The following is an excerpt from my upcoming January 2018 AIAA SciTech paper entitled: “Sustainment Organizations: People and Teams”. In it, I claim the following 4 human traits are vital to understand in order to ensure effective sustainment. The first two are barriers and the second two are the solutions. The sections of the paper after this section cover my definition of leadership and what to consider when placing people into teams.
- People tend to be focused on their day and blind to emerging system problems
- Often while vigorously denying it, people like to please authority figures
- Humans are incredibly plastic in mind and body, able to adapt, grow, learn
- Everyone wants to be the hero of their own story
Blind to emerging problems
The popular science fiction author, the late Douglas Adams, enshrined the first trait in his Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as “SEP” or Someone Else’s Problem. There is no limit on the blindness of people if they do not see an emerging failure mode as anything to do with them. Mr. Adams also addresses what happens if the blindness lifts for a moment: Speaking out very often does not result in praise. In a poorly run organization of this type, sustainment or not, the team members lurch from one crisis to another. They take their cues over what to work on next, within their very busy and confusing day, based on boss’ frustrations and any overt rewards/punishment programs that are in place. These programs are often created hastily and reinforce sub-optimal behavior. Thus, by accident or on purpose, people are reinforced in their natural tendency to be blind and dumb to emerging problems. This is a recurring theme in Mr. Adams’ writing and his popularity serves to help prove the truth behind the theme.
A recent book by Clarke Eddy emphasizes the importance of encouraging the identification of experts who can see major systems failures emerging before the rest of us. It provides approaches to determine if your “chicken little doomsayer” is actually a Cassandra with an important message[i]. Sadly, the book was necessary because Cassandras are ignored and so many of these lead-time-away warnings fall on deaf ears.
The Stanford Prison Experiment (see prisonexp.org), immortalized by a 2015 movie of the same name, is taught in most management schools. There is strong evidence that this experiment did reveal a fundamental human trait. But it is hard to accept because no one wants to believe they could have been as bad as the guards in the experiment. We all want to believe we could be better and stronger than thousands of key managers and leaders in Nazi Germany. But speak to any self-aware company executive and they will tell you about the reality of how an innocent question asked by a company vice president can become informal organization policy overnight. It was the same in the Air Force. I worked hard to avoid this trap with my team as a colonel in the USAF and was not always successful. Even if this is not a rampant problem in an organization, the tendency remains to give people in authority more credit than they deserve in understanding problems you deal with every day, more wisdom to deal with these problems, or other magical powers. This is on display every day in organizations where briefers fail to remind their decision-maker audiences what they are there to talk about and why it matters before jumping headlong into their spiel on a subject they know very well.
Humans can adapt
There are profound implications to the fact that humans are complex neural networks with bodies. We think of ourselves as logical machines which can attack a problem in a serial, systematic fashion. In reality, we are hormone-driven pattern-matching machines with a tendency to get tired, irritated, and grouchy. The good news is that we have an ability to view the problem at meta-levels and in-parallel as well as serial and asynchronous, which will lead us to better solutions. And our passions can drive us past fatigue to achieve great results.
Passion is essential for best performance. Passion kicks in when we care about the results. The purpose-driven person produces much more, and much better, than the dispirited or bored. Passion can drive us to become experts at our niche and best exploit our strengths. Angry eruptions are a small price to pay.
Similarly, for the sake of our egos, we would all love to be the hero in the current story (more on this in the discussion of the next trait). When victories seem rare, hollow, or unimportant, our egos get damaged. We begin to doubt ourselves. The well-documented “impostor syndrome” can find a home and we become even less effective. The good news is, we can change for the better.
The plasticity of body schema in the use of tools is a phenomenon both well-known and widely written about. Humans have the ability to incorporate their tools within the same schema that helps them control their bodies, that is, the same sensory-motor capacities that control movement and posture. For example, you feel you are the automobile you are driving. Similar is the plasticity of the brain in its ability to learn new intellectual skills, practice good habits, take on a more positive attitude, improve empathy, or eliminate un-useful behaviors. This can happen if the person is internally motivated or if they are surrounded with individuals who take the correct actions, thus highlighting another distasteful truism that many want to deny: “monkey see, monkey do”.
Modeling correct behavior can only go so far without the cooperation of the individual. One necessary ingredient is the internal belief that self-change is possible. Some have had their internal dialogue hijacked by parents or other authority figures and need extra help believing in themselves. Remember this point in the following section when leadership is discussed.
The hero of your story
Even the hijacked have the common human tendency to see themselves as the hero, or at least the protagonist, of their own story. This includes the need to be heard or the need to feel some control over your environment. A caring lady, who also happened to be an interior designer, was asked to help at the women’s homeless shelter here in Ogden some time ago. She designed and built small carts that contained various selections of curtains, bed sheets, bed spreads, and many other pieces and parts that, when selected and combined, would create a unique and pleasing environment for the homeless woman and her children. Each tiny room became unique. The ladies and their children, when given the cart and told what they could do, were happy beyond understanding. Why? The one thing each and every one of them had completely lost was any semblance of control over their lives. She had restored some of that.
Although all people have an innate desire to be heard and understood, this desire can be tamped down by self-doubt, impostor syndrome, fear of failure, or other bad internal scripts. The best leaders know that an unkind word, a blustery display of their own competence, or even the lack of a “thank you” can cause the next person to NOT contribute the very information that the team desperately needs to stay ahead of emerging failure modes. A kind word or a bit of latitude can create motivation at surprising levels.
The model encourages people to stop ignoring problems and see themselves as the heroes to the mission. Its focus on mission is transformative to those people open to growth and challenge. All of this requires a specific model for leadership.
As an example of self-doubt, in the early 1980s I had the good fortune to work with Dr. C.C. Crawford, the inventor of the Crawford Slip Method (CSM). The CSM helped him improve WWII wartime productivity by obtaining anonymous inputs from huge numbers of people at once. His basement workshop, his personal think tank as he called it, contained 3 ten-foot-long tables end-to-end. The 8-foot-high walls were covered in shelves. The shelves held thousands of boxes each containing a few thousand little slips of paper scribbled on by his workshop participants who knew they would never be identified by name. One morning in his basement think tank, he gestured to the boxes on the walls and said: “Do you know the number one problem I always get from the majority of workshop participants?” I shook my head “no”. “They are not sure how to do their job and they are afraid to tell anyone this”. For more on the CSM, see H. William Dettmer, Brainpower Networking Using the Crawford Slip Method, Trafford Publishing, October, 2003
Richard P. Clarke and R. P. Eddy, Warnings, Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes, 2017, HarperCollins Publishers. See also the authors’ website, warningsbook.net. For a review and how it pertains to sustainment, see my blog post at my web site, charlesvono.com, “Complex System Sustainment Blog”, key word “warnings”. Cassandra was a mythical Greek princess cursed to speak true prophecies that no one would listen to.