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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.

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 have decided to honestly document some of our lessons collected over the first six months of operation. We hope it helps people.  

We have tried to gear our efforts towards expectation managing others who may be considering the challenge. In doing so, we will be brutally honest with ourselves and you. It’s the ‘Eighth Mile’ way. 

The Background 

The Eighth Mile Consulting officially launched on 01 January this year (2019). At its launch, the team consisted of just the two of us. We had known each other for 14 years in the Australian Army as Infantry Officers and we were confident that whatever happened, we could trust each other. We knew that we had very different ways of thinking. We knew our strengths and weaknesses very well. 

This was a good foundation bedrock from which to launch a business. People who knows us well, know that we are also brutally honest, and we wear our reputation on our sleeve. Above all else, we also like helping good people. So here goes… 

What Did We ‘Know?’ 

  1. Right platform. We needed a platform that allowed us to explore all of our crazy ideas that we had been suggesting over the years.  
  2.  Only work with good people. We would only support good people, projects and initiatives. We would outright refuse to support anything that doesn’t align with ‘Good People, Helping Good People’.  
  3.  Aim to Grow. We wanted to grow our influence in order to help more people. Secondly, we are good at making friends and we are good at what we do. We made an educated guess that there were many others that would fit into this ridiculously simple criterion, and therefore we could grow our team. We also knew that we needed people who were not like us in order to cover our gaps. 
  4.  Abort Criteria. If it jeopardised our reputations, our values or our friendship, we would turn it off.  
  5.  Strength in numbers. Consulting was a highly competitive industry, and we would grow our influence by doing what we do best; forming teams of like-minded people that support positive causes. We would leverage off their well earned reputations and networks, and they would leverage off of ours. 
  6.  Protect the brand. We would protect the reputation of the brand at all costs, even if it cost us our growth. We are fiercely protective of our brand. 
  7.  No investor funding. We would back ourselves and launch without investor funding. The risk of this was somewhat mitigated by relatively low overheads when compared to other business types. But it also meant we would have to work fast and be very targeted in our approach in order to source revenue for the company.  
  8.  Bite the bullet and operate by the book. Jonathan and I have skills and qualifications developed over many years, but we were reasonably weak at financial processing and legal administration. We knew outright that we would need to seek external help on an ongoing basis to make sure we got everything right and by the book.  

What We Didn’t Know At The Time Of Launch (Top three) 

  1. How many good people there are out there, and how many needed our help. It is difficult to measure, so we went with a gut feeling. We were right, there are heaps of them out there and we haven’t even scratched the surface yet.  
  2. How we would be received by the market and by others. Would we be just another one of those small ‘wannabe’ firms that gets lost in the white noise. This is too early to tell. But we hope that even if this did occur, we would have left the market with a positive impact by having supported some incredibly positive initiatives. 
  3. How powerful our existing network was. Our background was largely Defence, with a comparatively smaller commercial & corporate network from our time in the corporate environment. Turns out we had an incredibly influential and impacting community network that sometimes lay dormant until prompted.  

We are eternally thankful to everyone who has helped our team. We could not have launched this without your unwavering support and loyalty.  

What We Still Don’t Know 

  1. The scope and scale of emerging industries and opportunities. We have our eye on a number of emerging industries, which I believe will have a profoundly positive impact on the world.  
  2. How we are perceived from the outside. We imagine that there are still a number of fence sitters watching us from afar wondering if we will fall off the perch or not. Sorry to say team, we are embedded like an Alabama tick now. More LinkedIn posts coming your way about positive projects. No apologies.  

Top Lessons Learnt 

  1. Ask for help and be humble. We gained momentum by biting our pride early and seeking help from others including friends, family, and all available networks. In doing so we rekindled relationships with lost friends, and I am so grateful I did. The Eighth Mile has been one of the most positive decisions we have made as a result. 
  2. There are bad people. Some people lose their way in life and turn to the dark side. In the short time we have been operating, we have already encountered: 
  • Some people steal your ideas and don’t acknowledge your input.  
  • Some people don’t take you seriously because you are a small firm, and therefore make assumptions about your competence. 
  • Not all the people you expect to support you, will. However, people you didn’t consider, will come out of the woodwork to help. 
  • You learn quickly who your friends are…and were. 
  • Understanding the context behind an interaction could mean the difference between an enduring relationship or a burnt bridge. 
  • Not everyone is operating by the same positive values as you. 

Sometimes these events hurt at a personal level, particularly after having been so careful to screen prospects through the ‘good people’ filters.  

  1. It can be difficult to monetise only supporting good projects. We knew early that this would be difficult, but people are now approaching us about having our positive brand associated with their projects. The difficulty lies with those organisations that are on the fence. They might have good people, but they are doing a questionable project, or vice versa. In those instances, we as a team make a judgement call and see whether we can help them in the areas they need improvement. By in large, most people and organisations are trying to do the right thing. 
  2. You must explain when you are offering advice or it’s a paid service. In doing so, know your value.  
  3. Find a gap. You need to become relevant… quickly. Our backgrounds have taught us to support whatever team you’re in. At times this requires learning new skills, lifting heavy things, and doing things you don’t want to do.  
  4. Small business can be fragile. Cash flow and time are the lifeblood of small business. Making simple mistakes can be very costly. In our case, we invested too much time into the wrong people, which unfortunately drew our attention away from those who were doing good things for others.  

Summary – Moving Forward 

Positives. We have grown from two to six staff (in varying capacities) in the six months. We have good people approaching us for projects and for jobs. We are finding gaps in new industries that no one else has yet seen. Our brand appears to be well received and is now being associated with positive initiatives.  

Focus Areas over the next 6 months. 

  1. Changing people’s perception of The Eighth Mile from being just ‘Dave & Jono’ to a growing business that currently includes six amazingly capable individuals we are very proud of. 
  2.  Cementing our presence in a number of new industries. If you think we can contribute to a positive industry, we might not have considered yet. Please contact us for a chat! 
  3.  Cement our physical presence within the Sunshine Coast area in Queensland, Australia. 
  4.  Communicating our capabilities more effectively. 
  5.  Continue supporting our current clients in making a positive legacy. 
  6.  Continue supporting veterans, emergency services and first responders as part of an enduring effort 
  7.  Grow our staff pool and influence 
  8.  Build our support to the local community  Jon
Jono and Dave at the Better Business Breakfast in the Sunshine Coast

Every six months from now, we will release an article which captures our lessons learnt in an effort to help more people considering the challenge. 

If you would like to see some of our other articles they can be accessed via our website:  The Eighth Mile Consulting

Cheers  

Dave and Jono

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.

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.