Winning at Chaos: How to Succeed When it All Falls Apart

“How can you prepare to succeed in the midst of chaos?”

Much has been written about the big strategic decisions before the massive D-Day invasion of World War II.  What sometimes gets missed are the thousands of little, tactical decisions made on the ground afterwards.  Yet those were what ultimately enabled success.

Allied planners knew there was no chance their plan would work out perfectly.  Leaders on the ground would have to make thousands of decisions the planners couldn’t even imagine.  To help make sure those little decisions would be good ones, they gave their leaders two critical tools.  Today we’ll talk about what those tools were, and how you can use them to succeed with your “Army.”

Winning Chaos - How to Succeed When it All Falls Apart

The Best Laid Plans

As they sketched out the plan for D-Day, strategists believed that the decisive moment would occur on the beaches as amphibious forces came ashore.  The Nazis’ best chance for success would be to prevent the Allies from establishing a foothold and building up their strength.

A powerful German counterattack in the first days of the operation could doom the entire enterprise.

To buy time, the Allies planned to drop thousands of paratroopers behind the beach the night before the landing.  They would assemble and then strike key targets to control critical bridges, eliminate defenses, and prevent a German counterattack against the beachhead.

Each objective was chosen to weaken the German response and give the Allies on the beach time to get established.

Like Dandelion Seeds on the Wind

But like so many grand schemes, the neat grease pencil ovals sketched on the maps were not where the paratroopers ended up.  Cloud cover, contrary winds, jittery pilots, errant navigation, and a host of other factors played into the confusion.

At midnight when they jumped, the Allied paratroopers found themselves scattered all over the countryside like dandelion seeds on a windy day.

Thousands landed miles from their planned objectives; many had no idea where they were, or whether the rustling sound in the hedgerow nearby was friendly or not.

Little Groups of Paratroopers

The details of the plan were in tatters.  Most paratroopers never came close to taking the objectives they were assigned.  But that didn’t stop them from acting.

They knew that they had to do something – the Soldiers getting ready to come ashore were depending on them.  So as they groped around in the dark, unfamiliar landscape, they organized themselves, somebody took charge, and they figured out what they could do.

They formed into LGOPs: Little Groups of Paratroopers – self-directed clusters of Soldiers doing their best to execute the mission.

If they were near their objective, they attacked and carried out their orders.

If they weren’t, they did the next best thing: whatever they could to slow down the Germans.

They cut telephone wires, blew up bridges, emplaced obstacles, and attacked anywhere and everywhere they could.

It was not pretty.  Things were chaotic, they were making things up on the fly.  Most of what they did was not centrally directed.  Key leaders didn’t even have radios to coordinate efforts – they had been lost in chaos of the jump.

The Payoff

But the actions of the paratroopers had the desired effect.  The Allied airborne forces were so widely dispersed and so active that the German High Command grossly overestimated the total number of Soldiers behind their lines.

Unclear about what they were facing or where to focus their efforts, the initial response was hesitant and piecemeal.

By the time Nazi command was able to assemble a coherent reaction, it was too late.  The Allied beachhead was strong enough to withstand the assault, and the beginning of the end was underway.

The Tools

Most of us are not in the business of jumping out of airplanes to stop the bad guys.  But the leadership tools the airborne forces used can be equally effective on the teams we lead.  The bigger the team, the more important these tools are.

First, we have to begin with the idea that when the decision is made and the PowerPoint turned off, we’re not done – we are only just beginning.

When the decision is made and the PowerPoint turned off, it's not over; it's just beginning. Click To Tweet

We may start out with a perfect plan, but it’s not the Generals at headquarters, or the suits in the C-suite that will ultimately determine its success.

What wins the day are the small teams of people doing the best they can to apply our neat plan to the messy situation on the ground.

For them to win in the chaos, there are two tools they need.

Intent.  This is the big why.  It’s the purpose behind all the activity.   Much like the vision, it serves as an overall guide for a particular effort or operation.

We have to think about what we are trying to achieve, express it in the simplest terms possible, and make sure everyone understands what it is.

Then, when things start to go wrong and someone on the front lines needs to make a decision, they’ll have something to go on – they’ll know the effect we want their actions to have.

Delight the customer.  Make things that don’t break.   Slow down the Nazis.  Whatever it is, if we make it our team’s mantra, at the critical moment, there’s a better chance any decision made will be the right one.

Initiative.  Some might call this “empowerment” – It’s a sense of personal responsibility to do the right thing.  It’s the confidence and the willingness to make a decision, take action, and do something positive.

We don’t want people so afraid to make a move that they feel they need a permission slip from corporate just to grant a refund or order more toilet paper.

Make the plan as detailed as it needs to be, but no more.  And when it’s time to execute, make sure the guys on the ground have the latitude (and backing!) to make decisions in the moment.

Key to success: centralized plan, decentralized execution #leadership Click To Tweet

At every turn, through positive reinforcement, we can encourage independent thought and action.  Praise initiative that aligns with the intent.

Even if they get it wrong sometimes, if the idea behind the behavior was an attempt to act positively in support of the intent, our best response is a pat on the back not a kick in the pants.

Reinforce initiative, even if they get it wrong. #leadership Click To Tweet

Winning Chaos – The Takeaway

When we combine initiative with intent, we set the conditions for others to understand what we are trying to accomplish, and to act with confidence to make it happen.

In the dark of night in Normandy, that’s what the paratroopers had.  And because of that, despite the chaos in the airborne mission, the forces on the beach survived the day.

Just like the paratroopers in Normandy, our people may not land in the exact situation we expected.  And the person who has to make a fast decision may not even be one of our “leaders.”

But they will land somewhere.  And someone on the ground will have to decide.

The question is, have we given them the tools that help them figure out how to make the right choice in all the chaos?

Lead on!

Note:  If you are interested in reading more about the amazing story of the paratrooper and glider forces in the D-Day landings, here are a few of the books in my personal collection that you might enjoy.

Ridgway’s Paratroopers:  The American Airborne in World War II by Clay Blair.  Follows the exploits and accomplishments of America’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions as lead by one the Army’s greatest Airborne commanders.

Paratrooper! The Saga of US Army and Marine Parachute Glider Combat Troops During World War II by Gerard M. Devlin.  Traces the evolution of the Airborne concept from idea to implementation based on 13 years of research and thousands of interviews.

Band of Brothers by Stephen E. Ambrose.  Up close and personal detail about what it was like to be a paratrooper in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (my old unit!)

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