Strategy bogged down by reality?
Reprinted from StrategicScience.org
A personal note. Ok seriously, one of my problems is getting “looped” by the everyday grind.
Let’s step back a moment. What do I mean by looped?
In brief, John Boyd was an Air Force Colonel, reputably one of the best fighter pilots ever, and a significant military theorist of the 20th century. He’s known for being the primary contributor to the F-15 and F-16 programs; and he invented energy maneuverability theory, which is the primary rule of engineering when designing a fighter plane.
One of Boyd’s most prominent ideas is the “decision cycle” or “OODA Loop”. Which is a basic model of psychology, based on learning theory, about how we interact with the world around us. All it postulates is that human decision making includes the following steps: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.
Observe. I see a hamburger place down the street.
Orient. I like hamburgers, and I’m hungry.
Decide. I want to eat a hamburger now.
Act. Pull over and order a hamburger.
It’s a simple model of psychology that has been shown to accurately describe human behavior. It is most obvious when observing small children (because it often happens slowly).
In most strategy literature, in a conflict one wishes to outpace and disrupt or manipulate the opponent’s OODA loop. Be advised that the OODA loop is actually very simple psychology, but is often misinterpreted and misused, especially in defense circles where arguments of interpretation abound. OODA loops are a good model for showing how initiative works, both in parametric and literal contexts. Speeding up your own decision cycle is often known as taking the initiative, and is commonly taught in Marine officer school (as 60 or 30 second battle plans).
Every day I observe things that need to be done, orient to the daily grind, and totally lose sight of my schwerpunkt (strategic objective). The thing is — the daily grind is tactically relevant to my schwerpunkt, and much of it is needed to keep customers happy and business going. But I’m just constantly looped by tactical (immediate) issues… So tactical urgency loops my strategic priority. I’m busy all day doing important things, but have problems getting around to the “value add” projects I’m working on.
How do we prevent getting looped by tactical urgency?
That’s my question.
In the invasion of Iraq in 2002, the coalition schwerpunkt was to control Baghdad within 72 hours. Why 72 hours? Simple, that’s the time limit of how long a soldier can fight without sleep. A 72 hour sprint to Baghdad followed by rest and regrouping. The 72 hour sprint has such speed, so many things happen so fast as to loop the defenders — i.e. you get inside their decision cycle. You are moving so fast they just can’t keep up with the changes. In OODA terms you give them to many things to observe and orient to, and they ideally go into decision lock. They get overloaded by a quickly changing environment and you can do whatever you want. The doctrine of “Shock and Awe” is literally based on OODA loop manipulation.
So what does the invasion of Iraq and OODA have to do with getting bogged down at the office?
See, Marines like to fight. They train for it every day. They are really good at it. In the invasion of Iraq in 2002, I’ve been told one of the strategic challenges was the Marines got bogged down with fighting when they should have been racing to Baghdad. I have a similar problem with morning emails.
When Army units hit resistance, they simply avoided contact, called in an air strike, and kept focused on the strategic objective — take Baghdad in 72 hours.
Meanwhile the Marines did lots of fighting that slowed them down. With rather spectacular tactical success, they won lots of unimportant battles that really slowed down the race to Baghdad. They had a tendency to get looped by tactical urgency. Simply put they got distracted by combat and forgot their strategic objective.
The cliche’ goes something like: I’m so busy fighting off alligators I forgot that the reason I jumped in the swamp was to drain it.
The thing the Army did better than the Marines in 2002 was simple. They picked their battles and delegated tactical urgency while staying focused on their strategic objectives.
HR calls that priority management. You can Google techniques. You can keep a priority/urgency matrix. You can have a sticky note, reminder, poster, whatever to remind you of your strategic goals.
But you always have to ask yourself, is this the best ending for my story? Is the fire I’m fighting now going to prevent future fires? Is this the best use of my time, can it wait, should it be ignored or delegated while I focus on larger priorities?
Simply put you need to prioritize your action items with your schwerpunkt as the primary value, or you’ll get “looped” by the daily grind, lose strategic initiative and fall behind schedule… May even start losing the war because you are fighting the wrong battles.
The hardest decision leaders have to make, and frequently in business the common mistake — is picking your battles. And not politically, but tactically. Most managers and executives get so caught up in tactical and operational problem solving and fire fighting that they get looped by circumstances and lose all if any strategic orientation to their work.
How many meetings have felt like a waste of time? How much of your daily fire fighting at work actually makes money or strategically positions your success? Or are you just putting out fires as fast as you can with no strategic objective?
Target fixation or micromanagement? Is micromanagement just a form of target fixation where you let tactical urgency dictate your priorities? Are you doing everyone’s details for them without managing the big picture?
Now we can argue lack of top down strategic focus another time. In what you do, every decision you personally make, first have a schwerpunkt (or schwerpunkts) in mind. And ask yourself, is what you are doing just tactical urgency to gratify your personality? Or are you accomplishing a significant return on you investment of time into achieving strategically goals?
Ask yourself, are you getting looped by tactical urgency? Or are you staying focused on the big picture and making progress towards the bottom line?
That is a skill developed by practice. Most people are bad at it. Most people, regardless of rank or experience simply get distracted. Make a habit of framing every decision in terms of strategic priority. For most of us there is more work than time. You only get so many hours in the day. At the end of the month, do you want to say you put out 30 fires? Or that you circumvented the fires and achieved a strategic goal that makes the fires irrelevant?
The trick is to practice strategic focus and awareness. Check yourself at every action, every decision. Ask what is my schwerpunkt? Does this help strategically? Am I being looped? Am I looping myself? Google Cognitive restructuring if you're serious about developing the skill, a trained psychologist will know that technique.
In tough times, crazy busy at work, I frequently find myself looped, bogged down by the daily grind, and have to remind myself to reorient to my schwerpunkt and stay aligned with my priorities, because I don’t have the time to do everything, and my limited time is precious. I need to spend it accomplishing goals, not fighting fires that keep burning regardless.
Thanks for reading,
Ted S Galpin
Image from Wikimedia Commons