Empowering your people

Lt. Col. Zachary Owen, 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron commander

Lt. Col. Zachary Owen, 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron commander


In August 2005, local and state governments reeled in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath.  The federal response didn’t live up to expectations and many people were in dire need of assistance.  There were many instances of heroic responses to needs in distressed areas, but one that we don’t frequently hear about is Walmart’s bold approach.  In his book “The Checklist Manifesto,” Dr. Atul Gawande examines why Walmart was able to effectively respond to the crisis.

In a meeting with Walmart’s senior managers, the company’s Chief Executive Officer reportedly said, “This company will respond to the level of this disaster.  A lot of you are going to have to make decisions above your level.  Make the best decision that you can with the information that is available to you at the time, and, above all, do the right thing.”  That guidance was shared with store managers, and they were empowered to act.

One hundred twenty-six Walmart locations closed as a result of the hurricane.  Twenty-thousand Walmart employees and their families needed assistance.  The initial effort focused on caring for employees and families.  It then shifted to reopening the damaged stores.  Within two days more than half of the stores had reopened.  However, as more information came in about the extent of the damage, the focus of Walmart’s effort shifted again.  This time it shifted to helping local communities.

Because the store managers had received clear guidance from the CEO, and since they had been given the authority to act, they did.  They began providing first responders with supplies so they could help residents, and they also provided residents with essentials like water, diapers and baby food.  One intrepid manager drove a bulldozer through her store and rounded up what she could and handed it all out in the parking lot.  When she heard a hospital was running low on drugs, she used resources from her store’s pharmacy.  She was subsequently praised by her superiors for the initiative. 

Walmart went on to set up call centers, mobile pharmacies, check cashing centers and even vaccination clinics.  They brought in truckloads of supplies before the federal response. 

Gawande said, “under conditions of true complexity – where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns – efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail.  People need room to act and adapt.  Yet they cannot succeed as isolated individuals either – that is anarchy.  Instead they require a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation.”

Walmart’s CEO gave the store managers an expectation and the freedom to act.  As part of Team 5-0, we all have been given expectations and the freedom to act.  We know our mission is to command space and cyber systems to deliver global combat effects.  Beyond that, we are expected to evolve the force, drive innovation and master space.  The past couple years have seen significant changes to the way we conduct space and cyber operations.  The support and staff functions needed to make those changes have also evolved.  While the major muscle movements needed to implement those changes are largely complete, there is still plenty of refinement needed.  As we make those refinements, we may, on occasion, have to make decisions above our level.  We need to be confident our leaders trust us to act.  As we act, we need to consider the expectations we’ve been given and make the best possible decisions based on the information we have.