Constructive Disruption

437og-c17-afghanistanMy friend and colleague Mark Jacobsen (check out his blog) recently authored an insightful and thought-provoking article for Small Wars Journal.  In it, he offers a positive vision geared toward helping junior and senior military officers find common ground in harnessing creative energy, with the overarching goal of helping military organizations distill and employ the creativity of junior officers.  Mark’s article builds on an important defense reform narrative that’s been circulating for about a year now, sparked by Benjamin Kohlmann’s article proposing the need for disruptive thinking, shepherded by the keepers of military institutions, to bolster the entrepreneurial spirit key to adaptability in the modern security environment.  Both articles are brilliantly written, insightful, and relevant far beyond the military services.

Whether you’ve been following this discussion or not, Mark’s article deserves your attention.  He skillfully isolates the core issue of change catalysis and management: communication.  This is a particularly worthy topic for exploration in a modern military context.  The difficulty in finding and making use of the best ideas within today’s military stems largely from the cultural preferences and rank-driven realities of a staid hierarchy that places heavy weight on position, prestige, and status.  In such an environment, there are barriers, filters, and biases that make communication an inordinately complex dance rather than a straightforward process.  Mark plays doctor to this organizational affliction, giving his readers some thoughtful prescriptions for keeping communication flowing.

Still, I didn’t walk away from the piece brimming with optimism.  When it comes to communication reform specifically within the USAF, Mark’s considerable appreciation of the problem still grapples to fully explain the nature of it.  The USAF’s internal struggle for communication is driven largely by the service’s unfolding identity crisis.  Having shifted its focus and energies radically over the past several years to perform effectively as a supporting agent to ground forces engaged in counterinsurgency, much of the service now struggles to re-establish the feeling of a distinct role and relevance beyond the current context.  Facing the necessity to become more expeditionary, the service pushed its airmen toward ground force martial traditions that had previously been given less emphasis across most of the force.  Where the USAF of the late Cold War and 1990s focused on concepts like airmindedness, economy of force, reach, and velocity — in other words, the special qualities of airpower at the root of the service’s distinct national role — the post-9/11 version traded its aerial view for a close-quarters perspective, a compliance orientation, and emphasis on those combat support functions key to the institution’s relevance in counterinsurgency.

This shift, never openly acknowledged by the USAF, left many airmen dissonant, struggling to reconcile their belief in and celebration of the promise of traditional airpower with the service’s reduced emphasis on it.  With many struggling to understand how they fit, opening a conversation about anything else is problematic.  This will likely bog down attempts at creative problem solving, further slowing the institution’s adaptability.  That is, unless senior leaders push affirmatively to engage their officers in open dialog.  This is where Mark’s best point is made.  He admonishes senior officers to ensure their communication channels are open.  I would take the advice a step further and suggest they work affirmatively on being perceived as approachable.  Rank and position are powerful deterrents to unguarded interaction, which means it’s not enough to passively expect junior personnel to come forward.  Senior leaders who govern deliberations with a light touch and an approachable demeanor have the best chance of coaxing out ideas; when those ideas are treated with care, others will take note and more ideas will surface.

One of the common responses to an article like Mark’s is to remind the author of the endemic misery of life in a bureaucracy, usually accompanied by a reminder that things are essentially no better or worse in any other walk of life. Whenever I hear this invitation to futility, I find it useful to revisit the logic behind why people resent bureaucracy generally.  While the range of dehumanizing and frustrating tendencies in a bureaucracy are reason enough, people (and specifically airmen in this case) hate it because they hate losing.  Systems based on efficiency and stability are generally not responsive, and when the fight demands responsiveness they can’t provide, we should take comfort that airmen don’t meet the moment with serene acceptance.  Whether leading or supporting an activity, airmen abhor letting their team down, and this allergy to mediocrity is often the animating force behind perceived complaints.  Recognizing this arms leaders with the awareness to see past what they might be otherwise tempted to categorize as “whining” or “emotion” and understand the seed of it is almost always a desire to tune the system so airmen can win, and do so under a banner of excellence.

Emotion is a tricky subject in these discussions about “disruptive thinking.”  This entire family of concepts is riddled with terms that invoke violent imagery as a metaphor for embracing discomfort and moving away from the status quo.  Yet there is an expectation that important ideas can be cultivated without the force of passion behind them.  Mark picks up on this notion and encourages his readers to avoid derailing dialogue by letting their emotions get into it.  This is a well-intentioned suggestion, but one I think should ultimately be abandoned in favor of a more complicated view.  When it comes to proposing or leading change, emotion should not be totally avoided.  It is essential in helping facilitate the conflict that is an inextricable part of the process.  No argument over how to move an organization forward will be won on completely rational terms, and no discussion worth having can be had dispassionately.  Emotion should never overwhelm an argument, but it should be allowed to play the valid role of motivating and thrusting forward the idea it helped generate.  General Ray Johns, former commander of Air Mobility Command, was fond of reminding folks that “[p]eople don’t care what you know until they know you care.”  Indeed.  This is an important thought for leaders and change agents alike.

Military adaptation and change are unavoidable and cyclic.  Minimizing the impact of required change on institutional health and US national security is a function of shepherding the chaos and disruption that are the handmaidens of change … without letting them consume organizations or people. Mark Jacobsen’s article is a great addition to the handbook of the contemporary change agent, and it will hopefully impact and influence its intended audience in the period of disruption that lies ahead.

Posted by Tony Carr on March 11th, 2013.

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