Covid-19 – Mission Purposing Organisations Through the Crisis – Agile and Auditable Decision Making

April 30, 2020 Dan McDonough

Covid-19 – Mission Purposing Organisations Through the Crisis – Thought Bite on Agile Decision-Making

‘An auditable methodology – generating pace, precision, appropriate responses to rapidly evolving situations; getting ahead of the competition and withstanding scrutiny.’

Deciding where the balance of risk lies between the nation’s health and wealth is a big call. Bound in the realm of uncertainty, the decision will be compounded by a plummeting GDP, the wider socio-economic impacts of lockdown, the unknowns of immunity and testing, and the possibility of a second more devastating wave of Covid 19 infections.

The context and scale may differ, but this is the type of horns of a dilemma situation which commanders face in combat. The agony of deciding between competing courses of action is the common parlance of battlefield leaders, who are often under fire as they make their decision, and not just from the press. Riven by doubt and ambiguity, they regularly make decisions that might involve having to choose between risking the life of a soldier, who is likely to bleed out if a casualty evacuation mission is delayed, and establishing mitigation measures to reduce the chance of a rescue helicopter being shot down. They might also have to decide whether to call in an airstrike to support their people or risk their lives to avoid the danger of civilian casualties.

This was a daily occurrence in Afghanistan and was made more difficult when the realities of a harsh environment conflicted with best-laid plans, assumptions were no longer valid and imperfect intelligence proved to be just that. The decisions we made were also exacerbated by the pressures of increasing risk, mounting casualties and combat fatigue, which comes with sustained operations. In light of this we were able to make the necessary calls, adapt and pivot as required due to the fact that we utilised a standardised, highly practiced, but extremely flexible decision-making formula, which forms a key component of the military leadership approach of mission command.

Known as the Estimate’ process, it took the random and bias out of decision making and overcome the fragilities of human behavioural psychology that distorts and impairs sound decision-making under pressure. It involved a logical, stepped process for assessing environmental factors, which informed mission analysis and the development of a decision-making support matrix to identity the effects we needed to achieve. This allowed us to analyse available resources, prioritise and sequence them into planning options and then test them by war gaming and rehearsal to determine the best course of action to take. It was applicable at every level of leadership from the battle group commander leading 1,500 troops to a young section team leader commanding ten soldiers. It was also extremely flexible. A full ‘Estimate’ process might take three days to launch a deliberate battle group operation of 1,000 plus personnel involving a complex air support package, which would challenge air-traffic controllers in a busy international airport. However, if we needed to respond to an emergency, we could complete the same planning sequence, launching the same number of people and aircraft from a cold start, in forty-five minutes. It meant that we could operate at pace, adjust quickly and respond to rapidly changing events faster than the opposition; even though they enjoyed the advantage of generally being able to shoot first.

Decisive in outcome, the process was also highly collegiate and harnessed the collective intellectual horsepower and diversity of thought from the whole team. During our first battle group operation a carefully crafted plan began to unravel due to faulty intelligence and chance. From complete chaos, and the very real danger of being overrun, we recut the plan to deliver the mission differently in a matter of minutes. When giving quick battle redirection, a vital phase of my revised concept of operations was questioned by a twenty-six-year-old captain. Only two days into the job, he was the most junior member of my executive team. However, we accepted his interjection and recommendation because it made for a better plan. Fielding a contrarian view took courage, as we were under fire and pressure, but it was facilitated by the fact that permission to challenge was codified in the decision-making methodology.

Regardless of the importance of heeding the view of others, there comes a time for the leader to make and own the decision and its outcomes. In an environment fraught with uncertainty, mistakes will be made, and outcomes will be questioned. As in war, in the face of Covid 19, leaders and the calls they make will be scrutinised like never before. As well as our national representatives, CEOs will be judged by their actions, especially when many seek taxpayers’ money to keep their companies afloat. State intervention may prove essential for survival, but it will also bring a reckoning and far greater scrutiny of their decisions, how their organisations behave and the steps they implement to remodel their system and processes; as well as how they look after their people and keep them safe in the dispersed workspace.

In combat, the decisions we took, which incurred fatalities regardless of the outcome, had to withstand the scrutiny of coroners amidst the glare of the media and the lost ones’ families, with the prospect of career ending verdicts and charges of negligence. I went through several of them; not easy affairs to be on the stand with the next of kin of a lost soldier sitting a few feet away from you, just in front of packed press benches. However, I was able to leave the courtroom with commendations for the difficult decisions taken. My professional reputation remained intact and, more importantly, that of my unit, because I could evidence the process we used. I could be transparent about how we balanced and calculated risk and how the decisions stacked up against the situation we faced and the difficult choices I had to make.

Many firms already have ‘war rooms’; however, adopting military metaphors and relying on methodologies, such as Lean and Agile, which are already suspect as agents of change, are unlikely to cut it. Even before the advent of Covid 19, too many transformation initiatives were prone to failure, more so now as this crisis demands the adoption of a war footing. Retaining cumbersome committees and bureaucracy is also unlikely to reorganise business models beyond the rhetoric of conflict to where they need to be. Instead, the new normal will require new thinking, different practices and more decisive leadership. It will need bold initiatives underpinned by a decision-making process that breeds greater resilience and a faster pace of deciding and acting, which provide handrails in uncertainty and can respond to rapidly evolving circumstances. It must empower at all levels of an organisation, create accountability, facilitate appropriate pivots and enable the seizure of fleeting windows of opportunity, which this crisis will yield for those brave enough to grasp them ahead of the competition.

The CEO will now be visible as never before, and if they are to prevail rather than fail they will need to be courageous and use Coronavirus as an opportunity to accelerate the transformation needed in their organisations. It will require a shift in leadership mindset, but as well as a change in attitude it will also need a change in method. For those business leaders seeking to not just survive, but also to thrive in the new landscape, they could do well to utilise a properly blended combat to commercial approach based on the Estimate process and embed it throughout their companies. It has an agility and performance outcome that has already been tested and proven in exceptionally demanding circumstances, albeit in a different domain, however, the experience its yields cannot be rivalled elsewhere in terms of what we face today. Good captains are never made, or weak ones revealed, in calm waters. In a world of exceptional uncertainty, what is certain is that the captains of industry will be judged by their actions as a result of this unprecedented and perennial crisis, where the storm is unlikely to blow over anytime soon.

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