate look with cross-functional teams, rather than rapid fire decision-making from a new chief executive and leadership team. Lastly, I have done a video introduction and initial talk to 1,600 employees, as well as instituted a daily communications email from me to the entire workforce. We have done well at working from home and still executing meaningful billable work and it is informing us about our future ability to do so as a primary operating method for a larger percentage of the workforce. We are learning, adapting, conducting AARs and capturing the data to inform the next round of the challenges.
What summary remarks would you recommend leaders implement in these times of crisis?
• Be confident and trust your teammates, fear and confidence are contagious. Choose confidence.
• Communicate directly, often, with brutal honesty.
• Synchronize organizational activities at least daily, add to your battle rhythm.
• Convene or reconvene your strategic planning team to: refine what post crisis future may look like and relook the facts and assumption, which your current business plan is based on.
• Keep stakeholders informed of your planning and crisis adaptations. Invite them to participate. Seek their views.
• Monitor and redirect key resources and capture the data. This is round 1 of the fight so do an AAR to prepare for round 2-3.
• Be empathetic to your people; their emotions range between anxiety and fear.
• Ask yourselves four questions:
1. What do we know?
2. What do we think we know?
3. What do we need to know?
4. How will we gather the information to answer these questions?
• Lastly, ask, what are we learning and who are we sharing it with?
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