General Stanley McChrystal’s biggest secret to enabling agility, speed and ownership.

If you’re reading this, you have a way of getting things done. Everyone has; especially if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve achieved things.

But your way is not the same as the person next to you.

Yours might be delegating; theirs might be driving.

Yours might be visionary; theirs might be pragmatic.

Yours might be resolute; theirs might be adaptive.

Yours might be expressive; theirs might be analytical.

They aren’t mutually exclusive; one isn’t better than the next.

Leaders’ ways of getting things done are contagious – they spill into the organisations and teams they work with.

And over time, the organisation takes on a personality of its own, with its own way of getting things done.

Some organisations look like this:

If this is you, I’m guessing you have (or you are) a strong, intelligent and charismatic leader. You understand the market challenges well and how your organisation should react. You’ve sketched the vision, got people excited and delegated tasks.

Other organisations look like this:

If this is you, I’m guessing you have a competent, willing and value-based team of leaders in different areas of the organisation. You also work closely with partners and vendors to find solutions that fit the market’s needs.

once upon a time

There once was an organisation that operated in a structured hierarchy like few others ever did. That organisation is the US Army.

They operated in this way quite successfully. Until one day, they met an enemy they didn’t understand in an environment they weren’t used to that seemed to have allies everywhere.

This precipitated the need for a rapid pivot.

They rewrote their policies and procedures, changing from the old-school command-and-control style to a new way of mission-command. Instead of giving the command and then controlling compliance, they changed to making the mission clear and letting that mission command the necessary actions.

The mission-command style enabled the following:

  • Agile responses, suited to the changing environment
  • Faster decision-making,appropriate to the information available
  • Increased ownership, proportional to the consequences

It was necessary because the leaders and politicians in Washington didn’t understand or see the environment. They didn’t comprehend the day-to-day challenges they faced. There was a group of soldiers on the ground that had a good understanding, though, and they needed to be empowered to make the right decisions to enable agility, speed and ownership.

General McChrystal’s advice:

“Risk is inevitable. Vulnerability is not.”

– Four-star US Army General Stanley McChrystal

His single most significant piece of advice for scaling leaders is to embrace uncertainty. If you want to operate in the realm of value creation networks, uncertainty and risk are inevitable.

Release control. Embrace uncertainty.

You can, however, create structures and processes to reduce vulnerability. To react faster, with more agility, with enabled leaders who understand the consequences.

Here’s how:

  1. Set the direction: Use the strategy pyramid to set the direction, with a mission (or purpose), ambition and strategy.
  2. Communicate ALL.THE.TIME: Remind them to align them – people don’t think “strategy” all the time. If you say it 7 times, half the team would have heard it once.
  3. Enable teams: Give teams and individuals the knowledge, tools and skills to execute on strategy. In larger cross-functional teams, this is crucial.
  4. Set milestones: In military language, it’s winning the battles (not the war). The war is long-term – but what are the shorter-term battles where you need to be victorious? These are your OKRs.
  5. Empower teams: Create a space for teams to take risks, experiment and figure it out. You’ll be surprised at the results.

Understanding execution personas is hugely valuable – and loads of fun. We did a 3-day event with a client last year based on this, and they will attest.

Give me a call if you’d like to test some thoughts on balancing accountability and autonomy (or, in McChrystal’s words, embrace uncertainty while reducing vulnerability).

If you have questions, we’re always keen for coffee.

Get in touch so that we can brainstorm a few solutions together!

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