Post #7 in the “In Between” series.
I’ve come to appreciate a handful of things about basic military administration and organization since I’ve spent some time away from it. As a leader, you have the very real responsibility of keeping your organization knit together and operating functionally and smoothly by mastering those administrative/organizational exigencies. We often lose sight of just how fundamental much of what we do in the military is.
From my brief foray into the civilian world, let me share just a few things I miss.
I’m sure you’ve experienced a scenario in which two folks who could’ve talked to each other didn’t and ended up planning competing events on top of one another. For instance, an In-Process Review (IPR) meeting is scheduled at the same time as a change of command ceremony. Or in the grad school world, two mid-term exams for classes in the same small department are scheduled for the same day.
Sometimes one gets pushed last minute to accommodate the other, and sometimes you have to suck it up and figure out how you’re going to handle it.
Then there’s a phrase I learned in my last job: “overcome by events,” which is a highly professional way of saying you prioritized other shit and let something else drop. I can understand if those events you were overcome by are urgent fires needing to be extinguished, but if one scheduled event overruns another, there’s a coordination or prioritization problem in play.
The solution is absurdly simple. When separate efforts are pursued within the same battle space and competing for the same resources (especially time, facilities, and man hours), the best way to untangle the conflicts is to get the principals involved in the same room with a calendar and the list of requisite events and dates. Doors are locked until complete.
This is something most Army units do very well, but it’s something that should not be taken for granted. You’ll miss the coordination sorely when it isn’t there anymore and your time—and the time of your organization’s members—is wasted.
When possible, keep work at work
A busted calendar can lead to wasted time, which can lead to work spilling over into the free time of your organization’s members. It’s fairly well studied that adults need free time to recharge so we can be more productive. That goes for military service members, grad students, and anyone else contributing productively to society. The Army is even trying to get a grip on bad sleeping habits in order to promote healthier service members.
There are times that work will seep into the nights and weekends. Leaders should expect this, but those times should be the exception, not the rule. I’ve written in this series about the importance of free time, urging leaders to place value on your team’s free time. Protect it when you can, because not everyone out there does. Much of wasted time can be avoided by coordinating well ahead of time.
In organizations with numerous lines of effort, it is sometimes very easy for bubbles to form. What I mean by “bubbles” is small pockets of isolated, vacuous efforts in which leaders and members are oblivious to the other efforts within the organization. In the military, this could be whole staff sections where one of the shops is caught up in its own priorities, irrespective of the others. In grad school, it could be a single professor failing to acknowledge the existence of other professors and their related assignments.
Bubbles can be toxic. Bubbles cause priorities to be distorted. Bubbles form from a sense of self-importance or just a general (and shitty) lack of awareness. Discourage bubbles. Pop them. Encourage a climate that proliferates a standard and expectation of a shared experience across all intra-organizational groups.
We’re really good about “moving with a sense of urgency” in the Army, sometimes to our own detriment, as I’ve written about previously. We like “fidelity” as early as possible, and we like our stoplights to be green well ahead of an event so we can get a “warm and fuzzy” with plenty of “wiggle room” “left of the boom.” So good leaders establish deadlines (we call them “suspenses” for some reason) and firmly enforce those dates. We encourage a culture that repeats the mantra “early is on time, and on time is late” (again, sometimes to our own detriment). And, by God, when done well, cultivating and nurturing a culture of urgency will yield amazing results.
Some groups suffer when no sense of urgency exists. Maybe you’re not like me, and you thrive on the thrill of a deadline, but I’m here to tell you: that’s no way to run an organization. There are too many moving parts, too many variables. Your people deserve the peace of mind that comes with a well-disciplined administrative and organizational approach to tasks that emphasizes urgency.
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