Vague orders? Or room for you to decide?
There’s an uplifting side to making shit up called, decisiveness.
So often I hear my colleagues complain about some variation of:
• We don’t even have an order for that yet
• For something like this, the order should have 4x as many pages
• It wasn’t in the order; so, I’m not doin’ it
What they’re really saying is:
• I don’t like thinking; please, think for me
• I’m too afraid to take responsibility; please, decide for me
• I prefer remaining comfortable more than exercising courage; please, look elsewhere
SAME RECIPE FOR DISASTER, SO JUST EMBRACE IT
When it comes to field exercises in the Army and the Marine Corps, the whole process from planning and preparation, to execution, to recovery… for every one I’ve experienced over the past 18 years…
Disaster. Every time. No exception. Every single one. No hyperbole.
Endless pain, frustration, confusion, misallocation of assets, forgotten or dropped tasks, sometimes forgotten people (like someone accidentally left behind or failing to realize who’s been waiting), lost equipment, lots of wasted time, lots of scrambling at odd hours, and just all-around bullshit.
Yet, generally, the job gets done. One book I read recently, Up the Organization (1970) by R. Townsend, argues that organizations succeed despite its leadership, not because of it. The author, Robert Townsend, shares his rules of thumb at work, which reflect his years of experience in Large Corporate America. His experiences resemble in many ways the large organizations that are the branches of the U.S. Military.
INVENT THE WHEEL ONCE, THEN ADJUST OR IMPROVE IT
The comment in the beginning, “For something like this, the order should have 4x as many pages,” came from a friend of mine recently. He works as the officer-in-charge of the operations section; the number three or four guy in the battalion, depending on how you structure the succession of command.
I care deeply about him, so I don’t mean that he lacks initiative. He definitely has plenty of it. For the particular mission he was discussing, he meant that: (1) he can only decide so much on his own late in the evening while alone and unable to reach anyone else, (2) that higher has done something like this before and thus has learned lessons that it ought to share, and (3) that higher knows best what it intends.
Therefore, higher should just share those lessons and say it rather than leave us to read its mind, and try to predict the future of how its mind will change. If we interpret wrong, then we waste time and resources in the wrong direction. We’ll then need to expend that much more effort to fix the error on top of doing the intended task.
WE HAVE THE RIGHT TOOLS, SOMEWHERE, MAYBE
I’d like to think that higher refers to someone more experienced, wiser, knowledgeable, and that much a better leader. That’s not the case. Even if it were, the details don’t get decided by those people. The order writers at the organizational level one-level-higher are people like you and me who just rotated in, and are now doing it for the first time.
They have the tools, the work products, the files… somewhere, buried, hidden, mislabeled, obscured, labeled in unintuitive ways, filed in random locations… previous lessons learned that would otherwise transform ambiguity into clarity.
The question becomes, does urgency compel that I start creating from scratch now, or do I have the time to research and then try to make sense of the research?
We usually choose the former.
On balancing, I like this concept about reframing the dichotomy, to attempt another question, since the question of balancing itself pits one concept against the other. It dichotomizes an experience perhaps less meaningfully than otherwise.
Life usually expresses more gray areas than black-and-white. Why not both? If not at once, then maybe at different times? If not by the same person, then maybe as a team?
MAKING SENSE OF SOMETHING THAT MADE SENSE TO SOMEONE ELSE, AND ONLY TO THAT SOMEONE ELSE
If researching, the act of researching itself not only proves particularly arduous but so too does the work needed to make sense of the research.
I’ve read sentences in military writing that go, “Plan and prepare for the execution and conduct of learning.”
How about, “Learn”?
And this is after opening the file.
Finding the right files, if they exist… well, good luck.
WHETHER URGENT, THE SITUATION WEIGHS IN FAVOR OF DECIDING
Does that mean making shit up or faking it ’til you make it? Maybe.
Or it could mean simply deciding.
I’d like to think that orders come down with seeming blanks so that we exercise disciplined initiative, so that we retain enough autonomy, discretion, and flexibility to adapt to a fluid situation.
More likely, given a top-down hierarchy and centralized decision-making, higher intended to fill in the blanks but either hasn’t gotten to it yet or was too incompetent to realize the blanks in the first place.
Either way, just decide.
The great part about simply deciding, the times I’ve done it, I ended up telling higher what to do rather than asking and waiting for permission – bottom-up leadership. Does that takes lots of work?
Yes. Taking the initiative means gaining the initiative. It means now having the initiative, the advantage.