Lessons Organizers Can Learn From the Military

Source: Matt Ewing, Journal of New Organizing, December 16, 2009

Regardless of your opinion on war, peace and various types of industrial complexes, there is a lot organizers can learn from the military. After all, these are people who spend every waking hour trying to figure out how to coordinate and lead huge numbers of folks through life-and-death situations.

One of the staples of the Army’s management approach is the troop leadership procedure. They basically boiled down the best practices in creating and implementing tactical plans to 8 relatively simple steps. …. From an organizing and supervising perspective, here are a few of the key lessons:

Share New Information Quickly
Too often we wait until we know all the answers before we tell our team about a new project or strategy. This can be a genuine attempt to manage information well, but too often it is because of fear or getting caught up in the moment. We worry that announcing a new strategy internally, before it is mapped out, could lead some staff to move too fast, and those efforts will have to shifted or restarted later. Or others might take your lack of certainty as a sign of disorganization. But, most of the time we don’t tell everyone on our team about changes because we immediately start trying to create the plan.
Often this delay results in inefficiency and disgruntled teammates who feel out of the loop. So, the smart cookies who designed the protocol established two things principles:
First, they required that commanders tell their troops about new orders immediately. Before you start any planning or preparation, you must share the news with your team.
Then, they created shared assumptions about the nature of these early warnings. Everyone who knows the protocol knows that the early warning order is based on incomplete knowledge, and thus they shouldn’t immediately begin trying to enact it. But, for this shared assumption to work troop leaders must be consistent in how and when they issue these orders.

Create Systems to Effectively Communicate Strategy
Strategies are only useful if everyone using them really understands why they are doing what they’re doing. This procedure is built around several systems to ensure the team leader fully understands the strategy and communicates it effectively to his or her team. Here are three key systems:
1. Understand intent—two levels up
One of the first steps troop leaders must take is understanding their commander’s intent—and their commander’s commander’s intent. This ensures that they understand why the order was issued, and are able to keep the bigger picture in mind as they adapt to changing circumstances.
2. Uniformly well-structured orders
Every order is issued in a 5-paragraph format, covering situation, mission, execution, support, communication protocols. This means that every order gives the bigger picture on the mission, by explaining the situation, while also methodically walking through the finer level details. From the recipient’s perspective, this uniform structure provides a consistent, actionable context for absorbing the order.
3. Aggressive use of “brief backs”
After a troop leader issues new orders, they are expected to ask members of their unit to turn around and give them the briefing. This helps test whether everyone heard and understood the entire mission, not just parts of it, and they understand it well enough to teach it.

Know Your First Plan is a Rough Draft
Anyone who has ever created a plan knows that the real world has this annoying, habit of not working the way you expected (as the old military saying goes: No plan survives first contact with the enemy). Still, too many of us create plans on paper, and then get thrown off when things don’t go the way we expected.

The procedure addresses this reality by creating two distinct planning phases. Before anyone begins moving, the commander is expected to create a tentative plan. This plan is based on the orders received, and best guesses using the available information. Yet the strong assumption is that the first plan is just a starting point. Once this plan is created, the commander checks assumptions through reconnaissance and practice. Based on new information that turns up, the troop leader creates a final draft of the plan.

Plus, all the work that went into communicating strategy pays off when things don’t go as planned. If your team understands why they’re doing what they’re doing, they’re able to adjust and still fulfill the mission’s objective. If they only know what they’re supposed to be doing, they’ll be unable to react intelligently when something unexpected happens.
The 8 Steps
Here’s an example of how using the 8 step troop leadership procedure could work in the progressive organizing space.
Let’s say you’re an organizer working on health care and your DC office just told you that a new vote in the Senate is coming up and you’ve got to pressure the swing Senator in your state. Here’s what you’d do, using this procedure:
* Receive the order: Take a minute to make sure you ask yourself a few questions: What does your boss want to happen? What does your boss’s boss want to happen? What are the explicit and implicit tasks are they asking you to do?
* Issue a warning order: Tell your team (volunteer leaders, coalition partners, etc.) that there is a new vote coming up and you’ll all need to swing into action asap.
* Create a tentative plan: Think through the different ways you could put pressure on your Senator. Weigh them and then decide on what seems like the best option.
* Initiate necessary movement: Start moving on the things that will need to be done regardless of the plan: reserve a conference room for your meeting, get a slot in the email schedule, etc.
* Conduct reconnaissance: Make sure you understand the lay of land by reaching out to the key coalition partners and your volunteers leaders. How do they feel about the legislation? Check to see how early local media coverage is shaping up.
* Complete the plan: Update your plan of action based on any new information and then finalize it.
* Issue the order: Call together a meeting of your folks where you walk them through the plan. Use “brief backs” to ensure everyone’s on the same page.
* Supervise: Have team leaders walk through their individual plans (phone bank captain: How many callers are you going to get? Where are they going to sit? What do they need?). Check in with each to make sure their plans are tight and they’ve thought through the details.
No system is perfect of course. For me the biggest missing piece in this protocol is feedback loops. A systematic feedback loop allows you to create better plans by using information gained from multiple vantage points—plus it creates better buy-in.

Related:
Army Study Guide – Troop leading procedures
Source: QuinStreet, Inc.

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