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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Walking on the Grass: Abandon Outdated Constraints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


Stamp Out Stupid


I heard this story a few years ago and have no clue who the folks involved are, but recognize the value of the lesson here…

In the late 1980s a graduate student studying military training spent a day observing an artillery crew going through crew drills. She spent hours watching the crew prepare, load and fire their cannon. The crew followed each and every step perfectly, showing exceptional discipline and training. The graduate student mapped the purpose of each step to her understanding of the gun, and the needs of the crew. Every step made sense to her… the swabbing of the barrel, the loading of the explosive charges, the positioning of every soldier on the crew… it all made sense. All of the movements were economical, purposeful, and important. All but one.

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Knowing when to tap and when to keep rolling: Are you quitting too early?

As a battalion Executive Officer I had a robust physical training program for my staff. It included functional fitness, sport, and combatives. I always liked combatives, but I never had any real training in grappling. So I would get out there and flounder around with my staff and do my best. During the boxing training I did fine, but during the ground training I was truly making it up as I went, and it showed. After getting twisted up by my supply chief one morning (which included an all-expenses-paid visit to the ER and a dashing neck brace) I vowed I wouldn’t “roll” with people bigger than me until I learned how to do it right.

I moved to another job soon after that, and, as luck would have it, they had a great combatives program. I took them up on their offer to train jiu jitsu a couple of times a week. The first thing I learned is to leave your ego at the edge of the mat. The second (which goes hand in hand with the first) is to “tap out” when someone has you in a submission, preferably before you get injured. During my first week in class I got paired up with a very large, well-trained Special Forces captain. “Great,” I thought. “This is going to be fun…”

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Not in my job description…

In the Winter of 2016 I found myself at Fort Carson, Colorado participating in an Army exercise. A major snowstorm hit the area, dumping about 14 inches of snow on the installation. Now Ft Carson and Colorado Springs generally don’t do a whole lot about big snowfall like this as the roads will be clear in a couple of days. They simply close the post while they clear the big stuff and let the rest melt.

Being part of an exercise you can’t really afford to take the day off, so the troops either walked or braved the slick roads to get to work.  Jon, a friend and fellow Colonel, decided we needed to swing by the dining facility on the way in that morning as we likely wouldn’t get out again the rest of the day.

When we arrived at the DFAC (pronounced dee-fak, short for dining facility) we were met by a young private who was assigned the unenviable job of scanning ID Cards as people entered the DFAC. He looked bored. It turned out that the two of us Colonels were two of only a handful of folks who had bothered to get breakfast on that snowy morning. We scanned in and then ordered some food from the Army specialist behind the counter.

While we waited for him to prepare our food we went to gather condiments and such for our to-go order. There weren’t any.  The napkin bin was also empty, as was the cup dispenser for coffee. I can understand when a place is really busy why they might get behind on things like this, but since there was virtually nobody here we couldn’t figure out why nobody had bothered to restock and tidy up.

Jon approached the private who had scanned our cards. “Hey private, do you realize that you are out of napkins, cups and condiments? And that this place is a mess?” The private snapped to attention, obviously distraught at being addressed directly by the colonel. “ummm…” he started. “Yes, sir. I can see that. But I don’t work here.”

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On Thinking in Systems

A few years ago I worked on a project for the Chief of Staff of the Army regarding how the Army would potentially operate in megacities (cities with a population above 10 million people).  During that endeavor my team and I discussed many aspects of this extremely complex environment. I penned the attached essay based on those discussions. It is a perhaps somewhat whimsical view of how we tend to look at complex problems. In the essay I am critical of the Army’s (and most of modern society’s) automatic bias towards reductionism, the proverbial “eat the elephant one bite at a time.” While reductionism is useful in some systems, particularly mechanical systems, it has probably done more harm than good when dealing with complex, nonlinear systems (like large urban environments).

Elephants v2

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Bob’s 2017 Reading List

This year’s reading list is geared towards helping people develop as leaders. To me, being a good leader requires a variety of skills: self awareness and empathy (understanding yourself and those you lead and follow), clear thinking, strategic thinking (including systems thinking), an understanding of your context (the environment within which you are working), a robust understanding of your work, and some flare. The books below don’t cover all of these characteristics, but they are a good start. “Thinking about Thinking” helps leaders understand why they and others think the way they do. Strategic Thinking helps leaders understand where their problems exist within a larger context, and gives insight into what external things may be influencing your problems.

The section labeled “Leadership” touches on mentorship, motivation and creativity in leadership. If you are looking for a basic primer on straightforward techniques on leadership you can do a lot worse than the basic Army doctrine manual, Field Manual 6-22 Army Leadership.

“Thinking About the World” introduces some different opinions about some emerging areas influencing society. Data, social networks, different views that challenge conventional wisdom… the point is to question the accepted views on a variety of topics, not to change your mind but to exercise your ability to consider different views.

“Just to be Different” section is really about introducing and exercising divergent thinking. How might this make you a better leader? Look, everyone is trying to do the same things as everyone else, only better. The way I figure, everyone is trying so hard to be “normal” that we are missing out on the things that can really make a difference in our organizations. If you look throughout history for those folks who really made a difference you don’t find too many conformists. Yes, you have to figure out which rules you need to follow, but following the herd isn’t going to make you a great leader. Think differently.

The final section is geared towards my own organization and our specific context. You should develop a short reading list for your place as well. One of the best ways to get folks socialized is to send them a book that helps them understand their new firm before they arrive.

I know it’s a long list… but you have as long as it takes. I recommend reading one from each category, taking a break (read some fiction… I’ll recommend some in a later post), and then looping back through. Continue reading