Thought Leadership

Battle Rhythm: a Blueprint for Leadership in Times of Crisis

As former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson once said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Likewise, an organization’s regular schedules and practices are only effective so long as normal circumstances hold. When the situation becomes fluid, organizations have something to learn from the military, according to Managing Director and Clinical Assistant Professor of Executive Education Robert Hughes.

“When an organization is faced with a crisis situation, the normal organizational routines, Monday-morning staff meetings and weekly updates won’t be sufficient to enable the organization to manage critical information, stay updated, adjust plans and make timely decisions,” said Hughes, who teaches in Kellogg Executive Education’s The Leader Within program and the Enterprise Leadership Program. “Implementing an organizational battle rhythm enables the organization to adapt to a crisis and provides a predictable, structured sequence of meetings for navigating the organization through a crisis.”

Hughes has plenty of experience with such matters. His time as a U.S. Army Colonel included assignments in operational units, training organizations, regional headquarters and the Pentagon. Throughout his career, he was part of numerous Army teams that have adjusted their battle rhythm in planned training exercises or in real-world situations.

An example of altering status-quo routines to establish a battle rhythm would be supplementing a weekly leadership update with an additional meeting that focuses on longer-term concerns once a week or every other week, Hughes said. “When conditions change, the organizational rhythm will need to change with it to keep up with a fast paced, dynamic situation,” he noted. “Ramp up the battle rhythm to keep the leadership and organization in step with the situation, sharing more frequent updates on current operations while not losing sight of future activities and decisions related to the current situation.

The situation is comparable to a state preparing for Hurricane season, Hughes added. As the season approaches and named storms start being tracked, emergency-preparedness officials likely increase their hurricane tracking updates to several times a day, altering them to fit the changing situation.

What are the characteristics of a good battle rhythm?

  • Enables knowledge sharing, knowledge management and decision-making
  • Facilitates current situational awareness and planning for the future
  • Establishes meetings for a specific purpose, such as a current-situation update or future planning
  • Provides time for leaders and staffs to coordinate and work
  • Includes the right attendees

A proper battle rhythm adjusts to fit a dynamic landscape, Hughes pointed out. So the aforementioned Monday-morning update, which was adequate before the crisis began, could become a daily 45-minute update at 8 am to ensure that all involved share the same view of the current situation. It would include all new information and changes since the last update. “A helpful frame would be: what do we know, what don’t we know, what do we need to know?” he said.

In addition, a twice-weekly forward-looking meeting would focus on assessing and adjusting future plans. And a 60-minute senior-leader meeting on Monday, Wednesday and Friday would serve as a forum to enable discussion and critical decision-making for top leaders.

“The risk of not establishing a battle rhythm is that ad-hoc meetings become the norm, leaders and staff members are pulled in numerous directions and nobody can focus on critical priorities or making informed modifications and decisions,” Hughes said. “Leaders can find themselves in marathon meetings that try to address everything at once and leave them little time to think and work with their teams. As is the case with the military, your planning should be all about contingencies and what-ifs: if this happens, we go left, and if that happens we go right. That way, you’ve thought about options and know what you’re going to do.”


Video: How do you determine when a battle rhythm has run its course?

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Robert Hughes is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Executive Education and Managing Director of Kellogg Executive Education. A retired U.S. Army colonel, he served as the first Senior Army Fellow posted at Kellogg, where he spent a year forming the strategic partnership between Kellogg and the U.S. Army.

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