We love our acronyms in the military. Even though it can sound like we’re speaking in code, some of them are very useful. One of my favorites — and one of the the most useful is NSTR – “Nothing Significant to Report”. If we didn’t have anything useful to say in a report, we’d just put NSTR. Similarly, when it was my turn to speak in a meeting, I’d say “nothing for the group” (some guys would actually say “N-S-T-R”).
That’s definitely not the norm in most organizations. How many times have you sat through meetings while one of your teammates blathered on about something insignificant they accomplished that week, or were planning to do later, knowing full well they were only sharing it to make themselves look busy or avoid seeming unimportant? It’s a common problem in organizations, particularly where leaders hold unfocused meetings without clear agendas. The same problem occurs in reports or email updates. Rather than report “nothing”, we often feel the pressure to say something—anything—to avoid feeling left out.
The military uses NSTR to solve that problem. Whether in meetings, situations reports, emails, updates, or briefings, “NSTR” signaled the leader to move on to the next briefer, report, conversation, or email (and there are always more reports and emails awaiting their attention). By using NSTR, we respected leaders’ and peers’ time, and increased the impact of our reports.
3 ways to foster an “NSTR Mindset”
You don’t have to use the acronym itself (and it probably wouldn’t make much sense outside the military). However, you can foster an NSTR mindset within your organization that encourages reporting the important things in the appropriate forum, without creating a culture where everyone feels the need to report everything. In other words, it has to be OK to say nothing. I once served in a special operations unit where the norm at the morning update was to only report those critical items that most or all of the team needed to know. The unit’s culture reinforced the NSTR mindset, and the morning meetings were efficient, effective, and blissfully short.
Here are three ways to foster an “NSTR Mindset” in your organization.
1. Make it clear what information is important. Leaders should affirmatively set agendas for meetings and define what information should be passed up the chain. In the military, for example, we had carefully defined information reporting requirements. They included criteria on who receives each report, how urgent or routine particular reports are, and how often the reports are due. Several commercial organizations have simplified processes like this. If members of the organization understand what information is expected, they’ll know what to share and what not to share.
2. Never question someone when they say “NSTR”. The fastest way to create dysfunctional meetings where everyone reports every insignificant detail of their workday, is to question someone who states they have nothing of significance to report to the group. I once had a senior leader who responded incredulously every time I said “nothing for the group sir” at meetings (“Really? Nothing?!).” It actually took more time to explain why I had nothing to report, so I eventually gave up and found “something” to report each day. Most days it wasn’t important to him or the group. It was just easier to report something trivial than to explain the silence.
3. Lead at the right level. Too many senior leaders lead at the tactical or operational level, diving into the weeds and micro-managing the tiniest decisions. That’s because it’s easier than leading and thinking at the strategic level. This tends to cause over-reporting and over-sharing minute details. If you lead at your level and trust your subordinates to lead at theirs, they’ll be less likely to inundate you with unimportant information.
Foster an NSTR Mindset in your organization, and you’ll be amazed how relevant and effective your meetings and reports become.
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About the author: Brigadier General (ret.) Rich Gross is a strategic advisor to the Brief Lab and the Sheffield Company. He spent over 30 years in the military, serving as the senior legal advisor to multiple senior leaders, to include the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While serving in the military, he gained a reputation for clear and concise communications. Follow Rich on Twitter at @RichGross85.