Adaptability – Purpose, Context and Enablement

The traditional models of leadership focus on clear instructions and measurement of specific actions. Hierarchical command and control was developed in military organisations intent on bring order to the disorder of large numbers of people on complex battlefields. In a rapidly changing world, there’s a danger that this command and control model completely breaks down – too slow, too rigid and too ineffective to achieve its goals. In many cases, the first people to change their thinking have been the military

Years ago, I heard a talk by Lieutenant Colonel James McMahon who was at one time commander of the Australian SAS forces in Afghanistan. His advice to a group of aspiring business leaders was always explain what was known of the situation and be clear on the purpose, but never dictate how the mission should be achieved. Highly engaged, skillful and creative teams will find ways to deal with complexity and change that will achieve the mission and surprise you. His stories of the resourcefulness of Australian troops in a complex and changing environment were remarkable.

The role of leaders is to set a purpose and a context and to enable people to act fast and effectively on their own decisions to achieve success. US Air Force Col John Boyd described the concept of the OODA loop. The OODA loop highlights that there is strategic advantage in being faster than competitors at observing, orienting, deciding and then acting. Organisations that are quicker round this loop will be harder for their competitors to predict, have a better view of competitor’s actions & intentions and be better at execution.

Clarifying purpose and context accelerates teams through the Observe and Orient stages of the OODA loop. Activities like briefings, induction, Scenarios and role plays are great to help people to build understanding and skills in anticipating what might be encountered. They know faster where they are and where they want to go.

Building enablement will accelerate the ability to Decide and Act. However, you need to choose and skill people for their ability to decide and act to achieve success on their own. You also need to leave decision making in the hands of the individual to act and respond to the changing circumstances that they see.

There are always trade offs. Maybe the observation and orientation won’t be perfect on the ground, but it is rarely better at a distance. Maybe the decision making and action won’t be as sophisticated as it could be, but speed and adaptability is usually more important than perfection.

Give up a little command and control. Focus instead on providing purpose and context. Then enable your teams to adapt with maximum speed and effectiveness.

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