Category Archives: Seamanship and Leadership

Discover what qualities make a good leader and a good seaman.

Deliberately Innovate – A Challenge to the Fleet

By LT Jason Knudson

My challenge to the Fleet, the Navy, and the rest of the Department of Defense is to not just seek out “innovation.” For many reasons, just seeking out innovation is not enough. I challenge the fleet to be “deliberately innovative,” taking deliberate steps to drive innovation and change into the organization.

One way we at the SEVENTH Fleet Innovation Team are accomplishing this is through “Illuminate Thinkshops” presented by Leadership, Equality, and Diversity (LEAD). These workshops were held in conjunction with the U.S. Fleet Forces Green Team at Atsugi, Sasebo, and Yokosuka Naval Bases from January 23 – February 3, 2017.

The Thinkshops reached over 2,000 Sailors, Marines, and Navy civilians stationed in Japan. In addition, Command Triad Thinkshops “illuminated” over 150 command triad members on how to deliberately lead and support a diverse organization of problem solvers. Innovation can not survive without top cover and support of the chiefs and officers in charge of the organization.

The actual key to success of deliberate innovation in SEVENTH Fleet, however, is the creation of the Fleet Innovation Network (FIN). The SEVENTH Fleet FIN is a key node in the SECNAV’s Naval Innovation Network. It is made up of the more than 170 Command Innovation Facilitators we trained through the Illuminate Thinkshops. These Facilitators will be a place potential innovators can to go for guidance, mentorship, and more importantly, to connect with other facilitators in the network.

Below, I will discuss some of the thoughts I had as we organized the Thinkshops and discussed the role of innovation in the Navy and at SEVENTH Fleet.

For more info on the LEAD Presents: Illuminate Thinkshops, go HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Being Deliberately Innovative

“We need to build a culture of innovation into our organization at all levels from the Sailors and Marines on the deckplates to our senior leaders and our civilian workforce. We cannot sit back and simply hope for innovation to happen.” – VADM Joseph Aucoin, Commander, SEVENTH Fleet

Innovation is all around us. This morning, I poured a bowl of innovative cereal. My computer, it’s innovative. The last brief I received on a future military weapons system – innovative. Innovation is an easy buzz term. “My product isn’t just new, it’s innovative!” I hate to break it to my cereal company, but when everything is innovative, nothing is.

The term innovation has been so misused it has started to lose its punch. Innovation has become synonymous with “new.” As many of us can attest, new things are not necessarily good things. I feel frustrated because innovation isn’t just about new things, it is about new things that may bring a strategic advantage. As the Fleet ages one more year, it is increasingly obvious that we need the right new things to replace outdated equipment or we will continue to fall behind potential adversaries. To gain back our strategic advantage, we need to bring real innovation. That means we need to deliberately shape how and, more importantly, who does innovation in the Navy.

Innovation is not just getting the right things. Innovation is also about controlling the processes we use to get the effects we want. We have layers upon layers of regulation, rules, and processes that are out of date, wrong, or just plain inefficient. In order to do what we need to do, at the time of our choosing, we need to control the processes we use. In some cases, this means changing or rewriting our rules. Rules and regulations should aid us instead of standing as barriers. Largely, we should first look at removing the barriers to innovation completely, which means eliminating entire sets of rules and regulations. We own the process; we need to stop acting like the process owns us.

To take back ownership, the Chief of Naval Operations has challenged the Navy in his “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority” to implement high velocity learning. The high velocity learning concept was influenced in part by a book by Steven Spear, The High Velocity Edge. High velocity learning is not just about learning faster, but it is about the learning that is associated with becoming an organization that can sustain its advantage over others. Steven Spear calls an organization that is able to continually maintain an edge over its competition a “high velocity organization.” A high velocity Navy will be able to sustain its advantage over potential adversaries.

7th Fleet Commander VADM Joseph Aucoin speaks at LEAD Illuminate Thinkshop. (U.S. Navy photo, 7th Fleet)

A high velocity organization is organized and empowered to rapidly identify problems and inefficiencies and fix them. In today’s Navy, eliminating variation often feels like the primary business of the entire organization. In a high velocity organization, when a problem is identified, the entire organization must swarm on the problem and solve it. This often means rapid and dynamic changes to the organization. High velocity organizations are intolerant of workarounds, but are tolerant of failure that helps them improve. In the Navy as it is today, change is minimized and failure is verboten. In a high velocity Navy, change is embraced and failure is a part of the process. Problems are identified and solved by the whole organization.

When the organization identifies problems, the solution is often real innovation – either a technological solution, or a modification to an existing process.

A key aspect of high velocity organizations is they share the solutions they have learned widely and at all levels. When a problem is identified, the organization puts all of its resources behind solving the problem. This is the essential part of high velocity learning. The organization itself must be able to take advantage of all the ideas it is capable of creating, implement them, and share them widely. To do this, it must be deliberate in seeking out inefficiencies, developing innovative solutions, and implementing them.

Innovation doesn’t happen by accident.

The Rub

Why don’t we as an organization embrace high velocity learning and innovation as the drivers of a high velocity organization? That is a complex question, but ultimately, Navy and Department of Defense cultures do not support it. What is it about our culture that prevents the deliberate application of innovation?

The Navy has a Culture of Zero Risk Tolerance

In the late 1980s through the early 2000s, the Navy focused on Total Quality Management and Lean Six Sigma. These management theories sought to eliminate all risk in processes through the implementation of controls and data-driven management. As a result, large organizations were developed to measure, test, and evaluate performance and to mitigate risk. Initially, costs went down as we eliminated waste. Workplace injuries and work defects declined considerably. These were largely successful programs that helped the core business of keeping ships, submarines, and aircraft afloat and maintained.

However, the same risk mitigation processes were hostile to innovation. Innovation, by its nature, will disrupt the status quo. It can be evolutionary, like the spiral development of a weapons system, adding features systematically. Sometimes it is revolutionary, making an entire section of Navy business irrelevant. Implementing an innovation is disruptive to the core business of the Navy, and so, under Total Quality Management and Lean Six Sigma (as practiced by the Navy), innovation is a risk to be mitigated. Failure of a system within the core business is to be avoided, even if the system is out-of-date or inefficient. The system is designed to mitigate all risk to the system, even that risk that is beneficial.

Compare this to a common mantra in the startup culture often associated with Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley businesses are encouraged to: “Fail Early, Fail Often, Fail Cheap, and Learn Always.” This philosophy allows tech businesses to rapidly iterate through successful and unsuccessful trials of new ideas. Businesses mitigate risk by creating minimum viable prototypes and testing them in operationally relevant environments. They further develop successes, and learn from, celebrate, and discard failures.

The Navy needs both systems: one system that mitigates risk in the core business, and another that accepts risk as a part of development. We must be conscious of the risk to our core business of bringing in new innovation, but also be hostile to the core business practices that are maintained simply to mitigate risk. We need to iterate faster than our adversary, and so, we need to build a culture that can appropriately evaluate, accept and celebrate risk.

The Navy has a Culture of Busy-Ness

In April 2016, Major Crispin Burke wrote an article called No Time, Literally, for All Requirements. In it, he identified a major issue with training requirements in the Army. He writes, “Fast-forward to 2015, wherein a study at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., revealed a training deficit of 258 days—so nearly 20 months of annual mandatory training crammed into a 12-month calendar year.”

The Navy has a similar problem. Add this to the number and priority of collateral duties required for promotion, as well as command-sponsored fundraising events, mandatory fun events, and community outreach. Then, add boards, qualifications, watch, professional development, and if you’re lucky, family time.

Innovation and process improvement requires time to think, pause, and evaluate if the processes we are using are relevant, efficient, and right. Implementing innovation is disruptive and has a bureaucratic cost to it. It may even have a short-term mission cost. For a watchfloor with limited personnel to implement a major training initiative, it may mean standing down the watch for a little bit of time. The culture of the Navy is biased against stopping operations to implement improvements, even if the improvements will save time overall.

A high velocity organization does not have time to waste on efforts that do not move the organization forward. A high velocity organization is not afraid to stop unnecessary efforts and remove inefficient processes. In business, this is how a high velocity organization stays ahead of the competition. For the military, eliminating bureaucratic bloat and focusing on warfighting effectiveness is how we prevent, and if necessary, fight and win wars.

And so, here again is where deliberate innovation comes in hand. The organization must have the ability to identify wasteful work and eliminate it. It must provide time for thinking, reflecting, and rest. A culture of busy-ness isn’t a sign of a healthy organization. It is a sign of an inefficient one. Innovation must become a priority, because a culture of innovation is the only thing that can overcome a culture of busy-ness. A culture of innovation is a culture with a job to do.

The Navy has a culture that does not adequately support innovators

When we talk about innovation, there is a temptation to make the claim that we should all be innovative. In reality, an organization filled with only innovators is as ineffective as an organization with no innovators. For every innovation, there must also be a group of people able to transition the innovation and sustain it into the core business.

In his 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers describes the diffusion of innovation as a bell curve, breaking up the population based on their tendency towards innovation. The first half of the curve includes the Innovators (2.5%), and the Early Adopters (13.5%). The bulk of people fall into the Early Majority (34%) and the Late Majority (34%). The last group is the Laggards (16%).

The diffusion of innovations according to Rogers (1962). With successive groups of consumers adopting the new technology (shown in blue), its market share (yellow) will eventually reach the saturation level. (Wikimedia Commons)

While there has been no specific study to prove it, we can assume that the distribution in the Navy approximates the general population. Those who may identify, and act as active innovators within the organization will only make up between 2.5%-10% of all individuals. The rest of the group will (and should) focus on the core business aspects of the Navy.

Innovators tend to stray from the status quo. By nature, they break the rules, which is necessary for innovation. When asked by the Marine Corps at the Force Development 25 Innovation Symposium where to find innovators, Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell Project Lead and Illuminate Thinkshop creator, AT1 Rich Walsh responded, “First look at those who have been to mast.”

Inevitably, those who challenge the status quo will run into problems in the military. They are a minority within a system that works to minimize variation within the organization. In addition, to gain access to the resources and sponsorship necessary to implement their innovation, they often have to interact at very high levels in the chain of command. This creates risk in the perception that the innovator is skipping the chain of command, especially for junior enlisted personnel.

One of the best analogies to being an innovator within the military is like being an organ in an organ transplant. The innovation organ is necessary for the body to function, but the body identifies it as a foreign body and attacks it with antibodies. Without support and suppression of the antibodies, the organ will very likely be rejected, and probably harmed in the process.

Being an innovator is hazardous work, and so we often see  innovators leaving the service early, further diluting the distribution of innovation in the higher ranks.

The solution is to build a culture that is capable of supporting the innovator, while protecting the core body. The difference between an organ transplant and a tumor is purpose and intent, and so an innovator must be given both purpose and intent. This has to occur at all levels of the chain of command.

The Golden Triangle of Innovation

I recommend creating a “golden triangle” in order to drive innovation within an organization. First, you need a young-minded innovator. Innovation holds no age or rank, but is an attitude associated with youth. Innovative minds have a higher propensity to take risk and a greater resiliency to failure.

Second, find a senior mentor or “greybeard.” This person provides top cover for the innovator, advice, and knowledge of the system. In addition, senior mentors are often connected to resourcing for innovation. The senior mentor’s primary job is to protect the innovator from antibodies, and to remove barriers to innovation. The senior mentor also reduces risk to the system as they can properly direct the innovation to minimize disruption to the core business. The senior mentor is often the Commanding Officer of a ship or Flag Officer with access to resources.

Third is the technologist or policy guru. This is the person who can take the idea and put the technological and policy rigor behind it so it can fit into the system. A common mistake made in innovation is to transition the idea from the young-minded innovator and transition it wholly over to the “expert.” Because of the diffusion of innovation, it is very likely that the technologist or policy guru is not an innovator or early adopter. In fact, it may be desirable that the technologist is not an innovator or early adopter. The technologist is the immunosuppressant that ensures the body can accept the innovation.

A high velocity organization isn’t just about innovation, nor is it about the innovator. It is about building an organization that can support innovators and innovation as a driver for the high velocity organization. This requires the entire organization – both innovators and supporters – to be involved. To build a high velocity organization, the entire culture must be positioned to support innovation and innovators.

Casey Dean, an Army Officer, Naval War College Graduate, and a Member of the Defense Entrepreneur’s Forum writes in an article entitled “Not an Innovator, but Still in DEF:

“If not an innovator, what am I? I am a sponge, a moocher, your lazy brother-in-law. I feed from the energy of DEF. I appreciate the true innovators in the group and I want to take part. I’m a facilitator, attempting to connect the DEF community and its message to a larger audience. I feel like…a Tummler; a Yiddish word originally titled for a person who gets folks to dance at weddings.”

In order for a culture that supports innovation to take off, the Navy needs to develop more Casey Deans. The Navy needs more Tummlers to support our innovators.

Conclusion

Innovation within a bureaucracy as large as the Navy and the greater Department of Defense does not occur spontaneously. It exists behind the scenes. Without a deliberate attempt to bring innovation to the forefront, innovation will continue to occur as the exception to the norm, instead of as a core part of our business.

We cannot address innovation without addressing the Navy culture. It is not enough to wait for other organizations like the Office of Naval Research or the Systems Commands like NAVSEA, NAVAIR, or SPAWAR to deliver innovation to the Fleet. No, the entire Navy, the Fleet, each command, and each individual, must deliberately be aware of innovation as a driver of change. We as a team must set the conditions for the organization to accept and transition innovation, and we must protect innovators as the valuable, low-density resources they are.

We also cannot think of innovation as an island unto itself. We must drive towards being a high velocity organization, following the Chief of Naval Operations’ vision of implementing high velocity learning at all levels. This means identifying ideal processes, being intolerant of inefficiencies and workarounds, swarming to bring forward solutions through innovation, and then sharing the knowledge broadly across the entire enterprise.

This is an all hands effort.

We have to be willing  to experiment, be unafraid of failure, and iterate quickly on our results. This is just the first step. Next, we hope to stimulate the Fleet Innovation Network to begin driving their own events, to identify issues in their own commands, solve them, and share them. We will build the Fleet Innovation Network over the next year, and we will highlight our failures as brightly as we do our successes.

This is what being deliberately innovative is. It is a culture of continuous improvement that drives our organization its highest velocity and to achieve its highest potential. We are not there yet, but we are taking the first steps.

LT Jason Knudson is the U.S. Navy’s SEVENTH Fleet Innovation Officer. He is passionate about innovation, design thinking, and the unbridled potential of connected human beings. Contact him at lead.c7f@fe.navy.mil.

Thoughts and ideas are his and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or SEVENTH Fleet, however he hopes they will. External links are for reference and are not meant to be an endorsement by the above organizations.

Join the conversation at facebook.com/navyleads and on twitter @navyleads.

Featured Image:PACIFIC OCEAN (Sept. 01, 2015) Operations Specialist 2nd Class Taiese Gaono tracks a course on the chart board aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS New Orleans (LPD 18) during Exercise Dawn Blitz 2015 (DB-15). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 3rd Class Brandon Cyr/Released)

Call For Articles: Leadership Development

Articles Due: March 1, 2017
Week Dates: March 6-10, 2017

Article Length: 1000-3000 Words
Submit to: Nextwar@cimsec.org

By Roger Misso

In a letter to Robert Morris, dated 17 October 1776, John Paul Jones wrote the immortal words, “…without a Respectable Navy, Alas America!”

Twelve score years later, America and her Navy endure; yet not without frequent doubt as to her necessity or controversy about her integrity. Indeed, if we were to write a letter similar to Jones’ today, we might say, “…without Respectable Leadership, Alas Our Navy!”

Yet, when it comes to leadership development, few topics have engendered more buzzwords or grandiose programs and policies. The latest foray in this genre is CNO Richardson’s recently published “Navy Leader Development Framework,” which outlines “how the U.S. Navy will develop leaders that demonstrate both operational excellence and strong character at every level of seniority.” It is worth a read and thoughtful consideration.

However, leadership development cannot merely be a top-down exercise. Those who would be leaders must seize the initiative, engage in thorough self-study and honest self-awareness, and boldly balance authenticity with a never-ending quest for personal growth.

To that end, CIMSEC announces our first “Leadership Development” Topic Week. We want to read what you have to write on the future of leadership development, and what it means to become a leader in the maritime services.

When we think of the concept of leadership, we too often tend to narrow our stories to those told by officers. Unfortunately, this myopic view ignores where most of the leadership is exercised: at the enlisted, civilian, and even Congressional and retiree levels. Therefore, we welcome and encourage submissions from the widest possible audience.

We look forward to your submissions and continuing the ongoing discussion on how to develop the next great generation of maritime leaders.

Roger Misso is the Vice President of CIMSEC.

Featured Image: PACIFIC OCEAN (Dec. 6, 2015) – Commanding officer, Capt. C.D. Alexander talks to the crew on the foc’sle aboard Arleigh Burke-class guided missile cruiser USS Princeton (CG-59) during an all hands call. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Eric Coffer/Released)

I Held an Amazon “Flipped” Meeting At My Squadron and Here’s What Happened

By Jared Wilhelm

The Innovation Imperative

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson frequently talks about High Velocity Learning (HVL) and Innovation. You can tell his focus on this topic is working thanks to one clear litmus test: eye rolls and mocking from some of the Fleet’s junior officers. The CNO has spread the gospel so well on this topic that is has become a buzzword throughout wardrooms and squadrons around the world, and now “Innovation” has achieved just enough notoriety to be misunderstood.

The eye-rollers are often resistant to change, cling to the status quo, and most importantly have an ahistorical perception of innovation within the naval service. What they don’t quite comprehend is that innovation is nothing new. Commander BJ Armstrong enumerated the proof of our rich innovation history in consecutive years at the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, first in 2013 with his lecture on Admiral William Sims that led to the book 21st Century Sims, and then followed by a look at Marine Corps’ forward-thinking embrace of the helicopter in the post-WWII era

We have innovated before, and we will innovate again. But the CNO makes the case that the quadrupling of worldwide maritime traffic in the last several decades, combined with the free and fast flow of technology and information, creates an innovation and learning imperative like we have never seen. Our maritime superiority, our relevance, and potentially even our Sailors’ survival all depend on it.

Just Do It

It can be a daunting task for an operational leader to lead innovation efforts in the context of the worldwide rise of near-peer adversaries and vague direction from the Pentagon to learn, rapidly iterate, and embrace risk.  Where can you even start?

Using the old mantra, “Think Globally but Act Locally,” I decided to tackle something that everyone in our squadron, officer and enlisted alike, always unite to grumble about: meetings. You know them–they pepper the plan of the week like the last pieces of candy in a box of chocolate that no one wants to eat; they draw scowls of dread when you see another two, three, or four in your future. They all start the same with a PowerPoint slide deck, introductions, rules of engagement for the presentation itself, proposed courses of action, “quad slides,” and graphs with labels so small you have no idea what is going on. 

tailhook-ppt
Figure 1: An actual PowerPoint slide from a Bureau of Naval Personnel briefing at Tailhook 2016 that a Captain attempted to explain to the crowd.

Several months ago I heard about a best practice from the civilian industry that caught my attention: the “flipped meeting” utilized at Amazon by billionaire innovator Jeff Bezos. Could the Amazon model work at a Naval Aviation squadron? Would the time continuum explode if officers filed in to the wardroom and didn’t see a standardized PowerPoint screen projected on the wall? I walked to OPS, asked for a meeting to be put on the schedule, and decided to find out.

I used the Navy’s HVL model based on Dr. Steve Spear’s “High Velocity Edge” framework to approach the flipped meeting:

1. Define the problem: Too many meetings in our squadron are dependent on low-learning-level presentations, and almost all exclusively use Power Point.

2. Postulate a solution – and what you think its effects will be: There are countless solutions in other organizations and the corporate world on how to increase learning and co-working levels in meetings. One specific solution is the Amazon flipped meeting, which I guessed would increase learning levels at my squadron.

3. Try out a solution: We did!

4. Do a gap analysis between what you saw happen and what you thought would happen.

5. Update your approach/solution and run it again.

One Specific Solution: The Origins and Upsides of a Bezos “Study Hall”

Fortune Magazine revealed the secrets of an Amazon executive team meeting in their 2012 profile of Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of the tech and retail giant.  Reporter Adam Lashinsky explains:

Before any discussion begins, members of the team—including Bezos—consume six-page printed memos in total silence for as long as 30 minutes….  They scribble notes in the margins while the authors of the memos wait for Bezos and his minions to finish reading…. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master. “Full sentences are harder to write,” he says. “They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

So instead of building PowerPoint slides and sweating font consistency, proper margins, bullet styles or punctuation uses, those privileged to brief Bezos focus on the ideas and content themselves. The genius of it is in the simplicity: the purpose of the meeting is to work together on the ideas or content, and the “flipped” meeting allows the ideas or content to be the focus, not the slide deck.

Blogger Walter Chen also identifies a second order effect of these type of meetings, one that Bezos surely intended: 

The real magic happens before the meeting ever starts.  It happens when the author is writing the memo. What makes this management trick work is how the medium of the written word forces the author of the memo to really think through what he or she wants to present.  In having to write it all down, authors are forced to think out tough questions and formulate clear, persuasive replies, reasoning through the structure and logic in the process.

Bezos calls the memos “narratives,” and in his opinion they have many advantages over PowerPoint, as he told Charlie Rose in 2012

The traditional kind of corporate meeting starts with a presentation. Somebody gets up in front of the room and presents with a PowerPoint presentation, some type of slide show. In our view you get very little information, you get bullet points. This is easy for the presenter, but difficult for the audience. And so instead, all of our meetings are structured around a 6 page narrative memo.

Some other advantages include:

1. Silence is golden. How many times have you presented an issue, only to see several egos in the audience try to take over or derail the brief based on their own interests? Everyone reads the narrative in silence and the discussion comes after in the Bezos “Study Hall” model. 

2. No read-ahead required. Bezos believes “the act of communal reading guarantees the group’s undivided attention.” Several times in my career, I have wondered if the person I was briefing had time to review the read-ahead, or if they were getting the message I was trying to convey during the PowerPoint. In a flipped meeting, the audience has no choice but to read the narrative (unless they want to daydream).

3. Eliminating premature questions saves everyone time. “If you have a traditional PowerPoint presentation, executives interrupt,” says Bezos.  “If you read the whole six page memo, on page two you have a question. By page four that question is answered.” 

4. Ideas and content trump presentation polish. Sometimes, the best ideas come from those who are nervous or just-plain-bad public speakers. Other times, polished presenters with million-dollar-smiles can sell bad or incomplete concepts because they can manipulate the audience into what they want to hear. With the Amazon narrative, the content speaks for itself.

5. The meeting leader is a coworker, not lecturer. The concept of a “flipped classroom” revolutionized education, and Bezos is trying to do the same for the business world. Normally a presenter lectures the audience. An Amazon lecturer is no longer verbally “pushing” communication to the audience; instead the content is “pushed” through the narrative, and then readers can “pull” knowledge from the presenter with informed questions. This creates high rates of learning compared to the traditional model.

It seems that a flipped meeting is effective based on Amazon’s stock price and global reach. But could such a meeting work outside the confines of Silicon Valley boardrooms? Would a bunch of flight-suit wearing naval aircrew be receptive to something so far from the norm?

That Awkward Silence

My unsuspecting teammates filtered in and took seats at the conference table. I hadn’t posted “Amazon-Style Flipped Meeting” on the flight schedule because I thought it might create some sort of bias or discourage full attendance. I simply listed the topic: “Squadron Innovation Culture Workshop.” This subject especially lent itself to a flipped meeting because it was difficult to summarize our squadron’s innovation culture in a deck of PowerPoint slides. 

The junior officers filled the dead space before the kick off with the usual banter and jokes. I noticed several check the clock and glance toward the powered-down and blank presentation screen as I passed out copies of the six-page narrative I’d spent the previous week perfecting. It was apparent that several were wondering why there was no laptop connected and no PowerPoint. 

The top of the hour arrived and people started leafing through the document. We were still missing two important players who I knew had planned on attending.  I decided to give them the usual five-minute grace period in a normal day filled with other tasks and meetings. One finally arrived, so I ventured out to the office of the last straggler, one of my fellow department heads. I told him we were about to start, but he was justifiably delayed in the midst of “putting out a fire” with an urgent travel issue requiring his attention. “I’ll be there in a few!”  I knew he probably thought he could catch up with the PowerPoint when he walked in. “We can wait a couple minutes more for you before we start off…” I offered.  “No, go ahead.  I’ll be down there soon.”

I returned to the assembled group and quickly explained the flipped meeting, the “study hall” reading and the 20 minutes of silence. Everyone nodded in agreement and began. The most awkward part for me was the wait. In this context, 20 minutes felt like an eternity. I already knew the narrative well as the organizer and author. I read through it again while I scanned the faces of my coworkers as they made notes or flipped pages. I found a couple of punctuation errors that I had missed. And then I waited.

The most interesting thing was the late arrival of the last participant 10 minutes into the study hall. He was a bit confused to walk into a room of us all sitting there silently with no PowerPoint in sight. He then tried to catch up on reading the narrative. In the future to help all attendees get the highest rates of learning, I think it would be best to notify everyone in advance it will be a flipped meeting and that study hall will start on time.

Next, I facilitated the discussion. At first people were hesitant to express their opinions, but after a few questions by some of the other forward-leaning members of our squadron, we were well on our way to a 40-minute co-working session. By the tail of the hour the discussion was going strong and we could have continued for another thirty minutes. We decided on a collective course of action to take on the meeting’s topic and agreed on another future meeting.

“PowerPoint Makes Us Stupid.” -Gen. James N. Mattis, USMC, 2010

The backlash against PowerPoint is well documented.  This repository of articles compiled by Small Wars Journal counts more than twenty leading media or blog examinations of the detrimental effects of its use. Many leaders like the now-retired General Mattis either loathe it or outright ban it; others see it as a necessary evil.

Reporter Elisabeth Bumiller’s piece about the U.S. military’s use of the program in the New York Times in 2010, titled “We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint,” seems to foreshadow the rise of Bezos’ corporate use of the flipped meeting: 

Commanders say that the slides impart less information than a five-page paper can hold, and that they relieve the briefer of the need to polish writing to convey an analytic, persuasive point. Imagine lawyers presenting arguments before the Supreme Court in slides instead of legal briefs.

The most compelling defenses I’ve heard for military innovation do not involve completely new ideas or inventions. Instead they focus on finding creative best practices in sometimes-unexpected places that could be applied to military problems. Maybe “flipped meetings” won’t catch on to replace old methods completely, but they could become one tool for leaders to use when an occasional respite is needed from the groundhog-day-monotony of PowerPoint briefings.

I would encourage other leaders to challenge the status quo in your unit’s meetings. These resources by Fred Zimmerman and Walter Chen can guide you to figure out how to best write your own flipped meeting narrative.

There are myriad other ways to shake up a meeting, like using the “design thinking” approach or an organizational retreat made famous in Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The solution you use will depend heavily on the topic and purpose of the meeting. For example, it is difficult and counterproductive to attempt to give chart-centric “course rules” brief using thousands of written words when visual aids are most appropriate. Even if your first instinct is to use PowerPoint because of the visual nature of the topic, there are several alternative programs like Prezi or Haiku Deck that could bring extra engagement to your audience. The most important concept to remember is that PowerPoint is just a tool, not something good or bad. We need to focus as leaders on using whatever the appropriate tool is for the specific job, not simply revert to the familiar tool just because it is habitual or easy.

Gap Analysis

So how did my flipped meeting experiment match up to what I thought would happen when I postulated the solution? I think it was worthwhile and I’m looking forward to doing it again. I wasn’t laughed out of the squadron or told by my bosses to go back to exclusively PowerPoint meetings. I saw the light in several of my coworkers’ eyes (despite some initial uncertainty) as they scribbled on parts of the narrative and debated sections they had pulled from it. We had an in-depth discussion about our innovation culture that could have been brought about with a PowerPoint brief instead of the “study hall,” but the discussion would have been less nuanced and with less time to collaborate. Usually presentations are designed for 45 minutes with 15 minutes of questions and discussion at the end. We invested 20 minutes up front during the flipped meeting to silently immerse in the topic, leaving us more than double the discussion and co-working time.

The flipped meeting can’t be considered a complete success, though, until we are achieving high learning rates from our gatherings on a consistent basis, no matter what tool is used to get there. If I started a conversation or sparked an idea in the wardroom, it was worth it. 

Every meeting I’ve gone to since, I enter the room and look at the briefer, the table and the wall. One of these days there will be no PowerPoint and a stack of six-page narratives waiting for me to pick up. Here’s to “study hall!”

Jared Wilhelm is a U.S. Navy officer and Maritime Patrol Instructor Pilot with experience in four operational theaters flying the P-3C Orion. He is a passionate writer focused on innovation and meaningful reform, all to help maintain the U.S. military’s superiority over adversaries in the short and long term. He served in Argentina as an Olmsted Scholar from 2014-2016 and won the U.S. Naval Institute’s 2015 General Prize Essay Contest. He is a Department of Defense Spanish linguist who holds masters degrees from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School (Systems Engineering and Analysis) and the U.S. Naval War College (National Security and Strategic Studies), as well as a B.S. in Systems Engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect the official position of any other entity or organization.

Featured Image:  U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jackie Hart.

The Problem of Mission Command

This article originally published on The Bridge and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By L. Burton Brender   b

Mission command has some real problems. Of course, the concept sounds great, or at least General Patton seemed to think so: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” As you might expect, the US Army Command and General Staff College supports this belief, devoting hours to discussing the logic of empowering junior leaders. However, to paraphrase a US Air Force B-1 bomber pilot from the 2015-2016 class, the military rarely practices this. This article attempts to answer why. It submits that there are serious risks inherent within the philosophy of mission command that cause many people to reject it, if not in word then in deed. Three of these risks are the fear of subordinates making mistakes, the discomfort of superiors feeling out of control, and the angst of leaders chancing their careers on others’ mistakes. These are real dilemmas that inhibit the practice of mission command and ones that we in the military community often choose not to discuss—but like all dilemmas, they are easier to fix when confronted.

Generalfeldmarschall Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke
Generalfeldmarschall Helmuth Karl Bernhard von Moltke

The philosophy of mission command is the empowerment of subordinate leaders to creatively solve problems within a higher commander’s intent. This philosophy surfaced prominently in military writing with the 1890 Prussian concept of Auftragstaktik, or mission tactics. The benefits of an agile and autonomous force, according to German military theorist Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, include the ability “to act on the basis of [one’s] own view of [a] situation, [especially] at times when no orders can be given.”

United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Brian Steed, a military history professor at the United States Army Command and General Staff College, once outlined the costs of embracing mission command as he saw them. One, audacity risks stupidity. Military leaders must accept that empowering juniors makes them equally capable of great heights of genius and of striking failures. Two, loosening control risks chaos (or at least the appearance of such). Allowing others to take control means that they may do things differently than their superiors would have. Lastly, leading empowered subordinates means superiors may pay the price for their mistakes. Perhaps the greatest threat to the implementation of mission command is the fear that leaders who practice it will be called to account for the leeway they granted. However, as threatening as all of this may look, Steed stressed that it is only by accepting and managing these liabilities prudently that we can have leaders capable of serving in the complex and rapidly changing environments in which we fight.

AUDACITY RISKS STUPIDITY

Subordinate empowerment can go terribly wrong. One prominent example is the battle of Little Bighorn. In 1876, US Army Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s 7th Cavalry was part of a large operation pursuing Chief Sitting Bull’s native coalition. During his 19 years in the Army, Custer had built a reputation as a daring commander. At age 23, he was one of the youngest generals in the American Civil War, establishing himself as an extremely aggressive leader in such engagements as Hunterstown and East Cavalry Field in the Battle of Gettysburg. Though a willingness to think for himself had won him success during the Civil War; later, though, it cost his and his men’s lives in battle with the Sioux.

In late June 1876, Custer’s force was part of a brigade-sized element attempting to destroy Sitting Bull. Colonel John Gibbon, Custer’s brigade commander and direct superior, ordered Custer to use his cavalry regiment to drive the enemy into the bulk of his waiting brigade. As Custer approached the enemy’s camp, though, he believed that hostile scouts had already compromised his element of surprise. He reasoned that if he did not act immediately, the enemy would escape as it had so many times before.

The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell. (Public Domain)
The Custer Fight” by Charles Marion Russell. (Public Domain)

Operating well removed from direct supervision, Custer acted upon his judgment. He disregarded his commander’s plan and ordered his regiment to attack what he thought was a weak-willed enemy. Unfortunately for the 7th Cavalry, though, instead of a frightened band of renegades, Custer encountered a stalwart force of thousands of natives who killed nearly everyone in his command.

The same same audacity that had served Custer so well in the past ended in his unit’s ruin on that midsummer day. Both Gibbon’s and Custer’s Auftragstaktik resulted in failure, which brings us to an unpleasant reality: the chance that plans can fail horribly is a real and indelible risk associated of mission command. However, equally bound up with the risk of failure is the possibility of great success.

download-4
General Matthew B. Ridgway

The power of mission command is that it enables military units to adapt quicker and act more boldly than organizations in which subordinates are afraid to make decisions on their own. One example of this comes from the Korean War. When General Matthew Ridgway assumed command of the 8th United States Army, following the death of General Walton Walker, General Douglas MacArthur told Ridgway that “[You should] do what you think best…the Eighth Army is yours.” Ridgway later commented, “[T]hat is the sort of order that puts heart into a soldier.” Ridgway would go on to fight the North Koreans and Chinese ardently and ingeniously until the 1953 armistice at the 38th parallel. Mission command enables leaders, like Ridgway, to be audacious and successful just as much as it risks failures like Custer’s. It allows people the latitude to come upon opportunities and seize them.

LOOSENING CONTROL RISKS THE APPEARANCE OF CHAOS

For superiors, mission command is about accepting a certain loss of control. Indeed, by necessity the philosophy embraces a measure of seeming disorganization. Once, the author of this article observed a cavalry squadron’s training mission against a simulated chemical bunker in Korea. In preparation for the event, one troop commander carefully rehearsed his operation, including a 3-D digital walk through of the facility with his squadron commander present. The troop commander’s rehearsed plan was to enter the U-shaped bunker from the right—but upon arriving on the objective late on the night of the attack, the plan no longer made sense. On the fly, he decided to enter from the left. Obviously, going left instead of right was a small deviation from what he had briefed to his boss, but from the outside his actions might have looked like bedlam. That subordinate commander went about solving his problem differently than he had briefed and perhaps even differently than his commander would have. Extemporaneous decision making like that can insert a degree of unease into the execution of a plan, particularly for those superiors who do not feel comfortable with improvisation.

Supervisors may genuinely feel nervous about how their subordinates are going to perform when they are left to themselves, and not without good reason. Superiors practicing mission command allow their subordinates considerable leeway. For relationships where trust has not yet developed, or when supervisors require direct control to feel safe, there can be serious discomfort with mission command’s seemingly laissez-faire processes.

Yet, the lessening of control is an essential element of mission command and of the creative problem solving process itself. On another occasion, the author observed several staff officers preparing a presentation for their commanding general’s training brief to his higher command. In a brainstorming session, the general presented his message to the staff. His verbal message was masterfully articulated; however, he wanted a slide to support his point and was not sure what he wanted it to look like. So, three operations officers from his staff broke apart and created three entirely different slides. When the officers submitted their products to the general, he was pleased with the variety his staff afforded him and even more pleased that one of slides met his needs.

Neither the general nor the officers’ direct supervisor had any direct input on the creative process, yet their team still came up with a winning solution. The trust the leadership placed in their subordinates to enter into the “chaos” of unsupervised creativity allowed the general to deliver his message to his commander in the desired way.

EMPOWERMENT RISKS PUNISHMENT

It is important to admit that mission command can be a risky business. Why? Because superiors stand to lose a lot if their organizations fail at a task. Military officers are proud of saying that leaders are responsible for everything that happens and does not happen in their unit. Indeed, they should be proud of it: it is a key component of leader accountability. However, Brian Steed asserts this responsibility has a definite effect on the application of mission command that leaders ought to acknowledge.

…THE THREAT OF A STALLED CAREER IS OFTEN STRONG ENOUGH TO PROMPT LEADERS TO FOREGO MISSION COMMAND…

To illustrate the career risks that failure carries, a recent conversation with an Armor branch manager revealed a sobering statistic. Officers that made Armor’s 2015 battalion command select list had an average of approximately four and a half of five evaluation reports rated as “most qualified” (the highest rating), and merely advancing to lieutenant colonel required a record nearly as good. He continued that to get anything less than a nearly perfect history of evaluations means risking one’s very military retirement (at least as an Armor officer). This has the effect, however unintentional, of making aspiring officers reluctant to give their subordinates enough power to get them into trouble.

Addressing this issue starts with the institutional Army. To again paraphrase that same branch manager, with whom Steed agrees, the current standard of what a promising field grade officer looks like on paper is not sustainable. There simply are not enough top blocks to go around. Armor, at least, will eventually have to recalibrate its definition of what good enough is…or not have enough officers selected for its commands.

And while that particular example is drawn from the author’s own Armor branch, one could find parallels in almost any hierarchical organization, military or otherwise. Increasingly difficult-to-meet standards within competitive organizations inadvertently encourage leaders to tolerate less risk. According to Steed, the threat of a stalled career is often strong enough to prompt leaders to forego mission command and ensure they never get a mediocre evaluation. At the very least, the institution must acknowledge this.

However, the responsibility to empower mission command is not just at the institutional level. While every leader is affected by the system in which he or she works, he or she should never minimize his or her own ability to effect change. While some subordinates do warrant management in depth (though such individuals should soon find themselves differently employed), most do not need such paternalism. It is incumbent upon leaders to adroitly assess their subordinates and extend the maximum degree of latitude prudent for the circumstances. Yes, frustrating retraining will be involved and yes, subordinates will make foolish mistakes. However, to play to those factors is to miss the brilliance and ingenuity that lies within our team members.

CONCLUSION

It is within our power, indeed, it is our responsibility as leaders, to make mission command a daily reality. The United States’ military missions are too complicated and its formations too geographically dispersed to expect success without it. But to practice mission command we must accept three things: audacity risks stupidity, less control involves the appearance of chaos, and leaders who empower others will always incur risk. But, as Lieutenant Colonel Steed might say: if we can know the difference between honest mistakes and incompetence, if we can find the courage to let subordinates operate independently, and if we can accept that we might be held personally responsible for mistakes we did not make, then we can also achieve the prudent audacity to win wars, the brilliance to solve complex problems, and the wisdom to better realize our most important resource: people.

Burton Brender is an officer at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. He holds a master of military arts and sciences from the Command and General Staff College and has held a variety of staff and command positions within the armor field. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Header Image: Lt. Gen. George Patton with the signal corps, 11 July 1943, Sicily. (General George Patton Museum)