The Questions Leaders Need to Ask About “No-Fly Zones”

Posted 03.09.2011

Fighterjets Every so often, a word or phrase will pick up so much buzz that everyone starts talking about it at once.  This week, the catch phrase “no fly zone” has achieved that status. As the Libyan dictator Gaddafi and the forces rallying against him continue to battle, more and more commentators and legislators are calling for a “no-fly zone”  over Libya. Establishing a no fly zone may or may not be the right thing to do.  One thing is for sure, though;  it’s not as easy to do as it is to say. That’s the case with most buzz words and catch phrases – easy to say; harder to do.

The US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made clear why that’s the case at a congressional hearing earlier this month:

“Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses … and then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down… (In the case of Libya, it) also requires more airplanes than you can find on a single aircraft carrier, so it is a big operation in a big country.”

As I’ve written here before, I often admire Secretary Gates for his clear thinking and plain speaking. In this case, I think he’s offering a good example for all leaders who need to influence the thinking of people who are convinced that the latest buzz word or catch phrase is the answer. Buzz words and catch phrases mean different things to different people. A lot of the people who talk about them really don’t know what they’re talking about.  In the case of the no-fly zone conversation, Gates began the education process by talking about what one requires.

The next time you find yourself leading a lot of people who are excited about the latest and greatest buzz word or catch phrase, do yourself and the organization a favor by asking a few questions to ground the conversation.  Here are some suggestions:

What’s the goal? – What are we really trying to do here?  Why does that matter?  To whom does it matter?

What’s in scope and out of scope? –  What would we always do in this situation?  What would we never do?  What are the grey zones?  What limits are we placing on ourselves?

What are the required steps? – If we start with the end goal and reverse engineer our way back from that, what are all the steps that are going to be required to do this?  Can we do all of that in the desired time frame?

What are the true costs?  – What are the dollar costs for all of those steps we just outlined?  What are the opportunity costs in shifting resources from an existing priority to this new priority?  What else are we not going to be able to do if we choose to do this?

What are the pros and cons? – As we consider all of the stakeholders in this decision, what are the pros and cons for each?  Do we weight all of the stakeholder groups equally or do some have more sway than others?  Which ones?  How does all of that roll up to our overall take on costs and benefits?

What are the possible side effects? – What kinds of ripple effects might this course of action have a month from now?  A year from now? Five years from now?  Where should we expect to see side effects?  What could go wrong that we haven’t talked about yet?  What could we do to prevent that?

Those are some questions that I hope decision makers are asking as they consider implementing a no-fly zone.  They’re also questions that I hope are useful to any leader who’s trying to help a group make sound decisions. 

What other questions would you add to the list?  What other approaches do you have for helping to ensure that big decisions are fully thought through and considered?