On Stifled Innovations

I have been spending a lot of time recently reading, re-reading, and talking with fellow captains about an April 2002 paper, “STIFLED INNOVATION? DEVELOPING TOMORROW’S LEADERS TODAY.” Dr. Leonard Wong, of the Strategic Studies Institute, wrote it.

The first time I read it, I cheered. The second time, I stewed. Now, it just gets me thinking, and worrying, about the company commanders to follow.

The description of the paper is tantalizing – “The author examines the current company commander experience and concludes that the Army values innovation in its rhetoric, but the reality is that junior officers are seldom given opportunities to be innovative in planning training; to make decisions; or to fail, learn, and try again. If the transformed Army will require leaders who can operate independently in the absence of close supervision, the current leader development experience of company command will have to change. Consequently, the author asks for senior leaders not to do more, but to do less and thus give subordinates more freedom to innovate.”

Bold and daring, for sure. His path there is what we all know but are not allowed to discuss:

— Company commanders have no time during the week to go off and train as they want to, given command maintenance, meetings, STT, family time, and a reluctance by higher to let a commander “impose” on the soldiers by training on a weekend or after 1700.

— Company commanders have to put ten pounds of shit, as they say, in a five-pound sack. Between required mission-related training (squad live-fire range, convoy live-fire range, battle sight zero training, etc.) and non-mission-related training (POSH, COO, SAEDA, etc.), on topic of holidays and training holidays, there aren’t enough days in the year. Dr. Wong actually argues that there aren’t enough days in the year to do all of the required mission- and non-mission related training requirements, much less what a company commander wants or needs to train.

— The good idea fairy / MRE, added to the STX lanes / train-up for a CTC rotation, can turn long stretches of time into a scripted event, with nothing required of the company commander other than to see the unit through the events that are being resources, manned and evaluated by higher headquarters.

The result? “Instead of planning and developing training from the bottom up, as originally envisioned by FM 25-100, Training the Force, and FM 25-101, Battle Focused Training, higher echelons are determining what will be trained and how it will be executed. Consequently, company commanders have little ability in targeting training to their analysis of their units weakness.” Here’s the egg, and here’s how you suck it.

But here’s the kicker: If so much of the training, so much of what companies do, is shoved down their throat by higher headquarters, why is the training schedule not worth the ink used to print it? There are a few contributors.

1. Higher headquarters doesn’t know what they’re doing, either. Higher headquarters see themselves as such passing the buck, giving companies their part of the requirements, not realizing that they are doling out more than can actually be done. S3 to Company Commander conversations often sound like my kids when they squabble – “Gotta do it.” “Can’t do it.” No choice – gotta.” “Can’t.” If their higher headquarters is willing to pass along requirements inside the six week window, then it’s acceptable for them to do it as well.

2. Staff is not doing their job. The onslaught of e-mail has led to e-mail over-saturation and an increase in some counter-productive passive-aggressive tendencies. Why staff and answer the BC’s questions, when it’s easier to pass along the email to the company commander for them to dig out the answer to when the BN last held a CLS class? An email sent is a task complete – almost; don’t hurt your back passing the buck….

3. Information management is in shambles, and the companies are not manned for this. CIS would be great – if it could track the myriad of data call topics used these days. And units would use CIS or the like, instead of the company commander and 1SG carrying around spreadsheets and memory sticks, if companies were actually authorized an operations NCO or orderly room clerk (or, better still, if the Army would create a database manager MOS and teach soldiers MS Access or the like).

Dr. Wong argues, wisely, that the solution for this is only going to come if higher level commanders are willing to change and allow some risk – they need to have faith in their junior commanders, to back away and let them command. In the days of risk reduction, the war on terrorism, and eight of ten divisions on the road at one time, that may not be possible. The pendulum may not be done swinging away from company commanders and towards the over-centralization and over-control has permeated the entire Army.

“… transformation in the human dimension”

Transforming the human dimension implies that soldiers, especially leaders, of the future force need to be more flexible, adaptable, creative, and innovative. The leaders of the future brigade combat teams may have to receive the details of their mission en route to their location, put together an ad hoc task force on the fly, or operate for long periods of time in the absence of guidance or supervision.”

Future leaders will need to be independent and creative as they craft a plan based on the commander’s intent and later the plan as conditions change. In the absence of detailed guidance from above, these leaders will learn to live with uncertainty, take bold risks, and assume greater responsibility for decisions concerning their unit. In the words of the Army Training and Leader Development Panel, future leaders must demonstrate the competence of adaptability. Descriptors of future Army leaders found in transformation brochures commonly include adjectives such as “responsive,” “agile,” and “versatile.””

Put bluntly, the Army is relying on a leader development system that encourages reactive instead of proactive thought, compliance instead of creativity, and adherence instead of audacity. Junior officers, especially company commanders, are seldom given opportunities to be innovative; to make decisions; or to fail, learn, and try again.”

“… receptive to advice, willing to work hard, and extremely focused on accomplishment. These are the future leaders of the Objective Force. Unfortunately, this new cohort of officers is being welcomed into an Army that is extremely supervised, highly structured, very centralized, and exceptionally busy – the wrong environment needed to transform fledgling leaders accustomed to structure into innovative, creative, out-of-the-box thinkers.”

Company commanders can only plan training if they have discretionary time – if there are free blocks of “white space” on their training calendars where they can insert their own training.”

365 days per year

109 days of weekend, federal holidays, payday activities, and the Christmas half-day schedule.

256 days remain

297 days of directed training

254 days of that are mission related training

43 days are non-mission related training

Unfortunately, it also means that large blocks of calendar time are taken up by higher echelon events.”

Yet the build-up to a CTC rotation will also remove about 4 months of the discretionary time from the 18 months a company commander may have in command.”

“… what will be trained and how it will be trained has also been increasingly dictated by higher headquarters.”

Instead of planning and developing training from the bottom up, as originally envisioned by FM 25-100, Training the Force, and FM 25-101, Battle Focused Training, higher echelons are determining what will be trained and how it will be executed. Consequently, company commanders have little ability in targeting training to their analysis of their units weakness.”

… emergence of real world deployments that went beyond existing Army doctrine.”

“… to prepare units for operations other than war, lessons learned from the first unit deployed were codified and passed to subsequent units. Mission Rehearsal Exercises (MRE’s) were created…. Detailed training checklists are now used…”

The training is comprehensive and thorough, yet it removes all discretion from the company commander.”

OIF II – live fire convoy, battle sight zero confirmation

“… higher headquarters … must “certify” units as ready.”

Instead of company or battalion commanders evaluating small unit level training, deployment plans direct things like, “All training conducted … will be certified by the first O-6 in the chain of command.”

“… commanders .. instead are responsible only for moving their units through the training lanes.”

Higher headquarters plan what, how, when and where the training will be conducted. Battalions prepare squad and platoon lanes, while brigades plan and resource company lanes.”

Limited resources such as land, ammunition, spare parts, time, and fuel all compel a higher headquarters to allocate scarce resources and then ensure efficient use of resources by taking over the planning function.”

Despite the assurances that training is not testing, there will always be a degree of leader evaluation involved with every training event.”

“… senior leaders constantly pump company commanders for information…”

“… “Smart Books” crammed full of information.”

  • from regulatory requirements (sensitive items inventory, POSH, etc).
  • from command directed
  • needing to prove certification (training, COO, range certification, etc.)

Company clerks and training NCO’s largely have been eliminated, yet automated databases still have to be updated and queries answered.”

E-mail allows staff and higher-level commanders to bypass lower-level staffs and directly query commanders for information.”

Staff work and staff analysis is a lost art.”

“… e-mail .. only becomes detrimental when it is used to circumvent staffs and add to the administrative burden of company commanders.”

Mondays are reserved for command maintenance in the mornings and the afternoons are filled with meetings at battalion or brigade level. Fridays are usually spend preparing for the next week or for special events such as compensatory time or payday activities. Thursday mornings are occupied by sergeant’s time, followed by family time in the afternoon. The result is that Tuesday and Wednesday are the only days available for any company commander-generated training.”

Put all the directed requirements together, however, and the life of the company commander is spent executing somebody else’s good ideas.”

The Training Façade

Company training meetings are still conducted. Company training schedules are still posted. Quarterly training briefs are still briefed. Yet, when company commanders were asked how valid their training schedules were, specifically, the 6-week lock-in, they responded with comments such as … “There’s a 6-week lock-in. But is almost never works. In fact I typically don’t know what’s going to happen the next day.” … “The six week training calendar is a joke.” … “Why? It’s going to change, it always changes.””

“… when troops have to wait until morning formation to learn what is really going to happen that day.”

Not micromanagement, but over-centralization and over-control that reflects the culture of the Army today.

The Army now has a culture where the obsession with minimizing risk and uncertainty has pervaded not just the leadership, but also the way the entire institution thinks and works.”

“… accomplishing the mission consists of executing whatever is directed from higher headquarters, not creating a workable plan from the commander’s intent.”

“… the push for over-centralization and over-control has permeated the entire Army.”

Directing that company commanders must have a week of training calendar white space every quarter will appear to help, but unless the overall culture changes, company commanders will still have to cram the same amount of requirements into the remaining 48 weeks of the year.”

And there would, certainly, be a list of tasks for the company to accomplish that week. And to be certified on.

“… it requires senior leaders to do less … to give standards, some basic guidelines, and then let the commanders train.”

Senior leaders should demand a solution, not the solution.”

(Note: Apparently, I wrote this in 2005, but I’ll be damned if I can remember where I got it published. The longer we have been at war, the more it is true.)

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