22 Sep Briefing: Putting Your Plan into Action
For a team to fly well, its leader must brief the team. Each individual must know without a shadow of a doubt what to do at each decision point, and what to do if something goes wrong. They must be able to visualize their part in the plan before they go out to deliver it. That’s why pilots say ‘brief the plan, and fly the brief’.
However, this rarely happens in business. When a plan is formed or delivered from the leadership, people are expected to just work out their individual roles. With Flex, the team leader delivers the brief with the same care and preparation as the mission itself—because it is the mission! A room is set up for the purpose—a microclimate for success—with the mission’s possibilities laid out. The team leader confirms the mission’s objectives and why it matters, reviews the situation, confirms the standards that apply, and lays out simply and clearly who does what and when, why and what-if. Everything is scripted. Nothing is left to chance! And, most importantly, the team leader checks that each individual knows and understands their brief.
This is not to say that everything will go as planned and briefed. That glorious day is yet to arrive! But whatever happens, each team member will be prepared for it.
The Last Rounds of Planning
We don’t need to tell you that the real world is not as neat as the steps laid out in this book. People don’t leave the planning room and walk back in to be briefed. Nor do they stride out to execute their mission. There is a time gap between the formal planning process and the brief, and the team spends that gap updating and nailing the plan. New data, new possibilities, and new situations will each prompt you to reconsider some element of the plan. In fact, the plan is only finalized in the acts of writing it up and delivering it as the brief. That is when all the possibilities being considered by the team leader have to be crystallized into a single, clear, coherent course of action. It has to be laid down, and it has to be convincing.
The Brief is the Mission
Ask a fighter pilot how their mission went, and they’ll want to reply, ‘We executed the brief.’ That’s it. In their minds, the mission is so tightly tied to the brief, that executing the brief is their finest achievement. In their world, in the Flex world, they brief the plan and fly the brief. They would no more fly a mission without a brief than go to work naked.
We’re not kidding that the mission is the brief! That brief is your transition between planning and doing. Before the brief, there is a lot of possibility and nervousness. After it, everyone knows exactly what to do and how they will do it as a team. That’s a real psychological bridge that must be crossed. Not everyone makes it.
In our work with clients, people will attend a brief and still be questioning whether the plan will work. It’s really too late for that questioning now. If there are doubts occupying precious space in the mind, it will lead to task saturation during the mission. The brief is the cut-off: time to stop doubt, stop uncertainty, stop planning, and start executing. Alignment and accountability get drilled in right here.
People who question a brief may be forgetting that a team’s work is a social rather than a personal activity. States of mind and relationships between people matter. Donald Sull from MIT talks about the social dynamics as a team moves towards executing a mission.1 People are doing things because others are doing them. People are making commitments to each other that are personal and binding. They need to be making the same set of commitments if the mission is to start on the right note.
The Leader’s Brief
So the brief is not just a ceremony and certainly not just another meeting. It has to be done well for the mission to be done well! It is the only one-way communication that takes place in all of Flex. The team leader is no longer facilitating, they are delivering. The leader has control. It is the leader’s time to set his or her style and to reinforce the expected team culture and standards.
It is true that not many team leaders want to take advantage of this moment. They may not want to appear to micromanage, they may not have the confidence, they may not appear to have the ability. If that is you, remember why Flex briefing is different. It comes after Flex planning, which the whole team has taken part in. The mission plan that’s being briefed is the team’s plan and the team’s mission. You know that the team believes it’s a good plan because it has been theirs in the making. This isn’t about you, it’s about the mission!
Yet, you are now assuming accountability for the mission, which you’ll keep if it is a failure, and share if it is a success. The leader is accountable for the role of leading their mission, and the team is accountable for their roles in it. Good followership is as critical as good leadership.
Typically, the more dangerous the mission, the more precise the brief. In hospitals, surgeons and head nurses are becoming more and more meticulous in their pre-operation team briefings. Outside the military or surgeries, most of us don’t see that. We’re left to see movie scenes, or coaches’ pre-game briefings, or the wishful thinking of middle managers cast as motivational excess, or the desperate hopes of families planning a road trip. So what we want to get across to you is the need for clean, clear, precise communication—as a Flex brief. You won’t find it on YouTube.
The Right Briefing Microclimate
The precision and authority you need from your brief are not going to happen by accident. The tone of your mission will be set by its brief: both by its setting and its conduct. A sloppy brief will lead to a sloppy mission, nothing surer. It is the time and place to show that, as a leader, you are well-prepared, the plan is well-designed, and you are confident of its success. If you’re serious about the mission, be just as serious about the brief! Prepare yourself. You’re now in execution mode.
That starts with where the brief takes place. It has to be absolutely free of distraction. The military has rooms that are used only for briefs and debriefs, which may not always be possible in the workplace. If you’re using a project ‘war room’, clean it up. If you’re in a nice modern meeting room with glass windows or walls, draw the curtains. Keep it clear and simple, with presentation slides at an absolute minimum.
Be early. Be meticulous. Check that the whiteboard pens are working. Print out what you need for each person, and place it together on each place setting. Tell your team when they enter the room not to touch anything until you tell them: you don’t want them distracted and reading ahead and missing something important. Get everyone to turn their phones off. Be bold, if a member of the team refuses, tell them you aren’t prepared for them to be part of your mission.
Don’t listen to those who question the need for this, yourself included. The rest of the team must be there five minutes early. If they’re not five minutes early, they’re late. This is not something to be squeezed in between phone calls. It is the point of the day; time to switch on.
Your tone will be confident and positive. You know your stuff, so you can keep steady eye contact with the whole team. Work through the whole brief, holding questions to the very end. Vary your speed and tone to keep your delivery interesting. But it’s not a long speech, it is a concise, systematic brief.
The most important microclimate for your brief is the one that settles between your ears. You have to be ready to brief and to brief well. What you brief will be your team’s plan, and it has to work. Fighter pilots do something to make sure they know their plan and that the plan works. Almost without exception, we sit down and visualize the mission, action by action. We call it chair-flying. Just as we chair-fly the mission, we chair-fly the brief. The value of doing that beforehand cannot be overemphasized!
B-R-I-E-F the Plan
It won’t surprise you that the content of your brief is almost exactly the same as your planning session. However, the intent and time spent on the brief are very different. Where in mission planning you’re exploring the steps, in briefing you’re declaring them. Alone or with your team, you have now reconciled any disagreements or uncertainties in the planning process. This is now the plan!
As clearly as possible, work through your BRIEF: Big picture; Restate (mission objective); Identify (threats and resources); Execute (your course of action); and Flexibility (the contingencies).
If you think that sounds like the steps in your mission planning, you’d be right. One way Flex keeps things simple is by repeating the same pattern of thoughts in the plan, the brief, the execution, and the debrief.
Here is the time to confirm why this mission even exists: your organization’s High-definition Destination and the strategy, organizational culture, and identity to get there. The team has to have that situational awareness. It has to know what this mission, if successful, will support. That way, if any decisions are to be made on the fly, they can be done with the right effects in mind. Every day, every mission is a chance to go one step closer to your HD Destination.
Restate the Mission Objective
Restate the mission objective, checking that it is clear, measurable, achievable, and aligned. Don’t assume that people know it. Meet their gaze and check that they know it! It lets everyone know that nothing major has changed since finalising the plan or, if it has, what has changed. In doing this, restate how the mission objective aligns with the organizational objectives. Every mission and action in that strategy will have an effect on the team, on the organization and on its environment. The team has to know why this mission was important!
Identify your Threats and Resources
This stage touches on any specific intelligence that is likely to be highly relevant to your mission, whether or not it was covered in the planning stage. It includes the major threats you’ve identified and the resources you’ve prioritized in your planning. And it extends to the relevant organizational, market, economic, and physical environment in which you’re operating. Start by listing the top threats the team will have to keep an eye out for, and the major resources that will help it reach its objective. It’s a recap, not a discussion. It is just enough for the team to have situational awareness to make the right decisions.
Execution—Who Does What by When
This is where three-quarters of your briefing time is spent, the reason the team is in the room. This is your course of action—a clear, methodical listing of the actions that the team will take. Each action is owned by a single individual, who understands that it is his or her responsibility alone. Yet all the team knows what each other is doing. They all know how those actions will interact with their own, and therefore how they can support each other as wingmen.
The aim is to make it all simple. In a fighter squadron, flight leaders don’t want their pilots to have to think very hard when they’re engaged in combat. They want their minds as clear as possible for the actual engagement, to focus on the planes and missiles they’re up against, and not on remembering their next step in the mission. Part of the course of action and the brief will be the timing for X-Gaps, the regular team check-in for any changes to the plan.
The best briefs take the form of a simple decision timeline. There is no rocket science in this brief. But in business, if a team’s day or week is briefed at all, it is rarely done with the deliberate care of the military. A direct result is that things are done with less confidence and consistency. We can’t afford this.
Flexibility—Ready for Contingencies
Finally, the Flex brief covers the uncontrollable threats to the desired course of action—what to do when things go wrong. Remember that the plan covers controllable threats in the course of action itself: minimizing the chances that something goes wrong. At the end of the brief, clearly restate what you determined in planning: the threat or contingency, the triggers that force a decision on that threat, and the actions that flow from those decisions. Of these, the triggers are the most important to spell out for the team. They can check their plan to know what actions to take, but they have to recognize the trigger when it happens in real-time!
The Brief’s Last Words
The brief finishes with three things of equal importance: questions from the team, checking in that all is known and well, and a positive call to launch the mission. A brief that ends well is the right launchpad for your mission! There are two simple rules for the questions: repeat the question before you answer so the whole team benefits, and never repeat something negative. If the question has a tinge of doubt to it, confirm it as a positive.
A brief delivered is one thing, a brief absorbed is another. How you check that your team knows exactly what it has to do is a question of personal style. Some will eyeball each person in search of any lack of conviction. Some will ask questions to the room. The RAAF technique is to pose a question, pause for a response, then pounce on one person for the answer.
And a closing call to arms? Well, that’s entirely a matter of personal choice. You know your team and what they need to hear better than we ever could. As fighter pilots we put these words in the same category as leaving our homes on a tour: you never know if they may be the last ones between people you care about. Go soft or go hard, but be positive!
1 Interview, Professor Donald Sull, 9 December 2015.