Sweating the Details

by Mark Hennes | Apr 09, 2018

Quote of Note
"It's the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen."
- Coach John Wooden

Early in my career, the Army sent me to a school to learn how to be a staff officer. While all officers are leaders, not all jobs that each officer holds are considered to be leadership positions. So, the purpose of this particular school was to teach the necessary planning, analysis and management skills needed to be an effective staff officer.

During phase 1 of the course, I completed a series of modules which taught the basic skills that I would need in phase 2. Phase 2 was an intensive, 8 week experience in which I got daily practice applying and honing these skills. We were divided into teams to plan for a given mission or task. Each of us would rotate through various roles for each different mission. On one operation I was a Transportation Officer, assigned to plan the deployment of a 5,000 person, 600 vehicle brigade by aircraft. On another operation I was a Personnel Officer, assigned to plan the replacement and casualty support of a unit conducting a defensive operation. On another, I was the Supply Officer setting up a large refugee camp (hmm, how many port-a-potties should I order for 20,000 refugees? Where should I place them? And how often would they need servicing?) You get the idea.

The instructor served as the leader for each of these operations, so each team took turns presenting their plans to him. As I watched and listened to others’ presentations, I thought that the instructor was brilliant. He seemed to know everything about everything. He could spot logic errors, data inconsistencies, coordination failures, etc. no matter the operation type or administrative area. He seemed to know when the analysis was superficial or the assumptions were faulty, and with a bit of humor he pointed these out to the chagrined planner. Over time, though, as I watched him grill each team over multiple scenarios, I began to realize that he didn’t know everything about everything. In some cases, he probably knew less than the individual planner did about some specifics.

What he did have was a keen eye for details and some pretty good leadership skills.

First, he could visualize second and third order effects and project logical outcomes. Yes, putting all 1,000 port-a-potties together would result in a cheaper contract --- but now 20,000 people would have to trek to the same location across a very large camp. Assuming the historical prevailing wind direction, who’s going to want to live in the downwind tents? A technique I learned from him is to first visualize a scenario from a first-person perspective, and then visualize it a second time from a different perspective. For example, if you’re implementing a new online math software, imagine what one student’s individual experience would look like? How does each student get his/her password and who can reset them when the inevitable lockout happens? Are you a bring-your-own-device or a district-issued building? How does the software work on different device types and older vs. newer devices? Now visualize it from the perspective of a teacher with multiple classrooms. What data does the teacher need and how does he/she pull it for 120 students? Is there a bandwidth capacity issue if all students in multiple classrooms are viewing lesson videos at the same time?

Second, he didn’t delight in someone’s failure or mistake. I can still remember presenting my brilliantly conceived aircraft load plans to him. I had planned out the most efficient use of each one by maxing out the cubic carrying capacity with equipment. This left no room for seats, which means that there was no one to operate the equipment at the landing zone. Instead of yelling “Who, the h**l, is gonna drive the vehicles off the plane, you idiot”, he allowed me to find my mistake by saying “Tell me how the unloading is going to go at the landing zone.” From him I learned that an open-ended, reflective question is more effective than an accusatory one. Thus, “how’s that new instructional practice that we discussed going” is a better opener than “why aren’t you using that new instructional practice that we discussed?” It’s not about the “gotcha”. It’s about coaching for improvement, and for that you can’t put them on the defensive.

Lastly, he wasn’t afraid to admit that he didn’t know something. In his “tell me how …” or “help me understand what ..” style of questioning, he tacitly admitted that he didn’t know or understand something about what you were telling him. In this way, he showed us his blind spots and allowed us to be a part of making him a better informed leader. From his candor, I learned that leaders don’t have to know everything, and being open and honest about it can actually be a plus. Your team will eventually see through your bluff, so why not involve and empower them to help you become a better leader.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CAIU, its directors, or its staff.