Organizations are Like Hair

When I was young and wild, I had beautiful hair.  To be honest, I’ve never cared for hair since I was in the 9th grade I’ve been cutting it as short as possible, and I’ve been doing it long enough now that I have no idea what color my hair is anymore. So, although I do not fit the bill, the metaphor I’m about to make, still works.  That metaphor is that organizations are like hair.

I know people that cut their hair every two weeks.  They never change the style, they never experiment.  They know what works and they are the guys that say things like, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it”, “you don’t mess with the classics.”  They keep tight control over their hair and never let it get out of sorts.  This example shows what most leaders and managers want in their organizations.  They fight to stay standardized and look to control as much of their processes as possible.  There are many organizations that this works for, but this kind of leadership does not leave room for innovation and progress.  You can’t adjust processes and functions when you are doing the same things.

Additionally, you can’t change your hairstyle in any meaningful way without going through that weird medium length sloppy-hair stage.  You know, the stage where some will only lay flat and others will only stick straight up.  This is the stage where you test your commitment to the new style.  How much do you want it? If you are weak, or if you aren’t sure of what you want, you will quit and go back to what you know.  This stage in the organization is where most leaders lose their nerve and think the new efforts have failed.  On many occasions, this early exit is a tragic mistake which causes future efforts to die before they even happen.  Leaders must accept there is going to be growing pains with progress.

Eventually, you will have to cut your hair.  That doesn’t mean you have to go back to your old style, but you do need to get it back under control and set things right again.  Organizationally, this means you have to pull the crazy experimenting back a bit and look at providing more stable processes.  There will always be a need to experiment and take some risk, but after letting your people get wild and outside of the box, you will need to bring all that back in and get the balance back to the organization.  Too much wild-wild-west type of stuff in the organization can be exhausting so you will want to keep some of the momentum going for progress, without so much risk and experimenting.

So, let your hair grow and give your people some room to try new stuff!

 

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Do Tradition and Heritage Hold You Back?

Standardization ruins organizations.  Once we get to the point that we are trying to make everyone do the same thing, without thought, we are doomed.  Most organizations and the people within them get into a rhythm.  They have the same annual events, traditions, and these events are rarely discussed with any serious intent.  The members of the organization are expected to uphold these traditions, and the leaders often expect everyone to participate.  But do these traditions do anything positive for the organization?

It depends.  Most of our traditions are no longer providing value to our processes but are more about culture.  But even traditions that contribute to culture can be problematic.  The military’s Change of Command Ceremony is one such example.  When the ceremony was created, it was done so out of necessity.  Most personnel in a military unit did not know who the commander of the unit was, and it caused much confusion on the battlefield.  This ceremony was designed to show everyone who the new commander was to alleviate that problem, and it worked.  Fast-forward to today, and we continue the tradition, but there is rarely an occasion where members will not know who the unit’s commander is, but we still spend weeks preparing for these ceremonies every two years.  The commander’s and their families enjoy them, and it is a great honor for them to earn a command, but almost everyone else is there because they are required.  The officer/enlisted structure is also antiquated and has lost its usefulness.  On the positive side, the military’s uniforms, many of the customs to include saluting, standing for senior members, reveille, retreat, taps, and countless others add to the discipline and positive culture of the units.

And what about the senior members of the organization?  Could they be holding back innovation?  Much like standardization, continuity is a term we must be careful with.  There is a point that continuity stops helping and starts holding the unit back from progress.  Something that was tried in the nineties may very well work now.  Not because we are better, but because technology may have made things easier than they were in the past.  We need to ensure our senior members value change and progress over standardization and continuity.

We must be cautious of sacrificing any future progress for short-term gains.  It might be tempting, but the short-term gains that too much standardization and continuity provide are addictive and will become the culture your organization begins to form around.  Soon enough, your organization will become irrelevant because short-term gains cannot compete with long-term progress.  Of course, this is not easy, and nobody has the perfect answer, but we must be brave enough to have the conversation.  It may feel bad to say the DoD no longer needs a separate officer and enlisted core, especially from the officer’s perspective, but it’s a conversation we must have, or we risk becoming too caught up in tradition.

 

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Eliminate Loadmasters

I decided to stick with the “eliminate” theme for this string of articles even though it causes a little more drama than is necessary.  It is an excellent way to determine if the person responding has read the article, or merely read the headline.  Much like my last article, I do not seriously mean to eliminate all loadmasters.  They play a vital role in the Air Force’s global mobility mission.  What I propose is that we significantly alter when and how they perform the loading/unloading functions.

There has been a program in the Air Transportation world called APEX or Aerial Port Expeditor for many years and the Phase II program before that.  It is quite simply a program that trains a 2T2 to perform the role of the loadmaster.  This ability provides an aerial port the flexibility to load aircraft long before the aircrew arrives and to start right away once maintenance gives the green light.  But the program is showing secondary effects that are beginning to play out.

Loadmasters are losing opportunities to load at aerial ports with the APEX program which is reducing their proficiency.  Additionally, it is becoming somewhat difficult for them to maintain their qualifications or currency because the port is loading many of the aircraft.

To solve this, I have heard discussions about potentially limiting the amount of aircraft the port can APEX, or only uploads that meet weight or pallet minimums will be eligible.  To be blunt, these are dumb solutions, and I hope we discuss them just long enough to discover how this would not make the Air Force better but how it serves to maintain the status quo.  So, what is the solution?

This is a difficult problem to fix, but I think it is essential to move forward instead of staying the same.  We can automatically eliminate the options of getting rid of the APEX program or limiting it.  The solution I see as being the most beneficial is by creating a Flying Port Dawg program.

The FPD would be modeled after the Flying Crew Chief program.  Why recreate the wheel if someone has already completed the work?  This should use the program only for air-land operations.  No air-drop missions yet!  And only for C5 and C17 aircraft.  We could start with simple channel missions to more robust ports to build the program and then expand it from there to support contingency missions and SAAMs.  There would be a need for additional training to ensure they perform any loadmaster responsibilities performed while in flight, but it would also be an excellent opportunity to look at those tasks to determine if they are still important.  And much like the FCC program, when they are at home station, they are working in their assigned section.  Hopefully not ATOC, since I’ve already tried to reimagine its functionality.

There is a manpower cost to this program, but if implemented, there would be an excess of loadmasters to realign.  This is not meant to start a battle of who is more important, but to highlight that much of the tasks performed by these two AFSCs overlap and the difference in who does the work between a 1A2 or a 2T2 is impossible to distinguish.

 

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Compliance or Commitment

Quality Assurance is everywhere, and it is undoubtedly useful.  The rules that govern our processes are also there for a reason, and we should follow them.  It has most likely taken many years of trial and error to figure out what works and what doesn’t.  But in many organizations, there is a focused effort on compliance and little discussion about commitment.

Most managers or leaders would agree that commitment is better than compliance, but rarely do we talk about commitment.  I have heard the phrase, “culture of compliance” so much that it is clear to me these leaders do not think about commitment and perhaps do not even realize that compliance does not make things great.  It merely makes them acceptable.  When people agree to take a job that does not equal commitment.  Enlisting in the military does not equal commitment.  I suppose it is a form of commitment, but not the commitment I’m referencing.  Organizational commitment is when members of the organization not only comply but look for ways to push the organization forward.

We want members of our organizations to want the organization to succeed.  We need them to invest their time and effort to see that it does succeed.  We have all seen these employees before.  The question is how do we get people to be committed instead of merely compliant?

The first solution is to start asking for commitment instead of compliance.  When we focus on compliance, that is what we get.  We cannot expect commitment when we only ask for compliance.

Someone very close to me recently went through an issue that highlights this problem.  She worked in a small organization as the number two in charge.  The organization was a mess, and there were problems everywhere.  But she was committed to the cause and worked tirelessly.  She put in at least 60 hours a week and received phone calls constantly when she was away from the facility.  She stayed at this organization for only 3-4 months.  She was eventually burned out, but not from the hours or hard work.  She worked for people that wanted compliance, not commitment.  The people in charge of the budget would not approve additional staff to cover severe gaps in service, and she could not fire poor performing employees because that meant she would have to cover those holes.  Once there were not enough people to cover the functions, complaints increased, staff became frustrated, which caused more complaints, which prompted management to approach the issue as if there were a compliance problem.  This approach caused more employees to quit, which meant employee turnover increased.  The staff that resigned were those with options, the ones that stayed, were the poor performers that didn’t want to take the risk of a new job.

To focus on her employees and create an environment that showed them the organization would care for them helps foster a culture of commitment.  It starts at the top; if leaders do not engage the supervisors and managers, then the managers and supervisors will not engage the lower level employees, and problems will surface.  They mask themselves as compliance issues, but they are commitment issues.

 

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Eliminate ATOC

For my typical readers, this article will depart from my usual leadership centered topics and will instead focus on a functional role.  My professional community (Port Dawgs) are a wild bunch that will no doubt eviscerate me if this article is dumb, so I must approach this topic like I do everything else…just spit it out and see what happens.  My best-case scenario is it provides a viewpoint that creates conversations and that conversation turns into action.  Worst-case scenario is they will call me an idiot (which is not the worst thing I’ve been called). Either way, let’s get rid of ATOC.

The internet is a game-changer.  Or at least is was a game-changer in 1990 but somehow, I don’t believe we have fully taken advantage of this monumental opportunity.  It is long overdue for us to do so.  ATOC is something the internet could have replaced with some shifting in tasks and a little flexibility.  Not the ATOC flight (cape forecasting, load planning, etc.), the section.  The first charge of ATOC is to be the command and control (C2) of the Aerial Port.  It has been ages since this was the case in reality.  We have established SOEs that the sections adhere to and for the majority of the time they are autonomous.  They need very little C2 from ATOC.

Let’s start with the inbound and outbound controllers.  Keep in mind these are general functions found at most large ports.  All squadrons would need to adjust it a bit to make it work.  Each section in the port has a dispatcher if they work on the flightline.  And everyone has access to GATES.  Because of this, all sections usually skip ATOC and get aircraft info on their own.  This has been happening for a long time and now we have GATES that will usually feed us this info.  Easily we can eliminate these functions.

Senior Controller.  The senior controller position used to be quite valuable, especially in the absence of the Duty Officer (DO).  They run the control center and ensure all the controllers are doing what they are supposed to do.  But if we eliminate the other controller positions the senior controller position is pointless.

Duty Officer.  The duty officer position is important.  We do need a position with actual authority to make decisions and advocate on behalf of the Aerial Port.  Provide two or more depending on local needs to ensure they are not overwhelmed with the additional work.  Put them in a mobile workstation inside a truck with a radio, smartphone, tablet, and laptop so they are always connected to the unit’s needs.  We also need a 24/7 point of contact for the 618 AOC or APCC to contact for emergent requirements such as MICAP, HRs, etc.  Additionally, we would transfer the Ramp controller’s responsibilities to the DO.  They would take the paperwork to the crew, brief them, and ensure the uploads are going well.  They would also be responsible to coordinate with Command Post and Maintenance.  Times will need to be input by the section dispatchers and ATOC will no longer need to deal with the Form 77.  Data Records will be responsible for checking the 77 (if we even need a 77).  This will put the pressure on the dispatchers to ensure they have quality dispatchers.  On a side note, why don’t we have a formal dispatcher’s course?  I’ll look into that…

Local management will determine where to align the DO and the few other sections in the ATOC flight operationally and administratively.

Clearly, there are many items I haven’t addressed but this isn’t intended to be an all-encompassing solution.  It is intended to start the conversation.  It’s time to put a working group together so we can talk about how to actually utilize the leaps in technology we are seeing instead of simply converting paper documents to electronic documents and leaving our processes the same.

 

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The Decision

The Decision, The Standard & The Lesson

What do you do when you come across someone doing the wrong thing?  The easy answer is to say something to that person.  But although this is the easy answer, it is far from easy to make that decision in the split second you notice a problem.  You then have to run through the dialog in your head about how receptive the person will be to your correction, whether you are correct, how you should approach the issue, is it worth the effort to correct, and many other questions and scenarios your brain comes up with.  Then perhaps you decide to fix the problem.  Has there been a clear standard established? What if you are wrong? Or what if you are right, but there should be a change to the standard?  Are you willing to listen and learn something?  That entire drama-filled paragraph is why it is essential to have the foresight to understand three things.

The Decision: 

I’ve heard many times that you don’t choose to be a leader.  Or that the best leaders are the ones that don’t want to be leaders.  I say that is nonsense!  I find it hard to believe that people are accidental leaders.  I’m sure it happens, but I’m willing to bet it is extremely rare.  I think you should want to lead.  Leadership encompasses so much that wanting to be a leader is only the beginning.  Taking care of people, making decisions, critical thinking, empathetic behavior, intelligence, honesty, competent, forward-looking or strategic, and many other things are great traits and actions for a leader.  But the best thing a leader can do is to decide to be a leader.  In any or all capacities.  Deciding to lead is the starting point, and it will open you up to a world of tough actions that lie ahead.  What do you do once you have decided to lead?  Determine the standard.

The Standard:

Everyone has standards but telling someone what your standards are is much more difficult.  A leader must be able to do this.  Perhaps not only verbally but through your actions.  Standards are what you use to guide your actions.  If someone in your organization does something wrong, what do you do about it?  As a leader, you must have that internal discussion and know what you should do.  What behaviors are expected in your organization and how do you articulate those behaviors?  Conversations.  Conversations are vital to the thorough understanding of concepts, and without conversations, we are limited to one-way communication which is a terrible way to establish standards. Once you have the standards figured out, you are good, right?  Wrong.

The Lesson:

The problem with experience is that is can create complacency, or at the very worst it can create arrogance and ego.  With arrogance and ego, the leader believes they know exactly what they are doing and no longer need to listen. This is why it is important to understand that a leader always has a lesson to learn.  There is always a better idea out there.  If you feel like you have arrived at the peak of your leadership mountaintop, there is a good chance you have only forgotten to look around.  You will always gain value from a different perspective, and when you don’t listen, you limit options.  Always look for the lesson you should learn, I guarantee there is one there.

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Leadership Patience

Leadership patience is the ability to lead without having to drive the train on every issue.  Many leaders struggle with this.  Even the best leaders struggle with letting go and gently guiding the direction of the organization instead of moving hard and fast on the issues.  Patience is often overlooked, especially when it comes to leadership.  Don’t get me wrong, there are most certainly times when you need to move quickly and decidedly, but if you are being a good leader, these moments will be rare.  Don’t worry, leaders don’t have all the answers, many times they have very few answers, but they do know how to get the team to discover the answers.  That is leadership patience.

Far too often I see leaders making decisions before the discussion and then fail to listen once the discussion happens because they already made the decision.  It can be difficult to hold off on making a decision, and most leaders know the direction they want to go, but make a deliberate effort to know the direction you want to go and then be receptive to different ways of how to get there.

New leaders need to be very careful about having preconceived notions about the organizations they are taking over.  Deciding what to do and how to do it before you have been brought up to speed on all the nuances of the organization is a costly mistake and the recovery can take significant time.  If you want to see how your ideas will be received, you can do that without giving away your desire to implement them.  Simply ask the question and listen to the response.  You should be able to distinguish biased answers from legitimately thoughtful responses.

Simply put, people do not like change.  In many cases, they will fight change even when they know it is a good change.  I think the biggest reason for this is because it takes energy to change.  In our busy organizations, change takes energy away from important things we are already doing.  Taking that energy and using it on change creates anxiety because the new process may not even work.  This is why following a change management methodology is wise.  It helps reduce the anxiety of change and can help create an intellectual and emotional drive to change which makes the effort worthwhile.

Listen to your people.  It takes longer, you might not get the answer you want, and your forfeit perceived control, but the only way to effectively lead is my listening to the people under your charge.  Listening is difficult for everyone and is especially difficult as we get older and more experienced.  So, take the time to listen, slow the process down and be patient!  We all know you could change it and be finished in a few days, but unless you want to be stuck doing the tactical level work, you need to be patient and take the few weeks to listen and create a plan the team is willing and excited to work with.

 

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