Mission command, the practice of assigning a subordinate commander a mission without specifying how the mission is achieved, is a commonly accepted principle in many western militaries. Indeed, the armed forces of Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, United Kingdom and the United States have all formally incorporated it into their doctrine.[i] In guiding the practical application of mission command, the United States Army developed six mission command principles:
- Build cohesive teams through mutual trust.
- Create shared understanding.
- Provide a clear commander’s intent.
- Exercise disciplined initiative.
- Use mission orders.
- Accept prudent risk.[ii]
All six mission command principles are important foundations for behaviours in our workplaces, enabling battlefield, staff and business success. Focusing on our daily actions as staff, or in a headquarters or office environment, this article examines two of the six mission command principles: building cohesive teams through mutual trust and creating shared understanding.
Through these two principles, this article then examines 7-daily actions in our workplaces that, if adopted, will allow us to better practice mission command. These actions are:
- Team understanding and trust
- Care for families
- Time to think
- Get to “yes”
- Think proactively
- Write concisely
- Prebrief comprehensively
Collectively, these 7-daily actions enhance organisational leadership, harmony and productivity. Regardless of our role, location or environment, the principles of mission command, particularly building cohesive teams through mutual trust and creating shared understanding, apply to our daily lives, enabling fulfilment of our tasks, responsibilities and commitment to others.
First a couple of definitions.
Mutual trust is defined as: …shared confidence among leaders, subordinates, and partners…requiring patience, time, and interpersonal skills[iii]
Mutual trust is values-based and earned through everyday actions. These actions include caring for people and their families, personal example, integrity and collegiate two-way communications. Importantly, mutual trust achieves results through demonstrated professional competence, resilience during failure, informed delegation, coordination and cooperation toward common objectives, and successful shared experiences, including hardships and danger.[iv]
Shared understanding is defined as: …all stakeholders unified in framing, visualising and comprehending operational environments[v]
Shared understanding is created and nurtured through leaders articulating clear intent by defining the: purpose of the task, key assumptions, alternative perspectives, risk and approaches to solutions.[vi] Clear leader’s intent, built through fostering personal connections during visits, dialogue, information sharing and progress reviews, enables unity of effort and trust. In turn, clear intent accelerates planning, preparation, execution, and assessment, through empowering continuous collaboration toward a common goal.[vii]
Gaining and maintaining mutual trust and shared understanding: 7-daily actions in our workplaces
Having defined two of the six mission command principles (building cohesive teams through mutual trust and creating shared understanding) this article now examines 7-daily actions in our workplaces for us to gain and maintain, ensuring organisational leadership, harmony and productivity. These 7 daily-actions are:
1. Team understanding and trust: Identify, study and understand how, and why, strengths and weaknesses manifest in you and your colleagues. Then discuss and gain a shared understanding of your team’s combined workplace strengths and weaknesses. A comprehensive 100-day review of an organisation’s mission, role and essential tasks is an excellent technique enabling mutual trust, organisational commitment to goals and shared understanding.
Through daily actions, including selflessness, collaborative discussions, trial and error, workplace success and inevitable workplace stress, learn how these strengths and weaknesses interact. Trust yourself to lead and complete tasks based on your personal strengths. Seek colleagues’ assistance to lead and achieve tasks compensating for your weaknesses.
Self-improve through learning to overcome your own weaknesses. Build mutual trust with your colleagues demonstrating that you are reliable in reinforcing their strengths. Empathise through minimising their weaknesses. Enable your work colleagues to lead, achieve their own tasks and realise their own professional and personal potential.
2. Care for families: Expanding consideration and tolerance beyond the workplace to care for people and their families is crucial to gaining and maintaining mutual trust and shared understanding. If commanders and leaders consistently demonstrate empathetic, pragmatic and timely care for peoples’ families, then workplace trust and sharing will develop, permeate and normalise.
Next to our families, we spend most of our remaining time at work. Leaders that ensure work-time is purposeful, pleasant and rewarding gain benefits for and from their people. If people and their families are happy, a receptive workplace will reflect that happiness. Conversely, a toxic, stressful and uncaring workplace is detrimental to our peoples’ mental and physical health, and therefore also adversely affects families.
3. Time to think: ‘Whitespace’ is a ‘pause taken between activities’ enabling staff to reflect and think.[viii] Examples of ‘whitespace’ creation include:
- Empowering people to question and clarify issues before acting.
- Scheduling, and actively regulating, time between meetings to prepare and/or reflect.
- Designating time for creativity and innovation.
- Setting workplace rest and social activities to avoid burnout and creative decline.
- Regulating technology, including access and use of smart devices, so technology does not control people.
- Employing infographics to inform without overwhelming people, including use of data visualisation tools such as Tableau, Qlikview and FusionCharts.[ix]
- Questioning tasks and activities to make sure they are necessary and add value.[x]
Creating workplace ‘whitespace’ also enables our gaining and maintaining mutual trust and shared understanding. Consider our own workplaces, are there too many tasks for each day? Does the dialogue for you and your work colleagues involve not enough time to complete tasks, too many meetings, inequitable task distribution, long hours, no weekends, and growing leave balances? Working collaboratively, you and your work colleagues can identify ways to create ‘whitespace’ and enable time to think.
This collaboration includes freeing up time during a work-day for people to think beyond the immediate, discuss and refine ideas, plan, write, listen, speak to external stakeholders, make-decisions, support the needs of their family and colleagues. An example of creating time for colleagues to think in a workplace is found through refining meeting schedules, including:
- who attends a meeting – unless you have a seat at the table and a speaking role, you probably don’t need to attend the meeting.
- what is the agenda – what is the purpose of the meeting? Can action designated by agenda items occur without a meeting or via another method including collaborative planning-tools such as Flowdock, WebEx, Asana, Dapulse or Google Docs?[xi]
- when is the meeting – early or late meetings create early or late days. Between scheduled meetings, do people have time to reflect and action assigned tasks? Consider people attending your meetings from different time zones, with long commutes or family commitments.
- where is the meeting – can a quick informal meeting with a clear agenda, where for example everyone is on their feet for a ‘huddle’ or ‘standup’, replace a formal sit-down meeting? Can a video tele-conference replace gathering all stakeholders at the meeting location? Can a meeting move to convenient locations suitable for most stakeholders?
- why hold the meeting – do other meetings cover a similar or overlapping agenda? Can meetings be combined or eliminated? Who is the customer for the meeting’s output? Does the customer need this output?
4. Get to ‘yes’: Unless the actions by our immediate or wider organisations are unethical, illegal or immoral, as staff we do not have permission to say no and we should not apply a self-constraining approach to organisational ideas, initiative and innovation. In other words, we work hard at ‘getting to yes’. When saying yes, we should say yes formally and with detail. For example, provide written confirmation of approval to conduct ABC task, at designated time, at designated place, to achieve XYZ defined effects.
Proactive and helpful staff enable our organisations to gain and maintain mutual trust and shared understanding. ‘Getting to yes’ demonstrates our own determination to understand our organisation’s views as well as our commander’s and leader’s intent. As staff we facilitate change, direct actions and support ideas, initiative and innovation for our immediate and wider organisations.
Despite our ‘getting to yes’ approach and attitude, our best efforts may fail to achieve requests from our organisation. This is sometimes reality. With open trusting communications and collaboration, combined with shared understanding throughout an organisation, our inability to ‘get to yes’ should be acknowledged without acrimony or resentment.
5. Think proactively: The corollary of ‘getting to yes’ is working effectively as staff in readiness to support requests and actions from our immediate or wider organisations. Thinking proactively is enabled through mutual trust and shared understanding, where our staff comprehend that they work for our immediate or wider organisations. This idea of working for others and selflessly serving others, is expressed in General Joseph Votel’s requirement for United States Central Command achieving status as the ‘best higher headquarters ever’.
This author interprets General Votel’s intent as ‘thinking proactively’ to build mutual trust and shared understanding with our immediate and wider organisations. Examples of ‘thinking proactively’ include:
- Personal organisation as a staff. Are we aware/educated on commanders’ and leaders’ intent for current and future tasks, especially regarding risk and opportunities?
- Do we hear the soft-voices? Demanding organisations are loud and demanding to all staff. Soft-voices emanate from non-demanding organisations. These are often from non-mainstream organisations, such as community, business, small-government agencies or coalition partners, whose ideas may reduce risk, enable innovation, create previously unseen organisational opportunities or avert organisational distress.
- Are we intellectually curious? Are we taking steps to continue our own education? Do we question assumptions? Do we question the ‘way things are’? Do we seek adjustments and improvements to processes?
- Have we completed staff actions? If not, what needs doing and/or who needs to help us complete those actions?
- Are we keeping commanders and leaders above, below and horizontally informed of progress toward issue impasse or resolution?
6. Write concisely: Enhance mutual trust and shared understanding through simple, accurate and precise writing. When writing to change policy or actions, ensure your work is consulted and agreed with immediate and wider organisations. Consultation and organisational agreements are slower but more accurate in gaining organisational support for actions or change.
Write to capture, summarise or anticipate the intent of your commander or leader and, after organisational consultation, brief that intent back to them. This action simultaneously enables your commander or leader to confirm your shared understanding of their intent, make necessary adjustments, and/or provide further guidance.
Then present confirmed intent to staff, immediate and wider organisations. Concisely written intent, shared and understood throughout an organisation, defines risk, ensures accuracy and accelerates action.
7. Prebrief comperehensively: Preparing commanders and leaders for meetings is a key staff responsibility. Given our requirement to provide commanders and leaders with ‘time to think’, comprehensively preparing them for meetings is vital to gain maximum value to the organisation from their time.
When preparing commanders and leaders for meetings we should consider two variables:
- With whom are they meeting? What is the connection of this meeting to the commander’s or leader’s primary role? Therefore, what priority is this meeting in their day?
- What information do we seek from the meeting? As staff, what questions do we need answered from the meeting? What are the gaps in our knowledge that this meeting can close?
Based on these two variables – with whom is the meeting and what information can the meeting provide – staff can then determine the amount of time allocated to meetings. Effectively applying these two variables ensures we build mutual trust and shared understanding between commanders and leaders, the people with whom they meet, and with the organisations benefiting from meeting outcomes.
This article defines two elements of mission command – build cohesive teams through mutual trust and create shared understanding – and examines their utility as behaviours in our workplaces enabling battlefield, staff and business success.
Focusing on our behaviours as staff, in a headquarters or office environment, this article examines 7-daily actions in our workplaces. These 7-daily actions include: team understanding and trust; care for families; time to think; get to “yes”; think proactively; write concisely; and, prebrief comprehensively. Ultimately, building cohesive teams through mutual trust and creating shared understanding, ensures organisational leadership, harmony and productivity.
Regardless of our role, location or environment, the principles of mission command, specifically building cohesive teams through mutual trust and creating shared understanding, apply to our daily lives enabling fulfillment of our tasks, responsibilities and commitment to others.
About the Author: Major General Chris Field, Australian Army, is the Vice Director of Operations at United States Central Command.
[i] Russell W. Glenn, Mission Command in the Australian Army: A Contrast in Detail, Parameters 47(1) Spring 2017, p. 21 <http://strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/parameters/Issues/Spring_2017/5_Glenn_MissionCommand-AustralianArmy.pdf> [Accessed 19 December 2018]
[ii] Headquarters Department of the Army, Army Doctrine Reference Publication, No. 6-0, Mission Command, Washington, DC, 17 May 2012, p. 2-1
[iii] Ibid., pp. 2-1 – 2-2
[iv] Ibid., pp. 2-1 – 2-2
[v] Ibid., p. 2-2
[vi] Risk: Early risk assessment, continuously-considered, serves to test assumptions and identify planning weaknesses or resource shortfalls. Risk assessment enables commanders, if necessary, to amend plans and/or allocate or request additional resources. Employed through a continuous-cycle, a four-step risk assessment framework includes:
- Problem Framing – establishing the risk conventions and ‘risk to what?’
- Risk Assessment – identifying and scaling threats, ‘risk from what?’
- Risk Judgment – developing a risk profile, ‘how much risk?’ and Evaluating the Risk – ‘how much risk is ok?’
- Risk Management – decisions and actions to accept or mitigate threats, ‘what should be done about the risk?’
Importantly, planners should assess risk as they design appropriate command, control, battlespace and authorities for a mission. These risk assessments may include:
– What is the risk to mission? Who owns the risk? For how long is risk to mission held?
– What is the risk to force? Who owns the risk? For how long is risk to force held?
– What are our measures of risk? For example, defining risk to mission and risk to force in categories of high, significant, moderate and low risk. From: Five Ideas: On Planning, The Cove – The Australian Profession of Arms, Canberra, 11 December 2018 <https://www.cove.org.au/command-post/article-five-ideas-on-planning/> [Accessed 23 January 2019]
[vii] Army Doctrine Reference Publication, No. 6-0, Mission Command, Op Cit., p. 2-2
[ix] Bernard Marr, The 7 Best Data Visualization Tools Available Today, Forbes Media LLC, 20 July 2017, <https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2017/07/20/the-7-best-data-visualization-tools-in-2017/#4926a6d56c30> [Accessed 27 January 2019]
[x] Whitespace At Work, Op Cit., [Accessed 27 January 2019]
[xi] Nikoletta Bika, 14 collaboration tools for productive teams, Workable: All-in-one recruiting software, Boston, 2019 <https://resources.workable.com/tutorial/collaboration-tools> [Accessed 27 January 2019]