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.

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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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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.

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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.

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Essay

Dribbling with Your Head Down: failing to see how you impact the bigger mission

In my spare time I coach youth soccer. I never thought of myself as a coach, but when my kids were starting off in bee-hive ball the leagues were always looking for volunteers to help out. Figuring this was a great way to spend time with my kids I signed on. Eventually my kids got older (as they are wont to do) and “better” coaches showed up to train my kids. What I found, though, is that I was still coaching my kids, only this time from the sidelines. I was frustrated because the coaches weren’t coaching the way I thought they should.

That’s when I figured out that nobody was going to coach the way I wanted them to but me. If I wanted my kids to get my brand of coaching I would have to put up or shut up, regardless of how busy I am with work or other distractions. (see Work/Life balance)

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Story

Potato Peelers and a Culture of Innovation

spudsIn the summer of 2013 I went to work with the Chief of Staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group (SSG) in DC. The group was set up to do some innovative thinking and produce some ideas of value to the CSA and the Army. The director of the SSG at the time was a retired US Army Colonel with a PhD named Dave. When my cohort first arrived at the SSG, Dave told us a story about why we were there that has stuck with me ever since.

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Story

Walking on the Grass: Abandon Outdated Constraints

As a young captain I was privileged to serve on the staff at the US Army War College at Carlisle Barracks. Carlisle is a beautiful post with a rich history, and I truly enjoyed being in that environment. Among the most impressive buildings there is Upton Hall which has an interesting history of its own. At the time I served there it housed the Military History Institute, and sported a beautiful green lawn that would be the envy of many golf courses. In the corner of this pristine lawn stood a small, obscure sign that read, “Please walk on the grass.”

The first time I saw it I did a double take. Walk on the grass? Wasn’t this an Army post? Every private and every cadet is taught from the very beginning not to walk on the grass. Why in the world would this sign be there? Continue reading