Decision-Making in “Limited Visibility” – Are You Prepared?

Is your organization prepared for the unexpected?

As a former military officer I am often struck by the parallels between military and corporate realities. While not everything corresponds, there are times when having this unique background can help shed light on how to face the challenges organizations encounter in corporate decision making.

Recently, I was helping a leader completely redefine his company’s strategy. While the strategy was sound and they were very excited about it, he confided in me that he was experiencing some nervousness about charting the unknown.

As he spoke, it struck me that his concerns had a lot to do with what in aviation we call “visibility.” And, it brought the following story to mind.

“Negative, Ghost Rider, the pattern is full…”

Many years ago, as an Apache Longbow Instructor Pilot, I was training a student pilot in a live-fire gunnery exercise when our aircraft encountered unexpected weather. Within seconds, we were engulfed in a thick bank of fog, and our visibility suddenly went from normal to complete zero. As I launched into emergency recovery procedures for inadvertent flight into zero visibility, I wondered if my student knew what I did: according to Aircraft Owners and Pilots’ Association (AOPA), 86% of flights experiencing sudden loss of visibility result in fatalities.

In an attack aircraft, visibility is one of its most critical competitive advantages. Any time visibility is reduced—for instance by adverse weather, enemy ambush, or limited access to intelligence—strategic risk is increased. Whether on a training mission or in an actual combat situation, success—and survival—hinge on a pilot’s ability to accurately perceive and quickly make the right decisions around how best to respond to what is going on in the environment surrounding the aircraft.

The military therefore goes to great lengths to create, design, build, and enhance visibility in and into every aspect of their operations. Military aircraft utilize many resources—radar, soundproofing, intelligence reports, drone feeds, and many more, in addition to rigorous training and planning for contingencies—to enhance visibility and gain competitive advantage, whether over the enemy or against the whim of Mother Nature. That day, it saved our lives: pre-planned emergency recovery procedures were followed, and we successfully recovered to the airfield under an instrument approach.

Visibility as competitive advantage

As I work with corporate clients, I find that visibility, or awareness, is also key to good corporate decision making and organizational success. Every organization has variables working against it that reduce its level of visibility, such as unknown actions by competitors, new entrants to the market, unstable economy, sanctions or tariffs, and so on. These are things that introduce an element of the unknown into the strategic landscape. Together, they create a sort of fog that an organization must navigate through in order to achieve its goals.

Corporate decision-making for enhanced visibility

What can a company do to increase its visibility so that the best possible decisions are made even in the face of uncertainty?

Visibility can be increased or decreased based on many factors both internal and external to the organization. Just like an aircraft, an organization will at times need to make strategic pivots with limited visibility. When this happens, risk can be mitigated through strategic forethought and preparation.

The corporate equivalent to the pilot’s array of radar, satellite imagery, intelligence links and so forth comes down to having extreme clarity on its differentiating capabilities and the things that enable it. The more strongly a company can build and enhance its unique mix of these things, the greater their clarity of vision and competitive advantage.

Corporate visibility can be optimized by:

  • Clearly defining the company’s differentiating capabilities
  • Creating a robust mix of enabling activities around each differentiating capability
  • Crafting an organization design in which the organization’s work activities and groupings of work are optimally designed to deliver on those differentiating capabilities.

Designing an organization to enhance top tier strategy significantly increases the organization’s visibility. When risk is reduced using any combination of mitigating factors such as the ones mentioned above, corporate decision making is no longer blind, but calculated and measured. The company then knows its critical capabilities and understands how it will respond even when the unknowns or variables have changed. Instead of getting muddled in a fog of reacting to mishandled shipments, supply chain problems, and other crises of the day, this enables the organization to shift their focus to activities that help them win in the marketplace, providing tremendous advantage over the competition.