In the military forces, planning and executing at all levels relies on measurable results and clear expectations. In this episode of Veteran Led, John Berry highlights the significance of tasks, conditions, and standards as an objective framework for effective communication, responsibility assignment, and organizational efficiency. Whether it’s a military unit or any team seeking to stay organized, a clear understanding of these principles will help businesses streamline their operations and achieve their goals efficiently and effectively.
Welcome fellow veterans. From the tip of the spear to in the rear with the gear, I went from active-duty Infantry to reserve-component logistician. I’m your host, CEO, entrepreneur, trial lawyer, and Lieutenant Colonel Retired, John Berry. The military lessons that I learned helped me grow an eight-figure business that has maintained consistent annual double-digit growth, landing on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing companies in America every year for the past seven years and has allowed me to continue to serve America’s heroes.
The first time you heard about a task, condition and standard, you were likely in a field environment where a sergeant with a big whiteboard or butcher block had written those three words, task, conditions, and standard and talked you through what you needed to do to be a go at his station. And you were either a go or a no go.
If your completion of the task met all of the listed standards, you were a go. If you missed even one standard, you were a no go and you had to do the task again. So we practiced, we rehearsed and when we finally got the opportunity to test, we felt we were ready until we got the no go. And then we got to test again and again until we got the go.
While all of the tasks were basic soldier tasks, some were more complex than others. They included employ a claymore mine, qualify at the hand grenade range, or apply a tourniquet. And on the whiteboard, it told us the specific task or action that we had to complete. Underneath the tasks, the conditions were listed, which included the environment in which we would complete the task and the assets available to complete that task. And finally, there were the standards. The standards usually included a description of what success looked like and a deadline.
The important thing about the tasks, conditions, and standards was that they were in writing. Think about it. Even in a field environment, the tasks, conditions, and standards were in writing. As a leader, when you assign any task, it must be in writing. Make sure your team understands the assets they have available to them. And finally, and most importantly, make sure they understand the standards so that they can deliver you what you’re asking for. When you’re not clear on the standards, when you’re fuzzy on the standards, you will get back something that you don’t want.
And probably one of the most important parts of the standards you need to set is the deadline. In the military, deadlines are crucial. Clear the objective by 0600 before early morning nautical twilight. Why? So that the enemy doesn’t see us. Similarly, if you ever served on staff, you likely heard from that major who said, “Give me the brief by 0800 so that I can have it ready for the commander by 1000.” That major needed to review the brief and needed enough time to make changes, fix any of your screw ups, to ensure that by the time the commander saw it, it was perfect.
Deadlines are crucial because your team needs to be able to plan around the deadline. In other words, if you give someone a task to do seven days from now, they need to do their backwards planning to ensure that they can get it done on time. They need to think through all the actions they need to take to get your task done to standard. So when we delegate and we give a deadline, we have to make sure that our team members have enough time to complete it.
Do you remember the one third two thirds rule? This was the rule that said, as a leader, when you would get an order, you would devote one third of your time to planning but give your team the other two thirds of the time to plan and execute. And the way we would do this is as soon as we heard about the mission, we would issue the WARNO, the Warning Order to let our team know a mission was coming so that they could start necessary movement. Now, sometimes we had to, after we got the entire plan and started working through it, we got a FRAGO, Fragmentary Order, disregard, mission cancelled, fine.
You’re always better off starting movement and getting your team moving in that direction than telling them at the last minute, “Hey team, I’ve got a great plan, and you don’t have much time to execute it.” As a leader, you never want to do that. You want to ensure that your team has enough time to execute it to standard.
Who sets the standard? You set the standard and you set it in writing. That’s why in the military, our op orders are in writing. We want to set a clear standard so that the entire team knows what success looks like. They know the commander’s intent, they know the mission, they know the execution paragraph, and they are clear on what success will look like when the mission is done. And as a leader, our vision means nothing if we can’t communicate it to our team in a way that they understand the task we want them to complete, the conditions or assets, they will be given to complete the task, and the standards required to meet the objective that you as a leader set.
Unfortunately, a well written plan is not enough. After we issue that plan, we also have to ask questions to make sure our team understands. We call that the back brief. And this is crucial, especially when we’re talking about what assets the team members will have. You may have to ask in the back brief, “Who is the main effort? Who has priorities of fire?” These are questions we want to ask our team afterwards so that we’re all on the same page. And when we back brief, we’re asking questions, not to put team members on the spot, but to make sure that they understand. And so we have to ask specific questions to ensure not only that they were paying attention, which they should be doing, but even if they’re paying attention, they may not completely understand your plan and that’s why the back brief was so crucial to any operations order. We had to make sure our team members knew their role, but also knew what the adjacent units were doing so that we could all fight in the same battle space.
This is no different in the civilian world where I have three different sections. I have to assign priorities of fire or priorities to my non-revenue generating activities. For example, I may say that for my personal injury team that you are marketing’s number one priority. The marketing team knows now that they can spend most of their time, money, and resources marketing for the personal injury section. And I may say on our veterans disability side, that the veterans disability appeals has the priority of IT assets. That way my CIO understands that she can take her team and focus on working on the veterans practice as opposed to the personal injury practice or the criminal practice. They understand who has priority and they understand there are left and right limits, they have to make the mission happen. But you as a leader have to let them know what assets they have and what assets they won’t have.
Now, let me tell you about a time when I totally screwed up the tasks, conditions, and standards. I was talking to my Chief Operating Officer, and he wanted to hire this non-revenue generating position and he had talked me through why it was so important to our mission. So I agreed and I said, “Well, how much do you think this is going to cost?” He said, “Well, it’s $75,000 and here’s the skill set.” I said, “Great, make it happen”. And that is where I failed because he ended up hiring someone for $125,000 that had a completely different skill set and that person didn’t work out. And the reason why is because I didn’t set the tasks, conditions, and standards with the left and right limits. I didn’t clearly explain that when I said $75,000, I meant $75,000, not about $75,000, which apparently in his mind went all the way to $125,000. Furthermore, when he talked about the skills that he needed, I didn’t really dig in or dive in. We talked in broad strokes. That was also a mistake because that team member didn’t have the specific skills we needed. Generally, yes, they knew what needed to be done, but they did not know how to do it and therefore that was an absolute failure. And me as a leader, giving the guidance, even though the COO asked me for it, I failed to clarify.
And that’s one of the biggest challenges as a leader, when our team members come to us and they ask us something, we still have to set the tasks, conditions, and standards and make sure that we understand what they’re asking for and then be discerning enough to determine whether what they’re asking for is really going to help the unit or the team achieve its objectives.
You probably remember in the military that for any operation, there was a rehearsal. Whether it was just walking through a Synch Matrix, actually walking through actions on the objective, or just talking through actions on a sand table or a map, the team rehearsed so that everyone knew what they were supposed to do, and it was the leader’s job to make sure that they understood. And it’s one thing to answer questions, but it’s quite another when you have to talk through your role. And that’s where rehearsals become so important.
Now, if you have a sales team, the reality is that they’re going to do so many sales calls a day that they don’t need to rehearse every day. Should there be training? Yes. For weekly briefings and things that happen on a regular cadence. Do you need to rehearse them? Ideally, yes. But the reality is in the business world, you don’t have time to rehearse them. You get good by doing.
But there are other things that you do less frequently that you absolutely need to rehearse so that you come off as polished and come off as credible. Generally, you want to rehearse things that do not happen frequently. So if you’re going to launch a new technology, which is either software or an app, you want to have a key leaders present to rehearse to include a premortem. A premortem is where you talk about the project failing. What I mean by that is, you start off saying, okay, the software project or app, it failed. Why did it fail? And you go through all the reasons why it might fail. You talk about it as if you had already launched it and all the problems that could have happened, happened. That way you can identify them before they happen and come up with a plan to prevent them from happening.
The other thing you want to do, especially when it comes to software or apps, that I learned the hard way is you want to make sure that if there are any auto-generated communications that are going to go out to all your customers or clients, that you walk through those. It’s one thing to do a rehearsal, but it’s quite another thing to have all the team members there to ensure that everything that is going to be put out, everything that’s going to happen happens.
I can remember we had one communication that blew my mind. One of the auto-generated communications said, “We recently received an update from the court about the status of your case. Someone from our team will respond in 90 days.” I lost my mind. I couldn’t believe that this had been vetted, the entire team had gone through it, and this was the message we were going to send out. I am thankful that we all went through as a team and found that problem because then we were able to ask, “How did this happen? How did this message get out there?” And immediately the tech person said, “Well, we talked to the section head. The section head approved every single message.” And the section head was sitting right there. So I turned, you know, adjusted the turret and I’m about ready to launch rounds down range at the section head and said, “Okay, 90 days. Are you kidding me?” And she said, “No, I did not put that there.” And so we had to go back and figure out how was it that we got the wrong message in there when we were about to launch in a few hours.
Now, at that point, you don’t worry about blame, but you want to find the source of the problem, not to find out who screwed it up, but you want to make sure that you don’t have more than one problem. Generally, when you’re going to launch something big, like software, you need to ensure that you understand the source of all the problems so that more problems don’t come. If there’s a bug in the software, you need to know about it before you launch. And to be clear, I am not a tech person. I don’t know anything about tech. I know very little about project management, but I know what I know from the military about running a good operation and making sure that we rehearse, making sure we have contingency plans and making sure that when we find problems, we get to the root of the problem. And as you come upon tasks that you don’t do often and you rehearse them, you will find that there are always ways to improve.
Some might be your quarterly state of the organization. That should be rehearsed and as you go through it, you may find that your messaging needs to be tweaked. Onboarding. If you don’t have a robust onboarding system, you can lose a great team member in the first 90 days. Studies show that in the first 90 days, a team member decides whether they’re going to stay with an organization or whether they’re going to leave. Now imagine this, you have a new team member show up, and this person is someone that you spent years recruiting. They show up day one, their supervisor isn’t there, nobody’s there to talk to them, their computer isn’t set up, there’s no desk for them. They don’t have anybody to talk to, no buddy has been assigned, there’s no sponsor in the unit that’s going to walk them through their entire day. They are eating lunch alone. They haven’t been given any assignments. Nobody is taking the time to talk to them. They have no idea what they’re doing there. And this goes on for days. If your onboarding is jacked up, that’s what happens. And what’s their impression of the organization? Either A. These people don’t care that I’m here, or they are so screwed up that this company is going to fall apart because they can’t even get me through onboarding. They can’t even take me through day one.
Think about onboarding in the military. Think about matriculation. Think about everything, now you may not have liked MEPS, you may not have liked the onboarding that you went through, but it was well-orchestrated. That’s what you should strive for as an organization. And if you don’t rehearse it, it’s going to be jacked up.
The other thing is terminations. We never want to have terminations, but if they happen, they need to happen right and in a way that the team member knows how they will move on from there. To not have that in place is to do that person a disservice.
So what happens when you set the tasks, conditions, and standards, you do the back briefing, you do the rehearsal, and the team still fails. Well, when that happens, there’s got to be consequences. If there’s no consequences, there’s no accountability. And sometimes the consequences are on you. You as the leader fail to give clear instruction, but if you did give clear instruction and it doesn’t happen, then you have to hold the team accountable. And sometimes that can be difficult. But the problem is if you don’t hold the team accountable, they won’t respect your task, conditions, and standards. I want to be clear that when bad things happen, you don’t blame other people but if you set a clear standard, you have to have accountability.
We learned this in the military from the pre-9/11 to the post-9/11 era. Back when I was in Bosnia in 1999, there was something called an “accidental discharge.” And this is where, after patrol, you come into the gate, and you were supposed to clear your weapon, take out the magazine, dry fired into clearing barrel, and then you’d hear a click. But every now and then you’d hear a boom and there was an accidental discharge. That’s what we called it back then because it was an accident, but words matter. Naming convention matters. There’s a big difference between an accident and negligence. So when there were accidental discharges, nobody really did anything. Sure, first sergeant might chew on the soldier a little bit, but the reality was there wasn’t an Article 15 or a Letter of Reprimand.
However, when I got to Iraq post-9/11, it was totally different. Now it was called a negligent discharge. We were holding soldiers accountable for misfiring their weapons. And so if you went to the clearing barrel and there was a boom, you were getting an Article 15 or a Letter of Reprimand, but you were going to be held accountable.
As a leader, if you have tasks, conditions, and standards, there has to be some type of mechanism to ensure the standards were enforced. We had tasks, conditions, and standards for clearing your weapon when you come back in the gate, but if you didn’t follow it, it was just an accidental discharge, no big deal. When it became clear that failing to follow that standard had real consequences, we had a lot less discharges in the clearing barrel. Just the naming convention from “accidental” to “negligent” and the consequences attached to negligent made all the difference.
Now, as a civilian leader, the last thing you want to do is spend time writing someone up. You don’t want to be negative. You want as much positivity in your organization as possible, but your team does need to understand that you have accountability, that you will hold them accountable, that you will do everything possible to make them successful, that you will give everything you’ve got as a leader, and that you will give them grace from time to time when they make mistakes, when they have accidents, but negligence and accidents are two entirely different things. And there is acceptable behavior that has bad outcomes, and then there is unacceptable behavior. As a leader, you can tolerate mistakes of skill, but you must never tolerate mistakes of will. Set your tasks, conditions and standards, set them clearly, set them with deadlines, make sure that you give back briefs, you ask questions, you answer questions, you rehearse, and that you accomplish the mission.
After Action Review:
Three Down, the things that I often screw up:
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