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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What to do, or what not to do. That is the question!

I received several comments after I published my last article on “Leadership in the 21st Century” and I appreciate all the comments. In that article I commented on the recent case involving a former Commanding Officer of the Navy’s elite flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels.  After consulting, conferring and otherwise hobnobbing with my  fellow former Wizards, I thought I might offer up just a few more comments on the subject before forever holding my peace on the subject of Capt. McWherter and the Blue Angels.  There was a lot going on there besides just the failure of judgement of the CO, including limited oversight by the Navy and the absence of an Executive Officer senior enough to step in and provide some advice and counsel. More on that later.

I was struck by a recent Gallup Poll which once again found the Navy as the least prestigious of the Services. I’m not sure what that means since most of what Mr. and Mrs. America think about the Services is a product of their own (the Services’) PR machines.  Wasn’t it the Navy that successfully extracted the Captain of the Maersk Alabama?  Wasn’t it the NAVY SEALS that terminated Mr. B. Laden?  Wasn’t it the Navy that was first on the scene providing relief during Hurricane Katrina, and Indonesia and Japan? Doesn’t the President always ask “Where are the carriers?” whenever something goes wrong in the world? Doesn’t the Navy run the White House mess?  Isn’t it CAPTAIN Kirk, not Colonel Kirk?  Jeez , what do you have to do to become the most prestigious Service around here?  I know……..Sponsor a race car that wins the Daytona 500!  Or make a cool commercial about killing dragons and rescuing damsels! Or lose track of a couple of nukes!

The notion struck me that part of the problem is that the Navy is too transparent.  We not only advertise when we relieve Commanding Officers (don’t think that the other Services don’t relieve their share of Commanders) but we also come clean when we relieve senior enlisted advisors.  You just don’t hear much about that from the other Services.  Of course it’s a big news item these days and I liken the problem the Navy finds itself in with regards to negative publicity to the problem I have on the golf course…..Once I’m in the woods, it’s almost impossible to get out. Either I schwack another tree in my current thicket, foolishly trying to thread the needle between a couple of obstructing trunks, or I wind up in the woods on the other side of the fairway because I gooned up my attempt to pitch out. Why I don’t just pick it up and take a “Snow Man” when I wind up in the woods I’ll never know.  That’s where the Navy is right now, in the trees and trying to pitch out.

This openness puts us behind the eight ball in my humble opinion….On the other hand, I think being open about our problems is not all bad.  At least it shows we are aware of the problem and attempting to deal with it.  But what exactly is The Problem?  Is it that the Navy has a crisis in leadership?  I don’t think so……in fact I know that’s not the problem. With close to 300 ships, 50 or so aviation squadrons and probably at least 100 shore commands, we actually have very few COs that break the event threshold.  In fact, you could write 100 good stories for every bad one…but that doesn’t sell papers.

I’ve commented before on abusive leaders, so I won’t beat that dead horse.  The Navy and DoD have reacted to lost nukes, out-of-control Commanding Officers and other misdeeds  by increasing  ethics training, establishing an ethics Czar ( and a very capably one I might add), and adding ethics courses to Prospective CO schools and Senior Enlisted schools.  But in the end, by then what is there to train? Someone is going to stand up in front of a class of prospective Commanding Officers and say……Don’t have sex with your XO, don’t use counterfeit casino chips, don’t fake your death to escape from your bad marriage, etc etc?  I don’t think this will have much of an impact. It’s focusing on what not to do…….not what to do.  The striking thing about almost all the heinous infractions that appear in the news is that none of them are questions on the margin. They are about personal failures by people who should know better.  No amount of training will fix that.  What we can do is:

  1. Focus training efforts of prospective COs and Senior Enlisted Advisors on how to be successful, not how to stay out of trouble.  Be positive, proactive and practical in training COs.
  2. Provide support to leaders. Conduct regular checkups of commanders by mentors who have successfully navigated the waters of command.  (Not IG-like, but as a sanity check)
  3. Improve the fitness report system to allow for a more honest appraisal of  performance and potential for command (I don’t know what the number is now, but it used to be that 70% of officers were in the top 10%…..similar to the current VA flap which found that all SES’s in VA we rated in the top 2 performance categories)
  4. Revamp the command selection process to take advantage of improved fitness reports and include 360 reviews as part of the process
  5. Continue to set the bar high for performance in command

The bottom line: Let’s spend more time on how to succeed in command,instead of how not to fail.  There’s a big difference.


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Porsche or Maserati? What to Drive?

Let’s see…..What do I drive to work this morning?  My Porsche or my Maserati?  Gosh, it’s such a tough choice.   When I read all the rhetoric coming out of the Pentagon theses days about the tough choices they are making over there, I tend to think that’s their definition of  a “tough choice.” Maserati or PorcheGranted they do make a few hard choices, but none of them are the budget choices they are making for the FY15 budget that’s on the Hill right now.  They have so much money to deal with that the normal ways in which you or I would deal with problems is not possible.  There are several reasons why I believe the tough  choices are not possible.  In fact, in the Pentagon the toughest choices are actually the easiest.  Take for example the luxury of scale.  Because of the vast quantity of money the Pentagon has, scale makes things easy.  Let’s just say for the sake of argument that the total Pentagon budget for 2015 will be around $550 Billion.  I’m  working on the budget and I need to come up with $5oo million to pay for my “widget ” program because it’s two years behind schedule and Congressional support is waning.  I dare not go to the Hill and ask for more money.  What tough choices can I make?  How about I assume the inflation rate for next year will be 0.1% less than it currently is….Guess what?  Instant $550 Million in my pocket.   Problem solved!

Another factor which prevents the tough decisions is the herd mentality.  It’s much safer to stay with the herd than to break away.  Suppose one senior leader in DoD, uniformed or civilian had said, “I value people over weapons.  The margin of superiority that we enjoy over our adversaries is so great that I don’t mind shaving a few dollars off my massive budget to ensure I fulfill the promises we made to our Number One weapons system, our people.” What do you think would happen?  That person would be dragged to the River Entrance and publicly flogged and made to walk the plank into the Pentagon Lagoon.  So it’s much easier and safer to stay with the herd.  The tough decision is to break away from the herd and stand on principle.

Yet another problem in the way of making tough decisions is the limited line of sight of senior people.  They only know what their staffs want them to know.  And if you have ever been a staffer, you know that staffs tend to seek out the solution of least resistance in order to move on to the next problem.  Solving the problem is more important than how the problem was solved.   If everyone tells SECDEF that the only way to balance the Pentagon budget is to make the tough choice to continue to fund (and actually add more money to) the worst performing acquisition program in history, the F-35, and to pull money from Commissaries, up TRICARE fees and fiddle around with the retirement system, he believes them.  Somehow that seems like a no-brainer to me.  A few billion dollars is not going to make a difference in the JSF.  It’s already over $160 Billion over budget and 7 years behind schedule.  Does anyone think the money saved by cutting Commissary subsidies by $1 Billion is really going to make a difference? Well, not to the JSF, but it will certainly make a difference to a young E-2 Marine who is already on food stamps and struggling to make ends meet!

There’s also the Irreversibility Principle.  I saw this time and time again when I was in the building.  In fact, I admit guilt in actually using the Irreversibility Principle to my advantage.  It goes something like this:  The DoD budget is so complex and large that once it’s put together, it’s impossible to start over.  If you don’t get your oar in the water at the very beginning, then you will be unable to make a change.  If you want to have any hope of making a tough decision with major impacts, it must be made very early.  What do you think the DoD budget would look like if in the very beginning SECDEF had said, “Whatever we do to balance the budget, it must not be on the backs of our people.” I guarantee you there’s plenty of wiggle room to develop the budget without monkeying with people programs.  Just take a look at my previous article, Food Stamps and Decisions, and you will see what other things might be done besides chopping people programs.  The tough decision is to declare the Irreversibility Principle null and void and demand a change.  Heck, there’s so much churn in the development of the budget these days a little more chaos isn’t going to make much of a difference.

Finally, there’s the Fixation problem. Ralph Waldo Emerson said ” A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”  For example, over the past few years there has been attempt after attempt to raise TRICARE fees again and again and again…(sorry , I got carried away!).  Each time it’s shot down by the Congress and public opinion.  But it’s their baby now, and to back down would admit defeat.  There’s a “pay any price, bear any burden” mentality now associated with the TRICARE issue to the detriment of looking for alternate solutions.  This is what happened with Asiana Airlines Flight 214.  The pilots got so focused on the landing threshold and altitude they forgot to monitor airspeed and engine power.  The same thing happens in the budget process.  People get so focused on a single solution that they forget to look for others.

So it’s hard to make tough choices in the Pentagon.  If there’s any hope of actually getting to the tough choices that NEED to be made, the following “Tough” decision barriers must be addressed:

  1. Luxury of Scale
  2. Herd Mentality
  3. Limited Line of Sight
  4. Irreversibility Principle
  5. Fixation

How will we know when “tough” decisions are being made?  I think there are a few signs:

  • Service budget allocations will no longer be roughly equal
  • Under and Poorly performing programs will be cancelled
  • Majority-based decisions are made instead of consensus decisions (In other words, someone is going to be unhappy, or at least more unhappy that the rest)
  • Decisions being made early in the process
  • The number of Decision Making bodies in DoD will decrease (let’s see, they have the Joint Chiefs, the JROC, the DAWG, the Small Group, the Large Group, the SCAMR, the DBC, ……….sigh!)

If the Five Barriers to tough decision making are removed, we just might see some of those signs in our lifetime.

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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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A Day Younger

I was honored to be on the waterfront last week and had an opportunity to meet officers and Sailors on a soon-to-deploy ship and boy did I leave feeling good about our Navy.  Everyone I talked to, from seaman to the Captain, were excited about their ship, their contribution to national security and the upcoming deployment.  Their enthusiasm was genuine as it was a weekend and I’m sure they would have rather been with their families.  It reminded me of a saying I used to share with my audiences when I was important (at least in my own mind): Every day I spent at sea I got a day younger, and every day I spent in the Pentagon I got ten days older!  That certainly explains why I look so old now–too many days in the Pentagon and not enough days at sea.  It’s probably not intuitive to you land-lubbers, but being at sea and on deployment is the easiest part of the whole cycle.  Before deployment there are endless exercises, training and long hours preparing for the task ahead.  Many would say that’s the hardest part of being in the Navy.  That’s not to lessen the impact of being away from family and friends…there’s always that.  But Navy leaders have done a lot to lessen the distance between families during deployments.  Sailors are generally well connected to their loved ones by internet, email and instantaneous telephone connectivity.  During my first deployment in 1975, the lovely Mrs. Crenshaw and myself exchanged daily letters, sequentially numbered on the back flap so we could read them in chronological order.  Nothing’s worse than reading about your son being released from the hospital when you didn’t even know he was in the hospital to begin with.  I wish we could establish a program that gets all Pentagon confines out in the field a couple of time a year so they could recharge their batteries.  I felt even better when I had the opportunity to meet with Soldiers this morning, many just returned from Afghanistan and many more looking to go back in less than a year.  I didn’t hear one sour note.  They were all ready and willing to go back, despite the hardships on their families.   As I read the news about the possibility of us pulling our of Afghanistan, I can’t help but think about the 2176 brave Americans who gave their lives for this cause.  We could argue all day about rather or not Afghanistan is a critical aspect of protecting America’s freedom and I frankly don’t care which side of the argument you are on…..The fact is 2176 have died for the cause.  To pull out lock, stock and barrel would be a dishonor to them and the families who remain behind.

And I can’t imagine how anyone can look them in the eye and tell them that they are pulling the plug on their Commissary benefits, or telling them that their health care is too expensive so when they retire, they will have to pay more.  I would rather see us spend all the money and effort people are spending on marginal costs on homeless veterans and jobs for veterans and other programs which honors their service, not puts a price tag on it.

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Risky Business

After getting wrapped around the axle yesterday on the tried and true budget method of “Salami Slicing” I never got around to opining on risk, so here goes!  During much of my early career, risk didn’t enter into my decision making process, at least not consciously.  Of course, flying from aircraft carriers is all about risk and how to manage it, but risk management is already baked in.  The “powers that be” know that if you have a certain number of practice landings, maintain technical currency in your aircraft and fly regularly, the risk of an accident is minimized.  Over the years I’ve seen the Navy’s thinking about risk mature.  The time was, when one went on deployment, you could expect to lose a couple of airplanes and several aviators in a typical 6-7 month cruise.  Because of a focus on managing risk, the loss of a single aircraft or crew member is a rarity.  (keep that thought in mind).  On a personal level,  as one moves up the leadership ladder, the onus for managing risk shifts from the institution to the individual leader.  My opinion is that one of the reasons people become effective leaders is that they concentrate on minimizing risk to the people and equipment under their command, not on minimizing personal risk to their themselves (careers). Of course, there’s always a healthy tension between accomplishing the mission and minimizing the risks associated with it.  Safety is paramount!!! But if safety were really paramount, we would never fly, because it’s a dangerous business!  That’s where leaders earn their pay—making the trade off between risk and reward.  In the Navy, it’s interesting to see how the various warfare communities manage risks.  In the Surface Navy,  the decisions on risk rest principally with the Commanding Officer.  The CO does this by being intimately involved in planning and executing the training, day-to-day operations and mission execution of the ship.  The CO has the Officer of the Deck and his Tactical Action Officer to do the minute-by-minute execution, but the CO is always available for problems as they arrive.  An aviation CO has to worry about many of the same things at the surface CO, but must depend on his crews to exercise judgment when hundreds of miles away for the ship. Hopefully the aviation CO has instilled a good sense of risk management in the aircrews when they have to make risk decisions without his/her advice.

The point of my little blurb is to highlight that operationally, commanders do a great job of managing mission accomplishment and risk so that mission is maximized and risk is mitigated, minimized or eliminated.  Fast forward to the Pentagon.  Now those commanders who were so good at minimizing operational risk must deal with a new risk, budget execution risk, or said another way, “What are the chances that this program will be successful, given the level of funding?”  I was one of those commanders.  As an operational commander, I insisted on making sure all risks associated with a mission had been considered and mitigated…….no less than about 98% chance of safe success was tolerated.  But when it came to taking risks associated with the Navy budget, I was far more tolerant.  For instance, “What’s the chance that an LCS will only cost $220 Million?”, I would ask the Program Manager.  When the answer came back,”About 20%”, I would say, “OK.  Guess we will have to go with that.”  Why was my risk tolerance so much greater as a budgeteer?  Most likely it was because most of the decisions affected events far in the future and I would not be around when programs matured.  That attitude was reinforced by the excessive optimism that always goes with budget building.  This notion of budgetary risk is not new nor mine.

Former CNO Vern Clark once asked me as the N81 (Navy’s Ops Research group) if we could characterize the risk built into the budget and it was a very hard thing to do.  I don’t remember all the details but as I recall we came up with several categories of risk:

  1. Institutional Risk.  The degree of support by leadership of a particular program.
  2. Execution Risk.  The degree to which a program was underfunded
  3. Political Risk.  The degree to which this program was supported by the Administration or Congress
  4. Financial Risk.  The degree to which the assumed efficiencies built into the budget were achieved
  5. Economic Risk.  the degree to which the economy would support the Five Year Defense Plan

Some of these risks were subjective and others data-based.  The aggregation of them would give the CNO an idea of how much risk was being carried by a particular program.  Financial risk was the most interesting of the four.  It turned out we discovered that we had assumed away tens of Billions of dollars in efficiencies, but never went back to see if we achieved the saving associated with the efficiencies.  In a sense, it didn’t matter because once we take the money, it is never put back.  I’ll end up by saying the FY15 budget on the Hill now has a fair chunk of “Efficiencies” in it.  Will they be achieved?  What exactly is being done to put these efficiencies in place?  How will you know if the efficiencies were achieved and what will you do if they are not? Are these efficiencies or wedges (unexplained cuts)? These are the questions the Hill should be asking the risk-takers in the Pentagon.

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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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Leadership: What Works!

There has been a lot about leadership in the news lately (Check out yesterday’s comments).  I read this morning in the Army Times about one retired general’s efforts to improve his post-military image by hiring an image consultant!  I would rather focus on what’s going right and hope, that in doing that, we could actually fix what is going wrong.  One thing is for sure:  You should spend your time fixing those things you already know are wrong before trying to figure out what else is wrong.  Federal agencies and companies spend lots of time and money on conducting employee surveys and subsequently “admiring” the problem, but I believe those that actually take serious actions on what they find are few.  I ran across an Best Places to Work 2014 about the Federal agencies that consistently score high in the best places to work in government and why.  Take some time to scan it and you will find something that  you can do differently to enhance your leadership skills.

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Promoting Abusive Leaders

TruthBig blurb in the Post this morning, but I’m not sure it’s “news.”  Some of our most legendary leaders could probably be characterized as “abusive”, but generally (pardon the pun!) they were abusive to knuckleheads and fiercely loyal to those who did their jobs.  We can all name a few folks who seemed to have forgotten that they were promoted to senior ranks not by the sheer force of their personality, but by the deeds and actions of those who worked for them.  When that happens the system almost always gets it right and fixes the problem.  Usually the abusive leaders wind up stewing in their own juices.  Maybe the real headline is not that there are more abusive leaders these days, but more knuckleheads!

On a serious note, there’s no room in our Armed Forces for abusive leaders who belittle their subordinates (for any reason), take advantage of their position for personal gratification or profit, or forget to acknowledge the sacrifice  and hard work of others that enabled their promotion.  I hope the take-away is not that the ranks of our Armed Forces are filled with abusive leaders, but that the system identifies and removes the limited number who exist.  It’s a long article, so here’s the link.  Let me know what you think!

Pentagon investigations point to military system that promotes abusive leaders


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