Lt. Col. Highlander: Encourage your team to think for themselves

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Daniel Highlander
  • 23 Space Operations Squadron commander

Since an early age I’ve always had an inherent curiosity about how things worked. How was this designed? How do these parts work together? I wanted to understand the how of everything.

I quickly discovered I am one of those people who has “the knack” and understands how things work. Whether structural, mechanical or electrical, if something was broken or not working right (or in some cases, working just fine), I took it apart and figured out how to fix it.  Naturally, a career in the engineering field became an extension of that curiosity and remains a key component of the person I am today. After all, engineering is the art of solving problems.

Solving Problems, All Problems

Being a process-oriented thinker was helpful as a young officer. It helped me develop unique solutions to launch vehicle issues and on-orbit anomalies, and helped drive strategic-level discussions. However, as my responsibilities increased I found myself continuing to solve problems, reducing my effectiveness as a leader. Instead of developing subordinates, creating opportunities, removing obstacles, clarifying priorities, etc., I was hyper-focused on problem solving … and THAT was the problem!

When leaders take problems over from subordinates, important issues get delayed and the organization suffers. That’s why I’d like to revive two classic concepts that have served me well, both as a leader and an action officer.

Management Concept One: Monkey Management

This first concept originally appeared as a 1974 Harvard Business Review article, “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” and still holds true today. “Monkey Management” is a structured approach to preventing problems from getting delegated upward. “Monkeys” are the problems, issues or challenges your staff brings you that somehow become your responsibility to manage and solve. Instead of the monkeys stopping by your office for a quick visit and going back home with their owners, they end up taking residence and you become responsible for their care and feeding.

As an engineer, I liked feeding monkeys because I thought I was helping people solve problems. But over time, I learned my actions were actually preventing my team from learning how to solve their own problems, resulting in me being overloaded with work. As a leader, your job is to instruct those who report directly to you on the criteria used to guide your decision making. You also need to provide the necessary resources, time and access to information. Finally, be accessible to give information and feedback. Failing to develop your subordinates will result in them always coming to you to solve their problems.

Management Concept Two: Completed Staff Work

I’ve found the next concept is helpful when thinking through a problem and I use it as a baseline for the projects I’m given. Though I don’t think you should take every word of the document literally, it’s a great framework that you can use on just about any task. The “Doctrine of Completed Staff Work” dates back to World War II and can be summed up as the study of a problem and presentation of a solution in such a way that the only thing left for the commander to do is to approve or disapprove the action.

Completed staff work requires individuals to give their best thinking, best recommendation and best work. When you encounter a problem, don’t just take it to your boss and lay it on their desk as if it’s their problem to solve – this only creates more work for your boss and does nothing to help grow your expertise or problem-solving abilities.

If you’ve identified the problem, brainstorm and recommend potential solutions to it. As an action officer it is your job to advise your boss on what to do. The final test of completed staff work is this: If you were the boss, would you be willing to sign the paper (solution) that you prepared and stake your professional reputation on it being right? If the answer is negative, take it back and work it over, because it is not yet completed staff work.

In many ways the approaches in Monkey Management and Completed Staff Work serve as blueprints to unleashing the potential within all of us and our organizations. As a leader, resist the urge to do your team’s thinking for them. Give guidance, clarify the problem, and provide background information, but make them do their own thinking. It’s their job to furnish proposed solutions – not problems – and your job is to apply strategic thinking to their solutions.

The principle of completed staff work is not a panacea. It’s simply an effective means of teaching people to do their own thinking and put their best work forward. My experience is most people welcome the chance to study things and to demonstrate their capabilities. If executed well, completed staff work saves everybody time in the long run and produces higher-quality results.