Hashtags may be the military’s new battle cry. They already have taken over political protests (#OccupyWallStreet), social movements (#MeToo), and even marketing (#OreoHorrorStories). So why not military initiatives?
It should be no surprise that a task force of 60 young, midlevel officers and senior enlisted service members recommended just that to the Vice Commandant of the Coast Guard. Their suggestions? #NoJerks and #RiskAccepted. I’ll explain the substance behind these below. But first, some context.
I recently was reminded of the power of hashtags—and intrigued by their application to the military—when I attended the Naval Institute’s third annual DARE challenge in San Diego in February 2019. For two days at the WEST conference, a group of selected “young turks” took on two questions posed by Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz. (Questions for the previous two DARE challenges were posed by the Chief of Naval Operations and the Commandant of the Marine Corps.) His questions were daunting:
- Through their service, military members develop and embrace a special ethos and acquire both skills and leadership abilities that are extremely marketable in the private sector. With a strong economy and the implementation of the Blended Retirement System, senior military leaders have concerns about retaining top talent and mission-critical skill sets. What are some creative workforce management policies and practices to help retain our talented workforce?
- The hyperpartisan political and media landscape of today leaves little margin for error across the services, and may cause leaders at all levels to become risk averse. Technological advancements are also giving management real-time access to field operators. How do we ensure these influences do not take away from the on-scene initiative and leadership we expect our field commanders to employ? How do we better communicate our risk position and our support for personnel who properly evaluate and take measured risks?
The DARE participants, which included a handful of civilians, spent two days working in seven- or eight-person teams under the guidance of Professor Michael Meyer. Professor Meyer—a former Navy nuclear-power-trained officer and current faculty member at the Rady School of Management at the University of California San Diego—specializes in new product development. He led the participants in a process known as “design thinking” that combines freewheeling brainstorming and rigorous “why” analysis. He was assisted by Navy Captain Josh Taylor, an adjunct fellow at the Naval Institute, and Coast Guard Commander Brian Smicklas, a former Proceedings Author of the Year.
The teams drilled down to the root causes of problems they agreed were endemic to the Sea Services. There were presentations to the entire assemblage and feedback from everyone. Hence, both the analyses and recommendations went through countless revisions.
The “retention” team identified three causes of untimely departure of talented personnel: too many toxic command climates; a lack of career autonomy and empowerment; and a dilution of purpose within the ranks.
The “risk aversion” team identified four causes of undue risk aversion: fear of failure, lack of proficiency, lack of trust, and fear of acting on incomplete information.
Sixty hours after they met, a volunteer group of eight DARE participants presented their analyses and recommendations to Coast Guard Vice Commandant Admiral Charlie Ray and Deputy Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Charles Bushey. The recommendations were received with openness and curiosity. More than a few times there were exchanges between Admiral Ray and Master Chief Bushey, such as, “Yep, that’s what we keep hearing,” and “Working on it; we’re on the same page.” But just as often there was a glint of surprise, and even discomfort; the DARE group didn’t pull any punches.
That was most evident in the retention group’s first insight: good people don’t leave bad jobs; they leave bad bosses. And while the exact definition of “jerk” is elusive, it is much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s description of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
The DARE retention team emphasized that in addition to making real efforts to retain good people, the services need to weed out the jerks. Naturally, the services should try to remediate bad bosses. But they also need to admit they have problem people, and not send them off to other commands to be someone else’s problem.
Some of the group’s other recommendations were practical—individual TDY funds for training, more flexible work hours, and à la carte benefit choices (such as pet insurance for service members who don’t have children). They also emphasized the need to provide greater opportunities for spouses and better educational opportunities for children.
Other retention recommendations were bigger picture: more in-out-in options that would allow service members to spend time in nonmilitary jobs and return to the service without penalty. They also suggested doing away with the up-or-out promotion system to allow people to remain in jobs they love. One key insight crossed the liquid-gas divide: How can a 17- to 21-year-old recruit know what he or she will want to do in 20 years? The civilian world is replete with examples of people reinventing themselves. Why can’t the services make it possible for officers and enlisted people to have more cross-rate career opportunities?
The risk-aversion team was no less provocative in its insights and recommendations. The group echoed something that was addressed in the previous two DARE sessions: the military needs to accept more failure. Failure—and just as important, the fear of failure—should not be an automatic career ender. Early in the analysis phase of the design-thinking exercise, the team came up with a metaphor that put everyone on the same page: like the weightlifter, we should train to the point of failure. The smart weightlifter keeps doing his reps and increasing his weight until he reaches his limit, right up until failure. But with a spotter nearby, it is a controlled failure. That is how the Sea Services should structure military training. Failure is inevitable. We should learn from it, not punish for it.
Of course, not all failures are equal. There was an insightful discussion of a “failure spectrum” published in the Harvard Business Review.1 There are praiseworthy failures, such as exploration testing and hypothesis testing, as well as blameworthy failures that derive from deviance and inattention. The military needs to distinguish between them, and the services need to institute systems to analyze and learn from all types of failures.
Building on the weight-lifting metaphor, there was agreement that all service members need more reps and sets. The team emphasized that the most practical way to accomplish this is to do away with collateral duties—responsibilities that become enormous time-consumers. This recommendation generated enthusiastic “oorahs,” “hooahs,” and “hooyas.” (DARE was, after all, a joint task force.)
One of the most pervasive issues is that commanders—particularly at more senior levels—expect to have all relevant information at their fingertips. Coupled with undue risk aversion, this leads to a mind-set that enough (information) is never enough. Information gathering begins to trump initiative and action. The solution endorsed by the DARE participants was articulated by General George Patton: “A good plan violently executed today is better than a perfect plan next week.”
1. Amy C. Edmondson, “Strategies for Learning from Failure,” Harvard Business Review, 1 August 2014.