In the military, we often note that some of what we do is inextricably linked to traditions. Our rank structure, uniforms, customs, courtesies, and values are often tied to what we’ve always done and that serves to perpetuate our organizational identity as a whole. While most of that makes sense, we also easily become mired in old ways of thinking. Those of us that have been in the military for a while know this; traditional thinking that was stuck in one direction from when I enlisted inevitably changed over time. I even acknowledge that as a senior enlisted leader, I look at some ideas and scoff at them without really giving the idea its due diligence.
Looking at things as an MBA candidate, I also can’t help but see that older ways of thinking are what hold back an organization from success. When you strip away the frills of the military, our core functions are what matter. Using “this is how we do it at base X” doesn’t seem fully logical, but neither does staying consistently stationary simply because “it’s the way it has always been done”. Our mission sets change, as do the demands on our people, and those differences and demands are different across the force as well as they are across functional areas. There are a few barriers to new ideas that I’ll discuss here, although one must recognize that there is an exhaustive and detailed list that could be made on this issue.
Levels of hierarchy and regulation add increasing levels of complexity. Probably one of the most obvious reasons we get mired in old ways of thinking about issues that face our military is the inherent hierarchical and regulatory environment in which we operate as a military. When you have an idea about something but do not know how to address the issue, it stops, or even your supervisor is oblivious to the process of highlighting the changes. Even new ideas are often vetted for relevance through the chain of command, which is time consuming—making any ‘new’ change irrelevant by the time it is even considered. Or, they are shot down immediately on the spot. Regulations are often not flexible and they change very infrequently–and there are varying versions of the same regulation. Newer generations of military members often take to social media for action—an easily accessed arena where they can collaborate with like-minded individuals. It has also proven in the past to be a medium that can affect change, making it an attractive, albeit controversial avenue.
Senior leaders applying old paradigms of thinking about situations. I would be the first to admit that even though I am a maintainer by trade, I do not have a fully accurate picture about my career field at the technical or tactical level. I haven’t turned a wrench on an aircraft in some time. For me to apply what I used to know to change the environment would be incorrect—I am not connected to the challenges faced today, as they may be different from what I faced 4 or 5 years ago. Instead, I can involve subordinates that have the technical relevance of today’s environment and make changes with their counsel. It is also important to recognize that leaders imposing an old idea or frame of thinking into an organizational change or new concept and calling it innovative is not the way to empower others to do so—it cuts buy-in at the lower levels at the cost of making the leader feel like they’ve left a mark on the organization, even though it doesn’t change anything. Imposing a wanted outcome is not the way to gain buy-in from people; instead it is a more creative way of issuing an order.
It’s simply easier to tolerate the status quo than deal with trying to change things. Often, subordinates simply throw in the towel, believing that they do not have the sway necessary to make any real changes. Instead, they get by with the current ways of doing things without having the ability to fully realize any kind of organizational efficiency or effectiveness that is needed to make their jobs easier. Or, individuals that espouse the ideas are often too mired in current organizational processes or demands, unable to push or champion their idea because they are maxed out. They will simply ride the wave of changes handed down to them. Senior leaders can fall victim to the same way of thinking. Instead of looking for innovation, they often seek unyielding compliance with the status quo even when it may not make good sense in the current organizational context to do so. This is often done to simply appease the appearance of good organizational practices instead of doing the work to really examine things as they are and identify the regulatory shortfall.
When all changes are always dictated from the top levels of the organization, people stop thinking creatively. People often wonder why ideas do not emanate from the lower echelons. This is because they get so used to their leaders and managers dictating what WILL happen that they believe their voices will not be heard. This smothering effect can also create turbulence in the organization when changes are needed and silence other kinds of communication highlighting important issues. It also creates bottlenecks in action because no actions are taken immediately without explicit guidance from the top. This symptom also leads to a path of creating an immature organization where no real ownership exists because no one can take ownership for any changes or ideas, no construction of real commitment to the organization.
Knowing what organizational changes are needed, but not really knowing how to go about changing anything. When new ideas do bloom, we’ve only armed NCOs with visceral concepts, so their ability to trigger action is limited. PME concepts are the formal educator of leaders in the military. Unfortunately, PME is taught in a ‘glass box’ scenario, where the organization is perfect and you face an ideal situation where all that is needed to change things are to unfreeze the current process, change it, and freeze processes or ideas to lock in changes—but bridging that gap from theory to practice is far more challenging than a few paragraphs about a romantic concept. Young NCOs may not possess the skill needed to push such changes because of lack of operational or strategic experience—and pushing them into the deep end to try to affect changes without someone guiding and backing them sets them up for failure. Organizations are far more complex and require more than moving a few levers to make changes. It goes back to understanding what your organization does in some detail, what effects the changes will make, and how the organization will react to them—even so far as to understanding its structure and informal relationships. Issuing a policy or an order will yield one form of compliance, but it likely will not ensure any level of consistent action if it isn’t constantly reinforced.
These are just a few of the challenges faced by both young NCOs AND senior leaders. Understanding some of the best ideas are given to us by our subordinates is critical–listen to them. I was recently given some insight by one of my NCOs; I believe his insight triggered something he has seen as a problem for a long time. He will likely affect changes to an entire fleet of aircraft because he gave me one idea and I linked it to the bigger picture. Trust them–they are going to be leading our military in the next decade.