One of the most distinctive memories from my early days within the Army was one of my respected Sergeants suddenly and abruptly correcting one of my trainee peers.
My mate had mentioned the unmentionable…
We were discussing what we should do if we encounter an enemy that was larger or more dangerous than we had originally predicted, and someone mentioned the word ‘retreat’. The response from my sergeant was immediate, ‘Australians DO NOT retreat!’. He went on to explain that we might withdraw in the interest of finding a terrain that was more conducive and favourable for us, but we do not retreat.
This is a statement that has stuck with me since that time. It speaks of the importance of always moving forward and regaining the initiative. Of remaining focused and deliberate in everything we do. It accepts that at times we might have to take a step back, but this should only be done to regain our footing in which to be able to take more steps moving forward. Over the years this phrase has spread its utility into most aspects of my life such as:
- Personal and Professional Development
The Importance of Strategy
But here is the catch, it is predisposed on an assumption that we know what direction we should be heading. What point is there moving forward if it is entirely the wrong direction?
This is why having a strategy is so incredibly important. A strategy is a framework which sanity tests our decisions in short time, in order to allow us to stay focused on heading in the right cardinal direction. I have seen so many people get this wrong at their detriment.
We need to ask ourselves does our strategy (personal or professional):
- Detail what we are seeking to achieve (Mission)?
- Explain what it looks like when we achieve it (Vision)?
- Include a sequence of how we might actually transit there (Goals, pillars, objectives, measures of success)?
- Contain an acknowledgement of what we are willing to invest (or give up) in order to achieve it (resource allocations)?
It is an area that is too often paid lip service, but it is this defining feature that separates good teams from the absolute best.
A strategy allows a team to make quicker decisions, allocate precious resources towards those efforts with the highest impact and effect, as well ignore those shiny distractions which enticingly seduce people off of the centre line of their success.
Stopping the rot
‘Moving forward’ all the time is extremely difficult. It requires consistency, dedication and focus. Traits that can be increasingly hard to come by these days.
Our world is full of ever-increasing distractions and information that act as ‘white noise’ to our concentration. This white noise can incrementally increase for some people to the point where it becomes debilitating to their decision-making abilities. Some teams can become so confused by the pressures associated with these distractions that they reactively overcompensate by creating more and more high priorities. Leaders become withdrawn as the idea of moving forward appears less and less tenable.
For these teams, a ‘circuit breaker’ is required. Something that can stop the spiralling confusion and provide some level of clarity. This often requires a combination of the following:
- Strong leaders & managers with clear roles and responsibilities. Kotter once described the distinction between Leadership and Management, explaining that leaders coordinate ‘change’ and managers coordinate ‘complexity’. I particularly like this description as it is a simple reference for teams to make in order to refocus and distribute their team’s efforts. It is a common observation that the teams that are drowning have not clearly identified the distinction in roles and responsibilities between key roles. Everyone is trying to do everything, and no one is doing it well.
- Objectivity. Sometimes people are so saturated in their problems that they cannot see the overall context. They are literally living minute by minute and the idea of popping their head about the parapet in order to refocus their direction is unimaginable. This is where objectivity is so key. A third set of eyes, from someone who is not so absorbed in the problem, can be invaluable in asking the right questions and assisting in resetting the focus.
- Horsepower. Some teams are under-resourced and under-supported – plain and simple. These teams have often been heading in the right direction but just do not have the horsepower or workforce to get their project over the line. They have been doing ‘more with less’ for so long that they have reached culmination, and they just need reinforcement. Jonathan Clark once said to me, ‘sometimes you don’t need more people standing around the hole telling you how to dig better, you just need them to jump in and help dig’.
- Prioritisation. It is common to see teams that have a massive list of ‘what to do’ they have forgotten to detail what they ‘do not need to do’. The list of what is not required is often more important than what need to do. It stops people being lured down the enticing trip falls we eluded to earlier…
Some of the readers might resonate with some of these observations. If you have, I would love to hear your comments, case studies, and ideas.
The Eighth Mile Consulting team has founded a reputation for helping teams navigate through this confusion. There is an amazing feeling of elation as a team steps over the line of success when things months prior looked dire and unachievable.
For those slugging their way through problems at this very time, remember:
- We don’t retreat, we withdraw to more favourable conditions
- We ensure the actions we are doing are working to an overarching strategy or design.
- We don’t give up, but we do adapt our approach