#33 Risking Change

Yesterday, while waiting for an appointment, I started reading an article in a back-issue of Conde Nast Traveler magazine. The article was about the future of the airline industry and the development of new airplanes that would significantly reduce pollution in the years ahead. The article caught my eye because it relates the research going on at Boeing to develop the X-4B, a blended wing aircraft that has no fuselage and holds the promise of being 40% more fuel efficient than current designs. At one point in the article, the author travels to a remote set of offices well away from the corporate HQ's and meets with people charged to look critically at each and every part of the design and find ways to improve it. From experimental carpet, to sound system design, to carbon fiber composite material. The person interviewed made the following statement:

"We're working on things that may not work and may not happen. We try to reassure our people that it's OK to fail. If we're not failing a large part of the time, then we're not reaching far enough into what we're trying to do. Manufacturing and designing aircraft doesn't foster this kind of skill naturally."

Then last night, surfing around and reading the headlines, I came across an article about changes at General Motors. The new CEO, Ed Whitacre, held a meeting with top executives to announce the changes being made. His remarks were broadcast throughout the company. At one point he stated:

"We want you to step up. We don't want any bureaucracy. We're not going to make it if you won't take a risk." You can find the story here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34272650/ns/business-autos/

Another story on MSNBC's web page entitled "Three Cups of Tea Advice for Obama" related that the books author, Greg Mortenson, has been advising top military and civilian leaders regarding the way ahead for the US in Afghanistan. He is quoted in the story as saying:

"I now think the military gets it" In an interview, Mortenson, a former U.S. Army medic and mountain climber from Bozeman, Mont., retracted earlier remarks that the U.S. Army were all “laptop warriors … who don’t have a clue what was going on locally, on the ground.” Now, he says, “despite a steep learning curve on the part of the U.S. military, I now think the military gets it.”

The story also relates that "Mortenson is someone the military's top brass listens to — and has often consulted with. "Three Cups of Tea" has become required reading for U.S. commanders and troops deploying to Afghanistan, making Mortenson a valued but unofficial adviser to the Pentagon." The story goes on to say, "Since April, Mortenson has facilitated more than 35 meetings in Afghanistan between local shura, or tribal leaders, and U.S. military commanders, including Gens. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command." You can find it here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34238313/ns/us_news-giving/

And finally, this week there was a Commanders Conference on post where all the battalion commanders met with the Commanding General and spent a day sharing "best practices" and information. As part of that there was a demonstration by one Battalion Commander of the marksmanship program that he has developed and implemented in his unit. He uses an Outcomes based approach and has applied critical thought to each part of the program to ensure that those parts have a reason for being included and that those reasons support his overall intent. While many of the other commanders in the room were very impressed with his design, there were many others who I thought would simply try to imitate it without truly understanding what he was trying to accomplish. And there was another group who simply golf-clapped at the end and walked away knowing that they would never take the risk of such a dramatic change in their units. They couldn't figure out how to get from where they are to where they want to be.

And that is my point today. I think that these 4 examples point out that no matter the industry, no matter the issue, there has to be a willingness by those in charge to accept risk and underwrite change in order for the organization to continue to grow. I find it interesting that a corporate monolith like Boeing has intentionally moved a group of 'future thinkers' away from the corporate mentality and let them dream, wonder, think, and potentially fail. I think that GM's CEO - who does not come from the auto industry - began a new road ahead for the company by accepting risk, visibly supporting idea generation, and tying the entire company's fortunes together, from the assembly line worker, to the kid in the mail room to the engineers who design the engines etc. The idea that Generals Petraus and McChrystal are consulting with an author who takes a markedly different approach to how the US can succeed in Afghanistan, and even using him as a facilitator of meetings is incredible. I wonder how many Battalion, Brigade or Division Commanders would consider that? The Commanding General supporting a new method of instilling confidence, competence, and capability in our Soldiers ability to use their weapon while developing critical decision making skills and having fun should be a clarion call to every other commander and leader to open up their box of ideas, see the ones that have potential, and use them to increase their Soldiers skill-sets.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought about a much needed revolution in military thought and practice. In this sense, war is a good thing. The changing circumstances require people to re-examine existing ideas and protocols, see the organization holistically, and search for those ideas that - while maybe not the perfect solution - are a stepping stone to finding it. While the cost of war is extremely high in both human and material expenditure, it also promotes innovation and re-evaluation both of which are necessary for growth.

So how do you bring about such culture changes? How do you know what to keep and what to change? Is every idea good if it works and bad if it fails? What level of failure and risk is acceptable? These questions are what the Army is struggling with right now. Interestingly, they are also the same questions that industry faces as well. GM's CEO has is betting the farm that by removing bureaucracy and accepting risk the human talent pool of the company can produce a product that will help the company become profitable again. Boeing is doing the same. In the airline industry, whoever can make the next significant leap ahead will gain a huge advantage over the competition. In Afghanistan, the very idea that an author who runs a non-profit organization can facilitate the changes necessary to possibly 'win' the war...These all represent more than just short term goals. They are huge cultural paradigm shifts and an acknowledgement by those at the very top of their respective organizations that questioning norms and the status quo is a critical step.

The first step in culture change is to recognize the pit falls of not doing it. There are huge institutional behavior patterns at work in GM, Boeing and the Army. But the cultures they have produced imply a static world. The first step therefore has to be a recognition that the environment we work in is dynamic and ever-changing. Without that, there can be no recognition of the need for our own evolution. There are also the human factors of change. Change can be, indeed is, threatening for most people. Especially if it is dramatic change. Slow evolutions over time often go unrecognized but dramatic events such as war and bankruptcy cause uncertainty and nervousness which causes people to fall back on what they are familiar with. The only way to undo that is to reassure those personal concerns and take long-term views for success. Creating cultures of constant evolution must become the new norm. I think this is exactly what LTG Caldwell recognized when he visited Google. Computer technology and Internet proliferation has changed at a pace much faster than normal corporate America, and his visit represents an understanding of the Army's need to create an environment of constant evolution rather than the current model of periods of change followed by periods of stasis.

Second, and probably even harder to figure out is what to keep from evolution to evolution and what to discard. For the Army, I think it must be 3 things. 1) That the Army is a servant of the nation and must remain faithful to the citizens it exists to serve. 2) That the value system we espouse is strong and valid. 3) That the development of people who can live up to the previous 2 is the key to future development. For me, everything after that is negotiable. The rest is basically material changes and technological advances. Value based people, who are servants of the nation, charged with keeping the country secure are the next 'leap ahead' that the Army must recognize. Or, in keeping with my earlier thoughts that not much has changed in 40 or 50 years, re-recognize.

Third, we must support idea generation and not see change as threatening. Change is a natural occurrence and should be accepted as such. We need to develop creative ideas and thoughts about how we do business in order to tie the individuals to the organization. I think it's interesting the CEOs of huge corporations in vastly different types of businesses can move easily between them - say from information technology to auto manufacturing. How and why can they do this? My guess is because of their ability to have large-scale thematic views. They support change, or they focus on profit, or they promote worker well-being. Things that are universal. For the Army, we now have a group of senior leaders who seem to promote change, instinctive trust, and a bottom-up focus. The ideas of a young person deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan has to have a mechanism for being considered. That is what ties the person to the greater complex organization. The universal theme that the 'corporation' is the sum total of the people who work in it.

And finally, the idea of risk. As I watched the demonstration the other day, I could clearly see that there were those in the audience who were excited that they now had tacit approval to change the status-quo. They were the ones who were also kicking themselves a little for not having had the courage to do it on their own. There were also those who simply resented change and would not consider changing regardless of who supported it. They were the ones who walked out immediately after it ended to get back to their offices and lord over their little fiefdoms. Those are the dinosaurs who are very hard to weed out of any static-to-dynamic organizational change. But the group that worried me the most, was those commanders who recognized the need, but were too afraid to fail. They worry me because without a rock-solid belief in what their purpose is, when critical events happen they will waiver. And that wavering will be coupled with doubt. And that doubt Will force them back to the staus-quo. And the risk of any change is that it might fail. It is inherently more dangerous to half-commit to something than it is to jump in and figure it out along the way.

On a more personal note, this was also a week of small victories for me. The idea of Outcome Based Training and Education (OBT&E) which I have mentioned before is gaining steam and has been reinforced both by the demonstration and by the Marksmanship Strategy. Hopefully, this will help lead commanders to want to learn more about what it is and how it works. A product I built 6 months ago, but couldn't get to an audience. I may now have an audience looking for a product. More importantly however, the demonstration focused on developing individuals. The battalion commander stated at the very beginning that it's purpose was to provide the individual Soldier the tools necessary to be an expert with their assigned weapon. A bottom-up approach. How refreshing.

But, change is slow. There was a news video this week of one of our units training to go to Afghanistan. In it Soldiers were conducting operations in urban terrain. Hmmm, I've been to Afghanistan and there's not a whole hell of a lot of urban terrain where they're going. Especially when all the buildings are made of mud!

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments.

1 comment:

  1. In a NY Times article this morning, a feature is on Ed Whitacre, the CEO of GM. Important parts: Accountability, the removal of buracracy, and the elevation of a newer generation of talent. Follow the link at: