Clinical Assistant Professor of Executive Education; Managing Director of Executive Education
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For business leaders, there are few things more unnerving than making decisions with enormous consequences, only to later discover that key information relevant to those decisions had not been conveyed.
Leaders who don’t want to be caught off guard may want to take a cue from the military, says Robert Hughes, a retired Colonel in the U.S. Army and clinical assistant professor of executive education at the Kellogg School.
In the military, the stakes are often too high to let details fall through the cracks. So it has developed a robust protocol for ensuring that people across the organization are aware of how they need to share information.
“Critical information flow is a leadership responsibility,” Hughes says. “As they approach the planning process, leaders need to ask: What’s important for me to know? When do I need to know it? And what decisions will this information help me make?”
Fortunately, the military’s protocol applies just as readily in the civilian world. Hughes describes four steps for managing the communication of critical information throughout your organization.
When companies are planning major operations—a new product rollout, an advertising campaign, the opening of a satellite office—it’s important for leaders to establish information priorities. This means determining the most important information they will need in order to decide—as early as possible—whether the plan is moving forward as intended, or whether it might need to be adjusted.
For example, a leader might determine that it is critical to know: Is there the potential for a disruption to our supply chain that will cause delays greater than 24 hours? Are there any emerging regulatory changes that will prevent us from entering our intended market in the first quarter of next year? Are our competitors launching new products that will challenge our products in the next six months? Timely answers to these questions will be necessary for making the operation a success.
“The leader’s role is to define what success looks like for each operation,” Hughes says. “Then you think about what essential information is needed throughout the plan to achieve success.”
After the leader has drafted the information priorities, they should involve their teams to fully develop them. For instance, the leader might rely on her head of operations to determine the most likely sources of supply chain disruptions, or her head of marketing to know the best way to analyze the competitive landscape. Bringing the team’s expertise to bear to revise information priorities ensures that they make sense, are clear, specific, and synchronized with the overall plan.
One quality of good leaders is that they know how to make tough calls on the fly. But the best leaders also set themselves up to not have to make tough calls on the fly.
The best way to do this, says Hughes, is to anticipate problems and identify potential decision points well ahead of time. Thinking through the tough calls in advance increases the speed and agility with which an organization can respond.
“You have to link information priorities to specific decisions at specific times,” Hughes says.
For example, the leader of a company planning a product launch might want to set a “decision point” deadline 60 days before the date of the launch, with the information priority being: Are there any technical issues serious enough to delay the launch?
“The leader’s role is to define what success looks like for each operation. Then you think about what essential information is needed throughout the plan to achieve success.”
Samsung recently learned this lesson the hard way. In April 2019, the company was scheduled to release its highly anticipated Galaxy Fold—a $2,000 phone with the industry’s first foldable touchscreen—but a serious design issue caused the phones to break or malfunction in the hands of early reviewers.
While Hughes doesn’t know exactly how Samsung wound up in this position, it is clear that their leadership had very little time to react once the wheels were in motion for the product rollout—from marketing to advertising to shelf space in stores.
“By the time they learned that the phone’s design was faulty, they only had one choice: postpone the launch,” Hughes says. “If their planning process had anticipated challenges, their leaders could have adjusted their plan. Give the right decision maker that piece of information earlier and they could have proactively adjusted the plan rather than being forced to react.”
Which brings us to the third step. In a fast-paced and uncertain environment, the right information has to get to the right leaders at the right time. So even the most thoughtful information priorities are meaningless unless your team understands what exactly they will be expected to convey, and when they should be conveying that information.
“You also need to recognize that if you aren’t getting the information you need, you may be part of the problem,” Hughes says.
For example, in the military, if the enemy is repositioning, the commander needs to know early enough to respond effectively. Once, during a military training exercise in Germany, Hughes’s Army unit was on the verge of pulling off a successful attack when they realized their opponents had scattered (simulated) landmines across a road the unit was taking, stymying its advance.
“The piece of information was there. The location of new minefields was an information priority, but we never got the call that the opposition force had deployed the mines.” Hughes says. “If we had known, we could have quickly adjusted and accomplished the mission.”
As Hughes’s minefield story indicates, situations can be very fluid and decisions can be hampered by lack of communication. So, communicating your information priorities frequently and adjusting them when necessary is critical to operational success. If you don’t have that built-in flexibility, you might end up in trouble.
“‘No plan is ever executed exactly as planned’—that’s a well-known military saying, which means things always change, but it’s true in business, too,” Hughes says.
Take the disastrous 2007 Chicago Marathon, for example. Held in October, the day of the race was unseasonably warm, with temperatures reaching the high 80s. Organizers found themselves completely unprepared for how that might affect runners’ behaviors, especially around their consumption of fluids.
The race organizers had calculated the amount of water needed at each station based on the runners’ behavior in past years, failing to account for the fact that in warmer weather, people drink a lot more water, and do so much earlier in the race. As early water stations ran out before all the runners had passed, and subsequent stations were not equipped to up their output, scores of runners began to suffer from dehydration. Eventually, the race had to be canceled, a decision that lead to even more chaos, with thousands of runners stranded in the city’s streets.
“In their planning process, the organizers likely didn’t anticipate a significant weather change and didn’t identify information priorities that would have enabled proactive decision-making. They never went through the process of saying, ‘If a station falls below a certain amount, we have to make a decision,’” Hughes says.
“Of course, it’s impossible to anticipate every possible scenario, but at the very least, there needed to be a process in place for revising their information priorities as new intel came in, including better communication among the stations to facilitate resupply. If they had linked information and decisions, they might have seen the problem and adjusted their plan.”
Editor’s note: Thanks to Elmer Almachar for his contributions to this article.