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Commentary: The Importance of Process

  • Published
  • By Capt. (Dr.) Ethan Sneider
  • Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Detachment 12

What’s more important than you? (hint: The Team)

How do you react under pressure? How does your team handle stress? Being deployed, you learn that the operational environment is filled with both pressure and stress – and lots of it! Though you may be thinking, “I can handle the stress,” and “thrive under pressure,” there is one facet that you may be overlooking. Teamwork. The mission certainly doesn’t forget - it takes a team to accomplish coordinated military objectives. The mission lives and dies by the team. The concept of a team is something you learn very quickly through your inaugural military training education - ROTC, OTS, OCS, BMT - the military indoctrination instills the core tenet that teamwork is how missions are accomplished.

While you as an individual may thrive in stressful and pressure-filled environments, your teammates may not. Incomplete information, tangible consequences, the need for decisive action, and uncertainty within unfamiliar environments are all facets of stress and pressure that present themselves in any deployed environment. A thriving team is able to overcome operational adversity and excel in the fog of war.

Just how do teams create tenable pathways for operational success? How can teams enable individuals to turn stress and pressure into operational advantages? Thriving in any deployed environment, comes down to process.

When faced with pressure, our thinking changes

You may find your confidence drained, complex thought processes inaccessible, and general panic setting in, which is much the same for how some handle stress. What’s more, it can be difficult to know when someone is experiencing pressure and stress, and that their present state is one in which cognitive abilities are severely limited. There’s no sign above a person’s head that says “I am freaking out, and I can’t effectively adjust to the current stimuli in the environment and make an educated decision.” If we can’t tell when someone has degraded operational decision making capabilities, we can at least assume that the possibility exists. Planning for teammates to experience certain difficulties in making decisions can be mitigated through thoughtful planning actions.

How pressure and stress manifest within a deployed environment

The factors of stress and pressure exist for myriad reasons: new country, new base, unfamiliar sleeping quarters, where to get food, duty hours, recreation and relaxation opportunities… you get the idea. These are all before we even get to actual job duties! Add in little turnover, little sleep and being away from family and friends … every little bit of stability helps! Though we can’t see the pressure and stress, it exists.

Planning for the known - What Process Is

Process helps us see what can’t be seen. Process is a vehicle for three things: providing stability, E2 (efficient and effective) communications, and fostering innovation. Process is a collection of knowledge formatted to be able to tell a story, and allow for recreation of whatever information is being captured.

  • Providing stability:

When we don’t know what to do, where to look, how to accomplish our job and who to talk to, it’s difficult to be effective operators. Little turnover may also mean you have to find out all of the answers to these questions on your own, and fast! Stability is a method with which necessary information, in an accessible and enduring format, can be consumed bya service member. You guessed it, it sounds a lot like continuity... because it is! Should that proverbial bus ever ruefully come and remove the main person who is doing the job, the job can still get accomplished by the next man up. Stability is engrained through continuity. And, for deployed environments, we need all the stability we can get.

  • E2 (efficient and effective) communications:

Have you ever been in a situation where you are trying to share information with someone (or receive information) and your communication styles are not matching up? Maybe they get distracted when training you up on a key work task, and it remains half-finished. Maybe time constraints and an inability to prioritize what is important to turnover means that the new person filling the role misses getting crucial operating information. The outcome, in the two above scenarios, are the same - the new person has to take time to ‘re-invent’ and ‘re-discover’ how to do what they need to do. Valuable time is lost and also stakeholders involved in the task may begin to experience burn-out and agitation. A process-based approach to turnover documentation allows for reference materials to be created, maintained, and updated to inform and train new team members. Codifying a process even allows new members to read the information before they arrive on station. And, the information within the documents will be timely, current and appropriate (we hope). Now that is what we call efficient and effective communication!!

  • Fostering innovation:

Picture yourself in a dark room. You have to build something, and the models you can use for reference are in the room. You just can’t see them or interact with them. If only you could turn on the light (you didn’t know there was one) and then you could interact with your surroundings with clarity; you’d be able to accomplish the task no problem! Imagine, the instructions for what you need to do is unreadable… so you really are just ‘left in the dark.’ Well, you don’t have to be (left in the dark, that is)! Knowing where you have been, what has been done, and context within your operating environment are all essential for how to move forward. Like innovation, historical precedence doesn’t define how we innovate or create solutions, though it certainly helps! Continuity and transparency into past actions and work can be captured and harnessed for how to iterate and innovate on your programs or tasks, moving forward. Don't start in the dark, have a process to illuminate the path ahead!

What process is not

Process is not the answer. “What? You just spent a whole post talking about the importance of process.. What could you possibly mean?” Meet context. How context affects processes is where we find out that process is only a part of an intricate operating environment. When deployed, nothing happens as we expect it to, and the rules don't apply. If the enemy acted from a playbook, then everything would be predictable. But we know the fog of war happens for a reason, and variables within the context of an operational environment, cannot be controlled. It is, then, that our processes help guide our reactions to situations we are not prepared for. Processes allow the operator to be flexible, and adapt to their circumstances.  

Process is clearly not the answer… but it helps you get there

Process provides stability, efficient and effective communications and fosters innovation. So while process is not the answer, it does make up part of the solution. Process allows an operator to quickly build upon the knowledge and wisdom of those before them, and retain the important cognitive capabilities that are often lost to pressure and stress. Process allows the operator to graduate from reacting and simply just trying to get-up-to-speed to the modes of adapting, and creating and thriving. Process translates into being proactive. So, what processes have you done today?