C’mon Brian!!!

Unfortunately, Brian Williams, NBC News anchor who is under the gun for exaggerating his “Combat” experiences, is not the only instance of politicians, military leaders and corporate executives that got caught gilding their own lilies.  Mr. Williams’ latest predicament has brought to mind a few ideas which I thought I would share with leaders of all sorts, military and civilian.

The first that comes to mind is that people in positions of authority (like national news anchors) are always being watched…I don’t mean NSA-type watch (although I have no doubt they are watching each and everyone of us), but being watched by those who work for and listen to them.  Their every word is heard, digested, analyzed just as their every action is recorded and digested in someone’s brain.  It’s natural that leaders are watchable people.  pinocHopefully, their people want to be like them.  It is said in the Navy that a ship mirrors the personality of its captain, and I am here to tell you that it is absolutely true.  I’ve seen it again and again.  It’s because everyone is watching the Captain…they want to do things his way, they want to respond the way she responds.  What Officer of the Deck (OOD) hasn’t been standing watch on the bridge in a dark and stormy night and mused, “What would the Captain do?”  With this scrutiny comes the responsibility to always act and talk like you are in a classroom filled with wide-eyed kids who are going to go home and tell their parents everything you did and said.  Even when you think they are not watching, they are….especially in the digital age of tweets, twerks, instagrams, posts, e-mail, etc. Mr. Williams, regrettably, has (had, once NBC dumps him) millions watching him and the example he set certainly fell short of the mark. C’mon Brian!

Second, I think Mr. Williams wanted so much to be like the exceptional men and women that serve in our military, that he just had to seize on any opportunity to “be like them.”  Frankly, there are many folks out there in that boat…those who had an opportunity to serve in the Armed Forces and either didn’t or couldn’t. When they see their countrymen and women risking life, limb and happiness they regret not having served.  I see this a lot in politicians who never served in the military.  And so, they begin to find ways to “join the club.”  Some are deserving of club membership, combat correspondents, foreign service officers, police, firemen, and all other manner of folks who put themselves in harm’s way for whatever reason.  But merely telling a story to gain membership in the club is not enough.  Sure, he wanted to be in the helo that was shot down, but he wasn’t. C’mon Brian!

Now NBC is investigating Mr. Williams for what may have been other exaggerations during his career.  Here’s a link to an article that calls into question the truthfulness of his coverage of Hurricane Katrina. The lesson to be learned here is a bit more subtle, but oh so important.  Once you decide to tell the smallest of  “untruths” and get away with it, you are set on a path of inevitable ruin.  One of my favorite books, The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis describes the trials and tribulations of a young, apprentice devil, Wormwood, and his uncle and mentor, senior devil  Screwtape.  c6544c81a6fa091e8344de514919a8d4In order to be promoted, Wormwood must take a human and corrupt him so that he is doomed to Hell.  Uncle Screwtape provides advice and counsel.  Wormwood’s problem is that everytime he makes some inroads in the corruption of his “patient”, the patient goes to church and is set back on the straight and narrow.  Wormwood decides he needs to orchestrate a “Big” event to damn his patient once and for all.  When he informs Screwtape of the plan, Uncle Srewtape replies, “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,….”  Indeed, once you start down the slippery slope of exaggeration before you know it the external temperature will begin rising to an uncomfortable level.  And then it’s too late. Who knows when the NBC news anchor started down the “gentle slope?”  C’mon Brian!

And I don’t buy for a minute Mr. Williams’ explanation that “I forgot.”  Baloney!  If you are in a helo that gets shot out of the sky you will remember….and just as clearly you will remember you were not.  I was in the Pentagon on 9/11.  I was near where the airplane hit…heard it, felt it, smelled it.  I will never forget.  I clearly remember my first real combat mission during Operation El Dorado Canyon(Lybia 1986).  I flew on the strike…I got shot at……I was scared $%*%^&&^less.  If I had flown that night in a tanker mission which didn’t go over the beach….I would remember that clearly too. One just does not forget those life-changing events, nor do they confuse them.  Now I know that PTSD and TBI may alter memories, but I doubt if Mr. Williams suffers from those problems.  C’mon Brian!

I must make a qualifier here….There will always be Sea Stories, War stories, exaggerations and boasting where Warriors gather.  We all know to take what is said with a grain of salt.  Indeed, I always thought that if I ever wrote a book about my experiences in the Navy the preface would say,

These stories have some basis in fact, although over the years they have been embellished so as to make them either more believable or less non-believable. I do not state that they are the absolute truth, nor are they lies.  They are just the way I have told them over the years and, like a fine wine, they improved with age.  This is a book of fiction, inspired by memorable events.  Do not cite this book as a reference for any serious endeavor.”

The key point about sea stories and the like is that one must have shared the years of separation from families, faced the horror of combat, walked in the shoes of the brave, been there-done that to be a credible teller of these tales.  Mr. Williams is not, and was not…and therefore gets no sympathy from me.

C’mon Brian

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Leading and Following

I always hesitate to comment on such matters, but after reading the article by the Associated Press lead-follow buttonsregarding the relief of 16 Air Force officers involved in some fashion with nuclear weapons I decided I would offer a few thoughts.  My nose was already tweeked this morning after watching the “victory” speech by Virginia Senate candidate Mark Warner (as I write this, the race is still not decided, by the way) in which he says something about how the voters of Virginia have spoken and put him in the Senate…well, (very) slightly over half the voters in Virginia thought he was the best candidate…..I would be careful about yakking about mandates and the like with only a few votes more than the other guy.  To me the mandate is to be just as diligent about representing the other half of the Virginia voters as he is in representing the half that voted for him.  But as soon as he gets back on the Senate floor, he will do what all politicians do…..follow his leader.    So it occurred to me that in general, politicians are followers, not leaders.  They follow the will of their party, they follow the polls, they follow the money.  Very few of them actually lead.  Heck, even Speaker Boehner is as much a follower (to desires of tea party interests and the like) as is a leader.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m OK with that. They are supposed to be followers, aren’t they?……following the will of the people they represent.  They also tend to make lots of mischief when they “lead”.

In the military we expect everyone to be a leader to some extent and as one gets more senior, our expectations of them as a leader grow.  I’ve been to a few leadership seminars in my day and I know all the various combinations and permutations of this concept:

  • Leaders lead
  • A good leader knows how to be a good follower
  • Lead, follow or get out of the way
  • The scenery only changes for the lead dog of the pack
  • Servant leadership….A good leader is a servant to all
  • It’s good to be the King
  • All glory is fleeting (One of Gen. Patton’s favorite sayings)*
*( Or if you prefer,  Napoleon’s take:  Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever!)

And as a Three Star in the Pentagon I was always reminded that no matter how high and mighty you think you might be, there’s always someone above you to whose tune you must dance! In the end, everyone works for somebody, don’t they?

FishBack to the nuke thing.  One thing I knew as an Attack Squadron Commanding Officer: The quickest way to be relieved without question was to  score anything other than  an outstanding on nuke inspections. Consequently, I put my absolute best officers and enlisted personnel in those positions.  I assume the same is true in the Air Force, so that the absolute best must be assigned nuclear positions.  In that business, there is no room for error. Obviously some house cleaning was needed and the Air Force leadership did what they had to do.

The Navy also frequently makes the news for relieving  various leaders for all sorts of reasons.  I liked the way a former boss of mine, Admiral Vern Clark, used to answer questions about excessive reliefs of Commanding Officers.  He said the Navy sets the bar high for its Commanding Officers, holds them absolutely accountable for not only their own actions, but the actions of all under his/her command, and we make no apologies for that.  Amen.

Leadership is about accountability…accountability to your seniors,  accountability to those who work for you and those who you work with.  All too frequently politicians tend to be accountable to the wrong people or things….big money donors, party leadership, special interest groups, etc.  That’s another reason why they don’t necessarily make good leaders. (Yes there are some notable exceptions  and I am not suggesting that ALL politicians are not good leaders, but work with me here!)

So I propose that accountability is why we are blessed with so many good leaders in our Armed Forces.  So next time you read about someone in the military being held accountable, you should say to yourself, “That’s a good thing.”

But…..problems arise when the “followers” become the leaders….either because of their control of the purse strings or worse, because they fill a void left by leaders more interested in  following than leading.  Civilian control of our military is one of the fundamental principles of our democracy and I wholly endorse the concept.  Nothing distresses me more than when I hear someone from the Hill say that if our military wants it, then it must be good. After all, militaries fight great wars but they are not all that great at making policy.  They are only one of the instruments of national power (economic, diplomatic, informational, and military)  that the US can bring to bear.  All too often they tend to discount the value of other types of power because investments in them take money away from Defense coffers.  To be fair here, there is a great deal of writing on the use of other instruments of power in military doctrine, but I submit it is mostly theoretical and when money is at stake, all the rhetoric  goes out the window.  According to our Constitution, our political masters are the ones to make those judgments.  But our military also has an obligation to make sure their best advice is given to the “deciders.” Once they make a decision, the military’s job is to salute smartly and carry out the decisions.

It is a fine line, and I have the greatest respect for those in senior leadership positions who have the moxie to advise what they believe, not what they think their political masters believe.  It can cost a career.  Look what happened to Army Chief of Staff General Shinseki when he disagreed with Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld  on the number of troops required to tame Iraq (in the end the General  was right, but never played the “I told you so” card)?  He was shown the door to the River Entrance at the Pentagon!  Can we ever really succeed in Syria without putting some number of troops on the ground? Will Afghanistan implode if we pull all our troops out?  Can we still have the world’s most capable military with sequestration?  I admire those who give sincere,  apolitical answers to these questions.  But then again they are leaders! Beware those who do otherwise.

 

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Reforming Acquisition Reform

There has been a lot of static on the net lately concerning acquisition reform.  Two notable recent arrivals on the scene have been all the buzz around the Beltway:  First, the release of Better Buying Power (BBP) 3.0, Under Secretary of Defense (AT&L) Frank Kendall’s reincarnation of BBP 1.0 (originally issued by Ash Carter when AT&L, and later BBP 2.0 by Mr.Kendall). DoD CartSecond was the publishing of a report by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Chaired by Senator Levin, with Senator McCain as the Ranking Member.  The report, entitled “Defense Acquisition Reform: Where Do We Go From Here?, is a collection of essays by 30 experts in the Defense acquisition world about how to improve or reform defense acquisition of things (and to a small degree, services).

Better Buying Power 3.0

One of the things I like most about the concept of the Better Buying Series is the iterative process in improving its focus.  After letting BBP 1.0 run for a while, corrections were needed as the result of some unintended consequences (like an irrational focus on lowest price, technically acceptable contracts) and need for clarification of some of the elements.  BBP 2.0 did just that, directing that more care must be given in defining what is “technically acceptable” for example.  Now, BBP 3.0 has come out to further tweak the elements of BBP.  A couple of previous elements were eliminated because they were considered complete:

  • Institute a system to measure the cost performance of programs and institutions and to assess the effectiveness of acquisition policies
  • Assign senior managers for acquisition of services

There were some carry overs as well, mostly with refined language.  I won’t list them all here, but the ones that I think represent the most significant change are:

  • A recognition that capability must be considered in evaluating cost by changing the focus from “Control Costs Throughout the Product Lifecycle” to “Achieve Dominant Capabilities while Controlling Lifecycle Costs”
  • Expanding focus on incentivizing productivity and innovation by breaking out into separate areas with following additions:
    • Increase prototyping and experimentation
    • Emphasize tech insertion and refresh in program planning
    • Use of modular, open architecture systems
    • Provide tech requirements to industry early
  • Increasing ability of acquisition leaders to understand and mitigate technical risk.
  • Increased support for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education

Here’s a link to the BBP 3.0 overview.  All in all I think it represents a good step forward in the BBP series and will certainly help in trying to understand all the things going on in the world of acquisition reform……..BUT,

Many of the themes that emerged in the second recent arrival, the Senate study (Complete study can be found here) were not really addressed in the BBP 3.0 document.  To be fair, the report had yet to be released prior to putting BBP 3.0 on the street, but I would have hoped for more overlap.

The Senate report pulled out four overarching themes from the musings of the 30 experts contributing to the report:

  • A cultural change is needed in the acquisition workforce, including more effective incentives
  • Training and recruiting of the acquisition workforce must be improved
  • Realistic requirements definition are critical
  • Accountability and leadership throughout product life-cycle needs improvement

The report also makes two observations which I will quote here:

“First, among all those factors that have been identified as contributing to dysfunction in the defense acquisition system, cultural change is among both the most important and the least amenable to legislation and policy changes. It is, rather, a function of leadership throughout the chain-of-command and an incentive structure that threads through both the government contracting and acquisition workforce and industry that assigns a premium to cost-control and the timely delivery of needed capability.

Second, continued “sequestration” of the DOD’s budgets will undermine any savings that could be achieved through even the most successful acquisition reform.”

Well, to me that says, 1.  It’s more of a DoD problem than a legislative problem and 2. sequestration will nullify ( or at least severely impact) all acquisition reform efforts.   The last thing we need is even more regulation in the acquisition process.  I would offer that in my opinion sequestration is not necessarily the enemy here.  I still think we have too much waste in DoD, too many pork barrel projects, too many pet projects and too many cooks in the kitchen.  What is the enemy is the uncertainty in the budget process over the last several years….Continuing Resolutions, multiple budgets, Overseas Contingency Funds abuse and a foolish focus on equity in Service budgets have all undermined our ability to reform how we buy things.  In the end, it is a indeed a legislative problem….The failure to pass budgets on time, regardless of  the funding levels.  Life would be so much easier and efficient in DoD acquisition with regular and predictable budgets, passed in a timely fashion and accurately executed.

One final observation:  I would like to see the Senate produce a similar document on acquisition reform, but using 30 PRACTITIONERS of acquisition at the grass roots level: Project Managers, PEOs, and Contracting Officers.  A view from the top is always useful, but without a view from the bottom we will never really fix what is wrong with acquisition culture. They are the ones that make up the culture, not the poobahs at the top.  A little more focus on them would be helpful…I’m not sure that after a contacting officer reads BBP 3.0 they will do anything different.

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“Where you stand, depends on where you sit.” Miles Law and related Maxims

I attended an evening affair recently with a well respected leader who reminded me that the old maximum “Where you stand, depends on where you sit” was actually memorialized by Rufus Miles of Princeton University back in the 70’s.Sit Stand Anyone who has ever been in a bureaucracy knows exactly what he means.  I myself am a slave to Miles Law.  And not only when I was lurking around the bureaucracy of the Pentagon, but even afterwards in my second career.  It’s not a bad thing, by the way.  In fact, if  you are to be a loyal member of any organization, you will be dealing with the outcomes of the Miles Law.  I recall my first job on the OPNAV staff as the Deputy N81 (Assessments).  At various meetings in the Pentagon the inevitable “What are they thinking in the Fleet?”, was heard time and time again.  We were sure they just didn’t understand the problems we were dealing with and their solutions seemed untenable.  Then I got back to the Fleet, and at just about every meeting I would hear, “What are they thinking in the Pentagon?”  And so it goes.  The point is ones perspective is always shaped by the environment, business or otherwise.  Once I retired from active duty and become a “contractor”, within a matter of a few months I just couldn’t figure out what my former colleagues in the Pentagon could be doing….They should be doing it our way!!!!

So remember when you are in the next meeting where you think your organization has the market cornered on the thinking on some issue, there are others out there just as passionate (and probably just as right) as you are.  Where you stand indeed depends on where you sit. Realizing that might make things go a little smoother.

Now for the six maxims related to Miles Law.  As you read them, I think you will find that they offer some invaluable insights into how to deal with your superiors and those who work with and for you.

Maxim #2.  The responsibility of every manager exceeds his authority, and if he tries to increase his authority to equal his responsibility, he is likely to diminish both.  The lesson here is don’t worry too much about matching power with responsibility.  It’s the way the system is designed and if you attempt to twiddle with it, you are asking for trouble.

Maxim #3Managers at any level think they can make better decisions than either their superiors or their subordinates; most managers, therefore seek maximum delegations from their superiors and make minimum delegations to their subordinates.  As a leader, you will be pulled in many directions and in order to be effective, you must delegate….the trick is knowing your people and their capabilities so you can delegate the right things to the right people and keep you focus on what you should be focused upon.

Maxim #4:  Serving more than one master is neither improper nor unusually difficult if the servant can get a prompt resolution when the masters disagree.  Boy can I relate to this one…In the military, we are often “Dual Hatted” or holding down more than one job with more than one boss. In fact, even with one job you can easily find yourself with more than one boss.  Keeping #4 in mind will help you in managing the expectations of both (maybe even several) bosses.  Communicate early and often with your bosses and make sure they all have the same version of the truth!

Maxim #5Since managers are usually better talkers than listeners, subordinates need courage and tenacity to make their bosses hear what they do not want to hear.  My observations are that managers have a monopoly on talking without listening.  Force yourself to listen…you will be surprised at what you hear.  This is true no matter the circumstances; whether you are on a cold call with a prospective client, or sitting in a community association meeting.  Too much talk, talk, talk…My advice………listen for a change.

Maxim #6:  Being two-faced–one face for superiors and one face for subordinates– is not a vice but a virtue for a program manager if he or she presents his or her two faces openly and candidly.  I have no idea what this means, but it sure sound profound.

Maxim #7: Dissatisfaction with services tends to rise rapidly when the provider of the services becomes bureaucratically bigger, more remote , and less flexible, even if costs are somewhat lower. Of all the maxims, this is one which is applicable in almost anything when it comes to bureaucracies, or even companies.  You have to constantly keep yourself in tune with your clients….refer to Maxim #5….., listening to what they have to say.  Ice Cream Cone Be vigilant that your organization is not morphing into the ubiquitous “Self Licking Ice Cream Cone”, existing not for providing services to clients, but for its own pleasure.  By the way, by far, my article on Self Licking Ice Cream Cones is and continues to be the number one article people view when visiting my web site.

 

So there they are…I thought it worth putting to paper because I think they are things that leaders need to be aware of as they go about leading from day-to-day.  If nothing else, I’ll bet each and every one of you Govies reading this have experience in all of these (even #6, whatever it means)

If you would like to read the famous paper by Professor Miles, here is a link to a site that will allow you to purchase a copy ($25).

 

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Small Business Risks and Aerodynamics 101

I had the honor to participate on a panel recently at an event sponsored by the Reston Chamber of Commerce focused on the challenges faced by small businesses as they become “big” businesses. It was titled, “Breaking the Barrier: Launching Government Contracting Businesses Through the Small Business Threshold.” We discussed a variety of challenges faced by small businesses as they become successful and graduate into the “regular size” world of competition. LoverD a good topic for you small business owners to consider because the Small Business Administration cites unexpected growth as a major reason for small business failure. This is something that CCA has focused on as we developed our market strategy. Take a look at some of my thought on “Breaking the Barrier” on this web site in the Small Business Transition tab. I won’t rehash it here, but in a nutshell, as your business grows and is facing the loss of advantages of being small, you have to think about things differently.  That’s what “Breaking the Barrier” is all about……thinking about your business 2 or 3 years from now.  As a small business owner the temptation to remain focused on the current task order or the next deliverable is powerful, but you have to pull yourself above the fray and think about the future.  That’s hard to do!

I like analogies and being an aviator I frequently rely on my aviation experience to explain things. That’s why I think comparing the small-to-large transition as breaking the sound barrier is appropriate on several accounts.

First of all, breaking the sound barrier just doesn’t happen.  It required countless amounts of energy, money, blood, sweat and tears to get Chuck Yeager to nose through the Mach 1.0 barrier in the Bell X-1.  X1 It also took some sophistication because  we discovered that more power was not the answer in breaking the sound barrier.  Turns out something called the Area Rule is the key to supersonic flight.  The Area Rule basically states that in order to go supersonic, an airplane ‘s fuselage must be shaped like a Coke bottle.  Who knew?  I flew the venerable A-6 Intruder and no matter how hard we tried ( and believe me we tried) we could not hit “the Number.”  Breaking the small business barrier also requires more that just “more power (contracts).”  It requires the owner to look at his/her business in a different way.  How do I need to look when I become a $50 Million business? I guarantee you it’s different from how you look now.

Next, one wants to blast through the sound barrier as fast as possible. Airplanes can do screwy things in the trans-sonic phase of flight.  Controls act funny, engines sputter, sonic booms scare the bejesus out of the “earth-lubbers.”  In short, it’s not a good place to be or stay.  So when flying supersonic aircraft, pilots tend to want to blast through it and not deal with all the goofy things that happen….And guess what?  The same is true for the small business owner as the dreaded revenue limit is approached.  You don’t want to hang around at that limit….either stay below it or blast thorough it, but don’t hover around it.

Someone asked about the risks associated with transitioning from small to not-small and I think the risks can best be described as a stall in aviation terms.  When flying, stalls are bad, especially when near the ground.  Just look at what happened to Asiana Airlines Flight 214 at San Francisco….they ran out of airspeed and stalled straight into the seawall. So here’s my take:

Small businesses sometime stall when approaching the applicable revenue limits for the same reasons airplanes do:

  1. Lost of lift
  2. Loss of power
  3. Too much drag
  4. Too much turbulence

Loss of Lift.  As a newly joined member to the “not small” club you will lose some of the factors that gave your small business “lift.”  The big primes will no longer be seeking you out in order to satisfy demographic requirements or take advantage of your lower rates.  You are now on your own and must do the seeking yourself.  There are also no set-asides for formerly small businesses.  That perk has vaporized, forcing you to go toe-to-toe with the big guys.  You have to anticipate that loss of lift in your business plan as you contemplate life as a “not small” business.

Loss of Power.  Power in the business world is what drives your business forward.  That power comes from the strength of your pipeline and the relationships you have.  Small businesses tend to not pay attention to pipelines, lead qualifications and where to focus business.  As you become bigger, you have to focus your attention on what will power you through the barrier, and that means re-thinking your market strategy, tailoring a pipeline process that supports it and developing a process that allows you to focus limited resources on what matters most.  The value of relationships in the marketplace can not be over-stated.  As a small business, chances are you had a pretty small universe of contacts because you didn’t need to spend a lot of time figuring out whose team you were going to be on. Your probably have a go-to prime (perhaps even a mentor-protoge relationship) and you don’t have to go shopping around for primes.  Now you are the prime in many cases and if you don’t have a robust contact file, you just might be SOL (technical term).

Too Much Drag. There are many factors which can be a drag on your business’ profitability.  I submit the most significant ones are:

  • Doing too many things.  In my experience, many small businesses are a “mile wide and an inch deep” because they have tended to try and be all things to all people in order to avoid turning down opportunities.  At my old firm we had just a handful of NAICS codes, but many times when I look at a small business they may have a dozen or more.  That’s not going to hack it when you are no longer small.  You are going to have to figure out what three of four things you are going to focus on and let the others go.
  • Overhead increases.  As you get bigger more and more overhead begins to drag your profitability down.  You have to bring on people to handle the tasks you used to do yourself….finance people, proposal people, people people…All of these put a drag on your ability to blast through the barrier.  A wise owner will think ahead and develop a plan to accommodate theses requirement. You may not have to hire people.  Why not outsource your finance function for a while?  do you really need to buy a very expensive software bundle to handle your finances or could you go to the cloud?  These are all things you need to think about before you get to the barrier, not after.
  • People.  Another drag on your business can be having the wrong people doing the wrong things.  They were hired for one purpose, but as contracts changed they were repurposed.  This may or may not be a good thing.  Small businesses tend to hang on to people too long and as an owner you need to constantly evaluate your personnel situation.  The last thing you want is inadequate or mediocre staffing as you blast through the barrier.
  • Lack of process. The final drag can be the lack of repeatable processes within your organization to handle the transition to big business.  The pipeline discussion above applies here.

Too Much Turbulence. The final reason you might stall is too much turbulence over your lifting surfaces.  Turbulence in your business can come from many sources.  The competitive environment can overwhelm some firms if they are not expecting it.   Proposals become more difficult to write.  You are not just completing a couple of sections for some prime, you have to write it all.  That can be a real disruption if not properly managed.  Remember that you are now in the wake turbulence of the large company business development machine and that most likely, wherever you go they have already been.  I can tell you from experience that the last thing you want to do in your little airplane is to land in the wake of jumbo jet.  You will find yourself in the BD wake all the time and need to plan for it, or avoid it all together.

Horizon
that’s my pitch for the day.  Think about your business in aviation terms and anticipate  the risks that are out there just waiting for you.  They can be predicted, avoided or dealt with.  But only if you go in with eyes open and scanning on the horizon.  As the proud owner of a successful small business about to become large, your scan needs to move to the horizon of your business not right in front of your nose.  If you aren’t scanning the horizon then you are a candidate for failure.

 

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Power Counter-Point

Breaking News
  SECDEF Power Point Guidance.  Looks like he reads my blog!

 

Who loves Power Point?  Let’s see a show of hands….What?  No hands?big pp

Like just about anyone in government, Lord knows I’ve seen my share of Power Point presentations.  I remember the Granddaddy of them all from my first year as the Navy’s money guy.  It was time for the requirements folks to brief the Chief of Naval Operations on their budget proposal.  I should have suspected something when the calendar was blocked for three days, but what the heck?  I was a new guy and thought this was normal. We sat down in the PEC ( I can’t remember what that stood for, but it was the big CNO conference room where we discussed such matters) and girded our loins for the fireworks.  Now those of you who have ever attended a meeting in the Pentagon where money is being discussed know that there is literally no conference room in the Pentagon big enough to accommodate all of the Importants, the not-so-Importants, the strap-hangars and even one or two people who actually know what’s going on.  The 20 person conference table had 40 people around it.  The walls were thick with one and two stars and their civilian counterparts sitting in hard, folding chairs taken from the WWII surplus locker.  The EA’s, aides and Navy Hospital Corpsmen (in case someone had a heart attack after seeing the numbers) were standing wherever there was room.  Of course, being the junior Three Star, I had the honor of sitting right next to the projector….hot air blowing in my face and the fan so loud I could not hear what was being said (I always suspected they put me there to break me down so that I would agree to anything just to get out of the room!).  Nonetheless, I felt pretty good.  After all, I was BIG!  I had the $130 Billion checkbook……and I was sitting at the table!!!DoD Chart=

Then the first slide went up.  There was a collective groan when all eyes focused on the very small, 8-point numbers at the bottom right of the first slide:” 1 of 1329.” I remember the N4 leaning over to me and whispering YGTBSM!  “Maybe we’ll just zip right through them,” I naively said.  ” After all, if we look at each slide for just 10 seconds it will only take three hours and forty-seven minutes.”  Around 11 AM, I realized just how wrong I was as I heard the presenter say, “Next Slide” and my eyes were drawn to the lower right side of the slide—“6 of 1329.”  I did a quick calculation (after all, I used to be King of Ops Analysis for the Navy) and realized that at this pace it would take roughly a month to get through all the slides (not counting breaks).  What were they thinking?  How did they possible hope to get through all those slides? By the way, there were over 4000 back-up slides, just in case one of the 1329 didn’t cover all the bases.

That’s why over the years I’ve relied less and less on Power Point and more and more on one, well-designed visual aid whenever I have an important presentation to make (Don’t pay any attention to those PP presentations on my web site.  They don’t really exist). I am one of the original Power Point Rangers.  I remember when the presentation software suite of choice was Harvard Graphics (Whatever happened to HG?). As a newly-minted action officer on the Joint Staff I was sent to a one week course on the new software in use on the Joint Staff….Power Point.  It was certainly a step up from HG, but like all IT improvements, the Bosses expected miracles and demanded more and more sophistication.  Back then, in order to make a PP slide you had to first make it on the “Wang Computer”, then print it out on the ONE color printer in the Joint Staff on special, clear acetate sheets.  They were forever sticking to the hot parts of the printer and in general a pain to work with.  Once you got all that done, you still needed to tape the sheet to a cardboard holder that you could slap on the overhead projector.  My office was just down the passageway from the Tank (where the Joint Chiefs met) and our boss was always changing the slides at the last minute.  So I can remember a “bucket brigade” of PP slides moving from the office to the backdoor of the Tank just as the Boss was saying “Next Slide.”  No wonder I hate Power Point.

Of course, nowadays it’s a piece of cake.. Hook up the laptop and off you go!  Except there are always the inevitable “What button do I press?”, “Which way do I point this thing?”, “Can someone find my slides?” questions that the briefers always wind up asking.  (this is where your audience checks out and begins to check e-mail, write the grocery list, and go to the bathroom) So I’m not sure we are that much better of now than back in the day!  I guess my point is why detract from your presentation with slides and all the hiccups that come with them?  Pick one good  visual aid and go with it.  Give people copies of slides (best done after your brief) but don’t rely on them.

But, sadly, “we will always have Power Point “(apologies to Bogart), so I thought I would put out a few “Points about Power Point” (Damn, I’m clever!)

  • Keep them simple.  Pictures and graphs are best.  Use few words.  Remember people will be reading the slides and not listening to you if there are words on the them.
  • Make sure the words are spelled correctly.  Most Admirals and Generals spend more time checking the spelling on slides than either reading what the words say or listening to you. One misspelling and you are labeled an Idiot For Life and all future slides are null and void!
  • Have a time budget for your slides.  It’s hard to spend less than 5 minutes on a slide.  If you have to spend less that that, then you probably don’t need it.
  • DON”T READ THE SLIDES!! Guess what?  Everyone in the room can read.
  • Speaking of reading, make sure the material on the slide is large enough that it can be seen in the back.  I hate it when someone flashes up a slide with a 50 element spreadsheet and says, ” You probably can’t see this, but……..”  Why waste my time with something I can’t see?
  • Don’t read the slides!! (Did I already say that?  It’s worth repeating…..Don’t read the slides)
  • Don’t use Power Point.  I have found that speaking from a placemat-sized piece of card stock is far more effective that using slides.  Put the things you want your target to know on the placemat.  Force them to look at you and to listen to you by having nothing else for them to do.  If you need Power Point slides to be effective, look for another line of work.

OK.  Hope this helps.  Remember the source… A professional and seasoned Power Point Ranger, and someone who had suffered though more bad PP briefs than Carter has pills.

Oh Yeah, one final point: Don’t Read The Slides!

 

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Command Performance

I attended a two day session put on by The Performance Institute and Association of Government Accountants this week on the subject of performance management in government.  It was a great session ( and I managed to knock out 14 CPEs) with some interesting insights on measuring performance in Federal, State and Local agencies.  We heard from David Walker (former Comptroller General), Mark Reger (Acting Comptroller at OMB), Lisa Danzig (Associate Director for Personnel and Performance at OMB) and a host of other performance gurus.  I came away thinking that although there has been a lot of progress made in measuring performance of agencies, we probably still have along way to go.

So what performance is being measured?  Is it the performance of the organization or the performance of its people.  I suppose one could say it’s both.  Most of the conference was focused on the performance of the organization as far as I could tell.  As you might think, some organizations are more easily measured than others.  Take US Patent and Trademark Office for example.  It’s fairly easy to put into place metrics that not only are easily measured, but reflect the actual performance of the organization…..number of patents issued, length of time to issue, etc.  But other organizations are not so easy.. Take DoD for example.  So what do we measure to evaluate the performance of the Defense Department?  Here’s a possible list:

  • Number of wars won
  • Casualty exchange rates
  • Ratio of  of wars deterred/wars fought
  • Number of Humanitarian Responses and lives saved
  • Number of successful defenses of the Homeland
  • Numbers of allies gained vs. lost
  • Number of states which have a military base

The list could go on and on.  The problem is none of these things can be easily measured. So the Department must use metrics which are all about input, not output.

  • Topline Budget number
  • Amount of allocated budget spent
  • Numbers of ships, airplanes, vehicles purchased
  • Number of people
  • Number of audited financial statements
  • Amount of money allocated to anything

In the Navy, we were pretty good at the input part.  I had all sorts of models to help me figure out how much money I needed to ask for…Flying Hour Model, Steaming Day Model, Installation Service Level Model, etc.   But none of the models actually reflected reality.  We never went back to check and see if we modeled for 26 flying hours per month per pilot, that they actually flew 26 hours per month.  In fact, we discovered that instead of relying on a hugely complex flying hour model for the budget, in the end it’s just as simple as multiplying the number of airplanes in the inventory by average flight hour per model the previous year.  In the end it didn’t matter how many pilots we had, you could only get so many hours with a fixed number of airplanes.  The Chief of Naval Operations frequently uses number of ships deployed, number of sailors deployed and percentage of the fleet deployed as a metric.  Here’s a link to the current data.

A few years back, then Secretary Rumsfeld tried to put a pay for performance-based personnel evaluation system in place….the National Security Personnel System.  In the end, it failed because we were horrible at trying to link what Pentagon workers did to measurable performance criteria.  This turned out to be an impossible task.  How do you  measure the performance of a budget analyst, for example? Do you link the funding level given by Congress to the analyst’s work?  If his or her particular program is cancelled does that mean they failed?  The truth is most in the Pentagon work their tails off, but on things over which they have little or no control.  I remember the classic example of why the system was flawed.  The dialogue went something like this:

Boss: Joe, you just won a performance bonus of $10,000.  Tell us what you did to earn it.

Joe:  I was in charge of  XYZ grants to the field.  The goal was to deliver grants to the field elements by July 1st.  In the last 6 years the best we have ever been able to do is get them out by July 15th.  I set a goal this year to get them out by June 15th.  In fact, we got them out on June 10th, not only 5 days earlier that the goal, but almost a month better than we’ve ever been able to do.  For that I got the big bonus.

Boss:  That’s great work.  What did you do that made the difference.

Joe: Nothing,  In fact, the dates we get the grants out is solely dependent on when the Congress gives us the money.  This year we got it early! Thanks for the bonus!

The moral of this story is make sure that  your people have clear goals and that they are measured on things that they can control.  NSPS was a good idea.  Who can criticize paying people for performance?  The problem is in figuring out exactly what people do and how to measure it. Performance management is a great tool, but only to the extent that you can measure performance.  Think about the people who work for you.  What do they do all day?  Who uses their outputs?  Where do they really make a difference?  Set up your metrics around those questions and you will be well on the way to having an effective performance management system.

One Final Thought

Don’t let your infatuation with metrics become so great that you lose sight of your outputs or mission.  In the case of the VA it appears that people were so focused on making the metrics look good that they forgot why they exist…..to serve Veterans. People do funny and unpredictable things when they perceive their jobs are at risk.  In this case, people were tweaking something over which they had no control.  They would have been heroes had they pointed out that wait times at VA hospitals are not meeting the metrics, instead they are zeros for putting self above service to our Veterans.  Time for a change at VA!

 

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Dinosaurs and Dead Reckoning

I’d like to think that I’m fairly open-minded when it comes to the use of technology.  As I mentioned a few days ago, the changes in lifestyle brought about by technology are mind-boggling.  The same is true for war fighting.  I was with a group the other day touring a US Navy guided missile destroyer and my ears perked up during a  briefing on the Bridge by the ship’s navigator.  This young officer was enthusiastic and obviously proud of her position as the Navigator.  I was pleased to see an electronic navigation system over her plotting table on the Bridge, but when she said that she was qualified to only use electronic navigation I took note.  She continued that her goal was to become qualified in paper navigation at some point.  I know that going to electronic navigation can save the Navy a ton of money by eliminating the need for lots of paper charts, to say nothing about the manpower needed to keep them up-to-date.  It brought back memories of my third-class year at the Naval Academy and the year I spent learning basic navigation and celestial navigation.  I even remember a brief section in the textbook, Dutton’s Navigation and Piloting, regarding the advent of LORAN-C, a new radio aid to navigation (you needed a degree in electrical engineering to make it work!).  I struggled through endless P-Works (navigation exercises) in the Navigation Loft of Luce Hall.  Luce Hall was also the place where we learned to read flashing light and signal flags.  I endured a whole semester of celestial navigation, sun lines, local apparent noon, and latitude by Polaris calculations.  As I recall, using planets to navigate was particularly difficult because those suckers were always moving around! Inevitably,  I would wind up with a fix that was a triangle that put me somewhere in a 50 square mile spot in the ocean ( or worse yet, a point fix 25 miles inland!)

As an A-6 Bombardier/Navigator I  experienced the same thing.  As a junior officer the best we could do was write down the ship’s position about 45 minutes before we took off and hope that the ship didn’t go too far.  Once airborne, the first thing you had to do was figure out where you were by finding a landmark on the radar.  Then you had to find your target,  hope the pilot could follow the steering directions and while you guide your bomb to the target (assuming you were using a laser guided weapon).  Then you had to go back and find the ship and land.   Now all that is done by GPS, the bomb guides itself to a target you never have to find.  How sweet is that?

USS LaMoure CountySo is relying on state-of-the-art electronics a good thing or a bad thing? One would think that using GPS has got to make things easier, yet ships continue to run aground even with GPS in working order.  I seem to remember that the USS LaMoure  County ran into the continent of South America using GPS several years ago. USS San FranciscoThe  submarine USS San Francisco was using an electronic map when it hit a seamount  in 2005.  So clearly, electronic systems are not infallible (although there’s always an element of human error).  One could argue had there been less reliance on technology and more reliance on the tried and true methods of navigation those events might not have happened.  On the other hand, using these systems reduces manpower requirements (and cost), saves time and can enhance safety when used properly.  Heck, without technology a pilot could never fly an F-18 and accomplish the mission because of the complexity of the aircraft and weapons systems.

So I’m not sure I know the answer to the question, “Should I rely on technology or tradition?”  This is a classic dilemma that Dr. Rushworth Kidder addresses in his book, How Good People Make Tough Choices.  Both choices are have merit and could be considered correct.  I think this one falls into the category of the “trilema” mentioned in the book, which suggests there’s a third answer and that is to seek a balance.  So when you are faced with deciding between technology and tradition, carefully consider the facts and seek a balance.  With that thought, it’s time to take the slide rule out of my desk.  I’m sufficiently comfortable with the calculator app on my iPhone that I think that piece of tradition is no longer needed.

 

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Food Stamps and Decisons

I’ve had the opportunity and honor to meet with Marines and Sailors in the field, working hard and doing the incredibly difficult things they do….all with enthusiasm and a smile. My first thought was, “It’s good to be way outside the Beltway!”  But that’s nothing new.  Somewhere in the attic filled with the boxes of all the command plaques and farewell pictures that I’m not allowed to put on the walls is my favorite, the ubiquitous “Pentagon in the Rear View Mirror” farewell picture, signed by all my shipmates who were so sorry to see me go.  My recent flight to freedom outside the Beltway has caused me to reflect on just how hard it is for many of the leaders in the Pentagon to leave their commands, far removed from the self-generated controversies  inside the Beltway, and plunge themselves back into the budget battles, policy proliferation and day-to-day crises that erupt in the Pentagon.  No wonder they are  happy  when they escape, even if only for a brief while.

 

 

So this is a round-about way to get to today’s topic, which is really all about decisions and an appreciation for just how difficult making them can be.  I remember listening to Bill Lynn, former Deputy Secretary of Defense, at a briefing where he was opining about some of the challenges he faced.  His point was that it’s really tough being the DEPSECDEF, because all of the easy decisions have be made by people below him in the chain of command.  He wasn’t complaining about that and I don’t blame him.  If you are in a leadership role and you find yourself making easy decisions, then I would submit something’s wrong.  Your value to the organization is in making those tough decisions that no one else can or wants to make.  That’s your “value proposition.”  I used to tell my staff that I was willing to make any decision they asked me to make, but the ground rules were once they came to me and I made a decision, they were stuck with it.  They were out of options.  That tended to weed out the easy ones. (I’ve always hoped that it wasn’t because my decisions were so egregiously bad, by the way) There’s a great book which has had a substantial impact (see my course on Ethical Decision Making) on my life as a leader entitled “How Good People Make Tough Choices” by Dr. Rushworth Kidder.  I commend it to you.  The basic premise is that just about anyone can decide issues of right and wrong, black or white, legal or illegal, but the ability of leaders to decide between two equally “right” options is essential and requires the special talents of a leader.  As a leader, you should strive to prepare yourself to make those types of decisions and reflect on the factors you consider when making them.  One example is a simple one.  It’s made every day in thousands of households every day:  Do I take the family out to dinner tonight, or do I save the money and put it in the college fund?  Both answers are equally good, I suppose.  I teach a class on ethical decision making based on Dr. Kidder’s book and I always ask the question,”When you are driving in the countryside eating an apple, do you toss the core out when finished?”  After all it’s biodegradable and some hungy creature might enjoy the treat.  It will actually help the environment.  Most people will say that they have done that.  But it’s always interesting when I ask if before they do it, do they wait until there’s no car behind them. Hmmmm. If it’s a good decision, why wait?

Here is an example of they types of tough decisions faced by the leadership: Do we cut Commissary subsidies to free up money for operations and procurement? The dilemma here is that DoD needs the money to fund and modernize weapons systems, but at the same time troops used over $103.6 Million in food stamps at base commissaries in 2013.  That’s a tough question to which either answer, yes or no, is correct.  Dr. Kidder points out that in the process one should first check and see it there might not be a third option that isn’t readily apparent.  Decision makers sometime get so focused on two options, they sometime overlook others.  For instance, with over $100 Billon in working capital funds throughout the DoD, if they set a goal to become just 1 per cent more efficient, they would generate the money for commissary subsidies.  I know our leaders have to make hundreds of these decisions each day.  I respect that and trust their judgement.  I only hope that in making their tough decisions they don’t become so focused on “yes or no”, that there might be a third alternative out there somewhere that was overlooked.

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Military to Focus on Ethics

It seems as if every time I read the Defense press over the last few weeks there has been something about ethics, leadership, scandal or illegal activity.  So I’m not surprised that the CJCS should say that the issue of ethics in the military has his “full attention.”  General Dempsey’s staff says that the focus on ethics is not due to any of the recent issues (right…..), but rather the result of a natural rhythm of post-war transition.  I guess that means that since we are pulling out of Afghanistan and still licking our wounds from Iraq (even as it inevitably sinks back into lawlessness) we can now focus on the ethical behavior of our military leaders, regardless of rank.  That’s good news.  Who can find fault with efforts to make the military “more ethical?”  I hope that there is not some radical swing of the pendulum, (as DoD tends to do) so that the goal of such training is to produce some sort of Super Citizen that upholds the values and ethics ( of their choosing) for an American society incapable of doing so on its own.  Don’t get me wrong.  Everyone who choses to serve in uniform is a Super Citizen in my book, but not to the exclusion of countless others who serve our nation in many ways.  Beware an elitist military corps who sees themselves as the only keeper of the ethical flame!

I was amused at one example of new “ethical” training in the article that says teams are being dispersed to discuss with 3 and 4 star officers the meaning of the ethics regulations and what they can and can not do.  Last time I checked the rules were clear enough to me and the JAG officers who always advised me.  3 and 4 star officer who can not understand them or ignore them shouldn’t be re-trained, but re-leased!

One’s ethics is a product of one’s upbringing.  For the first 18 years of life it’s not the responsibility of DoD, but of parents, teachers, neighbors and even friends.  I  agree with Hillary Clinton that it does indeed “Take a Village”  to produce responsible and ethical citizens.  I hope the training that DoD is providing recognizes that fact and that we can’t make someone ethical overnight.  In the end I’m not sure I would want to work for a leader who was completely “ethical’, but rather one who is a decent person, striving to do the right thing for the right reasons and not a robotic ethics machine that understands the difference between axiological ethics and deontological ethics.

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