The best leaders and project managers I have seen are those that can differentiate between relevant and irrelevant information quickly, so time is not wasted unnecessarily. It is those individuals, whom through their line of questioning, determine from another person – ‘what is the thing you want?’.

Do not confuse what I am about to say as an excuse for poor stakeholder engagement, or buy-in. This article is geared towards organisations and teams which operate in high tempo environments, experience stressful positions and require streamlined communication in order to survive.

My previous role within the military was one characterised by high and low tempo periods. Due to the nature of high tempo periods, time becomes short to make accurate and well-reasoned decisions often concerning the allocation of resources, and judgements about personnel safety. But what struck me as odd was a phenomenon I can only describe as ‘rambling’. As people got stressed, they felt the need to justify their question prior to asking it. But why would you be saying more when there is significantly less time? – it doesn’t make sense. It only creates more stress. It took me a long time to realise what was happening, but after having reasonable time to deliberate on the phenomenon I think I have figured it out!

As people become stressed they internally perceive the stakes to be higher. In turn, people tend to transition into a self-protection mode (either physically or professionally) – this is seen particularly in the military where individuals are assessed routinely on their technical skills and their ability to operate complex/complicated systems under trying circumstances. As a result, people rearrange the way they ask their questions in such a way that they begin with the justification before asking the question. You might have experienced this before when someone opens with a massive preamble about a problem and all they really wanted was to ask for something simple like a signature for something you already knew about. This is the same issue on a graduating scale.

On one such occasion I was helping run operations in a large scale military exercise. A person (whom I have the highest respect for, particularly their technical ability and their integrity) was ten minutes into a ramble and unbeknownst to them – time from my perspective was very short! I had to ask directly:

“What is the thing that you want?”

They looked at me somewhat shocked as to the bluntness of the question, but I continued,

“If you had to describe in 50 words or less how I can help you best, what would you say? As I have to leave for a meeting.”

Their reply – priceless.

“Can I borrow your computer for a couple of minutes.”

My reply – and a quick pat on the back later.

“No worries”.

Our relationship since that time has never been better. There was no massive social blunder, no awkwardness, just professional courtesy. Since that time, it dawned on me – how many hours of other people’s busy lives I have needlessly wasted by asking questions in the wrong way.

In certain circles within Defence, a technique called Bottom Line Up Front (BLUF) is utilised. It directly addresses this problem – it formally requires the individual to rearrange their correspondence in such a way that the question is the first line read on the document, brief or presentation.

BLUF Example:

I seek approval to move item X to area Y?

Justification:

  1. The item needs to be serviced
  2. Replacement items are inbound
  3. The item will no longer work with system Z which will be introduced in June.
  4. Etc.

The result is the decision maker is queued towards the problem early, and can actively consider the justifications without getting lost in the data.

Please note, when I refer to direct questioning, I am not implying one has to be rude, or unapproachable – quite the opposite. I am suggesting that a strong team with well rehearsed lines of communication should be able to circumvent the need to talk unnecessarily in times of extremis, or high stress. Team members should be confident in asking questions directly, and leaders should be comfortable in their team members’ abilities. Those teams that can achieve this level of operational ability are routinely the same that outperform their competitors.

Now I am not suggesting that Nirvana can be reached in terms of perfect communication, but I would suggest that there are certain things we can do at our level to improve our communication when it counts the most:

  1. Think before you communicate – What is it you want? Be prepared to explain why if they ask. Rehearse your question and answer.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask the direct question – ‘What is the thing you need from me?’ or ‘Please describe exactly what you see me doing to help you?’
  3. Train your personnel – Encourage people to be confident enough to ask direct questioning.
  4. As a leader, be approachable and explain your intent – If you have to ask someone to be direct with their question also explain that you are not being rude and you appreciate direct questioning as it helps you problem solve more efficiently.
  5. Reinforce the correct behavior.

In my own experience, I have seen this work very effectively. Not just within Defence but across a multitude of different agencies. By cutting out the white noise I think I have significantly improved the way in which I communicate. My team members have also adopted the same line of questioning, to a point where it has become habitual. Give it a try!

We have taken many of these lessons and incorporated them into The Eighth Mile Consulting.

We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Leadership 101

Leadership is NOT about you. Leadership is about trying to write yourself out of a job by EMPOWERING others to take over and head towards success.

Leadership is:

  • Helping the team understand the strategy
  • Enabling them to operate in your absence
  • Empowering them to make decisions and take risks, protected by your influence

Leadership is not:

  • Witholding information or techniques
  • Isolating individuals
  • Building a team around you for the sake of ego

Leadership 101 Infographic

Leadership Infographic by The Eighth Mile Consulting

An article by David Neal (Director), The Eighth Mile Consulting

In 2017, I medically discharged from the Australian Army due to a myriad of injuries that were gained throughout my time in the Infantry Corps. This is not unusual or special in any way, in fact it is quite a regular occurrence for serving members to medically discharge due to their service caused injuries.

Where my story diverges from the norm is the way that I ultimately addressed the problem surrounding my chronic injuries, and the way in which my team and I are now trying to give our precious findings back to our Veteran community, and provide them with a solution that might help them win their battles.

Throughout my career I had dealt with my injuries in the same way nearly everyone in the service does, by popping Ibuprofen and Panadol like they are tic tac’s, overshadowed by a deep love for beer, bourbon and scotch.

 

Over time, as the number of broken bones and joints grew as did the need for stronger solutions with an emphasis on Codeine and Opiate solutions. Over time my willingness to use these drugs increased ever so gradually until they became virtually useless, but still left all the negative symptoms such as lack of concentration, dizziness, shortness of breath etc. Simply put, it was not a solution that would work long-term without having serious risks on my health and a high likelihood of developing addictions, or as a minimum a very unhealthy reliance.

When I was finally discharged, I approached my doctor to start developing sustainable longer-term solutions. I was fortunate enough to have access to some incredible medical physicians who were contemporary, understood military issues, were open minded and solution driven. After numerous discussions, the topic of medicinal cannabis was raised in its capacity as a possible solution for chronic pain. This was a bit of a shock to me after having come from a no tolerance community and having been directly responsible for kicking many people out of the Army for their use of recreational cannabis. I would be lying if I also said I was not worried about the judgement of my peers who were currently serving in the Defence force at the time, and would have very little first-hand knowledge in this space.

In any case, there wasn’t a great deal of other alternatives on the plate. I had already had all the nerves fried out of my spine and neck with very little success, with a larger number of surgeries on the way. I really didn’t have anything to lose.

I invested significant research to see if medicinal cannabis had helped other Veterans in similar situations, and it had. Veterans can be very ‘clicky’ sometimes and we often like to speak to our own before we make decisions. I was fortunate to have discussions with a large number of veterans who had also gone the black-market route, utilising recreational cannabis for its pain killing properties. Some of these individuals had experienced remarkable improvements in their physical and mental health as a result of their actions. I had seen the improvements from the outside looking in.

As it was, I was the first to go through the legal prescription process which was a little clunky due to the immaturity of the medicinal cannabis industry at the time, overshadowed by a clunky government legal approval system (TGA). But once through, I was blessed with a solution that not only turned my pain off (yes, off) but also allowed me to stay more coherent, sleep through an entire night (I couldn’t remember the last time I had done that), and generally feel better all round. This was life changing to say the least. My relationships started improving, my moods and confidence improved, and I started feeling younger again. It was a significant jump in the right direction.

The problems I had though was that it was exceptionally expensive ($400 per month, AUD), it tasted disgusting (I can deal with that) and was a difficult administration process to navigate to get there. Another issue was the type of medication one might take; a quick slip of the lips and an individual might agree to a THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) & CBD (Cannabidiol) solution as opposed to a CBD only solution, resulting in a loss of one’s driving licence. The most difficult thing was trying to have it accepted by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs who can be a very slow-moving and bureaucratic beast.

My team and I decided that something needed to be done. We needed to:

  • A. Educate other veterans about how effective this was as a solution
  • B. Warn others about the dangers associated with Codeine, Opiate and Alcohol
  • C. Provide a platform for veterans to become better educated
  • D. Provide a means for veterans to start their journey to sourcing legally approved medicinal cannabis product
  • E. Provide the best chance for veterans to have their prescriptions subsidised by the Department of Veterans Affairs
  • F. Most importantly, remove the victim persona that follows the veteran community like a plague

After a significant amount of searching, we finally met the team at MedReleaf Australia who were willing to team up with us in developing a platform that would make the product better understood, and easier to source (pending the suitability for the individual). In doing so a partnership was formed. We had also met some not so desirable companies in our journey that were clearly focused on using veterans for the sole purpose of making a ‘quick buck’. The MedReleaf Australia team were considered, caring and compassionate about providing a service where it will get best effect and provide care to the people that had fought on behalf of the country.

Since that time a significant amount of research has been invested into ensuring the currency of information in an industry that is currently flying by the seat of its pants. We have also implemented a ground up build of the ‘Releaf for Veterans’ platform which will enable veterans to simply start their journey by visiting a website. Simply put, the Releaf for Veterans platform will allow veterans to be provided with an alternate and easy to navigate solution if it is applicable to them.

In memory of the veterans we have served who struggle with physical and mental injuries due to their service, we have decided to launch the platform on 11th November (Remembrance Day).

I hope that it in some way this project will both practically and functionally help our community of veterans for which I am proud to have served with, and I owe so much to.

I am exceptionally proud of my team at The Eighth Mile Consulting for their professionalism, tenacity and dedication in delivering this project on time and on budget. Amazing work.

Thank you for reading.

My father is one of the most intelligent people I know, blessed with a highly analytical brain, and an ability to simplify the complex. He once challenged a younger version of myself, when I was massively overthinking about an issue. During one of my lengthy rants he stopped me abruptly and asked, “what is it you know?” Not paying much attention (as I hadn’t yet learnt to listen) I went on listing hundreds of pieces of what I thought were truths. He asked again, “What. Is. It. You. KNOW?” Upon further analysis it became evident that all but one or two pieces of information were assumptions, fabrications or guesses at best. This second challenge caught me off guard and has induced a healthy skepticism that has aided me to this very day.

When I stopped and thought about it, I really didn’t know anything. I had jumped to numerous conclusions based on my emotions, my perceptions of individuals (and their behaviour), and subjective observations which if had been seen or experienced by someone else would have ultimately led to very different conclusions. My father, on this day, changed the very way that I look and analyse problems. It has kept me more grounded through a combat military career, as a project manager, and as a consultant.

In 1997, Men in Black (MIB) was released, but there was one quote that really resonated with me. Kay, an experienced MIB operative is attempting to recruit Edwards and has just confirmed conclusively that humans are not alone on Earth.

Edwards: “Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.”

Kay: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was the centre of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow…”

Assumptions Vs Fact

An assumption is ‘a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof”. A fact is defined as, ‘a thing that is known, or proved to be true’.

When I was in the Army, we often conducted planning in preparation for complex emerging issues, conflicts and situations all around the globe. Planning under these arrangements was often characterised by:

  • Limited planning time
  • Very restricted resources
  • Scarce information
  • A complex and confusing operating environment
  • A need to gain early momentum on whatever it was we were committing to.

Our planning methodology was commonly referred to as, ‘assumption-based planning’. In doing so, we would spend numerous iterations of planning identifying a lengthy list of assumptions. These assumptions would become the premise to whatever plans we were simultaneously developing, allowing us to get early preparation and movement. Data collectors and different organisations would push significant time and resources towards confirming whether the assumptions we were using to form the foundation of our rapidly developing plans were factual, or not. It was not uncommon for assumptions to be disproved and would suddenly change large aspects of the plan, at short notice. But when the assumptions were proven correct, it would inevitably have given us the jump on our enemy or would have allowed us to get significantly ahead of schedule.

During my time in the Army we never, I repeat, NEVER made the mistake of thinking that our assumptions were facts.

There is one key difference between the commercial industries and the Army. The Army is deliberately geared towards effectiveness and capabilities, and less towards efficiencies and cost reduction (although effort is still invested into cost reduction). This approach is what largely separates the two communities, as a business that is not continuously reducing cost is likely going to encounter significant survival problems later.

Since my transition from the Army to the commercial sector, I have observed a common mistake for businesses to make sweeping generalisations and assumptions and use them as the basis for an organisation’s overarching strategy. This can be very dangerous! It’s okay to use assumptions, provided there is adequate time invested in proving, or disproving them later.

Misinformation Is Worse Than No Information.

In today’s world we are constantly barraged with information. Information that directly disagrees with other reputable sources. Technology in all its forms has now saturated our brains with so much content that it can be very confusing where to turn, who to listen to, and which medium to approach.

If I could invite you to consider one thing; Misinformation is so much worse than no information. Conclusively knowing we do not yet have factual information about a topic affords you the opportunity to conduct targeted analysis in order to prove or disprove assumptions. Misinformation on the other hand, only offers the opportunity to run down rat warrens, poorly invest resources, and waste time.

Misinformation itself is often manifested by our own personal biases, our aversion to collecting accurate and contemporary data, our available sources of data collection.

“Before the invention of printing press, the problem was, lack of information, and now due to the rise of social media, it is too much information – the former leads to mental starvation and the latter to mental obesity.”

Abhijit Naskar

My recommendation to those teams conducting strategy planning is to spend the time confirming the following:

  • What do we conclusively know?
  • What don’t we know?
  • What do we need to know more about?
  • What assumptions can we make at an early stage in order to get things moving?
  • How do we scale or rate the assumptions?
  • How will we prove or disprove these assumptions later? By when? For what purpose?

This should provide an opportunity to streamline your data collection and ensure that you are only collecting information that you need, and not wasting time and resources unnecessarily.

These are some of the lessons I have taken with me in my current capacity as a Director at The Eighth Mile Consulting

We hear a lot of positive stories, and the ‘how to’ of successful leadership scenarios. This is not one of those. Let me tell you about the time when I got it completely wrong.

I thought as a junior officer I knew the intricacies of leadership and command. I didn’t know at the time how much I had left to learn, and still do to this day. Specific to this incident, was my lack of E.Q. understanding of stressor impacts, and conflict resolution skills.

Do not mistake my lack of experience for a lack of willingness to do good. I cared about my team, their families, their prospects and life goals but, the in-depth knowledge of how they all interconnected to either support or undermine the team was limited. Retrospectively, I believe that in this instance, I subscribed too heavily towards a ‘mission’ first mentality, at the expense of the team.

The Scenario.

For the purposes of this article let’s call the other person Bill.

On return from an Army exercise, a piece of very important equipment couldn’t be located. It was Bill’s responsibility. He was in a position of leadership at the time, and not being able to find it meant that my team was still working, when the rest of the unit had been home for hours. A terrible outcome for the soldiers and their families desperately craving to be reunited.

In this instance, I was unaware of the life stressors occurring in Bill’s life. Bill was always so cool, calm and collected at every turn that, it never occurred to me that his life was literally burning down around him. I had known Bill prior to us working together and he had a reputation for being a strong, fit, competent and professional man. However, I was focused on preparing the team for operations, fixing the overt issues and working on ensuring the team was at a ‘high performance’ level. I was thinking about the group as a whole and did not make the crucial connection of the group being made up of individuals.

Once the item was found, in his kit, I was livid. I counselled the person in a fashion completely contrary to my character. There are no excuses. Stress from a pending deployment, embarrassment from the counselling I received from my commander or even the disappointment that my team had missed out on even more time with their families, were no reasons for my behaviour. 

My counselling of Bill was aggressively vocal. It was completely uncharacteristic of me and shameful. An interaction that wasn’t lost on my team. Bill also did not take it very well and it had a lasting impact on him. It took time to gain the trust of my team back.

Lesson 1 – Provide clear vision and intent, the mission will happen.

If I had looked after Bill, provided a clear vision and intent, I would have enabled him to a way to tell me what was going on outside of work. Then, I could have worked with him to fix it and ultimately, set the conditions for him to succeed. Instead, I undermined his faith in me as a leader.

Lesson 2 – Stick to your values.

My response at the time did not align with my values (accountability and service). Where was my service to this man and how was I being accountable to him? It was my job to protect him and ensure that his faith in me as a leader was paramount.

Lesson 3 – Find space between the stimulus and the reaction. (Bram Connelly in his Warrior U podcast, Episode 01: KC Finnegan – USSF Major, he explains this well.

When the incident occurred, I should have taken the time to analyse and decipher the variables and considerations. The equipment had been found, that was a positive. While the team was the only one left, they were together and all unified in their search. This was uncharacteristic of him, what is wrong? If I had taken the time to absorb all the variables, I may have found out something that could have prevented a greater impact on Bill later.

Lesson 4 – Make the best decision you can with the information you have.

At the time, with the information I had, this was not the best decision I could make. I knew this man extremely well and I knew it was out of character. Instead of confirming information, I sought to transfer anxiety from my Commander to him.

Lesson 5 – Know your people, they are not their behaviours.

I didn’t find out until later that the interaction had a long term and devastating impact on him. It impacted his Afghan deployment and contributed to some long-term issues. To his credit, he reached out. He explained how the incident had impacted him and it was something that he had never really let go. I had no idea that the interaction had hurt him. It hadn’t registered to me as something that would have. 

Lesson 6 – If you are wrong in your approach, own it, TRY TO MAKE IT RIGHT!!

After he told me the impact the event had on him, I was gutted. So, I did the only thing I could and owned my mistake. There was an explanation of my thought process at the time and how with the benefit of hindsight and experience, I would have done things differently. Now, I am doing what I can to make it right. I keep in contact with him regularly and it is a constant reminder to stick to my values.

Dave and I have unpacked this a hundred times so that we can learn from it and never make these mistakes again. So, feel free to take a free one from my error. We use our experiences and lessons like these at The Eighth Mile Consulting because it keeps us accountable to ourselves and the good people we work with.

Dont be a jerk and never underestimate the impact your actions have on other people.

I left school at 18 years of age and joined the Australian Army where I undertook 4 years of tertiary and leadership training with the Australian Defence Force Academy and the Royal Military College Duntroon. Most of what I learnt in that time was structured academic education about leadership, management and tactics. I then graduated into the Royal Australian Infantry Corps and was posted to a Battalion in Darwin with a couple of my good mates.

After a very short time out of the College, I was informed that I would be deploying to Afghanistan in a combat capacity as part of Mentoring Task Force II. It meant that I would be responsible for a Platoon of soldiers (24 in total) for the duration of a 10-month deployment. The deployment would prove to be a crash course in leadership and growing up. Basic mistakes would result in death or injury and would likely have implications on an overall strategic campaign that influenced nearly 50 countries.

I thought I would take the opportunity to compile a list of lessons I learnt from the experience now that I am blessed with the benefit of hindsight. Hopefully, it helps someone out there.

Lesson 1 – Leading is not about you

When I left the Military College, I was incredibly self-focused and concerned, as I think most of the newly graduating officers were. My pursuit for excellence was largely overshadowed by a need to win, have a strong career and be accepted by my peers.

Afghanistan taught me very quickly about the importance of servant leadership. People were not interested in a leader that was career-focused. They needed a leader that:

  1. Could voice their concerns in forums where they were not represented.
  2. Could listen to different points of view and find patterns or links which could be formed into a robust plan in a short time.
  3. Was genuinely interested in their safety and getting them back home to their families and friends.
  4. Took an interest in them as individuals and not just an employee.

As my career progressed, I learnt that the more I protected my staff, peers and supervisors and represented their interests, the more plans started to work, and less time was needed to coordinate them. I was also able to work around red tape by leveraging off enduring relationships and loyalties.

Most importantly, I learned that a leader has to find their own style quickly. Copying other leaders doesn’t work, it wastes time, and presents as disingenuous. Furthermore, the world doesn’t revolve around you or your preconceptions of the world. It’s going to tick along if you are there or not, so go and make a positive legacy.

Lesson 2 – Don’t assume you know a person

I left the Military College as an easily influenced, right-wing, caucasian with very limited life experience. In a very short time, my platoon and I was dragged from the protective environment of Australia and spat into one of the most dangerous valleys in the world.

In doing so, this is what I learnt:

1. People are not their behaviour

Some Afghani’s and Pakistani’s that I met in my journey would educate me, by explaining that some of them were not fighting due to hate, ideology, or cultural difference but instead were fighting due to economic pressure, an attempt to save their family, or in order to protect what little resources they had left. I had falsely assumed that they were all out to kill me, and if given the first chance would undoubtedly enact a vicious plan against us. My preconceptions were proven wrong one night when I was in desperate need of help removing bodies from a drowned vehicle and a large number of Afghani ‘fighting age males’ offered me help when I needed it the most, and I was at my most vulnerable. Lesson learnt.

2. The most unsuspecting people are often the most impressive

I had soldiers that were far more educated and intelligent than myself and it took me a long time to find out how we could utilise it. In one such example, I had made a decision that had resulted in the drowning of a Bushmaster Vehicle because of a botched water crossing. This was acceptable tactically at the time as we had risk mitigated against some of the implications but unfortunately had resulted in my team being stuck on the wrong side of a very large water obstacle. Luckily for the team, I had a low ranked private soldier who knew about engines due to his background as a country farmhand. I made the deliberate choice of giving him hands-on control of the operation to recover the vehicle, and then subsequently coordinate the river crossing back to the safe side of the river. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say confidently that he handled the situation better than I could have, and the trust I placed in him to manage the issue was well invested.

Lesson 3 – Risk Management matters, but so does finding opportunities 

I left the college under the false belief that I was fit, fast and unstoppable. My analysis of risk was always skewed towards the capture of opportunity instead of risk mitigation. My approach to tactics was generally aggressive, opportunistic and decisive in nature. I have subsequently learnt that significant changes occur to people’s bodies in their early 20’s which significantly affect their brain. In short, the chemicals that were pumping throughout my body were the same ones that would subtly influence my decision making throughout the tour. They encouraged me to take chances where otherwise I would not have.

In recent years, I have fathered two beautiful children with my lovely wife and the thought of me accepting risks like the ones I undertook in Afghanistan seem laughable. Simply put, I have more to lose now, and hold responsibilities to others.

These days I think I have a reasonably well-balanced view of risk vs opportunity. I understand the importance of identifying and acknowledging risks and opportunities early and determining how palatable a risk appetite is for an organisation. For example, some industries like Software as a Service (SaaS) have incredibly high-risk profiles, as compared to aged care which is quite low. Knowing this helps shape plans, approaches and strategies that suit the context of that organisation.

Lesson 4 – Find the positives in everything

Sometimes it can be really hard to find positive outcomes in the grind of daily activities, but they are there. It is the leader’s job to find them when no one else can see them.

On 02 February 2011, we lost a very close friend of ours called Corporal Richard Atkinson. Richard was a Combat Engineer whose specialisation was finding explosive traps that were regularly buried in the ground by the Taliban. Unfortunately, on this particular day, one of the explosives detonated and killed Richard and injured another engineer. I had listened to the event occur over the radio some 20km away and was with my team a short time after. Not surprisingly the event had crushed the team’s morale and my own. I knew deep down that we were half the way through a long tour, and we had to get back on to our A-game very quickly, or else might lose another person.

My Sergeant and I developed a unified approach. We would focus on the positives we could find. In this case, we hadn’t lost more members of the team despite a strong chance of it occurring – we used this as a means of motivation to undermine the effectiveness of the Taliban attack. Secondly, we decided to refocus our team’s energy towards coming up with the plan for our next attack on the Taliban, which we did. Our next patrol would be one of the most effective of the tour as it was reinforced by an unwavering commitment to deliver harm to the people that had cost us so much. This refocus ultimately kept my team safe and alert for the remainder of the trip.

Summary

My afghan experience taught me a great deal about life and leadership. I am hoping that by documenting some of these lessons, others might not have to re-learn them.

I like to think that I have taken many of these lessons into my current role as an owner of The Eighth Mile Consulting. These lessons continue to be transferable to the business world.

There is some genuine concern and trepidation about taking the first step. My question is, is it actually the first step that you are stalled on? Surely we are continuing something that has already begun. The action is the next step after the idea. The ‘how’ is the next step after the ‘why.’ In that case, the first step has been taken and now we have momentum.

In any project or change there is a slight pause at the beginning, followed by, “how does this thing start?” The thought alone strikes fear into a project or change manager. Especially, if there are tight dead lines. (Aren’t there always?) With your permission, let me share some simple tips and tricks for getting passed the first (next) hurdle.

1. Think of everything as a next step, not your first. The first step is always the hardest right? So… take the next step. It implies momentum and movement. Try re-framing your thoughts from “how do I start this thing,” to “what’s next?”

 2. Focus on the ‘Why.’ If you don’t know the reason for doing something, try and find it. Whenever there is an absence of what to do and how to do it, refer back to the reason why. This will guide your decision making and give your team a context for their own. For example, if I am analysing a next step, I filter it with ‘Good people, helping good people.’ That is my ‘why,’ what is yours?

 3. Establish a timeline with key timings and dead-lines. Building in boundaries and times for delivery, keeps us accountable to something. We know that something must be delivered at a certain time. This focuses our energy and allows us to prioritise what is important at a point in time. This way, we are less likely to get lost in things that don’t matter.

 4. Keep a project/ change notebook (log) – when in doubt refer to it and regain momentum. Ever lost track of what you were saying and couldn’t remember the point you were about to make? Keep a log/ diary of actions and information (mostly to reaffirm the ‘why’) and when in doubt, refer to it. This will allow a systematic and logic method of back tracking to then regain your momentum.

 5. Have a sounding board or mentor that is outside the project – they will provide logical and object perspective. A fresh set of eyes on a problem set is worth its wait in gold. Have you ever heard the saying:

Can’t see the forest for the trees

It means, that we are so buried in the details that we cannot see the whole situation. Take some time to detach from the details and re-orientate on the holistic picture. A new perspective will reveal information that can be extremely useful. Also, refer to point 2.

 6. You aren’t alone, invest in the team. How often have we heard of the best ideas coming from left field, somewhere we had not considered. This starts with the team. Teams that solve problems together are inherently stronger. Invest in that and the team will not only help with the solution but own the outcome.

6. Solve a problem, Then another and one more. Once we have solved enough problems, we are back on track. The biggest threat to delivery is no action at all. We will talk about wasting time and ‘what is the wrong action,’ in a later article.

There it is, some thoughts that might help you through a sticking point and allow you to gain some momentum. I would really enjoy your ideas and comments. 

What gets you through a ‘freeze’ moment? Let us know in the comments below.

When I joined the Australian Army as an Officer Cadet in 2006, my goals were to:

  • Lead soldiers into battle,
  • Positively influence their lives, and
  • Make a positive difference in the world.

Throughout my time in the military my understanding of successful leadership techniques has dramatically evolved from a rigid, authoritative and top-down approach to a more inclusive, group-influenced and adaptive approach. But more importantly my approach to problem solving and decision making is what has potentially evolved the most, and that is what I would like to discuss in this paper.

I once read a book by a late Chinese militarist and philosopher named Sun Tzu, his most famous work being ‘The Art of War’, written to provide context to war and conflict. Originally written to consolidate some of the constants that define war, a large number of its themes can be applied to modern environments, organisations and situations. I found that one particular selection of his quotes stood apart from the rest:

“Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.”

Sun Tzu

This collection of references has colloquially been referred to, or summarised, as Sun Tzu’s ‘flow like water’ and is often loosely referred to in conversations everywhere. What is of particular relevance from this quote is its application to problem solving.

Throughout my life, I have observed leaders, managers and decision makers preach and assess others against throw away terms such as: flexibility, adaptability, initiative and effectiveness, however I personally do not believe that many individuals fully reach their potential in these areas, not through a lack of trying, but through a lack of awareness.

BYPASS OBSTRUCTIONISM

To apply Sun Tzu’s concept of ‘flow like water’ to problem solving we must first apply its relevance to our modern context by drawing a number of constants. Suppose, that an obstacle, hurdle or obstruction (or worse yet an obstructionist!) is likened to a rock within a flowing stream. Suppose further, that water (under Sun Tzu’s concept) is ever moving, constantly changing and reshaping, and is heading in one direction.

Every one of us has encountered a number of obstructionists throughout our own experiences. Characterised as that one irritable individual who has an inability to think laterally, who begins group conversations with ‘that can’t be done’, and lives happily in a world self-defined by boundaries and corporate governance. In the past I have likened such individuals to the’ Vogon Constructor Fleet’ from Douglas Adam’s ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy;’ an officious group of aliens responsible for maintaining the bureaucratic processes of the universe, with no regard for innovation. Please note, when I refer to obstructionists, I do not refer to bureaucratic styled professions, in fact, adaptive thinkers within such job categories have the ability to transform whole organisations by streamlining processes and cutting red tape. I refer primarily to individuals who have turned to the dark side. A team of obstructionists can often lead to toxic relationships, and without fail will hamper an organisation or team’s competitive edge, particularly when delivering projects.

Leaders must be able to identify obstructionists, acknowledge their concerns, and then bypass them in order to ensure that momentum is maintained on overall task/project success. Many a leader has become unstuck by becoming bogged down in obstructionist detail, whilst losing oversight of the original task and purpose. In the Army a term known as ‘marking and bypassing’ is used to explain a procedure by which a team identifies an issue on the battlefield which is outside their scope and capability. This team will then promptly mark it and pass the responsibility to other more specialist teams in depth as opposed to dwelling on the problem. This term can also be applied to explain the process of identifying an obstacle in the workplace, marking its existence and then bypassing it in order to complete the task in time, on budget, and within specifications.

DEVELOP A POSITIVE CULTURE WHICH REJECTS OBSTRUCTIONISM

It is one thing to be able to apply Sun Tzu’s, ‘flow like water’ to your own practices, but how does one influence a team to apply the same forward-leaning, positive approach to problem solving?

Employ the right type of people

If organisations intend to recruit individuals long-term then employ those people that are right for ‘a task’, not necessarily ‘the task’. This meaning, that organisations need to ensure the longevity of their investment (their people), and ensure that when Project A is finalised, the same person might be able to easily transition onto Project B which might have an entirely different scope, stakeholder contribution and design. This is the true meaning of ‘flexibility’ when referring to planning. In practical terms, this might mean that organisations make an assessment on an individual’s potential as opposed to their qualifications. This might also mean that individuals are assessed on whether they are likely to fit the culture of the organisation based on personality, approach to problem solving, and their work ethic. If you have obstructionists in your team, find a way to negate their effects, re-train them, re-assign them (to a better suited role), or worse case remove them completely.

Publicly encourage adaptive and ‘out of the box’ thinking

Leaders must always encourage adaptive thinking by individuals who demonstrate initiative. Ideas and concepts from staff are simply that, nothing more, nothing less – it’s not personal! Furthermore, leaders must be able to identify those contributions that are obstructionist versus those that are complimentary or constructive to the planning process. Positive contributions must be acknowledged publicly to the entire team, and similarly, obstructionism must be identified and as such bypassed or negated. Just remember, you do not need to use everyone’s contributions, but you do need to acknowledge its existence and intent.

Leaders must take risks and accept responsibility

Leaders must apply the principle of ‘risk versus return’. A team which consistently adapts, evolves and adjusts to changing conditions needs to take risks in order to maintain pace with competitors. This ultimately results in higher risk for mistakes. Good leaders must accept the full responsibility for their team’s mistakes, and in return they will receive greater followership and continued involvement from their team. Remember, never blame your team! Also, a successful leader does not blame other areas or departments in order to shift blame and make a common enemy. The most successful leaders I have seen have demonstrated humility and have gone to extensive efforts to provide context as to why other teams within their organisation have made their decisions. Word travels quickly, and this positive gesture may be returned to your team at a later date.

Train your team to be able to plan in the absence of information

Successful and adaptive teams are those that get ahead of the game. They demonstrate the ability to plan in the absence of all the information. They make experience based assumptions that allow them to get to further stages of planning. These assumptions are then either confirmed or denied concurrently, or in subsequent stages of planning. In any case, the team maintains its momentum in the correct general direction. Obstructionists by their nature, feel extremely uncomfortable planning without all the information, and can be seen using it as a means to hamper/halt the planning process – do not let this happen!

In summary, do not be a Vogon! If people provide you with constructive ideas, first think how that information may practicably be utilised to better your cause, or your organisation. If you identify obstructionists, mark and bypass them, to find another way to win, and do not get caught in their detail. Remember, there is always a way to reach an end-state, it might just take a zig-zag path around multiple obstacles to reach it.

Flow like water – Avoiding obstructionism

We have taken many of these lessons and incorporated them into The Eighth Mile Consulting.

Our experiences over the last decade and specifically, transitioning from the military into the corporate world has given David Neal and I some perspectives on characterising leadership.

  1. It is not easy and requires constant development
  2. It is lonely and the results rest on you
  3. It is not about you
  4. Be accountable

It Is Not Easy And Requires Constant Development

Leadership is not a nine to five ‘job.’ It requires constant evolution to remain relevant. The leader you were when you began the journey is not the leader you should be today. The lessons learnt, from failure and successes, will shape your leadership style and effectiveness. When you shift roles, projects and teams, the dynamic changes and the personalities change. Therefore, your approach must change. You cannot succeed if you do not continually develop. You will lack the tools to be adaptable in changing environments.

It Is Lonely And The Results Rest On You 

Poor leadership sees a need to lay blame upon others for failure, inability to gain results, poor performance or unmotivated teams. Subject matter experts may be involved in planning and preparation, tech experts may execute the practical and technical delivery but you own the outcome. A leader needs to maintain relevance in teams, actively fight to accept responsibility, and provide a means to buffer other members of the team from unnecessary business friction and white noise.  

It Is Not About You

Your co-workers are more important than you. This might seem confronting to some. If you genuinely care about your people, open yourself up to professional feedback on your performance from them. Your staff and peers will influence your projects when you are not present. By building rapport and loyalty, your team will protect your interests and the interests of the team. Many managers have been compromised by their employees applying ‘malicious compliance’. Meaning, they will abide by the literal directions provided by a manager knowing it will cause issues later.

Strong leaders fight for raises for their staff, not themselves. The outputs of the team will determine whether a leader is deserving of progression. Never forget the team that achieved the delivery. Especially those that surged, stayed late, put their own and their family’s needs aside to deliver an output that would ultimately reflect favourably on you. 

If you are unable to lead you have three options:

  1. Get out of the way and find a better leader 
  2. Become a better leader
  3. Create/Mentor a better leader

A useful explanation can be found in this article, “It’s All About The Humans: Effecting Change Management” by David Neal.

Be Accountable

Team decisions are your decisions. Own them and deliver the outcomes. Team decisions are your responsibility. If something fails, it is your failure (not your team’s failure). If you fail, learn from it and evolve. If it succeeds, it is your team’s success and make sure they are recognised for it. In the long-term, you may benefit from the team’s success but your personal recognition must not be your primary focus. 

Summary

These are our observations and in no way are they a sequenced road map to succeeding. That is your responsibility as a leader to find, and shape. David and I are passionate about leadership and investing in teams. We believe that people make a team, and teams make an organisation. 

A good leader can lead anyone. A good leader also knows how to be led.

We welcome any feedback on our ideas. We are continually evolving our leadership styles as well. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

For the last year Jonathan Clark and myself have been intimately involved with the implementation of a large scale Information Technology (IT) project which influenced almost all aspects of the broader organisation’s finance, sub-projects, customer data, product information, operations, manufacturing capabilities, retail centres etc. Prior to this project we were involved in numerous technology based projects within the Military, as both a deliverer of projects, and as key users. Our experiences have surfaced a number of significant recurring themes and lessons which we wanted to take the opportunity to share with those who had the time to listen.

Systems And Technology Alone Will Not Save You

We have observed an over reliance on technology, and a misconception that new digital systems will fix poor processes. They won’t! They never have, and they never will! Technology is not a silver bullet.

There is no doubt that technology can enhance an organisation’s productivity, capabilities and efficiencies; no one would argue otherwise as history has continuously proven this point. But technology without the right people to control it, guide it, quality check it, align it to strategic direction will almost always inevitably fail. By in large, people operate machines and computers, or at least as a minimum set them in the right direction. If people do not understand the strategic direction, the machines and technology will only seek to provide additional friction. Furthermore, changing a system for the sake of it costs money, time and resources. Too often organisations want to appear to be making changes in order to be seen moving, often very little time is spent on determining the actual reason for the change and the return on investment.

Change Management Is Not An Afterthought

Change Management is not a joke. It requires significant investment and analysis at all levels of an organisation. It is not the responsibility of a single agency or individual to promote change within an organisation. For large-scale change to be successful it requires leadership, champions, preparation and context. Too often, an organisation decides it wants a change but is not willing to give anything up to achieve it. Worse yet, no one is aware as to why the change is necessary or how it will occur. Change within organisations too often starts with the word ‘just’, and doesn’t fully comprehend the gravity of a problem, e.g. ‘justreplacing capability A with B’, ‘just absorb/move another organisation’, ‘just re-train group A into role D, etc.

Money, time and resources will be wasted if this is not taken seriously. The worst case scenario sees an organisation having to undo or regress its efforts. This can be so significant that it can destroy an organisation.

Leadership Is Not A Scary Word

You can change software interfaces and technologies, but unless you have user buy-in and ownership, the user will fight it to the bitter end. Furthermore, if there is no leadership to explain the context, facilitate the time for acceptance, provide a buffer for mistakes, then users will never see the need to make it work.

Jonathan and myself have been blessed with the privilege of having worked for, and alongside some truly amazing leaders in a plethora of different organisations (Military, government, commercial and non for profit). Very often we hear blasé comments about the differences between Leadership and Management, but often when people are asked if they consider themselves to be a leader they balk at the last minute and describe themselves as a good manager. Do not do that. Aspire to be a leader (if that is what you want), do not shy from the responsibilities associated with it and enjoy the privilege of providing meaningfulness to others, and effecting good changes.

Change Is Inevitable, Make Sure It’s The Right Change

“Change is inevitable; Progress is a choice”

Dean Lindsay 

Organisations will experience change, either voluntarily or due to the environments they operate in. Simply put, a business that doesn’t change or evolve with its industry will eventually be left behind. As a result of this many businesses appear to make reactive and impulsive changes instead of forecasted or deliberate changes that will posture them for future eventualities. This often leads to overcompensation and therefore an increase in costs and resources. Secondly, they are often very hesitant to align with realistic and achievable timelines and instead attempt to rush the change and hope for the best. Our experiences have reinforced the following rules regarding change:

  • Determine the direction of the organisation (what does good look like?) – Do not just start making changes!
  • Determine multiple ways to achieve the outcome – Take the time to analyse the problem.
  • Analyse what is not required to change – This is very rarely done correctly.
  • Communicate early and accurately with staff once a decision is made
  • Champion the decision – Enforce leadership at all levels.
  • Plan and sequence the change
  • Enact the change
  • Provide ongoing support to ensure success

There is significant benefit to be realised by enacting appropriate change management. Conversely the risk of getting it wrong can be monumental. Large scale changes (particularly technology based) will not work without alignment from all levels within an organisation. Do not assume the problem will go away with wishful thinking, and do not think you, or your organisation will not fall victim if you choose to ignore it.

It’s not about the technology, it’s about the people.

If you would like to see more of our articles please visit The Eighth Mile Blog.