Get on the “change train”

It’s rolling down the tracks and you don’t want to be left behind.

For any of you who know me well, you know that I hate metaphors. They tend to break down and when they do, they are worse than useless. That being said, there is a time and place for the limited use of metaphors. Especially with concepts like change, comparing our ubiquitous evolutionary imperative to make things better and thrive in our constantly changing environment in our lives and in our workplaces to a frog in a pot of boiling water or a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly are meaningful and they spark creative and enduring mental models to frame the change process.

In-line with concepts like Moore’s law, that technological growth doubles every two years, we understand the change is inevitable and is occurring at a faster pace than ever in our digital society. As a young Air Force officer, I used to read histories about the evolution of Air Power in conflicts starting with the use of balloons as spotting platforms and evolving to the hi-tech computer-integrated and stealth capabilities that we have developed in the last few decades. Taking a step back and looking at change over a larger span of time shows us that there were decades, even after the industrial revolution, where things just didn’t seem to change very much. The typical command and control style of leadership worked just fine. Overweening bureaucracies were the way things got done.

The rate of change is not going to slow down anytime soon. If anything, competition in most industries will probably speed up even more in the next few decades. – John P. Kotter

It would be an exercise in understatement to say that things change often now. Change is constant and inevitable, as Benjamin Disraeli described it. Any leader unable to adapt to change and indeed, to lead to change efforts with magnanimity, optimism, perseverance, and strategy will not experience success. Anyone unable to change will be left behind, unlamented.

Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection. – Mark Twain

There’ve been so many psychological studies done on change fatigue. It is real, but it is something that simply put: must be lead-through. The leader must energize her team, presenting them with a compelling vision, working to make sure that the need for change is understood. Putting people first is addressed in the five imperatives for transforming organizations that Jim Hemerling addresses in his TED Talk.

Not every leader is prepared to be an outspoken catalyst for change. Being willing to lead change efforts, to embrace the necessity for change, and empathize with a team that is experiencing change are all key components modern leadership philosophy.

The price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change. – Bill Clinton

Sometimes it is easy to create a compelling argument for the need for change. In healthcare, for example, access and affordability are two of the key ingredients to a successful and thriving organization. No one needs to be convinced that these two objectives are not being met universally. Nearly any business or clinical unit must experience well-planned change efforts in order to increase access and affordability. Documented and validated procedures that improve key areas are the results of these efforts.

In order to better understand the ways to plan and manage change, I chose to pursue my Lean Six Sigma Black Belt with my continuing professional focus in healthcare administration. I’ve had the opportunity to lead regimented and experimental change processes across organizations and have noticed, both when I am a direct control and when I am acting in my role as a consultant, that a company culture that embraces change is one of the main differentiators that determine success in long-term and short-term change efforts. Organizations that embrace continuous change are more likely to adapt, willing to embrace a new vision, and eager to abandon less effective practices.

Adaptability is about the powerful difference between adapting to cope and adapting to win. – Max McKeown

You don’t have to be wildly charismatic in order to effectively embrace and inculcate a change culture in your organization. Empathy and rationality are required, however.

Hop on that change train, then. It is pulling out of the station.

Leadership and open blast doors

IMG_8665I don’t usually comment on current events or politics or government; it is a little out of my education-leadership-development role. That being said, I see no reason not to explore some of the underlying psychological and leadership failings that lead to failures in military operations.

For those of you who may not have read about this yet, here is a link to the most recent article about missile crews failing to follow procedure: This isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last time that missile crews and their support entities fail to follow procedure. There is a long list of incidents that have led to various punishments over the years and, with the lack of carefully considered proactive or retroactive steps to curtail events such as these, there will be many events in the future to look out for.

Since I see this post evolving into a lengthy ordeal, I’m going to go ahead and take this piece-by-piece. I apologize for the article-length post. What you shouldn’t expect from me; what I hope not to promote, is a distrust of our military. Rather, I would that citizens and leaders took a moment to look at the institution in a critical light, rather than blindly waving flags and shouting “support our troops” at the top of their patriotic lungs. I consider myself a patriot. I have the Constitution hanging in my office, I’ve served in an overseas conflict, and I am exceedingly proud of my military service. I served under excellent and awful leaders (fodder for coming blog posts).

My first point: officers should not be automatons. I’ve heard many of my friends and read a lot of opinion pieces on the recent spate of procedural issues surrounding launch control center internal blast doors being left open by missile crews despite the fact that it is a violation of written procedure. It is a great discussion and worth having, but so often the comments fail to address underlying issues. I grow tired of hearing:

they should follow the rules

it is a failure of discipline

“I always closed/pumped the blast door

Rather than sanctimoniously declaiming, perhaps these individuals might critically consider what the underlying problems might be.

One would hope that critical thinking is one of the foundational skills our young officers are taught in their degree and commissioning programs. It seems reasonable to presume that an officer who was not able to think critically by the date of their commission would be drummed out of the service. Going forward, assuming that our officers have the ability to think critically, why were they disobeying a written instruction to close blast doors?

I’m not going to sit here and debate the ethics of obeying an order, however silly that order might be (this is not a blog on ethics). What I am going to do is ask you, the reader, to think for a moment about what you would do.

The blast door being opened or closed isn’t the issue. In fact, there isn’t simply one issue. The fact that the military expects its officers to operate as robots, to do as they are told, maintain 100% efficacy on tests and simulations, that they should run error-free operations or face punishment is tantamount to learned helplessness and we owe more to our dedicated men and women in the field than that sort of psychological torture.

I’m not sure what is worse than some of the out-of-control punishments that have been meted out to the chain of command in situations like these. Operations group commanders have fired an entire chain of subordinates (ostensibly to correct failures in leadership that led to an issue). Entire squadrons, sometimes hundreds of individuals, forced to take a physical fitness test last minute. Officers and airmen have been forced to report to duty at 5AM, regardless of their work schedule, in full dress uniform to be screamed at by “leadership.” Career-killing Article 15s and Letters of Reprimand have been issued to officers for “violations” that are commonplace occurrences. This breeds a culture of fear, not one of acceptance and camaraderie.

Take a look at the satire that has been built up around missile operations. The blatant mockery alone should clue you in to the farcical nature of many of the rules and behaviors that have become routine and expected in that career field. Check out if you want some amusing, but-all-too-true ideas about the morale at missile bases. Passive-aggressive complaints like these are memorialized in “unofficial crew logs” that are kept in the launch control centers and have a certain synchronicity with The Dilbert Index discussed in Freakonomics

When was the last time a third party L&D or OD professional took a serious look at the missile structure, training, morale issue? I can’t answer that question, but I can tell you from my own experience that no significant OD or LD changes have been made to the wing structure in the last 10 years. There have been upstream changes to the training side, changing a 69-day course to a 100-day course and the creation of Global Strike Command, which conglomerated nuclear operations under a single umbrella. There was even a push to “enhance” the career field by separating the space and missile operations career fields. Surprisingly, though, no real changes were made at the missile wings. Even the changes mentioned served to further isolate the individuals performing one of the most thankless officer jobs in the US military.

There are easy changes that can be made to mitigate situations like these. It is not too late to follow the training that the Air Force delivers from Air University in the various levels of Professional Military Education. Leadership decisions made at the lowest level, empowering leaders to make decisions affecting morale and welfare, offering counseling in lieu of punishment, ensuring that discipline given is rehabilitative, rather than punitive in nature, working to promote individuals who perform as leaders and operators, rather than relying on cronyism for promotion within the ranks.

In short, a critical eye at the LD/OD environment and a carefully considered and implemented change plan starting at the lowest levels, rather than high-handed, knee-jerk reactions, are required to move forward in the nuclear enterprise.

photo by: Clemens Vasters

Change is a constant: be flexible!

Keep Calm

In project management they are referred to as cross-cutting skills; skills that apply to a whole process. A successful business career often involves significant changes in location, position, and duties. The rapidity of those transitions can be staggering if you focus on the changes as discrete events, requiring painful effort each time. The skill to maintain your calm; to remain optimistic in the face of stressful change is a cross-cutting skill.


“Change *is* nature, Dad. The part that *we* can influence. And it starts when we decide” –Remy (Ratatouille)

For those lucky enough not to experience this paradigm and still lead a happy “successful” business life or those who are content with stagnant growth, you may stop reading here. For the rest of us, think about your life. All those decisions, the opportunities, the setbacks; rather than focusing on what you would or wouldn’t change, focus on the journey. You’ve done great to get where you are! Regret is poisonous and yet difficult to dismiss as there are often so many paths that could have been taken.

“Always in motion is the future” –Yoda (The Empire Strikes Back)

How do you embrace change? Have faith in yourself. Reflect on your priorities and decisions: make sure they are aligned. Look forward to opportunities with a positive mental attitude (thanks, Jack Welch). Take joy in the moment while living your life in the present (thanks, Yoda). Always keep in mind that there are things we can control and things we can’t, but we always have freedom of choice-how to respond in a given situation (thanks, Viktor Frankl).

photo by: thebarrowboy