Workers Don’t Just Work – They Also Know How to Think!

An article in the October 24, 2020 edition of The Economist* suggested that the armed forces have a few lessons useful for non-military workplaces. No, not rewarding employees with service medals or anything like that – what they recommended was having employees use a “war-game” method to talk through team member ideas for achieving a goal, discuss different scripts to implement those ideas and evaluate the effectiveness of their decisions, situations and possible outcomes. It also helps them discover what might go wrong in the process of making an organizational change or implementing a strategic plan and to prepare for surprises.

The Economist spoke with Captain Gareth Tennant of the Royal Marines, who dealt with some Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden in 2010. His team intercepted the pirates, confiscated their weapons and then were attacked. It became chaotic, but the team did not wait for orders – they acted right away because they had war-gamed what might go wrong. Capt. Tennant, now back in civilian life believes that, “the habits learned in the Royal Marines can be useful for business life.”

Another good method from the military that can empower employees is using the Before Action Review (BAR) technique. It is a great way to help a team start a project and to learn three important things: (A) How to clarify their intentions before beginning the project, (B) How to draw on lessons learned from past experiences to identify potential challenges and risks in the project, and (C) See what knowledge they already have and what they need to learn more about.

When I Googled “Before Action Review”, I found a set of instructions for doing this exercise, which promised to deliver “Fast, real-time learning in the midst of doing your normal work”:

  • When to use BAR: Before meetings of staff, team or board of directors.
  • What to cover in the conversationget specific about answering 6 questions:
    1. What are the intended results?
    2. What will that look like?
    3. What challenges might we encounter?
    4. What have we learned from similar situations?
    5. What will make us successful this time?
    6. When will we do an After Action Review?

The After Action Review (AAR) is the “closure” or feedback conversation. The instructions look like this:

  • When to use AAR: After meetings of staff, team or board.
  • What to cover in the conversationget specific about answering 6 questions:
    1. What were our actual results?
    2. What caused both the successful and the unsuccessful results?
    3. What will we maintain?
    4. What will we improve?
    5. When is our next opportunity to test what we have learned?
    6. When is our next Before-Action Review?
  • Special notes: Who should we copy this to? What other action items do we have?

All three of these tools – war-gaming, BAR and AAR – support team members in becoming more able to adapt quickly to surprise events and more proactive in planning and taking effective action.

But perhaps the best aspect of this method is that it has the employees doing the planning and testing of their own ideas to accomplish something, instead of having to wait to be told what the boss wants done. An image offered by Mr. Tennant is that “the ideal command structure is not a rigid hierarchy, but a sphere, where the core sets the culture and the parts of the organization at the edge are free to react to events outside them.” Using this image, we can see that command is centralized, and execution is decentralized.

We tend to expect the hierarchy to direct people in taking actions or producing results. It is surely better to develop people so they can see for themselves what will be successful and how to overcome barriers and resolve problems. As the closing line of this Economist article said, “In business, as in conflict, it isn’t the generals who carry the burden of the war; it’s the troops.”

* This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Fighting spirit”

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