This is part 2 of a 2-part series: ‘The Power of a Tactical Pause During Crisis’. Read Part 1, “Amid Crisis is the Best Time to Take a Tactical Pause.”
In the Army, there is an old saying regarding the conduct of combat operations, particularly in an urban environment, that states, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” The thought is that if the leader can slow the pace of operations, the organization will operate more smoothly. Smooth operations, free from the inevitable errors incurred by going too fast, allow the organization to move faster in the long run. This might sound impossible with the pace of most businesses, especially during a crisis, but it works brilliantly in the corporate arena too.
How can just “going fast” instead of “going slow to go fast” potentially cause more harm than good for an organization?
Never was this more apparent to me than in the middle of August 2004, when I was the Operations Officer, equivalent to a Director-level in the civilian world, for a 750-person Infantry Battalion Task Force deployed in Sadr City, Baghdad.
The unit I served with had only recently arrived in Iraq. Within 48 hours of occupying our new area of operations in western Baghdad, we were ordered to move across the city to help another unit. That unit was preparing for a deliberate operation to eliminate insurgent activity in a major portion of the Baghdad slum known as Sadr City. We soon found ourselves in the most intense combat operations many of us had ever experienced. With less than 24 hours to prepare for the new mission, and virtually no reconnaissance or transition with the unit that was currently in the area, we immediately met a determined and prepared enemy militia force. We were neither going slow nor were we smooth. Because of this, it did not take long before we blundered our way into a hornet’s nest of enemy activity.
Around midday on August 16, 2004, my Commander (the official leader of our unit, akin to an organization’s President) and I were in the middle of a planning meeting when a Soldier burst in to inform us that our unit had a M1A1 tank on fire in the middle of Sadr City. Almost immediately after, we learned that a platoon (a unit comprised of about 40 people) had gotten disoriented, detached from friendly forces, and was potentially surrounded and fighting for their lives in the center of the city. The ensuing 7-hour firefight that day, and the several days that immediately followed, were replete with both successes and failures and several life-altering tragedies that drove many lessons learned about why “going fast” is not optimal. I carry those painful lessons with me to this day.
How can the Tactical Pause concept used by the U.S. Army – essentially “go slow to go fast” – be more impactful to long-term success for any organization?
One of the biggest lessons I took from those tumultuous days in Sadr City was the power and benefit of a Tactical Pause in the middle of chaos. A Tactical Pause is exactly as the phrase implies – a deliberate break in the operation that allows an organization to regroup. After several days of intense fighting with multiple casualties, we were finding it difficult to maintain our equipment or ourselves. The literal and figurative wheels seemed to be coming off our unit and we were running into the proverbial wall. To the great credit of our insightful Commander, who is one of the finest leaders I’ve ever had the privilege of working with, he directed our unit to conduct a 24-hour Tactical Pause so that we could refocus and get ready for the future.
There is no set duration or format for a Tactical Pause. In its simplest form, it is a leader directed break in the operation that generally allows an organization to do at least three things: Realign, Refocus, and Refresh. I have been part of Tactical Pauses that have been no longer than a few minutes, and some that have lasted multiple days. All of them have been beneficial.
What are the three steps of a Tactical Pause, whether it lasts just a few minutes or a few days?
A key element of any Tactical Pause should be the opportunity for the organization to realign to accomplish what it originally set out to do. During our 24-hour Tactical Pause in 2004, we did this by bringing all our leaders together and conducting an After Action Review (AAR) of the previous days’ intense operations. We learned a lot during that AAR about ourselves as leaders and about the way we were conducting operations. Armed with these lessons learned, we were able to set new priorities and realign the organization. The cross talk between leaders allowed us to share the best practices that were emerging and to warn each other of potential pitfalls that existed around every corner of the Sadr City streets. This realignment ultimately allowed us to stop rushing to failure. We were able to slow down and to be smooth in the conduct of our operations.
The second aspect of an effective Tactical Pause is that it allows leaders to refocus the organization to define and target the problems it is trying to solve. In 2004 in Sadr City, we emerged from our 24-hour Tactical Pause with a greater understanding of our environment. We were able to transcend from the ineffective “ready, fire, aim” problem solving methodology that often occurs in chaos and get the entire organization back to readying itself, taking aim at the right problem, and firing the correct solution to accomplish the task at hand. While leaders were busy gathering lessons learned, the rest of the organization was able to refocus on the much-needed maintenance of our equipment. By ensuring everyone understood their part, and played it, the entire organization participated in, and benefited from the Tactical Pause. Before the end of the 24 hours, leaders were able to get with their teams and communicate the new priorities and how we would tackle them. In chaos, an essential leader task is to communicate early, often, and in any way possible. If the Tactical Pause does not include time to communicate and disseminate how the organization is realigned and refocused, it begs the question of why do it in the first place?
Finally, the Tactical Pause allows the team to refresh. During our Tactical Pause in Sadr City, our refresh included all the unit leaders eating a hot meal together. We took time to honor our casualties and to tell some funny stories about each other. A couple of innovative junior leaders even created skits to highlight some of the more humorous antics that had occurred. Laughter truly is the best medicine, and humor can galvanize people in an authentic and vulnerable way. We also ensured the unit was able to get some rest, which was the first real night of sleep many of us had in a while. Refreshing is ultimately about people maintenance and allows the team to be more resilient moving forward.
Can leaders also benefit personally from taking a Tactical Pause, and how can they do this at an individual level?
At the individual level, leaders can benefit from taking micro Tactical Pauses throughout their day. This looks like a technique that every Army small-unit leader, who has ever led a patrol, understands. At important intervals on the way to any objective, leaders temporarily halt movement for a few minutes to scan the environment and reorient if necessary. During these pauses the first thing they do is conduct SLLS – Stop, Look, Listen, and Smell to assess their surroundings for any signs of risk and to ensure things are still on course. In a contemporary business setting this might include taking a five-minute break at different points during the day. After stopping, the leader should then spend time thinking and looking for signs of how things are going with their team. Look for opportunities and threats that they may have missed in the business of the day. They should listen to their teammates and pay attention to not just what they are saying, but how they are saying it. Was there something else that might have been learned from the underlying tone of that last call? Finally, they should take deep breaths as if they were literally smelling their surroundings. More than just noticing the alluring aroma of the coffee pot down the hall, leaders can take advantage of what psychologists and resilience experts refer to as deep cleansing breaths. The wellness effects of periodic deep breathing exercises go a long way in restoring the focus and calmness that allow each of us to tackle the next task more effectively.
What summary remarks can leaders keep in mind about the benefits of taking a Tactical Pause?
Emerging from our Tactical Pause in Sadr City, our organization was much more effective the very next day. Having realigned, refocused, and refreshed, we were able to embrace our new priorities, implement solutions, and face the next day’s operation with renewed vigor which allowed us to quickly regain the initiative.
I submit that during any chaotic and uncertain environment, every organization can benefit from a pause in execution. When leaders deliberately allow their team to take a break, slow down, gather lessons, and redefine the way ahead they will find that things inevitably run more smoothly. At the individual level, they will be a better version of themselves if they take time each day to stop, look, listen, and smell.
The next time you and your team seem to be running into a wall during a project or operation, take a few minutes, or a day, to realign, refocus, and refresh because in the end, slow is smooth, and smooth is fast!
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