Answering the task

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Taking charge of a special project can be overwhelming, especially if it is your first time. Like any new skill, there seem to be challenges on all sides, and whether they're based on inexperience, or a genuinely complex task, those distractions break your concentration. Fear not, because everything you need to learn about being an action officer, you learned in drivers' education. Don't believe me? Read on.

One of the first issues I see with junior project officers is paralysis. People are simply uncomfortable thinking through a large task with multiple actions and decision points. What if your boss called from the U.S. Air Force Academy and asked you to drive across town to deliver hard copies of a report you had written as soon as possible, and then brief that report to a group of his peers? You would print the report, jump in your car, drive to the Academy while rehearsing what you wanted to say when you arrived. You may have to choose which roads to take, you may have to alter your path when you pass an accident in route, and you'll probably try to shorten your brief to the key talking points just in case you don't make it to the briefing exactly on time.

The point here is that you didn't agonize over those decisions because they all made sense and were required to get you where your boss wanted you to be. You didn't need a lot of guidance from your boss because you internalized what the task would require: determine and procure items needed at the brief, get to the briefing location, deliver the brief. Clarifying and understanding the end state your boss wants allows you to make basic decisions without detailed guidance.

In driver's education, they teach to look 12-15 seconds ahead, along your intended path of travel. Why? To see what other cars are doing, to identify road hazards, to ensure you have enough time to prepare and react to changes. The same analogy holds true when working a task for the boss. What are the stoplights or milestones you'll need to go through along the way? The farther ahead you can see them, the more time you have to use the process above to achieve milestones: determine what you need, steer towards the goal, and deliver what's needed.

Modifications to the project are like the cars that turn into your lane. Your milestones may not change dramatically, but it's still up to you to maneuver the team to meet the original goal. They may need to slow down and concentrate all of their efforts to get around the obstacle. As the action officer it's your job to focus those efforts and to anticipate how and where to get back on schedule and to communicate the plan to your team, so they're ready to respond.

What about traffic and road work? First, as an action officer, stop worrying about what's travelling in the opposite direction. Your job is to synchronize efforts in your direction. Next, check your blind spots. What opinions do other organizations have? Who controls the facilities and resources your project needs for success? Don't be afraid to talk to them, they'll be upset if you try to go around them rather than work with them, and they'll be even more upset if you force them to work miracles on a short timeline. Road work is another common complication in driving, but it's the best way to visualize a project we all deal with in some way in our careers: inspections.

Think about it. As you approach road work, lane changes often re-direct traffic into a single path. This is the commander's guidance. Additionally, a large variety of workers and equipment adds noise and confusion, not to mention tighter lanes. The workers and the equipment are all the distractions that lie outside the commander's direction. As the leader, you're called to match speed with the rest of the organization, focus on the lane - keep everyone headed in the same direction, and avoid distractions that are not in line with the commander's guidance. The skills we use every day are the same skills we use going through the inspection, just as the skills you use to lead the project or task are the same skills you use every day to get yourself to and from work.

Getting back to the original story, the main issue was not driving across town; it was answering the task the boss gave you. Driving there was only one of the requirements to complete the task, but by comparing the mechanics of driving to a complex task, we illustrated that action officers already possess the required skills for success. I encourage each of you to put yourself in the driver's seat. Challenge yourselves to build proficiency as action officers and NCOs. Identify where the boss wants you to go, take your team out and drive hard for success. Use the team as navigators and spotters to look ahead for road blocks and to look in your blind spot to check for things you aren't tracking. Things may be a little bumpy as you put all the skills together; but, you'll get where you're going in no time.