Penguins and Icebergs

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It’s like this. Each human brain is like an iceberg, and each bit of knowledge is like a penguin. The iceberg can only hold so many penguins, and at some point can hold no more.

When new knowledge is forced into a brain that has already exhausted its short-term accessible storage capacity, penguins have to be shoved off the iceberg to make room for new ones. What happens to those expelled penguins isn’t clear or consistent. Some hover around around the edges of the iceberg, treading water until they’re able to climb back on. Others stray too far to be quickly recalled, but can still make their way back eventually. Some drown.

In other words, headspace is not unlimited, and when input — either by rate or by volume — exceeds the ability to store and organize and manage, knowledge gets lost. Sometimes it remains within mental grasp if fervently reached for, and other times it drifts too far from that grasp to be had without a deliberate herding effort to push the penguins back closer so they can climb back on. Sometimes it is lost altogether.

This is all fine and good so long as the penguins sacrificed aren’t particularly important. But knowledge loss isn’t a deliberate act. What gets lost is often random and arbitrary. We don’t know we lost it until the time comes to once again draw upon it … at which point the realization dawns too late for any useful action to be taken.

The other thing is that not all icebergs are created equally. Some people are gifted with more penguin-habitable real estate than others. But even if everyone started with the same iceberg, they don’t stay the same size over time. They grow (and sometimes shrink) over time with the acquisition (and divestiture) of learning ability and the development of natural aptitude. Hard work and effort can change what nature intended, and so can disuse.

One of the main ways we grow the iceberg is to deliberately overfill it with penguins until an individual learns to sustain a larger penguin population without any diving off. This is the point of educating and training … to improve the iceberg by both enlarging and strengthening it. But overload must be a careful, deliberate process. Undertaking it haphazardly by saturating the mind risks melting the iceberg. This is what differentiates deliberate learning from ordinary experience … which comes in all shapes and sizes and is a great (but sometimes overwhelming) teacher in itself.

Why does any of this matter?

Well, if you want a strong operational culture, people must be free to continually learn. An operations environment … whether it flies airplanes, operates a logistical network, or manufactures products … is a continual, iterative exercise in tactical adaptation. The situation and the adversary are constantly fluid, so learning can never stop. Mastery will never truly be reached, but the fight to get and stay there is the most important fight of all. Wars are won (and lost) between the ears long before they are physically fought.

This means there must at all times be room on the iceberg for new penguins to climb aboard. They must find a welcome environment with spare capacity to make them feel at home. If even one penguin representing ops knowledge is squeezed off the iceberg or can’t get aboard in the first place, a strong ops culture isn’t possible.

A genuinely innovative culture is still another thing. For this to be possible, you’ve got to hire people with big icebergs and develop and retain every one of them. They have the spare capacity to continue thinking forward when the immediate moment becomes overwhelming for most others. The extra room they tend to have on their icebergs, which must be viciously safeguarded by leaders, is what allows an organization to invent, experiment, reflect, theorize, and quarrel with itself in response to encountered or anticipated challenges. It keeps an organization on the intellectual offensive.

All of this is why it is absolutely critical that senior officials deal with the crippling problems of distraction and cognitive saturation in Air Force squadrons. These issues have been characterized as “queep” … and headquarters staffs have approached them with a standard bureaucratic checklist. This won’t do. This is a big problem requiring a big solution … a solution that attacks the very structure and operating system of the Air Force rather than attempting a spot fix certain to be swiftly shaken off and ignored.

To be clear, this is not an argument that squadrons should be challenge-free environments. In fact, they should be roughly the opposite. But there are legitimate and illegitimate forms for challenge to take. We want airmen confronting, solving, and innovating around tactical problems, enlarging their icebergs rather than having penguins drown in the deep waters as the most important mental real estate in the world is flooded with administrative and bureaucratic distraction.

The support system simply must be fixed. This means drastically reducing things like official visits, ceremonial obligations, duplicative/redundant/non-value added/unduly repetitive training, administrative requirements, and self-support in areas like IT and finance.

When confronted with this issue, Air Force leaders have pleaded a lack of resources. This is just an excuse, and it’s unacceptable. Go get the resources. Argue for them. Trade frills for them. Empty staffs for them. Solve for yes. It’s ironic that a group of generals who reached their positions by finding ways to say yes starve for a way to speak the word on this most critical of issues: competition for the intellectual focus and energy of the core warriors of a service that wins wars by thinking.

If instead of fixing squadrons, the problem was how to win a battle or a war, the generals would figure it out. Well, guess what … that is the problem. It just isn’t occurring yet. But just like that other kind of iceberg, it’s sitting in our path … waiting ominously to see whether anyone will bother to steer around it.

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