The Done Right Podcast
Episode 9

Clarify the Mission: How to empower not micromanage your team


Welcome to the Done Right podcast. I'm Jordan Staples and over the past decade and a half I've been studying how people live successful and satisfying lives, both in and outside of work. And here's what I've learned. People in the workforce who are successful and satisfied are the ones that show up, pitch in, and make an impact in their companies. They are the ones who know how to get stuff done, but do it right. So our mission for this podcast is to deliver insight and inspiration to fuel the way you show up at work today. 

I'm here in Lehi, Utah, at Workfront headquarters and I'm so grateful that you are taking the time to listen to today's podcast all about clarifying the mission: how to empower and not micromanage your team. 

And I want to start off by reading to you–I find it hilarious–from an article on HBR about signs that you’re a micromanager:

  1. You're never quite satisfied with deliverables. 

  2. You often feel frustrated because you would have gone about the task differently. 

  3. You laser in on the details and take great pride and/or pain in making corrections.

  4. You constantly want to know where all your team members are and what they're working on. 

  5. You ask for frequent updates on where things stand. 

  6. You prefer to be CC’d on most emails. 

It's just some food for thought here, guys. There was this table in this article, and here's what micromanagers really mean when they try to explain their behavior: 

  1. What chronic micromanagers say is, “it'll save me time if I just do it myself.” What they really mean, “I don't believe it's worth my time to let them try because they won't get it right anyway.” 

  2. What chronic micromanagers say, “too much is at stake to allow this to go wrong.” What they really mean, “I don't trust them to do their jobs according to my standards.” 

  3. What chronic micromanagers say, “it's my credibility on the line if we don't get it done on time.” What they really mean, “the work won't get done unless I constantly prod them.” 

  4. What chronic micromanagers say, “when I am not involved, they mess up.” What they really mean, “the one time I yielded some control there was a mistake and I'm not willing to take that risk again.”

  5. What chronic micromanagers say, “my boss wants me to be heavily involved in my team's work.” But what they really mean, “if I don't stay involved, how else will I prove my worth?” 

Mission command and detailed command:

This just makes micromanagers out to be incredibly insecure humans. And I bet that most of us who have ever led a team are recovering micromanagers. I know that I am, absolutely! Now for as bad of a rep as the term “micromanager” has, here's some news I want to give you. This is actually something that I wouldn't completely eliminate from your leadership toolbox. And here's why. The military actually still uses micromanagement today as a leadership tactic. They still train their commanders on micromanagement to successfully accomplish missions. Sounds crazy, I know, but just hear me out. Historically, the military has employed variations of two basic concepts of command. Mission command, and detailed command. And this concept of detailed command is what I'm equating to micromanagement. Because another term for it in the military is “command and control”. So let me explain what command and control is, and then I'm going to explain what Mission Command is and start to unpack this a little bit. 

Detailed command or command and control is about issuing an order and getting compliance. That is what it's about. Versus mission command, which is about giving or getting clear guidance and allowing subordinates to take the initiative. So this is the philosophy that the military has, is that these two concepts really fall on a spectrum when it comes to leadership. And what they train their leaders to do is to deploy both command and control, and you can put that on the left end of the spectrum; this is the micromanagement, that detailed command piece. And then you have mission command on the right-hand side of the spectrum, and that's where you give clear guidance, and allow subordinates to take the initiative. Now, here's the thing that's interesting. A lot of the content and the leadership development that you're hearing today, we always bias toward the mission command concept, which is tell people what to do and why they should do it, but don't tell them how. Ok? Which is a true best practice? 

What I want to do is I want to read from the army. This is really going to make this philosophy in how they lead out these missions a little bit more clear. So I'm going to read to you their description of the nature of military operations, which is kind of the background to justifying this mission command approach. They didn't always have this. It wasn't always those two basic concepts. It actually was started in the 1980s as this mission command idea, but for hundreds and thousands of years, it really was a command and control philosophy. So let me read about the nature of military operations to understand why they work kind of on this spectrum and this dichotomy, if you will, of how they lead their operation. 

“Military operations are complex, human endeavors characterized by the continuous, mutual adaptation of give and take, moves, and countermoves among all participants. The enemy is not an inanimate object to be acted upon. It has its own objectives. While friendly forces try to impose their will on the enemy, the enemy resists and seeks to impose its will on friendly forces. In addition, operations occur in and among civilian groups whose desires influence and are influenced by military operations. The results of these interactions are often unpredictable–and perhaps uncontrollable. 

“The unpredictability of human behavior affects military operations. Commanders face thinking, uncooperative, and adaptive enemies. They can never predict with certainty how enemies will act and react, or how events will develop. Even the behavior of friendly forces is often uncertain because of the effects of stress, mistakes, chance, or friction. The sudden death of a local leader that leads to an eruption of violence illustrates chance. The combinations of countless factors that impinge on the conduct of operations, from broken equipment that slows movement to complicated plans that confuse subordinates, are examples of friction. 

“In operations, commanders will continue to face thinking and adaptive enemies, changing civilian perceptions, and differing agendas of various organizations in an operational area. Commanders can seldom predict with certainty how enemies or civilians will act and react or how events may develop. Commanders and subordinates must learn from experience, anticipate change, and develop adaptability so they can conduct operations more effectively than their opponents.” 

You can definitely see the parallels with business. So let me keep going. They talk about the army's mission here and how Mission Command fits in: 

“The Army’s primary mission is to organize, train, and equip forces to conduct prompt and sustained land combat operations. The Army does this through its operational concept of unified land operations. Unified land operations describes how the Army seizes, retains, and exploits the initiative to gain and maintain a position of relative advantage in sustained land operations through simultaneous offensive, defensive, and stability operations in order to prevent or deter conflict, prevail in war, and create the conditions for favorable conflict resolution.”

That was a mouthful, but I want you to catch what they said. “The Unified Land Operations describes how the army does its job,” and we just said that micromanagers are the ones that get into the how, and we should stay out of the how. Ok, so just hang with me here for a second. 

“Mission Command is the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander's intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations. Mission Command is one of the foundations of unified land operations. This philosophy of command helps commanders capitalize on the human ability to take action to develop the situation and integrate military operations to achieve the commander's intent and desired end state. Mission Command emphasizes centralized intent and dispersed execution through disciplined initiative. This precept guides leaders toward mission accomplishment.”

Isn’t that really interesting? Let me read from the military's website about this concept of centralized intent or what they call commander’s intent. “Military planners use commander's intent as a key element to help a plan maintain relevancy and applicability in a chaotic, dynamic and resource constrained environment.” I'm going to give you two examples that they shared about–one is military, and then one is business when it comes to this commander's intent. 

Commander’s intent:

So the classic example, which we've talked about this incredible story before, but the battlefield example of commander’s intent is during World War II, the sea and airborne invasion of France on June 6, 1944. This is D-Day. And it had been planned for years. British, Canadian, and American airborne forces planned and rehearsed for months. A precise series of glider and parachute landings that were designed to secure bridges, road junctions, and other key terrains that would enable the ground invasion forces to advance rapidly inland. The airborne invasion forces took off from England and months of planning appeared to vanish instantly. Parachute forces dropped into unmarked landing zones, gliders landed in the wrong areas, and thousands of soldiers from different units were mixed together in the night. It appeared that a military disaster had occurred. Yet only hours later, the original military objectives were being accomplished by ad hoc units that faced much fiercer German resistance. Commander's intent had saved the day. Leaders and soldiers at all levels understood that no matter where they landed, they had to form into units and seize the bridges in key terrain. The plan was a failure, but good commander’s intent and superior training allowed improvisation and initiative to save the mission. 

And we're gonna get into this in future episodes about the value of plans because this is not to dismiss the value of a good plan. But the other example in a business context is this hypothetical that they gave about FedEx. 

So the CEO’s intent or the commander’s intent at FedEx–led by Fred Smith, a former U.S. Marine Corps officer–planning is of vital importance. FedEx operations start at package, pick up at customer origins, then move to the packages entering a large consolidation facility for transportation to their destination. Once at destination, packages are unloaded, enter the destination sort facility, and are assigned to a driver to go to the final delivery address. This seemingly simple process is extraordinarily complex. When you add traffic, weather, customer preferences, cost elements, safety, customs clearance, and package handling requirements. So when a snowstorm closes the roads between Denver and Kansas City, the FedEx plan must adapt. The FedEx CEO intent is to get all packages to destination in a safe, damaged, free, cost-effective manner within the shipment period specified by the customer. Therefore, FedEx managers start rerouting drivers from Denver to Oklahoma City, scheduling extra planes in Memphis, getting extra truck trailers in St. Louis, and adapting sort schedules in Kansas City. FedEx uses initiative and improvisation to adapt the plan to meet the CEO intent of an on-time delivery despite the snowstorm. CEO intent. Like military commander’s intent ensures a successful end state as business conditions change. 

And that's just the idea here. Being clear about the mission, being clear about what the battlefield looks like when the mission is accomplished, is when you're operating at that mission command level. That is exactly where you want to get with the team. But, here's the thing, as I've been researching and digging into what has been the challenge of the military successfully implementing this and shifting the culture from this detailed command to mission command, is that you can't just drop a soldier or a unit into this mission command approach to operations without them having successfully transitioned from the detailed command. Let me explain what that means.

Major General Doug Crissman gave a really great presentation, and he talks about how during the surge of troops that happened in Iraq and back in, I think, 2007–don't quote me on the date–but he was leading a lot of our troops into that surge. And what he was saying is that for the first hundred days, these new units had not operated together to achieve any sort of mission, to accomplish any sort of mission. And so he deliberately as a leader went for the detailed command approach. He did not go into the mission command approach. So essentially this guy decided to be a micromanager. 

But the difference is–and this is where obviously the terminology can shift–it wasn't that he was not trusting his team or being insecure about himself as a leader, which we certainly read about in that HBR article to kick it off. But what he did is he had tighter controls. He did manage and he really supervised the operations more tightly within the first hundred days. But he was doing it deliberately because what he was saying is that the unit has to get their reps in. And we've talked about this in previous episodes, the one on collective excellence. You've got to get your reps in as a team to build chemistry. There's no way around it. But not only the team piece, but I want to speak specifically of the relationship between leader and subordinate. That dynamic, your purpose in going from and starting with, I should say, a detailed command and then evolving to mission command, according to the military, is so that you can do essentially two things, and that is to build trust and reduce risk. 

And I'm going to dig into this with you a little bit. But essentially every team, and you can think of your team, every team and certainly every soldier within that team is in need of your leadership on that spectrum of detailed command to mission command. And you have to be agile as a leader in how you deploy your leadership for those team members. You need to take the initiative as a leader to understand what they need. Right? You need to understand what they need, because essentially what your objective is, is that you need to get them to a spot where they are successful at deploying this disciplined initiative within your commander’s intent. 

When you understand and you both are on the same page that hey, this person, this soldier, is going to be able to pivot and adjust and be agile and still be focused on the commander's intent, that's how you're going to be able to let go. But it's not letting go. This is not about insecurity. This is about development. This is about coaching. This is about helping them and you to have the right kind of chemistry. Because at the end of the day, this is the result that needs to happen, is that leaders and military commanders–this is what we learn from them–they push down authority. They push the authority to their team members. We all, as team members can remember the days and we all still have bosses, and we want to be trusted to do our jobs. That is authority being pushed down to us to do that. But what we need to do, is you might be pushing down authority, but you need to pull up risk. And as one commander put it, you need to put that risk in your rucksack. And basically, your team members know that you got their back. 

Now, I want to wrap up before we get into how you can start to deploy commander's intent and move in this direction. I want to give you a story. This just happened this week of how in the moment, I recognized that I was not pushing down authority and pulling up risk successfully and had the opportunity to shift and pivot. 

So I was meeting with a couple of our team members and we had this big project that we're just getting started with where we're looking to migrate from one learning system to another. And then we're going through basically the requirements gathering process and just really setting up the project charter. And this is a new experience for both of these team members to be part of this level of an initiative. But I very much wanted to give this autonomy and to leverage the expertise that these team members have, and specifically our more senior team member. She has a lot of phenomenal experience with learning design. So I wanted to give her this opportunity to just own it. To just really come to the table. And that was the ask, and that's what we were going to talk about in this meeting was, why don't you tell me what good online learning looks like, and help me understand the technology that we’ll need to support this? 

And basically, as we dug into this conversation, I realized two things about what I was not doing good enough as a leader. And that was one, I was under managing. Which means that I wasn't digging in with her, like I wasn’t breaking it down into digestible chunks for her. And I also was not pulling up the risk, because pushing down authority needs to happen in a context that your team members will thrive in because too much autonomy is going to cripple your team members. So that's why this balance between command and control, or this detailed command and mission command is very important for you to be aware of. 

By the end of the day, the “aha” moment for me in that meeting was just having this sense that I could tell that she had a lot of concerns about the success of this project. I knew that she wanted to make it a success. I knew she was very, very capable. But what I hadn't done a good job yet of, was taking that risk off of her back and putting it onto mine. 

Today’s best next action:

Alright. Let's get into our best next action here, that thing you can actually walk away and do to begin clarifying the mission for your team, and it's not going to be a surprise. You've got to develop a commander's intent.

Now, you can do this at different levels. So if you're a CEO or an executive in a company, you can do this at the company level. You can do this at a departmental business unit level, whatever level you operate at. You can do this for your function, right? Kind of that North Star. We've talked about in other episodes having a vision and kind of what that looks like. But this is very much, what is the mission of your organization? You can do it at that level, but then you also can do it at the project or initiative level. I recommend you do both, but I want to focus on the former, and just having a clear commander's intent for your team. 

So commander’s intents are really broken down into three things, I mean, to just keep this simple, but we'll have a download of a worksheet available to you. 

  1. Outline Clear Outcomes

The first thing is outlining clear outcomes. You've got to be clear about what “mission accomplished” looks like, and there's a lot of different ways to do this. But essentially, you can answer the question, fill in the blank of, “the clear outcome of achieving our purpose or vision looks like____” and describe what that is. 

  1. Identify Key Actions

The second component here is to identify key actions. And this is again, where we need to kind of take a step back and understand why we're even trying to use commander's intent and this whole philosophy of mission command. This is not to replace the detailed command because you need detailed command to get your team to a place where they can operate successfully within this mission command approach, or where they can exercise this disciplined initiative within that commander's intent. And the way you can adjust your level of how detailed or how not detailed, what kind of mission level you're operating in, just depends on who you're talking to on your team, and certainly depends on how new that team is with working together. So at least answer this. You've got the outcome described. But the key action, at least answer, “the single most important thing this team can do right now is____” and then fill in that blank. Because what you want to do, regardless of where the team is at, is engage them in establishing how the team will accomplish this objective. Let them be part of it, identifying these key actions, but don't make them guess. Don't make them guess. If you have expectations for how it needs to go down–which the military absolutely does–there's nothing wrong with that. But you need to exercise your own savvy on what level at which you need to help define the “how” we're going to achieve the objective. 

  1. Determine Operating Constraints

And the third component of the commander's intent will actually help with that. And that is, you need to determine the operating constraints. And at Workfront, this really looks like our KPI’s, this really looks like metrics because, really, the metrics need to serve the former two pieces. You need to have metrics that are going to tell them what that outcome, what success looks like. So metrics, they're going to give them that indication, kind of the scoreboard. And then you need to also have metrics that help them understand what's happening as you're executing on that project or initiative and how-to, and what action they need to take. So basically, you guys have read about it before, not the topic we're going to get into today, but, you have to have action-oriented data, right? These metrics need to mean something and empower them to act. 

So again, to summarize, the first part of your commander’s intent is outline the clear outcomes. Number two is identify the key actions, what is the single most important thing your team can do? And then three, determine those operating constraints, those metrics. As you do this and you watch how this helps or doesn't help your team, you'll know when you need to lean in and be more of a detail commander. And you'll then know when you need to back off when it's working. Get out of the way. Right? You need to push down authority and really pull up that risk because that's what this is ultimately trying to do, but do not be afraid to dig in and lean in with your team when it's appropriate. Be flexible, be agile. And that's really how you're going to empower your team, is to always be building toward mission command. But you've got to start with that detailed command approach.

Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. You can find more information about the topic and continue the conversation at The Done Right podcast is hosted by me, Jordan Staples, the show is produced by Workfront. Our team includes Jeremy Tippetts and Marc Hansen. 

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