In a military context, staff decision making is about harnessing the deep intelligence of specialist staff to generate a well-formed plan. In this podcast episode, we unpack when staff decision making should be used and how it translates to the business world.
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Any.Talk Episode #12: Staff Decision Making
Annie-Mei: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Any.Talk. I’m Annie-Mei Forster and today on the show we’re going to be talking about staff decision making. We’ve got some new guests on the show today but first I’d like to welcome back Anywise General Manager Steven Kouloumendas. Good morning, Steve.
Steve: Good morning, Annie-Mei. Thanks for having me again.
Annie-Mei: And our guests on the show today are Susan Kruk, Ben Bridge and Eric Dempster-Hoad. Good morning Susan, Ben and Eric.
Susan: Good morning, Annie-Mei. Thanks for the invite today.
Ben: Hi, Annie-Mei
Eric: Hi, Annie-Mei. Thanks for having me.
Annie-Mei: Alright, I’ll start with you Ben. Can you briefly talk about what staff decision making is?
Ben: Staff decision making for me is utilising the deep knowledge of staff specialists. So in the army it was what they called BOS. There are eight of them and it basically looks at, aligned to your core specialisation. Whether or not you’re in logistics or whether you’re a flight support person or an intelligence person. Those people have a deep understanding of that part of the battle space. So it’s about harnessing that deep intelligence of the staff to generate a well-formed plan.
Annie-Mei: Okay great, and when do you need to use it?
Ben: Traditionally it was used for more complex problem solving. So if it was a run-of-the-mill idea. So you had a platoon of people that you needed to go to the range to do a basic low fire, you’re not going to employ a staff-driven process at that point. You should be able to template it, it’s relatively straightforward.
But if you’re doing operations at company combat team or battalion battle group or above, that’s when you would start looking at using a staff decision process to make sure all of those sub-specialisations were accounted for in that more detailed plan to make sure you were looking for key problems that were being solved as part of the planning process, as opposed to having them come to light when you rolled across the line of departure and started the mission itself.
Annie-Mei: Okay, thanks Ben. Eric, Ben started talking about how you use staff decision making. Did you want to go into that in a bit more detail, in your experience?
Eric: Yeah, thanks Annie-Mei. So my experience in staff decision making is somewhat limited to my time in the military. Most of it was during courses, which Ben and I will talk to a little bit more later. But how it’s implemented from a military context, is that there are a set of steps and processes that need to be followed. That’s all directed and guided by a key facilitator. In the military context, it’s the Chief-of-Staff.
And that process enables, as Ben was saying, all the key elements of planning a team to provide input, have the ability to speak their minds and call out potential issues. Ensure that all those key BOS (Battle Operating Systems) are addressed so that, as Ben said, you don’t run into issues when you step across the line of departure. From a military context, it gives you the ability to make sure you’re ticking all those boxes and covering off on all the potential issues and risks associated with a plan, to come to a more rounded solution.
Annie-Mei: Okay, thanks Eric. Steve, how does decision making in a military context translate to the business world?
Steve: Yeah, thank you Annie-Mei and good question.
So, my experience with the staff decision making process and looking at it from a military context and then having that applied in the business world and the corporate world. My experience is limited to just seeing that in the corporate world.
So I’ve worked for a number of different companies, large and small, and have observed and been involved in some of the decision making process for some of the more complex and important questions that a business faces. And seeing different approaches to how that decision is made and there’s certainly an element of making that through that captain’s call.
So who is at the top of the hierarchy.
The person responsible for the decision based on gut feel, instinct. And then there’s a different approach to it. Part of what the military appreciation process does really well – and I’ve seen it put into motion in a really strong way in a business context – is actually making sure that those key players, like Ben talked about before, so people with deep expertise are providing their input to that decision. And are only providing a view and perspective that only they can truly, deeply know about. And how that actually can change the corporate landscape and the impact of that decision.
The military aspect, that’s the battle space and how it changes the outcomes on the battle space. In the corporate world that may be a really deep expertise for someone in the R&D department or specialist in cybersecurity, or something like that, that may not have the input to that decision and outcome if it wasn’t done using this type of process.
So the importance of this process and getting everyone involved in it. Leveraging expertise, leveraging the process of making sure the problem is framed in the right way, but also understanding your options. And then having the solution, or the potential solution to put forward to say we’ve explored all the potential courses of action and we’re recommending a certain path because that would lead to the best outcome for all stakeholders involved.
Ben: And Annie-Mei, if I could just jump in on what Steve just said. The other powerful part from a business perspective, is the staff are getting paid well to do a function. And therefore, allowing the staff to sit down and have a quality facilitator lead them through a process, then provides a well-researched, well supported facts and data decision brief to people like Steve as the General Manager. So that he can focus on growing the business on the big ideas, on all those things that a General Manager has to do, without becoming bogged down in the weeds, in some cases what are quite small decisions.
So it’s a powerful tool to let people in an agile business like Anywise, focus on the things that are most important to their role in the overall structure.
Eric: I’ll jump in there as well. I think one of the key elements of this whole process is what in the army was called ‘Commander’s Intent’. So the ability of people, such as Steve, General Managers of operations and directors of a company to provide that clear, key guidance at the beginning of any staff decision making process. And for the staff to have key check-in points throughout the decision-making process to ensure that they have understood that intent at the beginning and that they’re still focused in on it throughout is key to ensuring that you get the right outputs at the end.
Annie-Mei: Okay, thanks guys. Susan, do you think having a background in defence makes it easier to work in the business world and do you think people who have that military background have the skills and are able to handle situations easily?
Susan: That’s a really interesting question, Annie-Mei. I think it really depends on each individual because you can go through certain training and then still not have that built into you as much as someone else.
I think for myself it’s probably enhanced the way that I operate in the business world. It has provided structure around how to face a problem and make sure you are calling on other people who have experience and expertise to offer their input and advice. Then being in the position of being asked that input or advice does make you feel like you have a voice to help solve the solution, feel important and part of the team.
Sorry, the second part of your question?
Annie-Mei: I think it was about people in general with a military background being able to perform better under stress or certain situations?
Susan: You would maybe expect that. Different situations bring different stress levels, I think. Generally speaking, yes because we’ve been taught a certain way, we’ve been shown certain structures, certain processes and certain frameworks to work within. So yes, we can then take that into the business world and have that background of how to follow a particular order of decision making. So maybe yes, generally speaking.
Eric: I think experience in the military gives you a background and a methodology that you can apply to some parts of life. And it can help in the business world, Annie-Mei, but as Suez said everyone’s different. So some people take some things away from military training and experience, other people might look back and say that it didn’t really provide them much.
It gives you a framework and a mindset that you can apply to life in different situations. And generally, I would say that can be helpful.
Ben: And I think it depends on what field you go from the military into. So if you go into a nice corporate sector, no one wants to see you rocking up in your 5.11 tactical pants, cool guy Oakley sunglasses and stuff. So unless you’re working in a gun store or something like that, you can use the lessons you’ve been taught and apply different labels to them to make them appropriate for your new work space. But trying to shoehorn your military experience onto people in your new workplace is probably not a good way forward to integrate yourself into a new team. I’d suggest.
Susan: I would tend to agree with that actually. Just thinking of one of the jobs I had shortly after a couple of deployments. And therefore, a lot is already ingrained in you because you’ve been with your team for six months and there’s a certain way of working. And then to come into that corporate world and use that experience I’ve had where it was a little bit, “Oh, yeah she’ll be right, it’ll get done”. Whereas I had a sense of urgency to get things done, I had a timeframe and I had KPIs.
There was a little bit of pushback of being too rigid and too military. So learning to be a little bit more flexible and let things slide when you’re not used to letting things slide because it’s just not the military way was a little bit of a learning curve. But I got there.
Annie-Mei: Cool, would anyone like to give an example of decision making that has gone well?
Ben: Sure, so my last major position before I retired was as part of a multinational operation in Kuwait, Iraq and Syria. It was called Operation Inherent Resolve. So it was a Combined Joint Task Force OIR and staff-led decision making processes were used every day because this was a corps headquarters.
So it was originally a third armoured corps, and then they did a relief in place transfer of authority with the Airborne Corps while I was there. So you’ve got a three-star headquarters with a couple of other two-stars and one-star or full colonel billets for all of the war fighting functions inside the headquarters. And I think 62 troop contributing nations.
So it was a big, unwieldy place, where there were unfortunately, a lot of people with agendas that weren’t necessarily aligned with the mission profile of defeating ISIS. In the US army vernacular, it’s MDMP the Military Decision Making Process or the marines call it MCPP, the Marine Corps Planning Process, but it’s largely the same they just have different labels applied to them.
So what a staff decision process allowed people to do was get across the fact that there were different nations, different branches of service, different versions of English, to focus on what we needed to do. Which was – what’s the mission? And it was a subset to defeat ISIS.
So in the case of one of the pretty big items was moving a whole bunch of arms and ammunition into Syria from across Eastern Europe and other parts of the world, so that a guy called General Masloom’s forces could be properly outfitted to undertake the clearance operation of Al-Barakah, which was the last major piece of land held by the ISIS caliphate at the time.
So that decision making process being driven by competent facilitators and chief of staffs at various branch levels, meant that a solid plan was put into place and that the tools for the soldiers and our partner forces on the ground would be able to undertake that clearance operation in Syria.
Annie-Mei: Wow, okay. Given that you’ve obviously been to some really dangerous parts of the world, how does that impact your decision making in general and also your life?
Ben: Everything has a risk profile associated with it. So I’m a strange animal in that I came to terms with my own mortality when I was about seven, having seen a documentary on the sinking of the Titanic. I had nightmares for a while, for some reason thinking I was going to freeze to death or drown in the middle of the Atlantic. So now I take reasonable precautions where I can.
For example, I ride a motorbike. I love my bike and I’ll never stop riding it, but I’ll always wear a helmet, gloves, jacket that has CE armour Kevlar, reinforced jeans and I’ll wear boots that have ankle protection. So risk isn’t something that you should necessarily avoid, but it’s something that you should take reasonable precautions to guard against.
And if something happens, for example someone pulls out in front of me when they aren't looking, then I’ve taken every reasonable precaution that I could, that I’ll be able to walk away from that incident and live to ride another day.
So people have a strange aversion for trying to avoid all risk. And avoiding all risk means you sit at home in a hermetically sealed room, having someone DoorDash all your food to you and you don’t really live.
Eric: I think what Ben said too about assessing risk is a really key point of why staff decision making is so important. If we go back to the start where we talked about how it enables experts in their area or their field to provide their input into your plan.
Right there is where you can pull out all those risks that otherwise the decision maker would miss and it enables the team to come up with a plan that addresses those risks as appropriate or at least identifies them and marks them as not required to be addressed. And that I think is a key reason why staff decision making is important and wherever possible for complex problems needs to be encouraged and implemented.
Ben: A great example of where staff decision making should’ve been used and wasn’t, made into a classic movie ‘A Bridge Too Far’. They dropped para forces deep into the European field of operations, based on a premise that they would be able to rapidly advance with the tanks landing at the beach and they would be able to link up. So the airborne forces would seize the bridgeheads and thereby secure the line of communication and get to Berlin two days later. That was the theory.
But the staff process in terms of imagery in particular didn’t realise that all of the fields in Holland were flooded and where they thought they could manoeuvre off road with their tanks, was under two metres of water. So as we all know, the bridge in Nijmegen was a bridge too far and they physically couldn’t drive the trucks and the tanks that they needed to keep that rate of effort moving forward fast enough and the Germans managed to reinforce it.
So there is a great example of someone in the staff should’ve put up their hand and said, ‘Hey, can we just go over the terrain analysis one more time because it looks to me like there’s only one road that stretches all the way from the beaches in France, through all of these low-lying areas in Belgium. Maybe we want to have a really high-risk profile on that one road being viable to sustain the number of trucks and tanks that we need to get there’.
Steve: I want to add to that. This is an example from the acquisition process and particularly the acquisition of military equipment and capability. The one example I have is a positive example of where this process has worked really well. And it’s all about inside large acquisition programs that Defence typically embark on.
These are multi-year, multi-million-dollar acquisition projects and firsthand experience of being involved in one, which was set up to acquire large capability. It would’ve been in excess of $100 million dollars over five-or-so years. And a point where someone in the project realises that everything that had been set up and all the acquisition contracts that had been set up, was fundamentally not going to solve the capability or not going to solve the solution that was intended.
So Defence wants to acquire capability to solve a gap. If that gap will not actually be solved by the acquisition or the contract set up, being able to unrecognise a problem is one thing and understanding how you go about solving that problem in the context of a large project that has taken years to set up, you do have limited options in how you go about that.
One of the really great expectations of this process is to solve problems like that. Where they’re not typically simple problems to solve and they do involve a context of large or input from a greater number of stakeholders and experts.
Like Ben was talking about, so input from the likes of defence, science and technology organisations, other experts from the user perspective. And getting all these guys into that process to define the best outcome and actually making sure that all these millions of dollars that are being spent, will solve the problem and solve the gap at the end of the day. As opposed to some of the headlines and particularly the mega projects that occur, always run the risk of inertia within the large project.
And perhaps at times, people or delivery groups and contractors are tasked to deliver the solution, not necessarily having that vision of the problem that they’re solving and understanding whether what they’re doing will solve the problem. I think that’s a key benefit of this process and having this process embedded across the supply chain and across all elements, in particular in large complex projects like this.
Ben: I think one of the issues, particularly with the acquisition organisation is that people lose focus of the end state and become too one-eyed about the process. Something I was frustrated with in my time at that organisation was that there was too much about, well the book says this, and you’ve got to take steps 1 through 200, but those steps won’t take you towards a path of mission success or achieving the right end state. It was process for process sake.
And that’s something staff decision making sessions should never be. It should never be about: well we ticked all the boxes, we followed every step perfectly, and therefore we’re absolutely going to generate the right answer. Because that is not the case.
The process is a framework and the smart people operating within the framework need to be empowered and help it along by that facilitator to make sure that the reason they’re there, the reason for the staff decision making session is about getting the right answer. Not simply taking the right steps because they’re in a book and they have to go from 1 and finish at 200. And then they can crack a beer and pat themselves on the back.
That’s a big challenge with any system that has a stated way of thinking is being slavish to that process.
Susan: The flow-on effects too can be quite negative because if you have poor decision making or a poor result, the team can be negatively impacted. Because if you are a part of that team that’s also relying on seeing your managers to make these decisions, you’ve given your input and you’ve given all the reasons why something maybe shouldn’t go this way, but they go that way anyway, well then you start to lose trust and faith in your management team.
People can be disgruntled, it can have a lot of negative impacts and having been in that situation before where working with the field crew, engineers and so forth. We had a plan. This is who we use for this part of the job. The general manager wanted to give his mate a go. No we’re not going to go with that company, we’re just going to give my mate a go.
Absolutely turned the job upside down. Had to be reworked. A lot of money spent, time wasted and straight away you’ve got all those negative feelings and negative impacts on the team doing the job and sometimes it’s hard to get past that because you lose that trust.
Steve: I think it’s a really good point about valuing the process versus the purpose. So as you’re going through that process. If you do have that purpose front and centre in mind, there shouldn’t be anything stopping you as you go on that journey of discovery and trying to uncover the different options.
I think some of the best processes I’ve been involved in is you realise there is a game changer in there and you uncover that nugget of information. At that point you call a halt to the process because you realise you don’t need the rest of the process. You don’t need to continue to tick the boxes because you’ve just realised that the decision is there to be made and you now have enough information. So realising you can shortcut the process and make an early decision is part-and-parcel of embedding that process, not necessarily valuing the process over the purpose and the outcome.
Ben: The absolute most important step in any staff decision process is clearly articulating what success looks like which is done at the front end. So most of your time if you were going to allocate a few hours to an activity, most of your time should be spent at the front end of the process. What do we know? What don’t we know and what do we need to know? And getting consensus from not only the staff but also the boss on what is success?
So everyone can be clear and then you can keep that stuck on the wall someplace. So if you’re getting confused, getting tired and you come back from a coffee break, you can look at that succinct paragraph on the wall that clearly defines what success looks like. Because if everyone in the room doesn’t know what they’re working towards, then you get massive deviation of effort. So if you can get one thing right, it’s answering that one question – what does success look like?
Annie-Mei: Okay great, well I think that might be a good place to end on. So thanks everyone for sharing all your personal experiences and talking about staff decision making. So thanks Steve, Susan, Eric and Ben.
Steve: Thank you Annie-Mei.
Ben: Thanks Annie-Mei, appreciate you having me on.
Susan: Thanks Annie-Mei.
Eric: Thanks Annie-Mei