Use Framing, Vision, and Results for Better Reporting


This post requires knowledge of: Pentagon blows $28 Million on Afghan Uniforms

My interpreter (they are all named Mike for some reason) and I are sitting in an old green tent with a farmer from a nearby village. This thing is probably from the 70's and smells like my grandparent's basement. SSG Woolbuck, another member of the Civil Affairs Team, or CAT, is standing at the tent opening keeping an eye on things outside. There are thirty other farmers squatting along the exterior of the tent, so we're trying to negotiate as quietly as possible.

It's not working.

An argument breaks outside and Woolbuck has to swivel his head out to get eyes on the situation. A couple of men are separated and the noise dies down. Soon after he gives me the thumbs up, I take my hand off my holster and turn back to the man sitting across the Table. I make a final offer of $1500 for his 5 acres of land.

It's 2012 and I'm the Civil Affairs officer for the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry, a US Army unit out of Tacoma, WA. I'm in the Panj'Wayi region of Afghanistan, a hostile location well documented in the book "Lions of Kandahar" by Special Forces Major Rusty Bradley. This is the birthplace of the Taliban and an entry point for insurgents crossing the Red Desert from Pakistan, it also holds some of the largest crops related to heroin and marijuana in the world. My job is to convince these farmers to stop growing crops for drug money and to sell me whatever land they are not using so that we can build outposts for the Afghan Army to help stop the flow of fighters from the south. Basically I'm using tax payer dollars to buy useless desert from drug dealers so that I can create an armed border.

Negotiations center around trade-offs and benefit. In other countries the question is often what can we do for the individual in charge - it's just the way things are done. Seemingly idiotic things can be the difference between the continuation or the immediate halt of some international strategic objective. In my case, back in 2012, the goal was the removal of US forces from southern Afghanistan. Due to my teams success, my unit and many others, were able to leave ahead of schedule. In the process we paid for a lot of seemingly unrelated things along the way. But why? It's because my commander had a clear understanding of our activities as they related to the bigger picture.

While the uniforms may seem a waste of money at $28 million, imagine if the minister of defense refused to provide the personnel required to man the outposts in Panj'Wayi. What if we had to shift millions of dollars in men, weapons, and equipment on short notice, or even worse extend tours? Prepping a unit of 500 personnel for one deployment costs well over the $2.8 million needed in a year to help coalition forces ensure that the Afghan's show up. Everybody has their agenda, and in each situation a little cash can go a long way. $2.8 million a year is a joke for uniforms for an entire military force, and it is also low hanging fruit during negotiations to have the eminent military commander agree to more important matters - like where to house over 10,000 individuals along the southern border. It's a balance of give and take to make things work the best way possible.
Managing an organisation is much the same way.

The various disciplines of business serve to quantify activities in ways that allow for an effective comparison. This method of reducing complex activities into matrices and ratios provides management the opportunity to apply their principals to make decisions when reported properly. Sadly, poor reporting can guide leaders to optimize a single activity with disregard to the rest, leading the organisation as a whole to failure. Success is never measured in a single benchmark, and managing resources effectively requires complete understanding. Leadership is many things, but it includes knowing when you've got to take two steps back and when to take that next step forward. Something the Inspector General forgot with this report.

When managers provide poor reports, leaders lose vision and fail to understand how small setbacks can be the catalyst of a much larger opportunity. Giving up a small advantage is easy when you can see the total cost of ALL activities. In this article anyone could see only the headline and agree. In this case the headline is the summary, or the "Bottom Line Up-Front" or BLUF. But think about it, the $28 million is over ten years. What if the headline was, " US Spends only $2.8 million a Year to Ensure Southern Security"? It would have a different meaning and effect.

This is why leaders need to consider reports in the scope of framing, vision, and results. This is also why skills in reporting are so valuable across all levels of management, from team to strategic. Having the vision, or big picture, allows for greater context of the information. Framing the statements correctly prevents bias and allows for greater understanding, and results support the development of various courses of action.

It is up to leaders to provide opportunities for their personnel to develop and understand their role and the impact that they have in changing the way an organization operates. It is also important for leaders to understand how to influence their personnel to create reports in a way that support the organization's goals without wasting resources. Sadly, this is something that most fail at, but can be prevented or improved with better application of reporting standards and increased communication of strategic initiatives from leaders. Below are some examples leaders can use to increase the effectiveness of their reporting.

Improve Framing
  1. Clearly define the problem. People like to do what they are good at. If they are skilled at organizing teams, odds are their recommendation will support some form of reorganization. By identifying that issue you can prevent reports that support ineffective plans.
  2. Force a Paradox. Individuals tend to frame data into a way that supports a preconceived solution or idea. By including a requirement that they also provide data against their recommendation you not only counteract any bias, but improve critical reasoning.
Improve Vision
  1. Have a decision framework. Managers are experts and by default, specialists. By graphically showing how each teams information feeds into the decision framework, they remain aware of the overall goal as well as what their priority is.
  2. Use an example. Be it from another organization or your own, give an example of what you're trying to accomplish and how you plan to reach a similar goal. Storytelling is effective at communicating a plan that people can relate to on an individual level without focus on personal goals.
Improve (the use of) Results
  1. Conduct comparative reviews. Have managers lay out their expected results at various stages in the process, then review them and answer the question, "Does this improve our understanding of a solution?" If the answer is no, re-evaluate the necessity of that task and redirect.
  2. Share results openly. Either trough visualization or in pure data, share the results of each report openly with the team. This allows for each individual to apply the data directly to the decision framework and draw their own conclusions. Not only does this improve transparency and the involvement of individuals during the process, it also creates a semi-internal 'red-team' to identify errors and criticize decsisions.

Brandon Barnard is a veteran advocate, student, and management consultant with 10 years of military service in the US Army. His interests include data science, technology in business, and organizational development. In his spare time he studies how applying machine learning techniques to the psychophysics of facial communication can improve the candidate selection process during live interviews. He lives in Everett, WA.