Sunday, May 18, 2008

Intervisibility Lines

I nearly got in an accident this week. Cruising along on the freeway at 75, I was forced to slam on my brakes when the traffic ahead of me came to a complete stop. Unfortunately, this change in conditions did not occur until just as I crested a little hill (probably less than the one in the picture above). An unimportant piece of the road and a terrain feature that would otherwise go unnoticed blocked my view of what was ahead until I crested. By then it was almost too late.

The military term is intervisibility (IV) line. These are relatively minor and often very subtle variations in terrain that mask observation from one side to another. On one side of the line you cannot see, or be seen by, the other. These terrain features are often not significant enough to show up on a map, but on the ground they make all the difference with regard to line of sight issues -- like visibility and most of our weapon systems.

The implications for military tactics are huge. I have seen many a combat unit move full speed across an IV line -- right into an ambush on the other side. The failure to account for this change in conditions produces catastrophic results for the unprepared. So often, IV lines are the locations where momentum is lost and the battle's outcome is determined.

How does a good unit account for the impact of IV lines on its formations? Here are a few thoughts (along with some implications for "non-combat units!"):

-- Position observers. Tactical units deploy scouts along their route to find these issues before the main body arrives. Their mission is to stay in front of the attacking formation and prevent surprises. They look for indications of trouble ahead and help avoid losses of momentum. In business this may be gained by dedicating resources to look at key indicators and metrics -- both internally and of the competition. No surprises.

-- Lead with the smallest possible element. It does not make sense to cross an IV line with the entire team. Be sure, there is an ambush waiting on the other side. Tactical units deploy a small team to look over the horizon, make contact (or not), and provide information to the rest. In business this is replicated by using focus groups or prototypes before going "all in" on new inventory or services. Try one new piece of technology before redoing the entire fleet. Check ideas with a few trusted agents before implementation company-wide. Don't be in a hurry to cross the IV line -- and into an ambush.

-- Have solid, well rehearsed drills. At some point, we will cross that IV line and have to slam on the brakes. In my case, I was ready. I measured the time/distance and applied brake pressure accordingly. I checked my rear view mirror to see behind me. Some cars pulled into the shoulder to provide additional response time. Military units have battle drills for actions on contact that allow for a rapid response and regaining momentum as quickly as possible. For the rest of us, we need to talk about crisis management with our team and rehearse various contingencies. Think about impacts on suppliers, customers, employees, etc. Know how to communicate through crisis. Know what it will take to "slam on your brakes" and conversely, what is required to get back going again.

-- Cross-talk. Often IV lines are localized conditions. The blind spot to the front is often easily observed by flank units. They need only be asked to look to the left or right, outside of their own lane but in front of someone else (not a normal activity for any of us), to provide the information necessary for others to see ahead. Again, this is not accomplished without asking. Most of us have enough to do focusing on the fight in front of us. Good units must learn to share information about what they see to the front -- and to the sides. Good leaders must drive this behavior. Business units who are sharing lessons learned and communicating about what they see, not just with the boss but with each other (horizontal communication versus the traditional vertical reporting), develop the situational awareness that enables seeing over the horizon.

-- Go higher to see deeper. IV lines often impact visibility within a few feet of ground level. I would have seen the slowing of traffic ahead of me this week, for example, if my SUV was about 20 feet tall. In combat, aviation units or unmanned aerial vehicles can help extend our field of view and see over the horizon. In business, this extended view can be gained from consultants, mentors, and visionary leaders who see beyond the immediate. Leaders must also recognize that organizationally they are the ones who must extend their mast and look deeper. This means getting some rest, soliciting wise council, and thinking. Go higher to see deeper!

We all must deal with IV lines. Whether driving a car or a tank, leading a mechanized formation or a business unit, in combat or in life, there is some unexpected event just over the horizon. How we minimize surprises, while dealing with those we cannot avoid, often defines our success.

That's Leader Business.

1 comment:

James T. Parsons said...

Hey Tom,

I think that this IV line was part of what "hosed" Custer at Little Big Horn since the entire Souix nation was over the next hill and the U.S. Army charged ahead blind to it. We know how that ended!

In such moments, often these scenario leads to the idea of "knowing where the tomahawks are coming from," which in modern combat can be at an ever expanding distance.

One story in business I might share is that provided to me by CB Tam, who used to run all of Motorola's business in Asia until 2001. In one bust in his time, he actually looked ahead and determined that most likely his team would be down 6-8 months. Rather than laying off huge number of employees, he in fact cut executive pay 10%, was prepared to cut all other salaries by 6% and put in place cost cutting measures without lay offs. Because his competitors did lay off large numbers of employees, when the recession ended in 5 months, CD and Motorola was set to compete at full force against diminished competitors.

Result? CD's efforts of looking far ahead helped Motorola's business that year grow by 20% in a year with a recession.

Good post as usual.