Essay, Story

Winning and Losing to your Bureaucracy

Winning starts by knowing how the game is played and knowing all of the rules, both written and unwritten, and then either exploiting or breaking them.

I love practicing jujitsu. It is a great art and sport, and helps build flexibility, strength, endurance, and confidence. The practice of jujitsu is a journey, and very few who study the art can claim to master it. I, unfortunately am in the majority here. As a mere novice in this art I frequently find myself humbled by the speed and skill of others.

One of the people I roll with is a guy named Ben. Ben is a bit of a freak of nature as he is older than me but remains one of the biggest, strongest, fittest people in the academy. I’m probably giving up about 30 pounds when I square off with Ben, and despite what TV tells you, strength and size make a difference. The other problem I have with Ben is his jujitsu is also better than mine.

When I roll with Ben I have no illusions that I will tap him out. My goal is to survive the five minutes without getting choked out. Sometimes I make it.

I attribute this not just to Ben’s size and strength, though. I think he’s so hard for me to beat because I don’t have the skill and knowledge needed to defeat him. Too often, the obvious, instinctual moves I thought would work land me in the biggest trouble.

When I watch the instructors roll with Ben I see a completely different struggle. Although our senior belts are giving up a lot more size with Ben than I am, they don’t seem to struggle as much. For every move that would finish me off, our instructors have a counter. They navigate smoothly away from danger and find opportunities I fail to see or can’t exploit. Then they bring out techniques that reduce Ben’s size advantage and put him in losing positions.

These guys didn’t get that way overnight.  How did they get like that?

They have studied and practiced their art for years. They have learned techniques through careful observation and training to be able to accomplish things we novices cannot. They sought the advice of experts. They tried new things, failed, and learned from their mistakes. They are continuous, lifelong learners.

In short, they have invested the time, energy, and had the right, humble attitude that allowed them to learn the nuances of leverage, timing, and balance that make huge differences in the outcome.

It strikes me that my struggles with Ben are a lot like the struggles that many people encounter every day. The difficulty of grappling with a bureaucracy or solving tough work problems is a lot like squaring off with a larger, more skillful opponent. As Joe Rogan once put it, “Jujitsu is complex problem solving under extreme stress.”

At work I see quite a few employees who function, like me, at the novice level. I see others who are like the senior belts. The novice-type folks try to navigate the bureaucracy the way I approach Ben: try the obvious, instinctual moves, apply strength against strength, and become frustrated when they don’t work. Eventually they have to tap out, admitting defeat.

But there are others who, like my jujitsu instructors, seem to face down the same challenges with ease. They counter the bureaucratic choke holds and use the system’s weight against itself, finding ways to get on top despite all the disadvantages of being smaller.

When I observe folks at work I see both kinds of people: masters and novices. Some of the novices watch and learn from the masters. Others continue to struggle on their own, succumbing over and over again to the bureaucratic Bens they square off with. Some of the novices are new and are learning. Some have been here for years and have stopped trying to beat the system. They have given up, and let the bureaucracy be on top every time. These folks are easy to spot, by the way. They are the ones who have an excuse or someone to blame every time they get stuck or fail to produce. They are the ones that get to “no” quickly whenever someone suggests something new or innovative.

The ones that emerge victorious are successful not because of the system, but in spite of it. They have figured out which techniques work and which ones don’t. They know that the instinctual, “follow the process” approach works until it meets real life, and from there you need to be creative. They have figured out what works and intuitively find ways to solve problems where others only see obstacles.

How did they get like that?

The same way my jujitsu instructors did.  They don’t suffer a setback or defeat without learning from it. They reflect thoughtfully on both failures and successes. They approach each struggle with an open mind, willing to try something new if the normal process doesn’t work.

Reflection, openness, humility, thoughtfulness.

I think we need more people who are willing to keep learning and keep fighting the bureaucracy. We need people who won’t give up just because Ben is bigger.

The real difference between my instructors in jujitsu and the masters of bureaucracy is that there is a group of people in jujitsu who have dedicated themselves to helping others perfect their jujitsu practice.

There are, sadly, too few people in business who are dedicated to helping others fight the bureaucracy. But there are some. There are people who have figured it out. There are those that move easily through the bureaucracy and take pleasure in helping others do the same.  They have in mind the success of their organization and the success of those people who are willing to learn.

In jujitsu the people who do this are called coaches or professors. In business they are called mentors, and we need a lot more of them.

Story

Accepting the Leadership Challenge: the First-Time Supervisor

As a young lieutenant I had the privilege of serving on the operations staff in an Engineering Battalion. It was a great assignment as there were really talented people working really hard to keep the organization running. I learned a tremendous amount in the year I served on staff, and understanding how the higher headquarters ran made me a better leader when I went back down to the line.

One of the guys I got to know on staff was a Captain named John. He was one of those all-around great guys that didn’t hold his rank over us junior officers.  He essentially treated us as equals on staff and was a pleasure to be around.

And then something changed. John was selected to go to a line unit and take command.

Continue reading

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.

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

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.

Continue reading

Story

Saying Farewell: How we treat people who leave matters

When I was a young lieutenant I was in a really great unit. The leaders were engaged, and it seemed like everyone was truly dedicated to the Army and the mission. The culture in that unit was very pro-career, and nearly every young officer spoke of long-term career goals.

But occasionally, a young officer would show up that only planned on completing their initial obligation, typically 4-5 years. They had other career and life aspirations, and didn’t think they wanted to stay on active duty for the next 20 years.

These officers were typically looked down on and often treated as second-class citizens. Sure, most of them were as competent as the next guy, but that didn’t matter. They were quitters. They didn’t love this profession the way the rest of us did.

It was easy to adopt this kind of attitude. You were “in” and they weren’t.

Continue reading

Story

Urban Legends, Myths, and the Irrational Tendency to Ignore Facts

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

A few months ago I attended a High School soccer match downtown which was scheduled to end just in time to get the spectators (who were largely from the suburbs) out into afternoon traffic. As the game wound down the usual debate began amongst the local traffic experts sitting in the stands about how to make the 25 mile drive back to our home town. “Take I-40 straight to 67 then go on up,” says one. “You’ll be stuck for an hour that way. Better to go through town and up I-30,” retorts another expert. “I never go that way at this time of day! It’s sure to be backed up,” says a third. I watched in fascination as these guys speculated as to the likelihood of traffic delays and the usual traffic patterns. No consensus was found and I was interested as to whether this was going to turn into a live experiment after the game.

Continue reading