One of the problems with blogging is that the audience doesn't always know the credentials of the person writing the blog. That can lead to doubt about the authors ability or credibility when speaking authoritatively about something that they may or may not actually be an authority on. In my case, most of the people who read this are colleagues or other military professionals who know me, so there is an assumed level of knowledge regarding my experiences and professional development. In most cases, I have personally worked with them or their unit, and they have developed a certain level of trust in my abilities and reasoning. Even so, it is nice sometimes to have one of my ideas further developed in another forum because it not only helps to validate my opinion, but often lends specialized credibility to a theme or an idea. This week's post should be seen on that light.
I have been saying over and over that leaders need to start listening more to their subordinates. In many cases, I have been specific about at what level of leadership this needs to take place to effect the greatest amount of necessary change in the institution. I have also contended that learning how to think strategically is not only the purview of senior officers. That given the current operating environment and the proliferation of technology and the technological savy of both the enemy and young Soldiers, everyone has to be able to understand the strategic impact of every action taken as well as a very thorough understanding of how local actions can have a huge effect on a strategic plan.
The November/December issue of Military Review contains an article by two retired Army Colonels, Dr. Stephen Gerras and Charles Allen. The title of the article is "Developing Creative and Critical Thinkers". For those readers who have an Army Knowledge Online (AKO) acount, this can be found on Battle Command Knowledge Systems (BCKS). I highly recommend it.
The argument the authors are making begins with the following quotation:
"Many senior Army and DOD leaders have said we need to develop better strategic thinking skills for the 21st century security environment. The requirement stems from a realization that the complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity of the current environment mandates a move away from Cold War methodologies and assumptions. As recent history suggests, a large gap exists between the Army's desire to develop strategic thinking skills and what actually happens."
The article's focus is that there are 2 critical requirements that must be developed prior to learning or assimilating the ability to be a strategic thinker - the ability to think creatively and the ability to apply critical reasoning.
The authors define Strategic thinking as "the ability to make creative and holistic synthesis of key factors affecting an organization and it's environment in order to obtain a sustainable, competitive advantage and long term success."
The authors define creativity as "the ability to produce novel ideas that others value." They then put forth 3 methods of behavior that support the development of strategic thought.
1) Use a multi-disciplinary approach perspective to provide knowledge about thinking skills.
2) Pratice applying these skills in a context dependant setting under the purview of a knowledgable leader or facilitator.
3) Encourage and motivate the routine application of strategic thinking skills to important issues by creating a healthy environment in schools and units.
The critical part of the discussion looks at the Military Decision Making Process and why it can very easily get off track and lead to plans and outcomes that do not necessarily support the larger strategic plan. Two of these are hueristics (recalling the most vivid events) and egocentricity (thinking that one's beliefes are better than anyone else's).
"....Hueristics and egocentricity can lead the unit down the wrong road if the commander (insert the word leader and you include NCOs and civilian leaders as well) thinks his intuition is infallible and that the last way he dealt with a problem will work in the next case."
The authors go on to state the following: "The Army's biggest obstacle is it's hierarchal nature and cultural norms. Reflective skepticism as a technique to improve judgement and decision making is hard to embrace if the officers or NCOs are not comfortable disagreeing with the boss or even the boss's boss. This is especially difficult if senior leaders have egocentric tendencies toward extreme self-confidence because of numerous accolades and promotions. Unfortunately, leaders who have not taken careful steps to ensure the information they recieve from their subordinates is 'ground truth', even if it disagrees with their view seem to be more the rule than the exception."
The article then says, "An often overlooked requirement for successful creative and critical thinking is the concept of dialogue. The Army's hierarchal nature resists dialogue....if commanders and leaders are more interested in a discussion than real dialogue, they reduce opportunities to challenge personal assumptions."
In order to develop to enhance or encourage dialogue the article states that there is a critical first step that must be taken: participants must regard each other as professional collegues, not subordinates and superiors.
"To foster critical thinking Army teams must at times leave their rank at the door. 'Groupthink' is the antithesis of creative and critical thinking and exists in organizations where subordinates simply mimic the thinking of their superiors."
Over the course of this blog, I have outlined my opinion on a wide range of issues from training design to body armor to the emotional/behavioral problems that are occurring in my unit - and I suspect in many others. I have also tried at times to add my thoughts on leadership and leader training. I think that many of the thoughts outlined above help to reinforce those ideas and also provide a wider perspective for personal consideration.
For example, the definition of creativity, "the ability to produce novel ideas that others value" can be seen in the marksmanship program and the outcomes and behavioral changes that it develops. While there is cartainly an objective, numerical, immediate need portion of the training plan, the idea of taking the current training system, using the same amount of allocated resources but changing from a through-put focus to a Soldier focus could be considered a 'novel' approach. The method of doing this is also true with the Effective Training Design brief. By employing a 'healthy skepticism' and using the current doctrine in a slightly different manner, there is the potential to greatly effect unit and Soldier training and, by extension, their critical thinking skills. Soldiers may not need to be able to think on a strategic political level on par with senior military and civilian leaders, but their ability to analyze their shot-group, or to inteact with the local populace, or identify another Soldier in need is a critical thinking skill that can be - and must be - developed. This also important in that in encorporates another thought that I have outlined before: ....'others must be valued'. Any solution to any problem has to be accepted by those who will be affected by the actions taken to achieve the solution.
I have also discussed in previous postings the idea that the vertical, hierarchal structure of the Army is a roadblock to success at many levels. The article does a much better job of illuminating this issue than I have done. We live in a time when the prolifieration of technology and the ability for instant communication has 'flattened' the world considerably. Anyone with access to the internet is now privy to information that in the past was limited to very few in either academia or the top of business or government. This 'flattening', coupled with the generational norms, expectations, and abilities of Millenials has created an environment where the very bottom and the very top are now working off the much the same data. The problem is that the data is being interpreted differently at each level and since the top creates the plan, there is a loss of faith by the bottom when the plan doesn't appear to meet their understanding of the issue.
Hueristics and egocentricity are central to many of my themes. In my leadership philosophy a few weeks back, I included the phrase "Don't believe your own bullshit." Obviously, the authors were much more articulate than I was. Never the less, it doesn't make me wrong. Believing that the system that created, promoted and awarded you is proof enough of your own sense of 'rightness' is flawed because it forces you to live backwards. Egocentricity will directly lead to hueristic behavior - something I outlined in another post as "what worked as a squad leader will work as a platoon sergeant or 1st Sergeant."
With regard to seeing others as professional peers and collegues rather than simply superiors and subordinates, I would contend that the body armor work and the marksmanship program have both enjoyed levels of success because of my need/desire to work with this theme in mind. I am not a woman, so I cannot absolutely know the struggles and difficulties she faces in trying to apply proper marksmanship techniques in body armor. However, by engaging with her (regardless of rank - I have worked with Private to Sergeant Major and 2nd Lieutenant - Lieutenant Colonel) as an interested peer - not simply a Master Sergeant - I have been able to engage, recruit, and facilitate the discussion of training and equipping changes that we both believe are critical to her survival. And to do that I had to 1) gain her trust, 2) listen to her issue and 3) interact with her equally. I can ask most of the women in my study group rather personal questions about their bodies and the manner their bodies interact with their equipment because I have accepted them - and they have accepted me - as a peer. It takes a large degree of personal trust for a female Soldier to provide information like weight, bust size, body fat percentge etc if they do not believe that I am interested in using the information in any manner other than to improve her ability to survive in combat. The same is true in marksmanship. By understanding how and why many Soldiers and leaders do not know the basic fundamentals of proper shooting and then working with them as a peer facilitator to help them fix their knowledge gap, the program itself generates successes both in sheer numbers and behavior change. This directly relates to my idea of understanding an issue holistically and engaging others outside of my personal Army experience to better grasp the problem.
Groupthink is a problem for any large organization. I found it interesting in the article that the authors mentioned the collapse of the auto industry as an example of what can happen culturally and organizationally without a mechanism for dissenting opinions. I have used the same example in earlier posts. I find it impossible to believe that the economists and future planners for GM and Chrysler, as well as the UAW were unable to see the problems their organizations were facing. The only way this could have happened was that the organization itself had no method of presenting dissenting opinions and people felt threatend if they did not toe the party line. That same groupthink mentality is pervasive in the Army today. It was immediately apparent after the initial invasion in Iraq in 2003 that some of the expected outcomes with regard to post-invasion asumptions were not going to be met. However, the culture of 'agreeing with the boss' and being able to 'blame' the higher headquarters when the results weren't what was expected directly led to the rise of the insurgency. Because there was an expectation that we would be greeted as liberators, because there was a lack of consideration for how Iraqis would govern themselves, because we had not given due consideration to methods employed by General Petraus in Mosul (mostly due to personal and petty jealousies surrounding his media exposure), we were not prepared for the chaos that occurred during the post-invasion period that led to the insurgent problem that arose from 2004 - 2007. I am just as sure that there were plenty of very smart, very patriotic people who saw these potential problems coming, but did not have a mechanism to get their dissenting opinions forwarded to the decision makers. At my level, groupthink is having a direct impact on the behavioral and disciplinary problems my unit faces. Because the beauracracy has no mechanism for presenting dissent to the commander, and is more concerned about providing him what they think he wants to hear rather than what he needs to hear, we are failing to meet the baseline problems head on. Because we think that all he wants to know is how to stop suicide and domestic violence etc, we overlook the idea that these are merely outcomes of some other larger issues such as a lack of faith and trust in leadership across the board. Interestingly, I was looking at some data from a survey last week that 52% of the Soldier in a particular unit did not trust their chain of command. But since that data is packaged together with things like suicidal ideation, or incidents of violence, or alcohol consumption which people believe is the command's focus, they overlook the significance of that number.
I am not writing this today to say "Ha! I told you I was right." While it is always nice to have your beliefes validated by others, when faced with a crisis it doesn't serve any purpose beyond trying to chart the course ahead. The purpose of my witing this today is to point out that 1) If two retired Colonels are saying this, then maybe the pervasiveness of the problem is larger than we think. That the article was published in a military journal, should be evidence enough that there is a recognition that we need to relook how we lead in order to succeed in the contemporary environment. 2) The small to big, or big to small thought process that I outlined in an earlier post does have some merit. While the Army may break things down along the Operational, Tactical, and Strategic lines, the idea that they are independant of each other and that people at the different levels do not posess the ability to understand and appreciate the other levels is ludicrous. For example, if a strategic goal of an insurgency is to break down the social / political will of their adversary to continue to fight, then it just may be possible that the increased suicide and behavioral problems that are showing up in our squads, platoons, and companies represent a victorious battle in the strategic war they are waging.
As always, I encourage your thoughts and ideas.