Hire Carnac or Brief the Plan
If you happen to employ The Amazing Kreskin and Carnac the Magnificent, you don’t need to worry about verbalizing your plans in the form of a briefing. They’ll read your mind and all will end well. For everyone else, you need to share your mental model through specific language in order to ensure your team meets its objectives.
In the fighter pilot community, pre-flight briefings often take more time than the flight itself and for good reason. When you have a team of four pilots, each alone in his own jet flying at high speeds and in close proximity to potentially 20 or more other airplanes in a highly dynamic environment, not being on the same page can be lethal.
You can’t afford to be guessing whether the jet that’s “beak to beak” with you and closing at more than 1000 knots is going to break off left or right or up or down. The lack of a shared mental model in that case can lead to a harrowing moment and maybe even a midair collision.
Every project, large and small, your team embarks upon should be preceded by a pre-flight briefing to ensure every member of the team is operating from the same mental model.
Fortunately, unlike a fighter pilot briefing, you probably don’t need to begin your briefing two or more hours prior to “takeoff.” As long as you take some time to brief the following five items, your chance of success will go up tremendously.
Objectives: What is the desired end state?
If you can’t define an end state, you probably shouldn’t be taking on whatever task you’re considering. To know if your definition is properly fleshed out, use the SMART goal protocol. Your objectives should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-limited. This should be true for simple tasks (“move that pile of rocks from the east side of the yard to the west side of the yard by closing time today”) or complex ones (“increase sales 5% within six months of implementing the new marketing strategy”).
Motherhood: What actions will the team take that are common to all tasks?
For fighter pilots, motherhood includes all of the administrative tasks that must be accomplished to start, taxi, and take off before the mission and to return to the base, shoot an approach, and land after the mission. At a minimum, we discuss the impact of the weather and any current limitations with the runway, the airport or the airplanes themselves. For you, motherhood might include such things as the systems (transportation, facilities, IT, etc.) you use that enable you to accomplish the “meat of the mission”—the thing that your organization does that creates revenue.
Tactical Plan: What specific actions will we take to achieve the objectives for this specific task?
This is the meat of the mission and should take up the most time in your briefing. It’s the Xs and Os of the gameplan—how the members of the team will employ the assets they have available to them to achieve the objective.
Contracts: Who is responsible for what?
Contracts must be specifically spelled out. If certain responsibilities are written down in the form of a policy that all members are expected to know, then they can be referred to as “standard.” Any expectations above and beyond the standard or peculiar to that day’s gameplan must be addressed to avoid the dreaded “covert contract.” Covert contracts arise when people assume that others are on the same page, and we all know what happens when we assume…
What ifs: What are some predictable failure points and what will we do if we encounter them?
You don’t need to ramble on about every possible thing that can go wrong with the plan, but there are almost certainly two or three things that are likely to happen and bear mentioning—traffic, weather, internet outages, low battery, etc.
Depending on the complexity of the task, the whole briefing can be accomplished in a few seconds to a few minutes. The amount of time and heartache it can save you on the backside makes it the most productive few minutes you’ll ever spend.
Here’s a quick example of a recent task I witnessed that didn’t go well in real life, but could have been accomplished efficiently and easily with the following one-minute briefing:
“We’re going to move all of the home staging items from their current storage location in our house to the newly-leased storage unit on 18th Street at one o’clock this afternoon (Objective). The best way to go is Elm to 18th. You’ll have to take a right on 18th and then do a U-turn because there’s no direct entrance from Elm to the street where the storage unit is located (Motherhood). Park on the south side of the building because that’s where the elevator is located. It’s also closest to the room where the dollies are. The elevator code is 1234. It’s best to back into your parking space to make it easier to get the items out of the trunk and onto the dollies (Tactical Plan). I’ll get there at 1pm and unlock the room. Greg*, come with me, go straight to the room and assemble the currently disassembled shelving units. Lisa* plan to show up at 1:10pm so the room and shelves are ready for you to move stuff straight away (Contracts). If you’re going to be late, text me so I know if I need to hang around. If you get sidetracked and can’t make it, I’ll lock the unit. I’ve made each of you a key so you can open it on your own (What ifs).”
Don’t force your team to be mind readers. Take a minute to brief the plan and save yourself two minute’s worth of aggravation on the back side.
*Names changed to protect the innocent