Manager, Transform Thyself

July 6, 2016 by Joshua Hampson

A recent hearing for the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) focused on improving strategic integration at the Department of Defense (DOD). Concerned that the DOD was unable to coordinate perspectives across the department into a wider strategy, SASC leadership has pushed for institutionalizing cross-functional teams. Enshrined in § 941 of the Senate’s 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), these teams are intended to “enable the Department to integrate the expertise and capacities of the components of the Department for effective and efficient achievement of the missions of the Department.” Better coordination within the DOD is admirable, and cross-functional teams can certainly be part of improving DOD operations. Without difficult changes in managerial styles and culture, however, teaming will be hard to properly implement.

The inclusion of the cross-functional team initiative in the 2017 NDAA was based on the successes that such systems have had in private businesses. The witnesses that testified before SASC, for example, highlighted how essential teams combining marketing, product design, and supply-chain management are in most modern businesses. In implementing these teams at the Pentagon, different components of the DOD would come together in a mission-focused team to craft strategies. However, the hearing revealed a disconnect between the senators’ perception of the solution, and the requirements the witnesses suggested are needed for implementation.

The disconnect centers around perceptions that modern business practices can be shoehorned into the DOD by mandating new organizational structures. For example, some of the questions presented to the witnesses focused on open architecture used at trendy startups. While such architecture has its uses (and flaws), knocking down walls at the Pentagon to create bull-pen office structures would likely disrupt work — particularly for analysts — and national security considerations. Most startups do not have classification concerns, for example. Should the Pentagon also introduce Apple computers, watermelon-infused water,Thursday night happy hours and other staples of startup life? While organizational reforms are needed in the DOD, the conflation between the gilding of innovative businesses and the core reasons for business innovation is concerning. It hides deeper changes needed to make cross-functional teaming a success — changes overlooked in the hearing.

The barriers to successful cross-functional teaming will be managerial styles, culture, and bureaucratic inertia. While § 941 mandates that the Office of the Secretary of Defense appropriately train leaders and members of these teams, anyone involved in defense reform policy knows this is easier said than done.

Take managerial styles, for example. One of the witnesses, Dr. Amy Edmondson from the Harvard Business School, argued that simply forming teams is not enough, and that many teams fail in business because the requisite conditions have not been met. Teams must have not just clear goals, proper composition, access to resources and information, and strong leadership, but also norms and attitudes that allow trust within the team. Dr. Edmondson cited a study at Google that found psychological safety is considered the most important requirement for success — followed by team member reliability, structure and clarity of roles, having value in work, and the perception that the work has an impact. Psychological safety was most significantly affected by leadership behavior.

It is not clear that the same structures that provide these dynamics in an innovative company can be readily applied to an organization that, at its core, is designed to wage war. While the U.S. military is focused more on trusting individual operators than other military structures, the military still relies on hierarchical chains of command in battle. Psychological safety becomes subordinated to physical safety. Strong hierarchies are also useful to offset the uncertainty over international political dynamics, resource constraints, and lack of realistic practice. This hierarchy works on the battlefield, but would be thrown into flux in cross-functional teams. Can leaders who have earned promotions due to the ability to navigate the hierarchies of lower ranks be able to shrug off lessons learned and pivot towards the collaborative, messy structures of business teams?

Retired General Stanley McChrystal, another one of the witnesses, argued that the DOD had already seen successes implementing cross-functional teams at high levels. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for example, had used such teams. McChrystal was quick to point out that it was unsustainable for the Secretary of Defense to be so intimately involved in overseeing such teams, however. But can the success of these teams be separated from such high-level civilian oversight — particularly when such teams were formed to tackle significant problems with widespread interest by the public?

Replicating these teams farther down the chain of command would require team leaders to alternate between successful officers and successful businessmen. This is particularly concerning as the DOD moves to reduce the level of civilian employees, employees that might be best positioned to mitigate military cultural norms. But even these employees, according to the witnesses, have been preconditioned by training that has placed emphasis on technical and functional skills, not leadership.

Additionally, the ability to form strong, trusted leadership for these teams to work is likely to be hindered by the rotating nature of the ‘up-or-out’ system. Team leaders will need established reputations for leadership. Reforms to the up-or-out system, however, seem to have stalled. While there are proposals for pilot studies, SASC remains skeptical of its efficacy. The main proponent of the wider Force of the Future initiative, an effort to bring personnel management more in line with modern business practices, was driven out of his position.

It is interesting that Senator McCain, a proponent for mandating cross-functional teams, has been set against the wider personnel reforms that might help create the necessary conditions for those teams to function. He has argued that the Force of the Future initiative, “has been an outrageous waste of official time and resources during a period of severe fiscal constraints.”

Without deeper changes to military leadership styles and management, the same might be said of mandating cross-functional teams in the future. While the witnesses agreed that trying to change the DOD’s culture for culture’s sake would likely fail, it seems likely that culture and leadership norms will hinder the success of these teams.

These complicated issues do not in themselves reduce the value of cross-functional teams, but instead suggest that there is much groundwork to do at the DOD before their use will see the same levels of success seen in business. But even if teams can be implemented successfully, there are further dangers lurking in the defense bureaucracy. The witnesses made it clear that successful cases of cross-functional teaming relied not just on the ability to form teams, but to disband them as well.

The cited success story of Nissan in the early-2000s, for example, included the return of team members to their ‘day jobs’ after new strategy was implemented. New offices at the DOD, however, tend to stick around. For example, the Joint IED Defeat Organization, a temporary counter-insurgency agency, was made permanent in 2015 and renamed the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency. Unless disbanding teams with completed missions is actively incentivized, the DOD may wind up with redundant or unfocused cross-functional teams wasting resources and personnel.

This is not to slam the Senate Armed Services Committee in seeking to reform how the DOD tackles increasingly complex tasks. Improvements in defense management are desperately needed, and there are missions for which coordinating members of different components of the DOD will be necessary. At the same time, the Committee must remember that the DOD is not a business. It is a combination of warfighting force, bureaucracy, business, and political lobbying. Good ideas used in any other type of organization will need to be tailored to fit to others.


Originally published at niskanencenter.org on July 6, 2016.

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