Conventional briefing formats sometimes fail to convey critical information that business leaders need in order to make good decisions Business Technology‘s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert submits that one of the most important skills that a business professional can have it creative visual storytelling ability.
October seems to be a good month for retelling old war stories around the campfire. Or, if you don’t have a campfire handy, sharing them here on the Internet. Whatever trips your trigger. Last week, I shared a ridiculous (but true) story about a vendor’s plan to try and turn field ambulances into rolling data entry centres. This week, I’ve got another silly (but all too true) story about people trying to overcomplicate a simple information-sharing problem.
Back in my military days, I used to get mobilized  by our state’s governor in the summers to support disaster response operations. I’d been serving with the Texas National Guard since 1999, and had done my share of emergency management work. I’d led my signallers into New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I’d been the chief signals officer for Texas for Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008. I knew my way around the signals support function for disaster operations. I was comfortable with working disaster support operations – and it felt darned satisfying to get to go help your friends and neighbours put their lives back together. This particular tale occurred after I’d been mobilized to support Texas’s disaster response operations for Hurricane Alex in the summer of 2010.
For this story’s sake, it’s also important to know that I was a long-term inter-office ally of the fellow running the state’s strategic signals support effort. The Texas Guard’s new Chief Information Officer, Colonel Bob,  and I had been working together in various capacities since 2002. I’d even given him a run for his money when he won the CIO billet (I came in second,). When Colonel Bob asked me to report to Austin and join his staff for the Alex response in the summer of 2010, I didn’t hesitate. I was happy to help out Colonel Bob since he I got along splendidly – although I often played the bard to his knight-in-shining-armour role. This turned out to be one of those episodes.
For Hurricane Alex, we were all gearing up to support mass evacuations from the Gulf Coast and Texas’s Rio Grande Valley. The problem was, we didn’t know exactly where to best position our recovery forces since we didn’t know where and when the storm would eventually make landfall. These evacuations were massive logistical challenges that required extensive coordination between police, fire, ambulance, and military teams, along with power, telecom, road works, fuels, and other key response agencies. Our military mobile support teams helped to get the right resources to the right locations at the right time in order to smoothly and safely get hundreds of thousands of citizens out of harm’s way. In turn, our communications teams helped all of the other support teams coordinate their efforts. Before a storm hit land, everyone could use their cellular phones; once a storm smashed the telecommunications infrastructure, our mobile radio and satellite teams were often the only element capable of connecting people inside the disaster area to the rest of civilization. Ours was a big responsibility, and we took it seriously.
There was an art to moving the support teams around the state before a disaster hit. You had to keep each truckload of techs and radio great close enough to the impacted area that they could race in to the affected zone as soon as the storm passed. The trick was, you didn’t want to put them into a position where the storm could smash them (and, thereby, render them inoperable). Hurricanes are notoriously fickle, too; then tend to change speed and direction like a drunkard trying to navigate a mirrored hallway. I was on some storm missions where we drove up and down the length of the state for days, trying to get properly positioned, all while the hurricane uncooperatively meandered back and forth. It was frustrating for everyone involved.
That’s why we had a pretty big command-and-control centre in the state capitol that operated 24/7 during disasters, coordinating the movement of thousands of people and hundreds of trucks. During hurricane season, Colonel Bob spent about half of every day coordinating with his peers, figuring out how to allocate his finite supply of satellite trucks to the larger humanitarian effort. It was good, satisfying work and he was good at it. As a standard business practice, Bob would rally his staff twice a day to provide us with new operational guidance so that we could coordinate with the field teams to adjust their positions for maximum utility.
Here’s where this particular story gets kind of ridiculous. One evening, after weathering  a stressful and stormy  afternoon in the operations centre, Colonel Bob called his team together. He explained that the briefing packages that we had been creating for him to present at the Ops Centre with him every shift just weren’t cutting it. We’d always created visual presentations for him in PowerPoint that showed NATO-standard military unit symbols superimposed over a map. A single slide might show two-dozen identical unit symbols on a single map, like something you’d see in a military history textbook.
The problem, the boss told us, was that our current pressos – while factually correct and compliant with military standards – weren’t conveying all of the information that the command staff wanted to know. Our little rectangles-with-squiggles-in-them symbols didn’t address three critical variables:
- Do these symbols represent Army teams? Air Force teams? State Guard teams? Contractors?
- Are they set up to provide services at their current position, or are they packed up and moving?
- Are they actively participating on the communications grid right now or not?
When the colonel presented the problem to us, it made perfect sense. Of course the people that he supported would want to know those facts. Yes, we always had that information available … but our slides didn’t convey any of it to a viewer. To be fair, the diagrams that people had relied on for years weren’t designed to display any of that content. The big wigs’ request for greater detail was perfectly reasonable, so I didn’t see any problem with changing out process to make that happen.
The next morning, the boss came in for our dawn shift change meeting and asked his regular staffers what they’d come up with. To my amazement, no one had a proposal. There was much shuffling of feet and looking away, but no ideas. One soldier complained that the standard symbol library couldn’t accommodate the colonel’s request (true). Another soldier complained that no specific person in the group had actually been tasked with the job (also true), so everyone had assumed that someone else on the team was working on it. Yet another soldier suggested writing extensive notes for each slide that explained the current status of each team, by symbol number. Finally, a civilian employee suggested that maybe they could research buying a commercial software package to do what the colonel wanted; perhaps they could research it and have something ‘in the next two years.’
Colonel Bob was – to put it delicately – dissatisfied. He was under pressure from his peers and bosses to solve the problem quickly, and he was too busy making important decisions in the Ops Centre to solve it all on his own. He ordered his staff to get on it immediately and to have something ready for him by the end of the morning.
After the boss left, I asked the assembled staffers if they minded if I took a crack at the problem. It was neither my place nor my job to do so, but I had an inkling of how to solve it. No one minded; no one else had a good idea, and no one had an idea how to approach it. I took their gloomy silence as carte blanche to take over the program.
By the time Colonel Bob returned that morning, I’d absconded with someone’s easel, a large flip-chart, and a box of coloured markers. It took a half hour to sketch a concept out. When the colonel asked the team for ‘their’ idea, everyone looked at me … and took a precautionary step backwards.
We didn’t have much time to put a new system into production, I explained, and we had very few tools. Therefore, we needed to apply something that was simple and instantly evocative. On the first slide, I’d drawn a stick figure wearing a helmet and a backpack radio. ‘Everyone,’ I said, ‘recognizes the classic image of an infantry radio operator. You see a person with a backpack radio, and you know that this means “signals.”’ Everyone (including Colonel Bob) nodded.
I flipped the page and showed them four identical radio-wearing stick figures, each drawn in a different colour. Everyone associated the colour black with the Army, I explained, and blue with the Air Force. It wasn’t much of a stretch from there to colour the state militia purple (since a mix of Army and Air people was usually called a ‘purple’ element). That left the contractor teams, and orange seemed to work for them. Colonel Bob saw the intuitive simplicity of it immediately, and gestured for me to continue.
I flipped the page and showed him three different variations on the simple stick figure: the first was standing still, which indicated a team at rest. The second was a figure running, which indicated a team on the move. The last figure was a stationary fellow … but this stick figure had little lightning bolts radiating from its antennae. That team was set up and actively transmitting. It was (quite deliberately) cartoonish, but only because a good cartoon is a highly efficient way to convey information – and stick figures can convey simple ideas even when reduced to a very small size.
The colonel appreciated the utility of it immediately. It was fiendishly simple because it used shapes and colours to convey identity and state information at first glance. He asked how quickly we could put it into production for a briefing, and I suggested that I could probably have cut-and-paste-able clip art available to place on a PowerPoint slide for him by that evening. Colonel Bob left the meeting smiling and cheerful.
The rest of the staff stared at me like I had completely lost my mind; to be fair, I probably had, at least by their standards. I’d deviated so far away from conventional military protocol with my stick figures suggestion that it was borderline offensive. On the other hand, no one objected when I volunteered to build the clip art for Colonel Bob. I knew what they were thinking: it worked, they’d if the crazy Airman’s idea worked they’d all be off the hook (so to speak). If it failed, then it would be the crazy Airman’s fault. That seemed fair, so they got out of my way and let me work.
I didn’t fail. I’d brought my personal laptop down to Austin with me for doing my grad school homework, and I happened to own a copy of Adobe Illustrator. It took me a couple pots of strong coffee to fuel the effort, but I managed to kludge together the necessary slide templates by the time the boss got back later that night. He reviewed the slides, gave us his approval, and put the new briefing tool into immediate production. His bosses and peers were happy, and we all got back to work.
Colonel Bob and I got together for lunch several months after that hurricane game and went and talked about the problem that his regular staffers had encountered with his challenge. They were nice folks, but they’d gotten accustomed to rigidly complying with the One True Way™ that things were to be done. They knew the NATO-standard visual information system, and stuck with it religiously. They staffers had difficulty breaking out of that inculcated approach. They were accustomed to the Army’s pervasive cultural conceit that you won’t get in trouble if you always conform to the official standard. That left most of the guys slightly nauseated by the prospect of doing something wacky and new. Instead of trying something completely new, they preferred to modify the existing process so that they stayed in ‘safe’ territory – unfortunately, the existing process couldn’t be bent far enough to accomplish the objective.
As an outsider and as a zoomie , I wasn’t the least bit bothered by the prospect of going completely off the intellectual reservation in order to fix a problem. My primary objective was to give my boss what he needed to be successful (rather than to protect my own job). To be fair, it helped that I knew that if my idea flopped, I wouldn’t suffer any ill effects; I’d be sent home at the end of the operation no matter what happened. So, I had both the motivation to experiment and the administrative freedom to manoeuver as I saw fit.
I certainly don’t think that my colourful cartoon solution was revolutionary. As far as I know, my little stick figure icons weren’t ever used again after that summer. That was okay by me. It only needed to solve the one communications obstacle one time to be of benefit to the organization. Crude as it was, it helped to reduce some anxiety and frustration for some pivotal decision makers during a very stressful period. That’s all it was meant to do. That, and free up the boss so that he could get on with making the decisions that might save some lives.
On my way out the door the night the new symbols went into effect, I told the warrant officer who sat next to me in the signals shack that our most important task as staff members was to solve the boss’s communications problem. We weren’t changing how any IT services were actually delivered; we were only changing how we explained what we were doing to people outside of the IT community. That gave us nearly unlimited freedom to change our language and approach to best serve our audience.
In a broader sense, we all run into this problem from time to time. The things that we do in IT are inherently complicated and can be difficult to understand without understanding the operating context. It’s in our best interests to craft simple (but not condescending) stories that convey the essential elements of what we’re up to so that our customers and stakeholders can wrap their heads around what we’re doing. That’s why, I believe, every good IT department needs a experienced communicator on staff – a professional storyteller who can make our world make sense to everyone else.
 ‘Mobilized,’ in US military context, meant being placed on deployment orders to go wherever the service needed you to perform a certain mission. You served until the emergency was over, and then were released back to your regular life.
 I doubt he’d mind being identified, but courtesy compels me to rename this fellow ‘Bob’ in accordance with (IAW) standard operating procedure (SOP). Hey! You learned some military jargon there. Bonus.
 Pun intended.
 See 
 A playful slang term for a member of the Air Force, in the same way that Marines are referred to members of the other services as ‘jarheads.’
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.