‘Communicating with clarity – formatted to facilitate understanding and extrapolation of tasks and Collaborating in a structured manner across silos.
As in war, communication dominates strategy in a crisis; especially as business leaders plan for what life will look like for their companies as, and when, lockdown eases. Big changes will be needed to rethink and reorganise decimated operating models, regenerate cashflow and reduce costs. Greater resilience will also be required in supply chains, among workforces and in operating practices. In these unprecedented times of fear, uncertainty and unlimited risk liability, employees will be crying out to know that their bosses have a plan. There will be gaps in strategy due to the existence of many unknows, but people will need to be furnished with the outline intentions of senior management and have a clear idea of their part in them.
Jargon loaded corporate communications are not known for clarity, precision, transparency, or authenticity, however, this is precisely what is required in times of great volatility. They must also be timely. Explaining what is happening, what needs to be done and what is being done now, and in the future must happen quickly. The alternative is frustration, greater uncertainty and damaging rumour and speculation, as people seek to find answers elsewhere. Consequently, if organisations are going to prevail in vastly different circumstances to the norm, they are going to have to learn to communicate differently and more effectively.
Communication is key in making order out of chaos and the military have developed formula for capturing, analysing and passing information in a timely and clearly understood manner. It facilitates absolute clarity of intent and allows leaders at all levels to extrapolate what mission related tasks they must conduct to support the plan. The formula is broken down into set headings of: Situation, Mission, Execution, Coordinating Instructions and Communications.
Staring by articulating the context of a ‘Situation’ engenders shared consciousness in terms of context, challenges, risks and unknowns, before stating the ‘Mission’ with a unifying purpose to achieve the desired end state. ‘Execution’ then outlines the ‘Concept of Operations’, giving detailed leadership intention, the high-level plan and the main effort; defined as the most important activity requiring the priority of resources and focus. The final part of ‘Execution’ lays out the detailed missions and tasks for specific functions and personnel. The format ends with important administrative detail under Coordinating Instructions, which includes timelines and Communications, which confirms task orgs resources and reporting lines.
The military’s formatted communications use common and simple language, sets out the role of different functions in the plan and cascades through an organisation. The outcome is that senior intent is translated into tactical action. In Afghanistan, we didn’t have all the answers, but we told our people what we knew, what we believed we had to do and what they needed to do to play their part in achieving the collective end state. Even if the precise journey to get there was uncertain and subject to change, everyone knew their role in the mission as part of one team with one purpose.
Formulaic in construct, the template can be adjusted to provide brevity and precision under fire in the form of quick battle orders. These were essential when information needed to be analysed and passed quickly, up or down the command chain when a situation changed and people needed to assimilate and act on information under pressure. It also allowed leaders to inject their personal imperative and own the message. Importantly, it enabled them to speak with authority and a level of confidence and authenticity. This inspired trust in high-risk situations where there was never any place for the abrogation to HR scripts or the corporate comms department.
Communications must also instil better collaboration than is the current norm in many businesses, which will need to endure beyond the sense of immediate crisis. A new era of exceptional teamwork is required. As matrix management, with its tendency for bureaucracy, internal politics, siloed-thinking and confused accountability, of ambiguous dotted lines, is unlikely to be sustainable in the ‘new normal’. Instead Collaboration mechanisms must be deliberately structured in a manner, which cuts across all functions in a company, engenders collective accountability, harnesses diversity of thought and permission to challenge.
It needs to be fostered like an orchestra, where each instrument plays in harmony with the others to an agreed score. The military call it ‘all arms cooperation’ or ‘jointery’, where different services: air, sea and land or specialisations, such as infantry, armour and logistics operate as one large combined team. This can also work in the commercial world.
During the Arab Spring in 2011, where there was a real danger of losing colleagues when Egyptian law and order collapsed, we adopted a ‘joint’ cross functional approach to rescuing them. It was based on each department, whether business unit, HR or security function, having a clear role in the specific phases of the plan. Crucially, it designated which element had lead responsibility at any one point in time. This was the ‘supported’ component and other departments were designated as the ‘supporting’ elements. Whether a function was ‘supporting’ or ‘supported’, changed as the focus of an activity and required lead responsibility and expertise shifted, but it ensured clarity of purpose and generated collective accountability.
The symbiotic nature of the relationship was agreed collegiately in our planning meetings. Every department was invited and encouraged to step forward, express their ideas and challenge. It generated a healthy muscular tension, which knitted the team together as a whole. As a consequence, the final decisions we made were better informed and had a unifying and binding effect once they were taken. It bred transparency and accountability and the approach worked in the moment of crisis when lives were at stake. Sustaining it as BAU was more problematic. However, crisis is now BAU as risk to life, welfare and the survival of businesses is the new standard. Consequently, there is a compelling case to draw on methodology that has worked in previous emergency situations. The variance today is that it needs to become sustainable as a different approach going forward well beyond tomorrow.