Covid-19 – Mission Purposing Organisations Through the Crisis – Empowerment

April 16, 2020 Dan McDonough

Establishing Clear Mission Purpose Alignment – with unifying intent and Empowering Teams within strategic intent.

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Barely a month on, the advent of Covid-19 continues to draw parallels with a battlefield.  Business assumptions, which were valid just five weeks ago have collapsed and most companies’ short-to-medium and long-term plans lie in tatters.  Workforces are dispersed and isolated for survival, and they are likely to remain distributed as organisations also adjust to a reducing future requirement for office space in the ‘new normal’ operating environment.  In tandem, CEOs will have to continue to fight on multiple fronts as cash shortages and fragile supply chains threaten the very existence of their organisations.

As the first UK unit sent to southern Afghanistan in 2006, 3 PARA’s mission was billed as a peace support operation.  The official assumption was that there would be little, or no fighting and the Government declared that they would be delighted if the unit returned from Helmand Province without firing a shot.  Six months later we had burned through half a million rounds of ammunition in nearly 500 engagements with the enemy. Sent with 1,500 soldiers, the battlegroup was dispersed over 40,000 square kilometres of hostile territory holding several remote district centres from relentless Taliban attack.  Resources were stretched to breaking point and logistic resupply lines often came close to failure. The area we held, later consumed 24,000 British and American troops. On several occasions we nearly ran out of ammunition and resupply and casualty evacuation could never be guaranteed. However, mission purpose and empowerment became crucial aspects of 3 PARA’s ability to adapt, adjust and prevail in adversity.

If businesses facing the Coronavirus crisis are to survive and prevail beyond it, mission purpose also matters.  It needs to align to the collective situation that confronts them and must contain a unifying intent, which runs as a single narrative throughout an organisation, where every employee knows their part in the plan: from the CEO to call centre operator, from senior to junior management to individual machine operator and checkout assistant.

In 3 PARA no-one believed in the original mission concept as fear, uncertainty and unlimited risk liability became the new constants of circumstantial reality.  Consequently, we had to re-cut the mission purpose in a manner that aligned to the situation we faced and made sense to every one of the diverse elements that made up the battlegroup.  In short, it was to hold the ring, prevent the fall of the district centres by offensive, as well as defensive action, which became the stated main effort in order to set the conditions and buy time for the UK to determine its future strategic response.  Irrespective of specialisation, everyone knew that they had to be a fighter first, that their job was to support the main effort and that every individual, regardless of background or position, brought something to the table and was valued for it.

To be effective, mission purpose must be backed by empowerment.  In Afghanistan, the biggest leadership challenge was where to place oneself on the battlefield, when any one location could have consumed complete command attention.  The answer lay in the decentralised leadership philosophy of mission command.  It empowered direct reports at all levels to use their initiative and on the spot information to make their own risk-based decisions, to deviate appropriately to meet changing circumstances or to seize fleeting windows of opportunity, without delegating upwards.  

Mission-orientated empowerment has several requirements.  Firstly, absolute clarity of mission purpose, with clear articulation of strategic intent with an emphasis on the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, rather than the detailed tactical ‘how’.  Secondly, it needs to be underpinned by a standardised, formulaic, well-practised, but highly flexible decision-making and planning methodology, which can be utilised throughout an organisation.  Penultimately, it also requires resilient leaders at all levels who are accountable. However, it also requires mutual trust, as accountability cuts both ways and if people are to embrace delegated authority, they must be allowed to experiment within intent and necessitates a tolerance for honest mistakes.  This in turn breeds transparency, more accountability, better learning and team performance improvement.

Mission focused in a way that makes sense to them and suitably empowered, people in any organisation are more likely to step up and improve their resilience and productivity even in the face of crisis.  They will become more agile, more motivated and more wedded to an organisation. In turn the businesses they work for will become faster, more responsive and better able to withstand shocks and seize opportunities in comparison to those competitors, which lack mission orientated empowerment.  It will take investment in the way a company decides, plans, collaborates, communicates and ultimately in the way it leads its people; themes that will be covered in more detail in subsequent thought bites beginning next week.

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