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If everything around you diverts into complexity, go back to basics

Go back to basics Erik Hiep | IE Building Resilience

Here Professor Erik Hiep explains how business leaders can use a five-action military framework to make clear and considered decisions in these unprecedented times of uncertainty while providing direction for those around them.

By Erik Hiep, Associate Professor at IE Business School


Stress is the natural human response to a fuzzy, foggy, and complicated world. Unfortunately, it can make us lose sight of the bigger picture. In these difficult and unprecedented times, it is easy to become overwhelmed by incidents and contingencies that need to be managed.

The questions to ask oneself are: What am I focusing on? Am I subconsciously allowing fear and anxiety to grab my attention? Successful leaders are able to make conscious decisions about what they and their teams really need, and are then able to dedicate the time, energy, and effort necessary to move forward with those decisions. We all crave speed, clarity, and direction, but it is important to first take our time, brainstorm, and think things over.

Early in my career, I learned that complexity is the enemy of execution. Developing a simple and implementable plan is never easy.

Each time a military unit prepares for a mission they draft their plan and focus on five things to create clarity and direction: Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration/Logistics, and Command/Communication. I have used this very same military format to great success in business for more than 30 years.

Whenever I have needed a business solution, a new action –plan, or a new way forward for a company, I have used this five-action framework. Here is how it works:

1. Situation: Overview & context

Describe the current situation with respect to your market, the competition, technology, business development, marketing, HR and your profit and loss (P&L). Develop a situation report with an overview and relevant context that is specific to your business.

Example situation analysis:

A new CEO was recently appointed to the helm of Company X. He or she needs to provide clarity and direction whilst leading the way forwards for the company.
Company X is not in great shape as an organization. The crucial areas are finance, operations, leadership and the people agenda. Competition is fierce and ‘Red Ocean’ like. The company’s brand and reputation are still strong.
The coronavirus pandemic is bringing even more complexity, uncertainty and chaos to the table. The company and its leaders need to deal with pressure, setbacks, and manage contingencies.

2. Mission: The assignment & objective

Define your mission and what exactly you are setting out to accomplish. Consider the key objectives and intended effects.
Example mission: The CEO needs a considered 100-day plan to provide clarity and direction for Company X in this volatile, uncertain, and chaotic business landscape.
Why this is important: Accomplishing this mission provides a solid foundation for X’s further improvement in 2021. This will ensure X can develop and roll out a solid longer-term strategy that will position them as the industry leader in the region.

3. Execution: The plan & winning strategy

Having considered the current situation, it is then time to develop a game plan for accomplishing the mission. The first step is to develop a start-to-finish strategy for attacking the problem set in pursuit of the established mission. After the plan is prepared, assign broad tasks to your key personnel and empower them to come up with their own individual plans to accomplish those tasks.

In order to develop this considered and adaptable 100-day plan we need to:

  • Diagnose how we operate, manage, and conduct our business and markets.
  • Review our day-to-day operations, finance and resource allocations.
  • Define how we operate and lead our business to best provide a clear and distinct way forward.

How we act: Energy, drive, and commitment are extremely important when ‘going to war’.
A leader can engage their staff by providing clarity and direction with these three principles:

  1. Decisiveness and speed.
  2. Resourcefulness and creativity.
  3. Engaging, educating, and empowering staff.

What we will deliver: The board of executives and leadership team need to co-design and deliver an action plan on how to create a solid foundation for X in 2020. These four tangible key projects need to be rolled out and executed by dedicated and capable teams:

  1. Ensuring quality throughout the company is the highest priority.
  2. Focusing on the key brands, reducing complexity and managing them well.
  3. Reviewing costs and diagnosing working capital.
  4. Engaging teams on their energy, teamwork and commitment. Addressing the company’s culture.

4. Administration and logistics: Resources & requirements

It is important to analyze what resources, means, and requirements are needed to execute the plan successfully. In the military this is about the four ‘Bs’: beans, bullets, band-aids and bad guys (what to do with them once you have captured them).

Leaders can provide a resource roadmap, with guidelines, timeframes, and milestones to accomplish this.

5. Command & communication: Leadership & moving forward

Identify who is leading the project to the team, staff, and employees. But also, what and when things need to be communicated and to whom.

An example of this is setting up a Change Journey Team (CJT)

  • Team
    – CEO, CFO, CMO, HR & Operations leader.
  • Objective
    – Set in motion and manage progress of Projects 1-4.
    – Governance of overall 100-day plan and additional work streams.
  • Meeting
    – Once a week on Fridays; maximum duration of three hours.

These tactics, copy-pasted from the military world, work effectively in the business world by helping leaders avoid complexity. However, there’s a saying in the military that is good to keep in mind for business too: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” So, don’t fall in love with your plan. It is essential to always be ready to reevaluate and adjust on the fly in order to maintain simplicity and clear direction – for your team, for your stakeholders, and for yourself.


About Erik Hiep, MBA

Erik founded management consultancy firm The Next Level in 2002 and is an Associate Professor at IE Business School in Madrid. He is also an executive Director at Presidents Institute which is based in Copenhagen. In 2018 Erik interviewed former UK Prime Minister David Cameron live on stage during the Breaking Barriers Summit before a 2000+ audience. Erik has extensive consulting experience with international management teams and boards. He has worked on a wide variety of assignments in more than 30 countries in Europe, Middle East, Africa, Asia & the Americas.