The More Things Change

On the day SecDef announced the new U.S. mission in Afghanistan, I hit my 20-year time-in-service mark.

The long-running Operation ENDURING FREEDOM is finished.

We didn’t hear about the change until the 31st, and then only through commercial news media. Everything official assumed we’d be called something else. My deployed crew and I were in the middle of planning the first sortie of the new year, so we went with Chuck Hagel as a pretty good source of guidance.

When we landed, at the end of the day, leadership was still confused about what named operation we supported… because their leadership was still confused. Multiple names floated around. No one had even heard of FREEDOM’S SENTINEL.

It’s frustrating… partly because it makes us all look like bumbling idiots trying to figure out the change, and mostly because the humor of my joke was lost:

Really, we're the good guys. We have America Lasers.
We’re the good guys. We have America Lasers.

Sorry, it’s a hastily-done drawing on whiteboard. If you want a good picture, check imgur. I have missions to fly and stuff.

Comic book fans will recognize this as an old-school Sentinel, a giant death robot programmed to find and eliminate mutants like the X-Men. (If you saw the newest X-Men film, modern “cool-looking” Sentinels feature heavily.)

US News & World Report had a headline about the name change, called War in Afghanistan Ends, Except Not At All.


But given that our tasking and guidance remained exactly the same, it’s hard not to feel a sense of “So What?”

An individual on my crew put together this helpful chart that reinforces the point:

(And there's years of missions flown all around these two countries... but that would get cumbersome if included.)
(And there’s years of missions flown all around these two countries… but that would get cumbersome if included.)

Sorry, whiteboard again. We had other things to do (or so I’ll maintain).

When I went through Professional Military Education, we had lengthy lessons on Change Management. The idea is, change is hard and scary, which causes people to resist it. So there’s a good way to implement change, and some bad ways to avoid.

If you can make a change known well in advance, you can get your experts on board to figure out how the plan will work. Questions are answered before they’re asked in the heat of the moment; problems are solved before they’re encountered on the flight line. Ideally everyone contributes, and the plan becomes both better and well-known. Then, when leadership says, “Execute the plan,” everyone carries out the change with enthusiasm and support that comes from ownership.

I’ve seen this process go poorly over the last 20 years.

I’ve seen leaders declare sweeping changes without considering what obstacles stand in the way. I’ve seen people ignore regulations governing how we do business, in order to shift to the “new” plan–when no one knows what it is.

Whole squadrons arrived at work wondering “What exactly is it that I’m supposed to do today?”

I sat in a conference room with the leaders of every office in the squadron at a meeting that opened with, “Since the re-organization took effect last week, we’re going to sit down now and figure out how we all fit in to accomplishing the basic mission of this unit.”

That’s a question that maybe could have been answered well in advance.

I left that meeting with a clear understanding of the roles and responsibilities on my shoulders and on my peers. Better yet, I felt equipped to communicate that vision to my subordinates, who had the same questions I did.

I also stepped out of the room and immediately spoke in private with the officers in charge of operations. “Sir, if feedback flows both down and up, then can we make sure the message goes up the chain that what we’ve just done is the exact opposite of everything we teach about how to implement change in an organization?”

To their credit, both officers I spoke with agreed completely and admitted they’d felt the same frustrations. I overheard a conversation with higher-ups where one of the officers I’d spoken to conveyed my feedback and challenged the superior’s mistaken view that creating chaos and thrash in the unit was beneficial, since it would make everyone give 110% to figure out and implement the change.

When I look at this news and how this change has come about, it leads me to believe one of three things:

1) This name change is purely cosmetic. Since it seems nothing fundamental or practical is different from my last OEF sortie to my first “whatever we decide to call this” sortie, I find this very likely.

2) Too few in power care that we do things well–we just need to do things. We teach a right way to implement change that produces ideal effects. But we are often directed to execute the opposite–doing whatever someone higher up the chain desires, at once, regardless of whether its fit existing rules or structures. And asking questions to make sure we’re legal or compliant with standing regs is viewed as a frustration and hindrance. I’m not sure whether that all applies in this situation, but it smacks of the same “rush to change” I’ve seen elsewhere.

3) What I’d hoped was an isolated “one bad apple here or there” case of poor management seems to be a hydra of similar leaders. Ignorance of what’s going on–throughout a squadron, a community, a region, a theater of operations, and so on–that’s going to happen from time to time. But willful ignorance, once an issue is called out, is unacceptable. It’s also called negligence. Or apathy. Or complacency. But definitely not leadership. Again, I’m not sure this directly relates to our changing-but-not-really operations in Afghanistan. But it matches up with past experience.

True leaders realize what they lack, own up to the fault, and then make corrections and adjustments. It’s refreshing to see that happen. Those people stand out from among the drones and yes-men committed only to their own promotion.

We need more Sentinels of that sort, not the robots.

Happy New Year.

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