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Providing Top Cover Part 1
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic is the first of two parts on providing Top Cover. This essay will cover the concept of creating stability and consistency in execution to protect your teams from the chaos of many organizations. The second part will cover providing psychological safety and standing up for your team when they come under criticism. Since Part Two requires the foundation of providing stability, we’ll investigate how to do that today so we can expand on it in the future.
When I was a young Officer in the Army, I had a leader who would constantly change the plan throughout the day with last-minute requests or task details that would pull Soldiers away from training. I quickly got tired of that and so each morning would present him a detailed itinerary of where I’d be, when I’d check in, and who was going to be where. I also ensured where we were was nowhere near enough to randomly grab for pop-up tasks.
My peers wondered how I was able to spend so much time training, or on the range practicing marksmanship while they worked mundane duties. The answer was simple, I provided my troops with Top Cover.
Providing Top Cover
There’s the old saying that shit flows downhill. That’s true, but it’s the job of the leader to build a buffer. It’s their job to sift through all the shit and find the few gold nuggets buried inside and hand those down to the team while discarding the rest.
I call this creating an ‘eddy’ in the chaos. It’s a little bubble of tranquility while everyone else is running around like crazy, constantly doing things yet never really getting anything done.
We’ve explored the outcome of this when we looked at Functional Stupidity in organizations. Sadly there are perverse incentives to maintain the chaos as we reward The Successfully Unsuccessful. But fundamentally, providing Top Cover is one more tool in the belt of the successful Lazy Leader and helps Mature Product, Process, and People.
When done right, this protective layer creates stability and with that stability, you can improve the systems that enable success. When you push back and protect your teams, you’re able to increase the overall performance so much that it actually does become easy. I’ll share a couple of examples from my time in the Army and in corporate America where this resulted in incredible outcomes.
Wu Wei and Ruck Marches
When I was at Ranger School during hell week, we were doing a 12-mile forced ruck march. It’s the final crucible of a week that ends up like a blur. By this point, close to 30% of the Ranger candidates have failed out of the class and this test is intended to increase that number. It’s a march from the main facility to the field where we’ll spend the next two weeks doing military missions in the woods. It also sets a hefty 4 mph pace while carrying your full kit. (~150lbs if you have a machine gun on you)
Soldiers typically space out in two columns on each side of the road and try to maintain even spacing. The key word is ‘try.’ In reality, someone moves a little faster, or a little slower, and a slinky effect occurs. Halfway down the line, you’ll often find yourself slowed to a stop when the line bunches up only to then have everyone hustle up, even run, when a gap opens up. Stop, run, stop, run, stop, run. It’s literally the worst way to be successful on an already hard task. Yet everyone keeps the slinky going not wanting to look like they’re falling behind.
On the Ranger School march, I found myself about halfway down a long column with a fully functioning slinky. Instead of contributing I looked further ahead and paced myself off the leader up front. My pace was consistent, my stride was steady, and I didn’t run or stop. Needless to say, that caught the attention of the Ranger Instructor (RI) as a large gap opened between myself and the person in front of me who just sprinted forward:
RI: “RANGER WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? YOU’RE FALLING BEHIND!”
Me: “I’ll be caught up in less than a minute Sergeant.”
RI: “WHAT DO YOU MEAN! CLOSE THE GAP!”
Me: “Roger Sergeant, I’ll be there in about 30 seconds.”
RI: “YOU AREN’T PICKING UP THE PACE.”
Me: “20 seconds Sergeant.”
RI: “YOU’RE NOT DOING ANYTHING!”
Suddenly the column ahead buckled and stopped and just as the slinky compressed and then resprung, we caught up.
Me: “Gap closed Sergeant.”
RI: “You sonofabitch.” (walking away trying not to smile)
I was left alone for the rest of the ruck march while the slinky continued to oscillate in front of me. In fact, the Soldier directly in front of me ended up falling out of the march and had to recycle because sprinting and stopping isn’t a good strategy. Others ahead of me had incredible blisters from running with all that weight.
So that’s great for me, but also consider everyone behind me. Instead of reacting like everyone else, my Top Cover maintained a consistent pace for everyone who was following me. In that group happened to be a bunch of Ranger Battalion kids who saw what I was doing, appreciated it, and helped me many times when I needed it most on missions. A simple non-reactive behavior created stability which protected those following me.
Don’t Let Others Meddle
The second example comes from my time as a manufacturing manager. I was responsible for a manufacturing cell making advanced avionics and it was known as the most difficult cell on the plant site. When I took over we couldn’t get the product out the door consistently and one entire line of circuit cards was like a strange black hole no one could keep track of.
Within weeks, I noticed that leadership was constantly changing the plan and pushing or pulling product forward or holding it. Our planning group was also not releasing material evenly causing lumps and gaps in flow. At the same time, each product had a specified duration in which to build it so, if it sat on a shelf, it was burning a metric that I’d be beat up over.
The first step I did was to enforce with my team, and my leadership, that they had two options to change the plan. The first was when we planned it, and the second was prior to the morning factory start-up. After that, I wouldn’t allow a change.
This created no small amount of heartache at first. I had to tell my leadership no. To do so I just leveraged the Lean Six Sigma principles they espoused and held them accountable. As an old adage states: “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” Top Cover means holding chaos at bay in the short term so that you can improve long term performance.
The second step was to stabilize the product release plan and make sure it was consistent, timely, and actually followed. It was painful at first to get people to look a week or two ahead of time but the payoff in having a stable input was incredible.
Lastly, I tracked down the circuit card problem and found that it was simply a miscommunication between my section and the circuit card shop where they didn’t realize I had two days of tests after they were done. I made simple tracking cards and suddenly it went from always missing delivery dates to always making them.
I provided Top Cover to keep the chaos at bay and we went from the worst-performing manufacturing cell to the highest performing in just over a year.
Disciplined Execution Protects the Team
There’s a well-known business tip that a messy store results in more shoplifting. If you don’t know what you have or where it’s at, who’s going to miss it? It’s really easy to ask chaos to accept more. It’s much harder to ask the same of a team with disciplined execution.
When I was a program manager in aerospace the program I had taken over was in chaos. The previous manager had been promoted because it was such a challenging program. No one wanted to work on the technology because it was disorganized and the direction kept shifting.
The first thing I did was to establish some basic Lean Engineering principles and at the simplest level, I started a morning stand-up with the team to find out what everyone was working on, what they needed, and what barriers they had. When the meeting was over I made sure they got what they needed and I’d do a walk-around just after lunch to see if anything had popped up.
After a couple of weeks and a few more improvements akin to the manufacturing example above, you could feel the chaos receding and the program calming down. That’s when I doubled down on process discipline, accountability, and cross-functional engagement. I not only held my team accountable but the other teams that we relied on.
There was a lot of grumbling at first, especially from those who supported us. What I found most interesting is that after two months the grumbling stopped. After four months the support teams prioritized our work because they knew they could get it done and not have to do much, if any rework.
I knew I’d nailed it when I went from the program no one wanted to work on to having engineers slip into my cube asking to join my team. As much as they originally complained about the discipline, they saw how much more productive and effective they could be.
Top Cover in creating stability and consistency in execution protects your teams from the chaos of many organizations:
It’s key to handling Functional stupidity when you only have the power within your little purview.
It’s saying no to the way everyone is doing things and not playing the game.
It’s holding accountability internally as well as externally and creating a bubble of sanity and an eddy of calm so you can actually execute well.
When you are successful in providing this layer of Top Cover, you’ll often be told you’ve got an ‘easy’ project like happened to me on the manufacturing floor. Or you’ll have resources taken away to help put out fires elsewhere like they tried to do on my aerospace program. Sometimes you’ll just get yelled at for a little bit until they finally see what’s going on as in Ranger School. In all these examples, these stories might sound great, but when you actually provide Top Cover you will have to deal with a lot of shit flowing downhill and you will have to handle saying no to leadership. While it’s a key foundation of success, it’s not easy.
With this concept of Top-Cover in mind we have the foundation to pivot, in the near future, to Part Two which will focus on providing psychological safety and standing up for your team when they come under criticism. This will look at how to handle negative feedback in a way that grows your teams, improves stakeholder relationships, and gives your team members the confidence and space to achieve unprecedented achievements.
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