Essay

Bailing Water with a Cup

Three guys out fishing start taking on water. The first guy to notice it grabs the nearest thing he sees that can bail water: a tiny little cup. He starts bailing furiously, but it doesn’t seem to be doing any good. The other two haven’t noticed yet, as they are busy fishing. The first guy assumes this is a temporary problem and keeps bailing, all the while looking back at his rod in case a fish bites.

It starts getting worse.

The second guy realizes there is a problem, and he, too, starts bailing. He has a red Solo cup, so he moves more water than the first guy, but he still isn’t making a lot of headway. He doesn’t want to leave his fishing rod, either, so is pretty distracted from the bailing effort. Every once in a while he gets a bite, stops bailing, and tries to land the fish. He finds it is more difficult to net the fish when you have to rummage in the water in the bottom of the boat for the net.

The third guy is late to the party. He has been solely focused on fishing and finally catches on when he can’t get to the live well because of the water they are taking on. Something has to be done! He grabs a bucket and starts bailing, too, still with one eye on his rod.

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Essay

Animal House: Leading Change Blutowski Style

If you haven’t watched National Lampoon’s 1978 masterpiece Animal House in a while, it may be time to break out the VHS tapes and grab some popcorn. It is laced with famous scenes and features many budding actors that went on to highly successful acting careers. If you are one of those Millennials who wants to get some insight into the culture that influenced your grandparents’ generation, it’s worth figuring out how to stream this classic. If nothing else it is worth watching Blutowski’s inspiring “Germans bombed Pearl Harbor” speech.

This great film came to mind recently as I listened to a senior executive talking about the many changes he was trying to implement across his organization.  He had some great ideas about the direction his firm needed to go, and his energy and enthusiasm for the future was infectious. His audience was inspired and hopeful and the much-needed changes were long overdue.

But soon after the CEO left, the mid-level managers began evaluating the CEO’s proposals. “That will never happen, the VPs won’t implement that,” said one. “There are too many policies and too much institutional momentum for any of that to stick,” said another. “Unless you get rid of the old guard up there, none of this is going to get anywhere,” said a third. They all agreed that the CEO’s proposed changes were necessary, but none of them believed they would ever happen.

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Story

It’s Too Easy to Live Hard

As very junior officers serving in Germany in the early 1990s, we often found ourselves “in the field” at various training centers. “The field” was designed to replicate wartime conditions for units, requiring them to sustain themselves without the benefit of the buildings or infrastructure most of us have become accustomed to.

For the troops, this meant sleeping in vehicles or tents in between battles, eating lukewarm food when you could get it, cold MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) when you couldn’t. Typical rotations at the Combat Maneuver Training Center (CMTC) in Hohenfels (now the Joint Multinational Readiness Center) lasted ten days, long enough for most of us to run out of pogey bait (food the troops smuggle in). This duration also forced leaders to figure out how to get troops and themselves the right amount of sleep. Some folks think they can go days without sleep, and they’d be wrong. Few things are funnier to watch than a company commander who thinks he can go 10 days without sleep falling asleep mid-sentence while trying to brief his battle plans on about day 3.

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Essay

Knife Fights and Strategic Thinking

We all get busy. We have these goals of getting to some project, or carving out time to do something different, or thoughts of making some long term, innovative plans for how to improve our organization. But the day-to-day tasks somehow seem to eat up the time.

I recently asked one of my senior leaders about his long term strategy for his division. He told me he was “working on it” but that it was difficult to think five years out “when you’re in a knife fight every day.”

That’s true. When someone is trying to stab you it is probably the wrong time to start making long-term plans.

But this begs some questions… like “why are YOU in the knife fight?” or “why are you in a KNIFE fight?” or “how might this fight end?” or “is this fight winnable?”

With respect to the first question, this isn’t always our fault: we often get dragged into knife fights that we want nothing to do with. The phone rings and suddenly you can toss today’s schedule out because somebody somewhere did or said something that will occupy all of your time for the foreseeable future. You pick up your knife and prepare to do battle. Continue reading

Story

Chicken Metrics: Driving Your Organization the Wrong Way

About fifteen years ago I had the privilege to sit in on an executive leadership training session for a major corporation. During this session, corporate leaders discussed various issues their company was having. Most of these discussions centered on stories; anecdotes that represented issues the company faced. One story in particular stuck with me…

A well-known fried chicken chain restaurant was being inspected by their corporate efficiency team. The goal was to improve operations at all of their outlets in order to maximize profits. This seems reasonable as making money is usually the goal of such places.

The corporate team brought with them hundreds of metrics designed to identify and minimize all the little inefficiencies that creep into such operations and nibble away at profit. The local store in question was doing pretty well. They were “green” on most of the major metrics and had very few “red” ratings. One of these red categories, though, was costing them quite a bit: they were throwing out too much chicken. Health codes, of course, limit how long chicken can sit on the rack before it loses its serviceability and must be disposed of.

This local store was leading the region in thrown out chicken, an obvious hit to the bottom line. Something must be done! The corporate inspectors chided the local manager and left him with instructions to fix that metric. They would be back in 60 days to check on him. Continue reading

Essay

Rethinking Innovation in a Bureaucracy

About a year ago my organization embarked on journey to modernize. Recognizing that many of the best ideas for organizational improvement probably resided in the workforce not the board room, we began soliciting ideas from throughout the firm.

During a town hall meeting I appealed to newer employees who may have ideas from other organizations they have worked in, to younger employees who may have ideas based on exposure to new technology or ideas from school, and to our more experienced employees who have observed the organization over the years and probably have some insightful observations that could help us modernize. The seasoned employees also understand the bureaucratic systems and processes better than anyone and can help us avoid pitfalls as we move forward.

I got some criticism for that approach.

While I thought I was appealing to everyone to be innovative about how we do business, what some employees heard was, “the young employees are innovative and have great ideas and the older ones only know the old ways of doing things.” I have been vocally critical of many of the “old ways” as the outdated processes derived in the 1900s might need an overhaul. Unfortunately some employees interpreted my criticism of 20th Century policies as criticism of our 20th Century employees.

I can understand why some people might think that.

It’s so common to have become cliché: when leaders are looking for change agents in their workforce they often look towards younger employees, hoping a bevy of good ideas will emerge from among the most tech-savvy amongst them. Confusing a willingness to learn and employ new technology with true innovation, many senior leaders believe that the best ideas must come from the portion of the firm’s population most willing to try the latest gadget or app.

And they would be wrong.

Innovation has little to do with an ability to employ emerging technology. Digital natives (people who have grown up in the digital age) typically have a cultural propensity to adopt new technologies as they emerge. After all, new technologies have emerged regularly throughout their lives, and adopting new ones is quite natural. Digital immigrants (those of us that are acquiring skills in digital systems as adults), on the other hand, culturally have different ideas about adopting new tech.

But adopting new tech isn’t really innovation, is it? While there are dozens of different definitions for innovation, the one I like to use is this:  Innovation is combining two or more things in a new way to bring about value.

Using a new app isn’t innovative. It can be useful, but it isn’t necessarily innovative. The inverse may be a truism: the unwillingness to try a new technology will likely impede innovation. But that isn’t because of the technology: it’s about the unwillingness to try.

So innovation isn’t about age, it’s about culture. It’s about a willingness to try to implement new ideas. It’s about experimenting with new ways of doing things. It’s about being thoughtful about the world around you, and imagining how things might be better. It’s about a willingness to see more opportunities than obstacles. Most importantly, it’s about being willing to fail.

Fail? Why would I have to be willing to fail? Because when you try to bring about something new that has value there is a chance that it won’t work. If you’re not willing to take that risk, nothing new will ever emerge. Innovation is about imagining new things and having the willingness to risk failure to give them a chance to succeed.

Don’t misunderstand this tenet as a license to drive the organization off the road. Failing while innovating requires taking prudent steps to mitigate risks, and learning to fail early enough in an effort to learn from it. 

The hard part about practicing innovation in government or large organizations is that bureaucracies tend to be exceptionally risk averse. Having been burned before, these organizations don’t want to risk failures or public criticism or lawsuits by deviating from “the process.” The longer someone has been in the organization the more likely it is that they have been told to “shut up and color inside the lines” by a leader who isn’t willing to take the risk of failing.

Too often our more experienced employees have enough scar tissue from early attempts at innovation that they have simply quit trying. Process-centric bureaucracies don’t often reward non-compliance and creativity. Quite the opposite, they tend to stamp them out. I once had a boss actually tell me to “quit thinking and start doing.” He wasn’t my favorite boss. 

Interestingly, studies have shown that the average age of a majority of successful innovators is somewhere in the mid-40s or later.  See RPRN Mag, or Newsweek, or Government Executive. Research indicates that it is often the nexus of experience and the willingness to fail that brings about the best innovations in any organization. That is, of course, if their organization lets them.

If we want to modernize, we need to change our culture. Our challenge as leaders is to overcome the existing risk-averse culture, and try to instill a culture of innovation. This means seeking out change leaders and innovators throughout your organization and empowering them to make things better. It means reinforcing innovative successes and underwriting honest failures. It means identifying and exploiting talent in every part of your organization regardless of demographics, including age, rank, or longevity with the firm. 

Since we embarked on our modernization effort we have received literally hundreds of great ideas from across the organization. Unsurprisingly many of the best ideas have come from our most experienced workers. Moreover, the experienced workforce knows how these great ideas might actually work in our risk-averse organization and are taking the initiative to make things happen. I couldn’t be more impressed by the way many people have begun embracing new ideas.

It doesn’t seem to matter how young or old our innovators are, or where they are in the organization’s hierarchy. What seems to matter is how willing they are to imagine a better way to do things and a willingness implement change.

Leaders need to back these innovators, and give them a voice when the process-driven culture lashes back at them. 

By the way, Steve Jobs was well over 50 when Apple introduced the IPhone. Just saying.

Story

A Poor Sailor Blames the Wind

One of the best jobs I ever had was commanding a battalion responsible for transforming raw recruits into Soldiers. There are many great professionals involved in this very difficult mission, but the key to successfully training young men and women lies with the Drill Sergeant. This is a tough job which tends to wear out our NCOs, so the Army normally limits a Drill Sergeant’s time “on the trail” to two years. This means that every training unit experiences 50% turnover in its most critical personnel every year.

Training units responsible for Army Basic Combat Training are typically required to brief their performance and training achievements semi-annually. This consists of a series of briefings from subordinate companies which are then rolled into battalion briefings and presented to a General Officer somewhere up the chain. In typical Army fashion these briefings are most often PowerPoint marathons where staffs compile and present often-meaningless statistics that “prove” the unit is doing a great job training young recruits and managing their training cadre.

Likely the most mockable portion of these briefings is the inevitable “Red, Amber, Green” assessment (or T,P,U assessment where units report if they are “Trained, need Practice, or are Untrained”) which require some form of assessment by commanders about their own units. There is usually some magical formula behind the ratings that give the appearance of objectivity to the proceedings.

A few years ago, as a new battalion commander, I got to watch a series of these briefings where I saw nearly every company commander report themselves as Amber or “needs Practice” on the Mission Essential Task of “Train Soldiers.” The reasoning behind the Amber rating was that each unit had “lots of new Drill Sergeants who lacked the experience to get us to Green.” This was usually acknowledged with a sympathetic knod.

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