Compete the Air Force Way – by outdeciding your opponent

This is the meeting you’ve been dreading. Every week, you meet as part of a committee to decide on next steps for this inconsequential project. However, the team spends the entire time debating on the best course of action. They evaluate data, argue about pros and cons, and try to weigh costs and benefits. But there just isn’t enough information, so the team agrees to do more research, and the decision gets pushed out yet another week.

MBAs love frameworks. We have a framework to learn about marketing, with varying numbers of C’s and P’s to memorize. We have frameworks for strategy, with varying numbers of external and internal forces to consider. We are given plenty of tools for analysis, but when it comes to decision-making, we have a tendency to revert back to analysis when confronted with a lack of information.

Paralysis by Analysis

Basic military officer training introduces you to a lot of frameworks as well, including ones for decision-making. I still remember having to memorize a 12-step problem solving process which we had to follow during leadership training exercises. This literally required saying things like “Step 1: identify the problem. The problem is…” as part of the team brief. We spent precious time on the process that could have been better spent on execution. Thankfully, these were only training exercises, and we ditched the process as soon as we got into the real world.

However, once I got into the real world, we ran into a similar problem, but not as overt. You might have had a similar experience in your work – where you spent a huge chunk of your time trying to figure out the ultimate course of action, and then by the time you’ve made the decision, there’s hardly any time to actually do the work. Classic “paralysis by analysis.” Intuitively, we all knew that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Mike Tyson said it better: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

There’s a better way to make decisions and think about how your decisions play out in your larger strategy.

The OODA Loop

The OODA loop (short for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) is an idea that is beloved within the Air Force community. It was originally invented by a fighter pilot named John Boyd, one of the most famous military tacticians in the Air Force. He created the OODA loop from his observations of aerial combat in the Korean War, and it was one of the concepts that he used to revolutionize air combat instruction. He used to boast that he could defeat any other pilot in an engagement, from a position of disadvantage, in 40 seconds. He never lost.

The OODA loop stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. The basic premise of this theory is that you need to make decisions more quickly than your competition. You need to quickly analyze a limited amount of information, and then decide and act on that information as soon as possible. You’ll then get feedback form your actions, and the process repeats itself. The faster you can iterate, the more you’ll learn relative to your competition. In other words, you’re getting inside your competitor’s OODA loop and disrupting their processes.

Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology takes this principle and applies it to startups. In theory, by focusing on a minimum viable product, gathering feedback, and developing quick iterations of products and the lessons learned from each iteration, you can out-execute the competition. You can also ultimately conserve your resources by failing fast and early, and failing cheaply.

Why use it?

The OODA loop encourages experimentation and proceeding with the 80% solution now rather than waiting for a 100% solution. In the famous ‘marshmallow challenge,’ teams assemble a contraption of spaghetti and tape to see which team can create the tallest free-standing structure. They found that teams of children outperformed adults (including MBA students and engineers) because rather than argue about the course of action, they play with the materials and come to the best conclusion through trial and error, rather than through rigorous analysis and debate.

There appears to be evidence to back up the theory that faster decision-making leads to better results. Faster strategic decision-making has been tied to better firm performance in various contexts, especially in high-velocity environments. Counter-intuitively, the research also found that the fast (and successful) decision makers seem use more information, not less, in their analysis and reasoning.

However, speed isn’t everything – you need to make sure you are doing enough in each step and not focusing so much on speed that the decision quality goes down. A 2002 study in the Academy of Management Journal cautioned that organizations can fall into a ‘Speed Trap’ – where the focus is so much on speed that the quality of decision-making suffers.

Conclusion

Next time you go into that unending meeting or committee, think about what would happen if the group just made a decision and experimented with it. What would be the consequence of failure? Would you learn more by trying a solution rather than another week of debate or research? It might just be better to make a decision and get feedback, knowing that your first decision is going to be wrong anyway.

Two Project Schedules to Help with Winter Quarter (and beyond)

While Fall Quarter was intense in terms of coursework and teamwork, Winter Quarter has been all about balancing your teamwork with the internship search and all those additional duties (leadership positions!) you signed up for in the Fall. For these (and other) reasons, it’s really easy to get overwhelmed this quarter due to the lack of structure compared to Fall Quarter.

So you should already be using Sunrise and Todoist to handle your personal or tactical-level day-to-day activities, but what if you want to get a view of the rest of the quarter? I created two options for you (download either by clicking on the title or the image):

Excel Version

Download by clicking here or clicking on the image above

Just a very crude, very basic Gantt-esque excel calendar that you can use to visualize the rest of the quarter. I know that it’s not in true MS Project-style sequencing but it’s just here to help you get a handle on what we have to do this quarter, and it’s very easy to edit and customize to your particular schedule. I added an ‘extracurricular’ and ‘career management’ section at the bottom for you to edit to your liking. NOTE: This is NOT my actual schedule!

Powerpoint Version (via OfficeTimeline)

Download here or by clicking on the image above

I spent about 45 minutes today looking for free and visually-appealing alternatives to MS Project and ended up with the above result, which I created with a program called “office timeline” and Powerpoint. You will need to download the free version of office timeline here to edit this, otherwise you’ll have to manually edit everything you want in regular Powerpoint. If anyone knows of something like a “Sway for MS Project” or “Haikudeck for MS Project” please let me know, because I desperately want one.

I hope this helps you get a feel for what we have to accomplish this quarter when it comes to group projects, and good luck on the internship search!

2 must-have apps to keep track of your assignments

  It’s been three weeks into the MBA program and I am super glad that I spend the time early on to organize my assignments schedule.  I first started with an excel spreadsheet (you can see it here in my guide), but I wanted it easily accessible on my iPhone.  I know some of my classmates went ahead and printed it out (awesome idea!) but we have to be a little more flexible as we found out more about our assignments and some dates got moved around.  

  I know that managing your time is really tough to do once you’re extremely busy, but it’s not too late!  Keeping track of all your assignments in your head is a recipe for failure, and you won’t be able to contribute 100% of your mental energy and passion if you’re constantly trying to remember everything you gotta do in and outside of school/work.  

  So here are my must-have apps that I absolutely can’t live without right now:

1. Sunrise

  I’ve talked about Sunrise before, but since then it’s just gotten better and better.  No other calendar looks as good across all my devices, and it works with every shared calendar you could possibly have.  It works with productivity tools like Asana, Producteev, Evernote todo lists, and Todoist.  It also syncs with your Facebook or LinkedIn contacts so if you have a meeting with someone, you’ll see their info if you’re connected to each other.  And finally, it’s connected to Google Maps so you can enter in locations and get directions for all your meetings!

2.  Todoist

  I’ve tried to make to-do lists in the past using Evernote, Asana, Wunderlist, Google Tasks, and good ol’ pen and paper.  None of them stuck with me because they weren’t convenient to use and set up, or just plain annoyed me (Asana, do I really have to manually assign everything to myself and then you have to email me every day on overdue tasks?).  Then I found Todoist, which syncs up wonderfully with Sunrise.  It’s just an elegant, basic to-do list that works across all your devices (included web), costs nothing, and is effortless to set up.  You can add a task, set a due date in 3-5 seconds, or you can ‘snooze’ on tasks (one touch pushes the task a day or a week!).

  Here’s a screenshot of how I use it (web view):

Todoist
Todoist

And here’s how it looks in Sunrise!

Pretty light schedule!
Pretty light schedule!

Chaff

An A-10 firing off some chaff and flares.  Showoff!
An A-10 firing off some chaff and flares.  Showoff!

  Our team is in a group huddle, starting yet another problem-solving exercise at Squadron Officer School.  At the sound of the bell, the team leader begins reading from a plastic instruction card.  We only have 5 minutes, and the card has like 50 facts, details, and other clues that might help us solve our problem.  The team leader starts reading through all the pieces of ancillary information, but at one point, one of the team members (a pilot) notes “that’s just chaff.”  The team quickly moves on and identifies the real clues and moves on to the solution.  

  The word ‘chaff’ is Air Force lingo for something that is meant to throw you off and distract you from your objective.  It comes from the aircraft self-defense countermeasure that’s meant to throw off an incoming missile, which in turn got its name from farming.

  At a full time MBA program, you’re going to get a lot of chaff.  There are a ton of opportunities getting thrown at you, in addition to a rigorous course load.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of club events, social gatherings, job fairs, workshops, info sessions, and so on…and that’s not including your own personal life and responsibilities.  So how do you stay focused?

  By ignoring the chaff.

  You don’t need to read every single last email in its entirety or do all the readings in the syllabus.  You don’t need to do everything at 100% all the time.  Instead, just focus on your primary target – whether it’s a career, a person you want to meet, or a particular skill you want to learn.  Not interested in consulting?  Just completely ignore/delete any of those bulletin emails about consulting club, or spend no more than 10 seconds skimming through the opportunities.  You have a very limited amount of bandwidth and willpower, so you’re better off conserving it for stuff that you really care about.   Be a mental miser!

  Don’t know what you want?  Well, definitely try things out, but move on immediately if you’re just not in love with it.  Love it or leave it!  If it doesn’t ignite or spark some kind of passion inside of you, it’s probably the wrong target.  Still nothing interesting to you?  Try researching just one job function or career path for a week or two, and focus only on that.  Get informational interviews done ASAP.  After that, if you’re not in love with that career path or job function, move on to the next one and never look back.  It was just chaff.

  Note: if after a year of exploration, you *still* don’t know what you want to do after your MBA…then maybe a big consulting firm is for you!  You’ll get a ton of exposure in many different industries, and you get to meet some of the most powerful people in their organizations.  

How to Start Managing Your Time for your MBA

  I get asked a lot about how I was able to manage my time so effectively (between starting a full time MBA program, getting married, and doing this blog), so I’ll let you in on a secret:  I spent a couple of weeks on figuring it out!  But the single most important step I took was to start tracking my time.

  I had some time off this summer and I ended up getting really involved in an online game called Final Fantasy XIV – many of my friends from work were playing it and it allowed me to stay connected to them.  We were able to have a lot of fun, but it took a lot of my time because I was in a leadership position in the game.  But how much time did it really take?

  I started tracking my time in Excel, and then compared it with super productive people from history, like Ben Franklin.  

Infographic source: “Creative Routines” by RJ Andrews at http://infowetrust.com

  This was a really eye opening exercise for me!  I always felt that I wasn’t spending my time effectively, but this was the first time I got a very real sense of the time I was wasting.  I immediately started capping the time I spent in the game, and I started setting up a recurring schedule/meeting for gaming with my friends. This also made our game sessions much more productive, and our little team started clearing harder and harder content.

  I also cut down on my TV time.  I very rarely just sit down in front of the TV without doing some career research, scheduling, or other ancillary work at the same time.  

  The excel spreadsheet was the easiest method for me, and the ‘clock’ visualization really helped me categorize my activities.  If you want to track your time online (i.e. time spent on specific sites, etc), check out RescueTime – a free app that does it for you and gives you some great visual data!

  For the full version of the infographic and more like it, go to RJ Andrew’s site at infowetrust.com.  

  Download the excel spreadsheet here