The Barrel


When I was about 12 years old, my Dad dispatched me to the back yard right around sunset on a Saturday evening with a simple task.

“Don’t come back in the house …” he said, ” … until you clean out the trash barrel.”

He was referring to a 55-gallon drum sitting adjacent to the garage at the end of our driveway. At age 12, I had basically one chore, split into two parts. In retrospect, I should have had many more, which I imagine didn’t happen because my parents had learned to harbor low expectations. My job was to (a) take the trash from our kitchen out to the barrel whenever the trash bag was full, and (b) to transfer the trash from the barrel to the side of our street the night before trash pickup.

I generally handled the first part ably, likely because parental surveillance and reminders kept me on task.

I failed miserably at the second part.

My Dad had taken note that I’d failed to empty the barrel the previous week, and as a result, a full 55 gallons of trash had baked to a good solid rot in the summer heat. He knew it because it was starting to make life in his garage workshop untenable. I knew it too, which is why I’d been ignoring the problem under the false pretension that it would magically go away if I did so long enough.

But it didn’t. And Dad was having none of it. In receipt of his order, I protested vociferously. This hadn’t been my Saturday plan. Wrongly calculating that push-back might be fruitful, I traversed all of the steps in any resistance effort. Whining. Pleading. Sobbing. Bargaining. Lying. Threatening. Finally, flat-out refusal. Knowing he was sitting at the kitchen table with his coffee and a cigarette — still within earshot — I declared that I’d happily sit against the fence all night rather than do the job. I was sure he wouldn’t leave me out there all night.

I was wrong. He was amused.

At about midnight, six hours into a clearly failing resistance strategy and missing the warmth and comfort of my bed, I went into the pitch black garage and fumbled for a flashlight so I could hook up the garden hose and set about cleaning out the fouled container.

It was as wretched and filthy as I had feared … and then some. Maggot-ridden, filled to the brim with liquifying refuse, and literally vomit inducing. I spent the next couple of hours flailing in darkness to get the trash into new bags and hose out the barrel. Thirty years later, I still get queasy just thinking about the putrefying grime that ended up coating me from head to toe … mostly because I had waited until it was dark and forsaken the help my Dad might have offered had I agreed to clean up the mess when he requested it in the first place.

When I climbed the stairs to the back door in stinking shame, I was stunned to see his silhouette behind the screen door, lit cigarette hanging from his faintly visible smirk. He hadn’t gone to bed. He hadn’t gone anywhere. This wasn’t a chore per se. It was a character-building exercised honcho’d by a badass hardass who’d spent enough time hauling a .50 cal through the jungles of South Vietnam and strengthening his spine in rust belt factories to know (a) what a hard time was all about, (b) that I didn’t yet understand the importance of principles, and (c) that it was his job to teach me. He was going to ride my ass like Zorro until I did what was required of me, for the sole reason of showing me my personal whimsy was no match for a principled stand.

I learned my lesson. I didn’t internalize it well enough to actually avoid a repeat of the situation ( … after all, I was 12 … let’s not get ahead of ourselves), but I learned it well enough that when he once again put me in the back yard, told me I wasn’t coming back in until the barrel was clean, and then calmly sat down with his cigarette, I knew he meant business. The second time around, I didn’t waste energy testing his resolve. I went straight to work and got it done. To my surprise, he joined me, manning the hose while I did the dirty work that was mine to do.

In this second iteration, I was applying a rudimentary form of game theory, though that’s not how my young mind would have framed it. I weighed the likelihood and payoff of each potential outcome and made my decision based on how I believed the other player was likely to react given my actions. This distilled a simple decision: give up a total of 8 hours only to do the same task with no help under worse conditions, or pay 1.5 hours to do the task under ideal conditions.

I chose accordingly. I adapted based on what I had learned from the previous iteration of the game. I was finished before sundown and parked on the couch watching the Reds game, microwave popcorn in-hand.

Even though we all understand this concept innately, we don’t always implement it effectively, because it’s much more intricate and deliberative than I’ve characterized it thus far. Making rational, value-maximizing decisions in any scenario depends on making the right assumptions about the likelihood and payoff of a given option, and also requires considerable understanding of what is motivating the other player. Most of all, it implies carrying forward lessons learned and applying them to subsequent iterations.

The Air Force’s implementation of Course 15 is an example of the near-axiomatic idea that organizations struggle — to an even greater degree than ego-driven and emotion-clouded 12-year-olds who resist on impulse alone — to adapt by applying the lessons learned in previous engagements. In this case, engagements of the bureaucratic variety.

To stick with the theme a little longer, Course 15 is the policy equivalent of a barrel full of trash. Senior enlisted leaders manning the levers of enlisted personnel policy arguably got the first part of their chore right by recognizing the need to modernize enlisted developmental education. But they neglected the second part … the part with the higher stakes. The part where they actually needed to carry their new idea to the street level and think critically about how it would fare.

The parts of the policy that mattered the most to Air Force NCOs — quality of material, time and capacity to think through the lessons, freedom from coercive consequences for learning at their best pace, ability to test when ready, and involvement of supervisors and mentors in their developmental process — these were left inside the barrel to rot in the hot sun, with leaders hoping that by ignoring the problem, it would magically go away. These problems fermented until the service could no longer ignore the stench of policy failure, and CMSAF Cody was finally dispatched to clean the maggots out of the barrel while Gen. Welsh waited on the back porch, his lit cigarette faintly punctuating the midnight horizon.

But this dirty work was all avoidable had Cody and his minions simply applied the lessons they should have learned from previous organizational experience.

It was just a few years ago that the Air Force recognized it had a problem with how it was developing company grade officers. Two “strong suggestions” — one concerning pursuit of an advance degree at the earliest possible stage in a career regardless of circumstances or value added … and another concerning completion of correspondence developmental education in order to be competitive for in-residence selection — had morphed into de facto requirements. The service’s best and hardest-working captains fell behind others better situated — or in many cases, simply more pragmatic and less principled — in pursuing and completing these requirements.

Eventually, a sort of “peasant revolt” unfolded, with unit commanders increasingly resentful that Big Air Force policies were undermining their ability to retain the best performers, not surprisingly those least tolerant of duplicative, nonsensical, non-value-added personnel policies. The service was slow to recognize and react, and the refugee movement spurred by its inaction continues to this day.

But when Gen. Welsh stepped in as Chief of Staff, he superseded these policies with new guidance reducing duplication and dulling coercion. This was Welsh at his best, carrying forward the lessons of his early career and taking carefully considered policy action. While his inputs took too long and did too little, they signaled the beginning of the end of a very dark period in officer development. It wasn’t everything, but it wasn’t nothing.

For whatever reason, Chief Cody either didn’t take note of all this, didn’t extract the key lessons, or didn’t believe those lessons applied to NCOs. He championed a policy change that predictably alienated tens of thousands. A peasant revolt ensued. Commanders started pushing back. Eventually, he was forced to backpedal. 

What remains to be seen is whether Chief Cody will transform these lessons observed into lessons learned, incorporate them into his strategy going forward, and better anticipate the response of the enlisted force given his possible choices in the next iteration of the game.

Whether he’s able to do this will have a lot to say about the ability of today’s Air Force to learn and adapt, something it will certainly be required to do in its next big game against thinking, reacting adversaries who threaten the nation’s defense.

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