Mission command with Eric Lopez

Join hosts Murray Robinson and Shane Gibson in an intriguing conversation with special guest Eric Lopez, a seasoned management consultant, CEO, and retired US Army Colonel who commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In this episode:

  • Eric unpacks the concept of Mission Command. This leadership philosophy allows for decentralized decision-making, empowering individuals on the ground to take necessary actions for mission success in volatile and uncertain circumstances.

  • Discover how Mission Command can significantly increase agility in leadership and adaptability in a fast-paced, ever-changing world.

Don’t miss this enlightening conversation about transforming leadership style to better navigate today’s uncertain terrain.

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Podcast Transcript

Read along you will

Murray: This is the No Nonsense Agile podcast. Join us for weekly discussions on Agile product development and leadership with world class experts who provide valuable insights and practical advice for industry professionals. Subscribe now to learn the latest trends and best practices in the field. 

In this episode, we discuss mission command with Eric Lopez, a management consultant. CEO and retired us army Colonel who commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eric explains how mission command allows leaders to decentralize tactical decisions so that people on the ground can take initiative to achieve the mission in a volatile and uncertain environment. Mission command helps leaders become much more agile in a rapidly changing world.

Shane: Welcome to the No Nonsense Agile podcast. I’m Shane Gibson. 

Murray: And I’m Murray Robinson. 

Eric: And I’m Eric Lopez.

Murray: Hi Eric. Thanks for coming on today. 

Eric: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here. 

Murray: So we wanna talk to you about mission command, which is a military concept, and I think it’ll be very relevant to leadership in, the engineering sector and in management generally. Why don’t you tell us a bit about your background and experience and how you know all about mission command.

Eric: Sure. Well, I just retired after 25 years in the Army. I began my career at west Point. Graduated from there and I was an infantry officer for my entire career. Served in some great historic army units, the hundred first Airborne Division, 10th Mountain, 75th Ranger Regiment. Did seven deployments to Afghanistan and iraq. I did five to Afghanistan, two to Iraq, and then I ended my career and the Army said, Lopez, we got something for you. It’s called Army recruiting. So for my brigade command, I had 2000 recruiters. I had the Midwest United States. And that was a extremely tough humbling but just an amazing experience being involved, bringing people into the army. And that’s where I ended my career. I did command a company and a battalion in Afghanistan so have some time on the front lines and then also have some time in the big Army bureaucracy as well. But it was a great career and I’ve been retired now and I’m running a small real estate company and do some leadership consulting on the side.

Murray: Yeah, I saw your videos on Mission Command on YouTube. I was wondering, were you doing training for the Army as well in Mission Command?

Eric: I worked for the commanding general of all of Army training 450,000 people, all these bases. His name was General David Perkins. And he just had an incredible way of describing mission command that really helped the Army change and adopt that leadership culture. So that’s where I really got to learn and really get hands on with Mission Command 

Murray: Could you explain what mission command is and why it’s different to what people usually do. 

Eric: Sure. Mission Command is a leadership philosophy, and the best way to describe it is to describe what we used to do in the Army and then how we changed once we adopted mission command. So when I came in the army in the late nineties, our leadership philosophy was called command and control. Command and control means I issue you an order and I ensure that order is complied with, is followed.

We had one big enemy. The Soviet Union was our enemy. We knew where we were gonna fight ’em on the central plains of Europe. We knew who our allies were and that type of leadership philosophy was appropriate. And that’s what a lot of people think of when you think about army. I tell you to do something, you go out and do it.

We found ourself smack dab in the middle of two insurgent wars, one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan. And that style of leadership, command and control was failing because we had people decentralized everywhere down to the lowest level. Seven people groups, 35 people groups all by themselves. And we weren’t able to issue orders and ensure those orders were complied with fast enough. So the Army adopted mission command, which says, I issue you intent and I empower you to make decisions to meet that intent on your own. And that really grew up out of our time in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ultimately the short definition of mission command is decentralized execution based on mission type orders.

But when you contrast it with command and control, you can see why we changed to that, to keep up with the speed and the decentralization of the conflicts that we were in.

Murray: Okay, so what was going wrong when people were using command and control in Afghanistan and Iraq? 

Eric: Two things. One, it was just too slow. If you had to ask for permission every time you were faced with a decision you couldn’t move fast enough, ask the Russians how that’s going in Ukraine right now, because they are a command and control type army. And that’s why the Ukrainians can move and change so much faster.

And the Russians are, ask for permission. Ask for permission, and that’s why they’re struggling , so mightily over there. It’s just too slow. And then the other thing is the situations on the ground were so different. Every village had a different militia that they were facing. Somewhere in Shia towns. Some were in SUNY towns, some were in Kurd towns. Everybody was in such a different situation that the rigid style of command and control just, wasn’t fast enough and it didn’t allow for all those differences on the battlefield. And that’s why it was failing.

Murray: So this reminds me of a book called Turn the Ship Around, which was by a nuclear submarine commander. And he talked quite a lot about intent. Are you familiar with that? 

Eric: Sure, yeah. seen the YouTube video read some of the book and he said, Hey, I’m gonna stop giving orders.

Murray: Yeah. 

Eric: I’m gonna ask you what to do because you probably know what to do better than I do. And that’s exactly the same as mission command. So why would I, if I’m at the base in Bagram Afghanistan, and you’re in a tiny village in Gazni province, I can’t tell you what to do because I don’t see what you see on the ground. You know better what to do. So I can give you intent. Here’s my commander’s intent, five or seven bullets of how I want you to function. And then I empower you to make the decisions on the ground. It builds morale. It just allows things to go to process faster. And it really had great results.

Shane: So when you talk about intent are you saying that you’re setting a goal for them to achieve or a set of boundaries or rules they need to behave within when they’re out in a situation that they can’t ask for permission. 

Eric: It’s almost like principles. I think you’re gonna have a clear mission. You’re gonna give ’em a mission. That’s your goal. In the Army, we have a mission statement. So everyone knows that’s the goal, but here’s the principles that I want you to operate in and around. And those are my intent. 

Murray: Can you give us an example? 

Eric: I always like to use ones that were very short and memorable. Own the night. Own the night. So when you’re out in this village, I would tell you own the night. And that means, hey, leverage all our night vision capabilities, all our aerial assets.

I’m not telling you have to do everything at night. I’m not giving you a certain number of hours you have to do, but I’m telling you, hey, own the night. Let’s leverage our advantages, to get a better result. That’s short. It’s memorable. And you give, 3, 5, 7 of those and they get ’em and it’s easy to operate inside of those. And now it’s up to them to figure out how do you own the night? Does that mean we’re gonna do night patrols? Does that mean we’re gonna do night ambushes? That means we’re gonna synchronize operations in key areas to make sure we’re dominating intersections or key parts of certain villages. They’re gonna figure all that out. All I’m telling ’em is, Hey guys, let’s hold ’em the night.

Murray: Yeah. So what would be the mission that goes with that? So you establish a mission first, and then you set some principles. So what would be an example of a mission? 

Eric: A mission, we usually like to have a task and a purpose. Task would be facilitate host nation infrastructure in order to, build a more peaceful environment in a certain town. That’s the overall mission. We want you to facilitate host nation governmental operations. That means you’re gonna work with the indigenous forces. That means you’re gonna work with the local government, the local Iraqi or Afghan government. That would be the overall goal. So one of ’em would be, Hey, own the night. That’d be one part of your intent. The other one would be something like achieve results through, by and with the indigenous forces. In other words, it’s not about us. It’s about them. And that would be another piece of Commander’s intent that would go, Hey, you know what? Okay, it’s not about us going out and doing the missions. It’s about training and going through by and with them. And that actually happened on my last employment as a battalion commander. We really focused on building the Afghan capability and what they were able to do, because we had that commander’s intent was absolutely remarkable. That intent will take you one direction or a totally opposite direction. That’s why those three to five pieces of principle or guidances are so important.

Murray: And would you do planning with the people who report to you? I remember some stuff I read about the way the German army did this. They would talk about the objective with the commanders who reported to them. They would do planning together. They would issue these sort of intent statements. And then they say, we expect the plan is gonna be wrong. So when you go out there, do whatever you need to do within these parameters. But there was a lot of before, depending on time 

Eric: Yeah. Collaborative planning.

Murray: collaborative planning. 

Eric: We’re okay at that in the US army. So mission command grew out of the concept of, auftragstaktik developed by Von Moltke in the German army. And it said two things. The first one is one does well to order no more than necessary. And the second thing is the higher the authority, the shorter the orders. We are terrible at that in the US Army. Because the higher the authority, the bigger the staff. If you have a big staff, they all gotta justify their existence. So, we produce massive orders. That’s something we were probably. Pretty guilty at not getting right. When it comes to the concept of auftragstaktik or mission command. We were not good at it, but over time we got a lot flatter. So even though we were producing these big orders at higher, we were collaborating with lower, the smaller units, and they could get a lot of input and they could also get a lot done so that as the higher order came out, the lower order was already going and momentum was already started.

But man, we love to produce massive, binders of orders in the US Army. And I was just as guilty as that, as anyone. But the concept is just so novel. And what it’s really getting at is trust. It’s really getting at trust. So instead of going, here’s a massive order that I’m telling you to do. All these minute little things, it’s saying, here’s a couple principles. I trust you to figure it out on the ground because you’re gonna know better than I do what should really happen. And that trust is a key part of Mission Command and it applies whether you’re in the military civilian world, world War II or today..

Murray: Yeah, in industry, it’s very common to have a more traditional approach to management. A lot of hierarchy. A lot of telling people what to do and a lot of detailed planning and a lot of heavy processes. There’s this assumption if we just try hard enough, we can develop a perfect plan and then implement it. Now they’re not yelling at you and commanding you in the same way in the private sector as they do in the military, but it’s a lot of the same ideas as old-fashioned military ideas. And I think one thing we know from working in the engineering area is that most of those plans don’t work as expected. Once you come to do something. 

Eric: Absolutely. And I, found that in my, I retired, I entered this real estate business. I went through a form of what we would call the planning process in the army. I brought in everybody together. I laid out this plan, 30 slides. And I keep this one slide on my wall to humble myself. It was sort of the line and block chart, the task organization chart who’s gonna do what? Not one person on the chart was the same a month later. We had to shift people. People quit, people got fired. And what happened was I issued this massive order and I turned, 90 degrees and started marching, and I quickly saw I was all by myself and it was very humbling. And I have spent the last year resetting and then slowly, very slowly and incrementally turning the organization and getting it in the way I wanted it to go. But yeah, it was very humbling. And my 30 page PowerPoint presentation wasn’t worth the paper. It was printed on within two weeks or a month. So something shorter with more room for change and flexibility would’ve been a lot more appropriate.

Murray: All right let’s go through the seven aspects of mission command that you talk about.

Eric: Absolutely. I’m gonna start with mutual trust. Mutual trust building teams through hardship and through training is key. Create a shared understanding is number two, and that means you have to have clarity from top to bottom. Everybody’s gotta understand what’s going on. Commander’s intent is number three. We talked about that. A little bit the importance of a clear commander’s intent with those principles. Short, clear mission orders is number four. Number five, disciplined initiative. And that one is probably my absolute favorite because that’s where the magic happens. And your subordinates, your employees, your team members, your teammates take the initiative on their own and make things happen. Number six, risk acceptance. Man. That’s one we don’t like. The higher ups the bureaucratic leaders, the colonels and the generals in the army, of which I was one. That’s why we write those massive orders because we think it’s gonna mitigate risk. Sometimes it does, sometimes , it doesn’t. Shaping organizational culture is a big one. And another one is competence that, people have to develop competence through institutional education, realistic training and development. So those, are the principles.

Murray: All right. So how do you build teams and mutual trust? 

Eric: in the Army it’s easy because you are allotted time to train. And you can develop training scenarios that will force people to work together. I think in the civilian world it’s actually harder. Because if you’re gonna take time to do that, you’re taking time away from, driving toward profit, growing revenue and whatever. It’s hard to take time or pay someone to come in and help train you, but it’s important to do and you have to find ways to build the team. That are appropriate, without shutting down operations in your business. But if you don’t put those things on the calendar, they will never happen.

I always say, look at your calendar and I can see your priority. So if you don’t have anything on your calendar for your organization about team building and doing things that are designed to build trust it’s not gonna happen. Naturally it may happen but it’s much better when you’re deliberate about it.

Murray: Yeah. We talk in the agile world about creating a safe environment. And that is an environment where people know that if they raise concerns or issues, that they will be listened to respectfully and not just disciplined. 

Eric: Yeah. I like to say you have to care about someone before you challenge them. And showing them you care. The best way to do it is just spending time one-on-one. And that’s hard for me as a c e o to take the time out to sit down one-on-one and talk with people about their home lives. Talk with them about their goals. Talk with them about how they’re doing at work, what’s going right and what’s going wrong. That’s takes time and it takes emotional energy. It’s a lot easier to sit at your computer and do emails, but man, when people know you really care about ’em, that’s when I think that trust grows and they start to really perform.

Murray: There’s an attitude there I think, of servant leadership, which is very helpful as well. That as a leader your job is to empower and support others as well as to do planning and objectives and mission and so on. But its a kind of humility which I think helps a lot.

Eric: Absolutely. Yeah. Putting your people and putting, their needs and the needs of the organization before your own is absolutely critical as a leader in any organization. 

Murray: I dunno if you are following the Ukraine war closely, but I am, and there’s quite a lot of interceptive phone calls from Russian soldiers that you can listen to and you hear them talking about how their commanders don’t care about them at all. That as soon as, action begins, their commanders run away. And they don’t give them equipment. They yell at them and tell them that they’re just meat. Why on Earth would anybody do their best after that situation?

Eric: Yeah. Yeah. shared hardship is so important. And that’s something that’s just drilled into leaders in the military, in the Army, is that, if your soldiers are doing it, you better be doing it. If they’re in the foxhole, you’re not in the tent, you’re in the, foxhole too. That’s part of the army culture that’s just prevalent. Leaders that don’t lead like that do not last long , in the military, it’s just not accepted.

Murray: All right, so let’s go into the next one. Mission orders. So how do you give a good mission order? What does that look like? 

Eric: General Perkins used to say it’s not about accuracy, it’s about clarity. Sometimes we love to give massive spreadsheets with tons of rows and Excel documents and all that, that’s extremely accurate. But sometimes it’s not clear. A mission order is designed to be very succinct and very clear. Going back to Von Mulkey, the higher the authority, the shorter the order. It’s gotta be clear really what is the mission, what is the principles that we want to operate by? What are the key tasks that need to be accomplished? And it’s just knowing what to put in and what to leave out or to put in an annex that can be referenced later, I think is really an important part of having a mission order.

Murray: So these three things go together, don’t they? So there’s mission orders, commander’s intent, and shared understanding is all about communicating.

Eric: Yes, Absolutely. in my current job our vision is enriching life through real estate. It’s clear, it’s short, it’s memorable. Everything we do is about enriching lives through real estate. And then we have, a few principles. Number one, we are ethical in everything we do. Number two, we’re professional. Number three is we put the customer first. Number four, we treat the client’s money like it’s our money. And number five, we’re passionate about real estate. That’s my commander’s intent. Those are my principles. And I’d like to thank everybody in my company could quote the vision and maybe get three out of five other principles.

Murray: All right, so the next part is, empowering your subordinates. What’s the best way to go about doing that? 

Eric: A great way to do it is to figure out how do I put authority in the hands of the person making the decision and take risk up.

Murray: Yeah. 

Eric: Unfortunately, in the Army and in most organizations, what we do is we take all the authority for decisions and we put all the risk on our subordinates. The way to do that is to flip that, and that’s what that sub commander was really saying was, I’m putting the authority where the decision was, and I’ll take the risk. To know that I’ve got your back. One of the things I used to tell my recruiters who had very tough mission to try to recruit people into the army in the Midwest United States, which had no military bases, very few out there, I used to tell them, you are empowered to make decisions at your level. If it’s legal, moral, ethical, and safe. I got your back. You wanna do YouTube dance videos, you wanna do Instagram reels, you want to put signs on the street, just do it. You’re empowered to do it. Legal, moral, ethical, I got your back. I’ll take the risk. And they really appreciated that cuz I was putting the authority to make the decision down at the level where the actual friction and the fight was going on.

Shane: Can you give us a bit more of a deep dive on what disciplined initiative is?

Eric: It’s really about the empowerment piece. And inspiring and encouraging people to take initiative. Inside the discipline of the commander’s intent. We like to say in the Army, good initiative, bad judgment. You guys ever heard that? Hey, good initiative, bad judgment, and I’ll take that any day of the week. I’ll take good initiative with bad judgment any time, because you can train the judgment. Finding somebody with initiative, with grit and gumption and moxi, that’s hard to find. So I think the Army wanted initiative, but they also want, hey, maintain that discipline. It has to be ethical, it has to be in accordance with our army values. You can’t take initiative outside of our army values. It has to be , inside that discipline. I had a boss, Steve Townsend. He just retired as a four star general. And when I worked for him this was one of his buzz phrases, discipline initiative. And when I showed up in Iraq to his organization. This is a great little vignette about new employee integration. It’s 115 degrees plane lands. I got five bags, I’m sweating. I’m coming off the plane. And I met some guy’s Hey, major Lopez, are you tracking Colonel Townsend is all about discipline initiative? And I’m like, what? Okay. And then we shuffle in, I dropped my bags. And then the posters behind the reception Disciplined initiative, Arrowhead Brigade Disciplined Initiative. And his other thing was live on Amber, which was like, always be ready. And the guy’s Hey, welcome to the Arrowhead Brigade. We’re about disciplined initiative and we live on Amber. And I’m like, yeah, the guy on the tarmac told me that. And I’m like, okay. Got it. Drop, then they dropped me off at my unit, same thing. And man, like right off the bat I got this guy wants an organization where you are empowered to make decisions on the battlefield disciplined initiative. And the way I was received, like boom, I got it right off the bat. And it was a great example, a story I always tell about how that new employee integration is so important.

Murray: Yeah. And then the last one is competence. And I read somewhere that was added a bit later. 

Eric: They added competence in later. Because it’s almost like the army over-corrected towards the mission command side, and they needed to go, okay before you can take the initiative, you need to know what the heck you’re doing

So you are not empowered to make decisions at your level if you are incompetent. You have to have competence in your tasks to be able to take the initiative. What happened was, we had swung so far towards mission command that we had soldiers saying you can’t tell me what to do. That’s command and control. You’re using the old leadership style. Shame on you. Colonel, shame on you major. You can’t tell me what to do. Mission Command says you can only give me intent. That’s not how it is. I like to look at it on a spectrum. You got command and control on the left side, you got mission command on the right. 

I’m not gonna tell a brand new private, Hey, go out in this valley in Afghanistan and go with what you know, buddy, because I don’t trust them that much. I don’t know them. I haven’t trained them, and the risk is extremely high. Now. If I have a seasoned sergeant he’s on the right side of the spectrum. I can send him out. Here’s clear guidance. I trust them. I understand the level of risk. Go do it. So as a leader, we have to look at our employees, our subordinates and say, okay, where are they on this spectrum? Are they on the command and control side? Or I’m gonna tell ’em what to do and ensure they do it. And then over time, we want to always be moving to the right side, which is towards that mission command side. But the Army had to go back and correct itself because it had gone too far to the mission command side.

Murray: So if you are training people who’ve been in the Army for a while at some sort of command level, and they are used to the old ways of doing things, how would you persuade them to adopt this new approach? 

Eric: It’s so complex. They have to use it. When I was in First Ranger Battalion, the regimental commander was Stanley mcChrystal. And what an incredible leader that guy was. He was an incredible man. He was so smart. It was an honor to serve under him. This was , in the late nineties and one time, he put our unit in, such a hard situation during training. It, It forced you to make those type of decisions to be able to be successful. It was so complex. it brought it out of you. It forced you to do it.

And some of us failed. Some of us did not accomplish the mission. And man we learned a lot when, and grew a lot through that failure. And that’s probably the best way to do it. But it’s also a culture. Mission Command is a culture, and it starts with how you integrate people into your organization.

Whether you’re running a real estate company, whether you’re running a software development company, how you integrate people is an incredible part of building that culture of servant leadership, that culture of mission command it’s so important that on day one , they start to hear those themes.

They start to hear those cultural values, those principles Because they’re so, receptive. Everybody’s nervous. First day of school, got your lunchbox. I’m a new company. And if you hit ’em with shock and awe right at the beginning. This is how we operate. We empower people, we decentralize. That new employee integration can be such an incredible way to get people to really understand and operate under the principles of mission command.

Murray: And how do you think that, people at the lower ranks or people who are not in that sort of leadership role respond to this sort of request for delegated initiative? Do you think it’s natural for people to take it on or does it take some time 

Eric: They like it. Because it’s a chance to shine. One of the things we always did in the Army was like, you take the lowest ranking person and that person is the instructor. You’re gonna teach the class. And in the army we started that breeding process of building a leader from day one when they show up at the unit. And people respond, that’s why I stayed in the Army for 25 years because you see people come in off the street and transform into this incredible version of themselves. And then frankly I think that’s why sometimes veterans struggle when they get out. Because they were inside this incredible culture and family and teamwork and environment of trust in mission command. And they get out and man, it’s hard to replicate it on the outside. I’m struggling with it myself, 18 months since I’ve retired and it’s a journey. It’s a process.

Murray: I’m interested in your take on what’s going on with the Russian Army and the Ukrainian army in the Ukraine war and how mission command applies to that. What are you observing and thinking as you watch that? 

Eric: I haven’t studied it that much but I know that the Russian non-commissioned officer, , which is your sergeants. These are your enlisted men , that have grown up through the ranks. They’ve been in the army 10, 15, 20 years in the American Army. We trust and empower our non-commissioned officers. In the Russian Army they do not trust and empower their non-commissioned officers. All the decisions are made by officers in that command and control style of leadership, which means you have a non-commissioned officer that’s taking fire. His convoy is stuck in a town or a village or whatever, taking fire. And he is not empowered to make a decision to save the lives of his own soldiers because they just don’t trust and empower their non-commissioned officers. 

In the American Army. When you’re a brand new private, as you’re en route to growing into becoming a sergeant, we start to train that from the very beginning that you are empowered to make decisions, to accomplish the mission.

So I think that’s what the Russian army is facing, and they’re facing a force, which is fighting on their home turf. They know all the ins and outs of the villages, the routes, the terrain. And if you don’t, trust your non-commissioned officers, it’s gonna be a long day. And I think that’s what we’re seeing with the Russian army over there.

Murray: Yeah, I was talking to a agile coach who joined the Ukraine Army as an officer. And he was saying that they’ve been trained in NATO mission command. And after action reviews, which sounded quite a lot like what we call retrospectives in Agile. He was saying there’s a big culture shift going on. A lot of people have embraced it, but then a lot of them are still stuck in the old Soviet era airways. But you can see though, that for an army that was smaller and not as ready, perhaps they’ve been far more nimble and effective.

Eric: Absolutely. Yeah. And gen General McChrystal wrote about that in the book team of teams where he was trying to get special ops to be able to think faster than these extremely decentralized insurgent networks. And that’s what that was all about. But you’re absolutely right. It takes time. If you grew up that this was the way and that was, inbred it’s hard to change, but, taking a beating on the battlefield. Can be a harsh teacher and you can learn quick.

Murray: If you can think and react faster than the competition, then you are gonna be much more innovative. And we can see this in Silicon Valley companies.

Eric: Yeah. One of the things I talk about in my videos is that’s it’s really about speed and the time it takes to process and to communicate from lower to higher. If that person at the point of friction. Can look and observe and make the decision your organization’s gonna turn quicker than if you have this bureaucratic reporting system or fill out this form in order to be able to get this amount of finances. If you flatten it, you trust and they’re empowered to make those decisions cuz, they know what to do better than the people at the top a majority of the time. You still have to have that trust and communication, but you have to have systems that allow you to communicate and make those decisions quickly. If you don’t your competition’s gonna turn faster than you.

Murray: I’ve found it very common in the private sector for senior executives who are making decisions about things like which suppliers they’re gonna deal with are so far away from the work that they end up forcing everybody to use really, poorly performing suppliers, for instance. And then those suppliers spend a lot of their time, talking to people on the golf courses and over dinners to make sure that the message that the senior executives hear is that everything is wonderful. So really distant from the work that’s being done and a lot of spinning and massaging of the message as it’s going up the tree. The end result being bad decisions instead of listening to the people on the ground and empowering them to make decisions.

Eric: Yeah. and that’s where the principle of shared understanding comes in. If the highest executive and all the levels going down, the senior vp, the vp, the manager, the supervisor, have that clarity of message and shared understanding of the vision and the principles of, the company. It, allows those decisions to be nested. We say nested in the army, they all fit together from the bottom to the top and just reflect the mindset of the commander instead of the telephone game, right? That’s the opposite of it, is the telephone game. I heard the boss say this, and then the next guy I heard the boss say this, and then it, by the time it gets to the guy at the bottom, , it’s totally changed

Murray: How do we deal with this situation, though? Where as the message goes up from the bottom that it gets changed, so the person at the bottom says, this is a total disaster, and then their boss reports, it’s not going very well. And then near boss says, it’s okay, but we got a few problems. And their boss says it’s going well, but there’s a few things we could do different. And then their boss reports up that it’s going extremely well, all according to plan. And everything is great. They just need an increase in budget and the person at the top says, it’s fantastic. Nothing needs to change. You know that happens all the time. How can we stop that?

Eric: Yeah. That’s a hard challenge. I think one of ’em is as CEOs and executives, we have to be cognizant that’s probably going on and spend time checking. Walk in the warehouse. I need to do a better job of this. Walking our properties, talking to, customers. How are you treated? How is our customer service? I’m sure there’s communication platforms to do that. I’m not super familiar, with those kind of things. But I’ll tell you one thing. Social media. Social media was something that I used. So I went from the very top, from me down to the lowest ranking private.

When I was in battalion command, I had a Facebook page that was my call sign, right? It wasn’t Eric Lopez, it was my call sign was Ramrod six. Funny call sign, ramrod six. And I was friends with everybody in the battalion and their spouses. And I would tell the spouses, if you bring something to me, if you shoot me a Facebook message, I will fix your problem in 24 hours, guaranteed.

And people thought I was nuts. You’re crazy. You’re gonna get all these messages. I didn’t get that many messages. And the messages I got were really good. And I was like, holy cow. Somebody thinks that. Holy cow. That’s going on in my organization, man. And I used to carry my phone with me everywhere I went, take pictures of soldiers doing good things.

Hey, what’s your Facebook handle? I would tag ’em on there and sometimes I knew things before their sergeants knew. I would say, Hey, did you know Jones broke up with his girlfriend? I just saw it on Facebook. That social media is a great way to flatten that communication. And they can go straight to you. Hey, sir. I just wanted to let you know this, blah, and I did it with Instagram when I was a brigade commander, cuz I was spread out across 16 states. I had recruiters in 16 states, and that was a way for them to reach out and touch me. But again, you have to be able to assume risk because many careers have been ruined by social media.

Shane: Yeah. I think, it comes back to culture. If we look at Twitter and Elon Musk there’s been a bunch of people that have lost their jobs because on their internal social media, they’ve challenged some of the things that are happening and then got called out on it. It comes back to culture and, trust if you’re gonna speak up, you should be able to do that in a trustful way. If what you are saying is competent. What we often see in large organizations is a person gets given the task of culture, they become head of culture, and it’s their job to manage culture for a thousand people typically by putting pretty posters up on a wall with some good buzzwords.

Eric: But what message for their boss to go, Hey, if you got something I need to know about you, come straight to me and. The messages I got were not only appropriate, but were very important and the capital that I got, the positive capital of caring and communicating I got through doing that was invaluable.

Murray: How would you deal with criticism from people within your, division people complaining about the way things are done, people saying, we can’t do this because of this bureaucratic rule over here, or this person isn’t pulling their weight or something. How’d you deal with that sort of stuff? 

Eric: I’m a very emotional person, and I take things very personally. So probably not well just to be honest, that’s just my personality. I’m very relational, very emotional. I’m the influencer on the disc model of personality tests. But, I think it’s just a conversation. At the right time in the right way to be able to have a conversation with somebody and to hear their side and ultimately when people feel heard, even if at the end you don’t end up agreeing and you tell ’em, this is the way we’re gonna do it. They really appreciate it. So whether it’s you having that conversation or one of your supervisors a lot of times people just want to be heard. And if you really listen. And then tell ’em, you know what, I appreciate your input, but this is the way we’re gonna go. I think 99% of the time they’re good with it.

Murray: I think in the engineering world we deal with, it’s often the case that we are asked to do things which the team doesn’t think are possible. And the team is actually much better informed than their leadership about what’s possible and what’s not, what the risks are and what aren’t. What’s blocking their progress and what isn’t. And so there can be quite a lot of discontent and criticism from the engineering community. And I think actually this is where Agile came from in the first place. So engineers were saying, We value people and interactions over processes and tools. We value responding to change over, following a plan. We value working products over documentation, and we value collaboration with our customers over contracts. So that’s Agile and it came from the bottom up. And in some ways it’s quite similar to Mission Command, but because it came from bottom up we have this situation where people are trying to do these things in very bureaucratic organizations and many people get very frustrated. Some managers are fantastic and really taking it on. But it can be hard for a lot of people trying to do this sort of stuff. 

Eric: So you’re saying, the word comes down, and you as an engineer or a software developer, you’re told to do a project that you don’t think is possible or you don’t think is the right thing to do. 

Murray: You don’t think is possible to do everything you’re asked to do within the time and budget available. And I would say that probably happens, seven times out of 10. So it’s not like an isolated thing. So a lot of things are oversold and over promised .

Shane: And also you get a set of tasks so you don’t get given a goal, you don’t get given a set of intense and then, say, go away and solve the problem. They’re often given, what we call a feature factory. Here’s 23 tasks you have to achieve in this timeframe 

Murray: Yeah. The super detailed plan.

Shane: Yeah. The, big book of orders, 

Murray: The big book of orders, and everybody in the team soon discovers it’s impossible. And the time and the budget just keeps shifting and shifting, and the response is work harder, work over time. You’re not doing it properly, it’s your fault. That’s a very common experience in engineering. 

Shane: And then the other one is add more people. So common behavior is when things aren’t going well, add more people, which in the engineering world makes it worse because now we have new people coming in that haven’t been there at the beginning. They don’t understand where everybody’s at. They haven’t integrated. 

Murray: New people who have very little experience as well, like fresh grads or people who are just new to it, these are all very common issues we’re dealing with. 

Eric: In the military, when you, we would get stuff like that, when I would get overwhelming or impossible tasks, I would always try to help my boss think, so I wouldn’t complain. The guys who complained just got smashed. I would say okay, I think I understand what you want us to do. Here’s a recommendation of how to do that better. So at least you’re not coming back empty handed or you’re not just failing. But now that I’ve transitioned to the civilian world, like I understand your boss is telling you to do something because it has specific monetary payback or value for the company. So they’re telling you to do it for a reason. Is there a room for that back and forth or coming back with a different product or helping your boss think, boss, you told me this, but here’s a way to do that better.

Shane: One question I’ve got is, so what we know is when we start off with a small team and that team works together. They trust each other. They have a shared goal. They become very effective. And then as we see that success, we wanna scale out. We want to add more people to behave the way they do. We start scaling. We form teams and we end up with a bigger group, but we still break them down into smaller groups because we know they are more effective. And I suppose, we wouldn’t just drop 10 privates into a team of 10 experienced people. How does that work in the forces? How, when you bringing new people on that are still developing their competency, are still at that lower level and you wanna scale those teams out, what’s the standard way that they typically work to be successful? 

Eric: I think it’s important to know, as you grow, you have to spend more time on culture. If you’ve got a five person team, the culture is just gonna grow out of your day-to-day. How you act. Do you treat people right? Do you communicate clearly? Do you listen? But okay, now we’re gonna grow as a leader, I gotta earmark to spend more time on culture. It’s so important, but it doesn’t contribute directly to the bottom line. It contributes to the bottom line but definitely does. But it’s indirect, contribution. So I think with culture, you gotta communicate with frequency, intensity, and duration.

And as you scale or as the environment changes, or you get 10 new privates How, frequent are you talking about culture your vision and values? How intense are you? Do they really feel like you believe it? And then how long are you talking about it? And then as the company grows you, as a leader, you gotta spend you almost have to spend less time, on operations and more time on, culture. And I’m seeing that with consulting that small company that I’m doing now. And the leadership really need to spend more time on culture. And it’s tough to get somebody to do that when they’re so programmed to drive operations and especially when they’re doing action themselves. It’s even harder. So that’s what I would say as you grow, you gotta spend more time on culture.

Murray: Shane, should we go to the summaries?

Shane: Sounds good to me. I love when it’s a domain outside of what we call agile. But everything you hear is, so close to agile ways of working. It’s not funny. I like the idea that there was an anti pattern. 

Commander control the idea of issue and order and spend all your time making sure everybody followed the orders, which relates a lot to, organizations that were very hierarchal. They were based on, fixed mindset on, a factory mindset. And then, you move to a decentralized model where there’s small groups you issued intent, you empowered them to meet that intent, and that came out of a need or a threat. That massive amount of complexity, uncertainty is the time that we actually need to change the way we work . The way you used to work, didn’t work. And we see that a lot now with large companies. That they’re under threat by startups or the economy, and therefore they have to change. 

I like the idea that you talked about is, if you ask for permission and wait, it takes too long. I think I read an article somewhere that as soon as the team has to go outside themselves, it’s 12 times longer to get a job done.

I like the idea of intent being principles and really clear ones like, own the night. They’re short. And then you can figure the boundaries within there, but you know what you’re looking for. 

And then you also talked about the idea of task and purpose which to me, sound awfully like, , agile user stories where we go I need this thing done so that I can achieve this goal. 

I also like the idea that, these practices or these ways of working have come through multiple generations. So we look at agile and we see things that were done in the sixties and seventies that have still been done today. They’ve been iterated on. But, the idea that the German army did some of these ways of working and then they’ve been iterated, by different forces over different generations is interesting to me. 

I love the seven things that you stated. Mutual trust, shared understanding, commanders intent, mission type orders, discipline initiative, risk acceptance, shaping the culture. And the eighth one, developing competency, right? So again, they’re almost like the agile values or the agile principles where short things that are memorable, but a whole lot packed in there to guide us in the way we work. 

And that idea of a mission type order it breaks down to some goals, intents, which, are the principles of the boundaries we need to work within the tasks that we have to do. And the purpose of that task happening, which is almost for us, acceptance criteria. I need to do this so that I can do that. And we know we’re successful, we see this thing happen. 

I like the statement that it’s not about accuracy, it’s about clarity. What we often find is providing something that’s clear is a lot harder than providing a lot of words. So it comes back to your, the quote that you use. The higher the authority, the shorter the orders. It takes a lot of, competency to give short orders that meet, that goal or that intent, and can be understood than, speaking for a long time or typing out lots of words. So for me, yeah, it’s lots of parallels. I can see, lots of the same patterns from a completely different domain. Yeah. So that for me is what I got out of it. Murray, what’d you get?

Murray: All right. So I’ve seen similarities between Mission Command , Auftragstaktik and Utter Loops and Agile for a long time. In the corporate world, we deal with a lot of bureaucracies. And a lot of those bureaucracies take their lead, from the old military. So a lot of the management consulting people came out of, world War ii military McKinsey, and Bain and bcg and people like that. And even earlier. There’s a lot of old ideas within the corporate world.

The bosses think and the workers do. But we are in a situation now where a lot of people are knowledge workers, where they’re highly skilled, they have PhDs and engineering degrees, and it’s often the case that the engineering workforce is at least as well educated and intelligent as their offices are. And so there’s been a big call from the engineering community for the sort of thing that you are talking about in mission command. Decentralization focus on outcomes, not output. Focus on objectives, focus on products, not projects. Empowered cross-functional teams that can deliver value from beginning to end.

So I see quite a lot of similarities. I think the Agile community has been unclear what to say to leaders about how to work in this area. And I think mission command is something very valuable that we can talk to leaders about and say, this is very helpful. It works very well in the modern world where we need to move fast. And if you adopt a mission command that is going to really help all of the people doing the work, it’s gonna help them a lot because agile and mission command, I think are very compatible. It’s coming at the problem from different angles. 

Shane: I got a question for you. So we had Ben Ford on, right at the beginning of the interview series that we started, and he’s out of the UK army. and he talked about this idea that when they were sent out in deployment, they were autonomous, all those kind of things. But when he got back to head office, back to HQ and he had to get his parking chit refunded, that was like a six week bureaucracy. Just to get back 10 quid. So in the US Army, what’s it like if you had to get a refund for your parking? Is it nice and smooth.

Eric: Yeah. When we came back, those sergeants were used to operating a multimillion dollar vehicle with hundreds and hundreds of thousands dollars worth of night vision, nine soldiers. And they were empowered to make decisions. They were, running and gunning, and then they came home and their parking shit was outta date. And they had to this place. And then it didn’t have the right stamp, so they had to go to that place. And the Army’s really struggling with it. And building a culture of mission command, whether you’re a computer company, a real estate company, or a British commando who has come back from Afghanistan to garrison. Maintaining that culture is tough. I remember as I was getting ready to transition out, it was like dental stats, how many of your guys are a hundred percent on their teeth cleanings. We clearly don’t have anything to do because we’re measuring dental stats and, that was tied with readiness. And I’m not saying that’s not important, but maintaining that culture is tough. And in a small real estate company, it’s tough. But you have to be even more deliberate about taking time to do it. Because ultimately the organization’s gonna be better.

Murray: I think people follow the lead from their leaders, from their executives. Leaders set the example and then people follow it. And if the leaders are saying one thing and doing something else, people are gonna notice what they’re actually doing and they’re gonna follow that. So I think a good leader is a good example and a good role model. 

Eric: Absolut. 

Murray: All right. Now how can people find out more about your thoughts on mission command and leadership?

Eric: Sure I’m on Instagram And, YouTube at Lopez on leadership. And my, consulting website is arrowhead leadership.com, arrowhead leadership.com, LinkedIn, Arrowhead Leadership Consulting. So love to, reach out and talk with anybody if, if they have any questions, or, wanna talk about this anymore, I would love to do it. And, just really appreciate, you guys having me on today.

Murray: Yeah. That’s great. Thanks for coming on. We appreciate it too. 

That was a no nonsense. Agile podcast from Murray Robinson and Shane Gibson. If you’d like help to build great teams that create high value digital products and services, contact Murray evolve.co. That’s evolve with a zero. Thanks for listening. 

In this episode, we discuss mission command with Eric Lopez. a management consultant. CEO and retired us army Colonel who commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eric explains how mission command allows leaders to decentralize tactical decisions so that people on the ground can take initiative to achieve the mission in a volatile and uncertain environment. Mission command helps leaders become much more agile in a rapidly changing world.