The Secrets Of Decision-Making Amid Chaos

You can't remove your company from the chaos of the moment, so the ability to be highly analytical, rather than emotion-driven, is more important than ever.

How do you define chaos? How do you recognize when you’re in the middle of it? More significantly, as a leader, what do you do about it? How do you continue to move your organization forward and drive to the outcome that you want?

Although you may have a definition of chaos and can visualize what chaos looks like, no two chaotic circumstances are the same. Chaos follows bad news as well as good and usually involves some form of randomness—people running around directionless or simply frozen in place. For example, the award of a contract requires delivery for which you may not be fully prepared (people running around) not unlike the loss of a contract that requires a contraction (people frozen in place), waiting for the next shoe to drop.

How about a global Black Swan pandemic to define chaos? The coronavirus is stretching our public health system to a breaking point. Our economy is in a free fall. Industries are being shuttered. Over 20 million Americans have applied for unemployment. We are experiencing unprecedented chaos.

The trouble, however, is that we did not see this chaos coming. History will assign blame to our failures to see the indicators and to respond more swiftly to this virus. However, what can we learn from it now?

The inevitability of chaos should sharpen our awareness. Sadly, the indicators, like those presaging the global coronavirus pandemic, can hide in plain sight or be discounted as unreliable. In today’s environment of “big data,” they may lack a discernible pattern not unlike a drunkard’s walk. As your corporate world collides with your private world, as you seamlessly blend your digital data inputs, chaos can seem the norm.

One thing is certain; chaos results in change.

So within this environment that increasingly is more chaotic, more random, often inexplicable, you exist; you thrive; you make decisions. And those decisions must be made under pressure, truncated timelines, high emotions, higher expectations and lower margins. Can you remove yourself from your environment? No—nor should you. However, if want to make decisions that are more antiseptic and less boiling over with emotion, here’s how.

• Know your team. Every leader has a kitchen cabinet, a coterie of advisors with whom you have a special and trusting relationship. Shine the light on them. Praise them in public, and they’ll speak honestly with you in private. Bosses don’t empower their subordinates; subordinates empower themselves. These folks will empower themselves and demonstrate routinely why they are your most trusted and able teammates. Napoleon had “directed telescopes,” trusted aides who went forward in combat (chaos) to assess his Army and the enemy. Find your directed telescopes and honor them.

• Delegate down. At the very moment a crisis hits, let go. Following a thoughtful process, you must delegate clear authorities to your subordinate leaders so they can act without hesitation. This does not suggest taking your hands off the controls. It does mean that those around you must know that they are authorized by you personally to act. Empowerment of the team in uncertainty is a must. Too many unknowns, too many decisions. Let your horses run.

• Control up. In chaos, keep the board informed. It’s non-negotiable and is ignored at your own peril. The board is there, at least in large part, to help, so assume they want to be part of the solution. You will be expected to own the outcome as you emerge from chaos, so own the message as you work your way through it.

As an intelligence officer in combat, I had to control the message, the assessment of the enemy’s capabilities and intentions, that my commander (my boss) received. My technique was to brief my boss personally, in private sessions with key advisors, multiple times during the day. I chose not to delegate the messaging my boss received. The significance of that assessment could not have been more consequential. Soldiers’ lives were at risk.  Lives may not be in the balance in the chaos you experience in business, but keeping your boss informed is no less important. Control the message. Own it.

• Show up. Very simply, be visible. In chaos, your people want to see you. From you, they expect calm, to get solid guidance, and to know you care. You must never undervalue the healing effect of the leader “in the trenches” with a team that’s “under fire.” In the military, it’s known as the “point of decision.” Good decisions come from good leaders who have a good view of the environment and that means being where the action is. Usually, that’s up front. Know where your “front” is and get there before everyone else, intellectually and physically.

• Prioritize. First things first. In chaos, prioritization is critical. There’s already enough energy, so do everything in your power to focus it. When I was the senior intelligence officer for the invasion of Iraq, the missions were limitless: What is the status of Iraqi chemical forces? Where is Saddam’s senior command-and-control headquarters? Where is Saddam himself, his Top 55? Will Iraqi citizens accept coalition forces?

The intelligence requests came from every unit in our command and many outside our command.  I established a priority task list to answer these requests based on a single criterion—to keep “first things first.” My priority task was to provide the Marine forces detailed intelligence of the southern Iraqi oil fields, the first objective of our invasion.  If we did not get that right, there was little chance of overall mission success. The Marines’ mission was to secure the oil fields and ensure Saddam could not destroy them as he did in Kuwait a decade earlier. Seems like an easy decision but the intellectual competition pulling us in other directions was crushing. We understood our priority, remained focused and stayed deaf to criticism.

Recognizing chaos is less important than recognizing that within chaos good decision making is essential. Too much is at risk especially when emotions on your team are raw.  Remember, your boss and the market have votes in the outcome of your efforts.

While competitors pray for your demise and some on your own team may anticipate it, quiet your critics. Be calm, be focused, stay prepared.

Major General (Ret.) Spider Marks
Major General Spider Marks has over 42 years of leadership experience in both the Army and industry. He commanded Soldiers at every level from 2d Lieutenant to Major General. He was the CEO of Global Linguist Solutions, a privately held company that provides linguistics services to the U.S. military in Iraq and was the largest employer of native Iraqis and was the CEO, InVisM, a firm that develops training and simulation tools for commercial and government clients. He is an on-air military and national security contributor to CNN, having worked with Fox News, CBS, MSNBC, and BBC. He is a 1975 graduate of West Point. Spider is a faculty member at Thayer Leadership.