Ready, Fire, Aim!

by STEVE COATS

Ever heard the expression, “ready, fire, aim?” I frequently hear people use those words to describe how their organizations operate. Over time, I have become a bit surprised at the number of people who are almost boasting about being part of a ready, fire, aim culture. What do you think about that? Is ready, fire, aim, the best strategy for success?

This phrase may have a lot of different definitions, but for the purposes of this discussion, it refers to taking immediate action, including simply reacting to something, before thinking it through very thoroughly. Like everything, it has its good side and its bad.

Advocates of ready, fire, aim cite how it promotes a bias for action. They make the case that many organizations get too bogged down by over-analyzing every little detail. They continue to say that since people can never have all of the information needed to make totally risk-free decisions, they need to act quickly, learn from those actions, and then be ready to implement course corrections as problems arise. These advocates would rather “do something, even if it is wrong,” than get trapped in analysis paralysis, that tendency to study something to death.

Others will say ready, fire, aim is the reason organizations get into trouble. Rather than taking the appropriate time to think something through, their people take immediate actions that are too often based on wrong assumptions or previous experiences that may not apply to the circumstances at hand. Opponents of ready, fire, aim will also contend that sometimes the decision not to act in the moment is the best thing to do.

As you might suspect, the best answer lies somewhere in the middle. Even in our overworked, no time for anything world, it is unconscionable to take a position that there is no time to think. On the other hand, it is just as ruinous to get caught up in endless analysis, thus deferring or avoiding decisions that must be made quickly. The best decisions are made with an appropriate balance of thinking and action.

So here is a question for you to think about. To what extent do you believe thinking is as valued as acting in your organization? Is thoughtfulness an attribute for which the very best leaders are known or admired? Does it even get mentioned as something of value? The obvious answer is, of course, thinking is valued, but is that really what you see?

Workplace Examples

There are common things we see that make us wonder. One of those is the all too frequent fire drill, that urgent request that pops up at the last minute requiring attention right now. We have come across far too many cases where workers are advised by their bosses not to put much time or effort into them, but to just get them done as quickly as possible. “Act, don’t think” is the message. Some of these are legitimate and need to be completed in the moment. Many more are not. Yet there are groups who will cancel customer meetings or other meaningful work to tend to these drills, regardless of their importance. They constantly complain that since it comes from headquarters (or some other omnipotent source), they have no choice. Interestingly enough, there are other teams who have decided to stop the fire drill madness by taking time to examine and understand which are vital and which are not. Rather than reactively responding to anything that crosses their plates, they make thoughtful decisions to determine those they will address and those they won’t.

Another example is meetings. I have been part of meetings where a rather sizable problem is teed up and a solution is expected in the following fifteen minutes or so. People put forth the first ideas that pop into their mind, and the best of those, or some combination, is selected. Ready, fire, aim. Despite the fact that the problem has had months to fester, the expectation is the problem must be solved before the meeting ends. And of course, the meeting end time is fixed, because everyone has another meeting to run off to, where a similar process is likely repeated.

By the way, it is also baffling how rarely there is an advanced agenda or stated purpose for these sessions, denying those attending the opportunity to do some preliminary thinking about the topic, even if they wanted to.

Many of the smaller, day-to-day issues can be addressed in the typical meeting fashion. But more significant problems require more thinking time for the best solutions to arise. Have you ever been part of a meeting that would have been much more productive had you and others been able to put some thought into the topics prior to arriving?

Is it any wonder that during a post-mortem of a failed project, one of the most common and frequent explanations for things gone wrong is, “we just never thought about that.” Of course they didn’t – they were caught up more in the firing than they were in the aiming.

Too Busy to Think

One other troubling thing we have observed is how easily people rationalize not taking time to think because of how busy they are. The “too busy” explanation is also used by many to justify why they have seldom taken time for ongoing education, and to more fully develop their capabilities. This reminds me of a comic strip I once saw, where valiant soldiers of old were attempting to defend their castle with single shot muskets. A fellow selling machine guns appeared at the castle gate, but was denied a meeting with the captain, who said, I am too busy fighting a battle to listen to a salesman.

No matter what the job, everyone is overburdened today with too much to do. The important question for you is, how much of what you do is the right thing to be doing and how much of it is not really all that important. If you are unable or unwilling to give that question some serious thought, and to reflect on your true priorities, you will likely find yourself spiraling further and further out of balance in your life.

Hopefully you have never personally encountered one of the worst examples of the “not enough time to think” condition. I have come across a number of managers, who have given literally no thought at all about the performance reviews and development discussions they are supposed to conduct with their people. These managers often ask their people to bring a self- assessment to the review meeting, but they themselves have not completed any kind of assessment on any of their people. They then try to carry on a meaningful discussion with the associate at the same time they are scanning his or her assessment for the first time. Ready, fire, aim. They have not taken the time to reflect on their peoples’ strengths, weaknesses, confidence levels, development opportunities and so forth. And to make matters worse, the managers might schedule five or six of these sessions back to back, so they can get them done quickly – and then get back to work.

When peoples’ careers are on the line, winging it like this is unforgivable. Sadly, we still hear people in many organizations lament that they seldom, if ever, have any kind of performance evaluation or career discussion from their boss, not even one where the manager is unprepared. And we wonder why so many capable and aspiring people become so disillusioned with their work, and emotionally check out.

An Essential of Leadership

Whether thoughtfulness is held up and modeled as a necessity in an organization, it certainly is an essential in effective leadership. Often times, leaders face dilemmas that do not have either easy or proven answers. And the consequences of their decisions have enormous impact on a lot of people. Don’t you expect your leaders to give careful consideration to issues that warrant it? Why would your people expect anything less from you?

One of the things in short supply in companies that are struggling to grow is a list of solid, viable, different options. There is usually more than just one or two ways to continue to prosper, but some organizations never seem to grasp that.

How are you doing on developing options? For example, if a competitor lowers prices, do you believe your only recourse is to follow suit? If your employees can make a slightly higher wage down the street, is your only response to match the salary? If you have never thought through scenarios like these, and developed other alternatives, you might be giving outside forces more control over your decisions than you care to.

Breakthrough strategies seldom just show up on your desk. They come from a lot of thinking, debating and analyzing them from a number of different perspectives. And then they are validated and strengthened with testing, experimenting, prototyping and other necessary actions. As a leader, you must encourage both innovative thinking and hands-on experimentation if you expect to keep up with your competition.

For you see, taking time to think and being able to get things done are not polar opposites. In fact, you will find they are great partners that work much better together than they do separately. Both are vital for success today.

In the very familiar “do more with less” world, where immediate action is the prevalent expectation, you must never allow thinking and reflection to become neglected. Ready, fire, aim may feel more comfortable and be part of the culture, but pay close attention to the overall time and resource costs associated with it. And remember this. If your competitors are out-thinking you at every turn, you will likely have a very difficult, if not truncated future.

Copyright © 2005 International Leadership Associates.

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