In my six years in the Army I’ve been to a number of Change of Command Ceremonies. Each one concluding with the same boring, unambitious, dogmatic trope that one can expect to hear in essentially any government organization. The new commander gives a brief speech to his or her new Soldiers and concludes with, “All policies and procedures remain in effect.” The commander then renders a salute and proceeds on with the challenging task of commanding the amazing young men and women comprising our nation’s military.
Despite the immediate public endorsement, it is highly unlikely that the new commander reviewed the company’s policies and procedures in any detail, instead rather assuming that the commander who came before exercised good judgment, and therefore there is no need to reassess. Even under the best circumstances, design-thinking teaches us that good leadership is always reassessing.
This is not to disregard the value of continuity in its entirety, after all, the previous leader of the organization is him or herself a stakeholder worth empathizing with. Demonstrating to them humble curiosity will likely reveal that they faced the same or similar challenges that you are about to be confronted with. The prudent Officer will learn what they can from this important stakeholder, but insights are not the same as solutions. Leaders who practice design-thinking receive this input, digest it in conjunction with other lessons learned, and proceed to engage in thoughtful disruption of their organization.
As a Judge Advocate (Army Lawyer) I will not command a company or battalion, this is one of the prices that I paid to cross over to the JAG Corps. However, I will manage my own staff of junior attorneys, paralegals, and civilian contractors. In so doing I will immediately familiarize myself with the various responsibilities of my staff section within the larger Army organization. I will reevaluate every policy and procedure in place, considering input from as many stakeholders as will give me their time.
To truly be able to empathize and receive the most input from the most stakeholders design-thinkers must leave the confines of their daily routine and go to the stakeholders themselves. Yet too many leaders in today’s Army are content with hiding behind their desks, preparing PowerPoint presentations, submitting reports, and allowing their Outlook inbox to dictate their daily priorities. In order to properly define the issues and needs of the stakeholders properly, Army leaders must leave their desks and laptops behind.
Being a disruptor in any organization is a high risk, high reward game. The military, as an organization that tends to reward conformity over merit, is no different. Careful execution of the test phase of the design-thinking model helps to mitigate this risk. Upon successful ideation and prototyping of solutions for the problems facing my section, I will implement said solutions in as isolated a manner as is possible within my own team. After assessing and reassessing my solutions I will implement them on a broader scale within my own organization. If successful, my solutions will advertise themselves to peers and leaders alike.
It is imperative that I rigorously apply the entire design-thinking process. Skipping steps can lead to cumbersome solutions to problems that may not even exist. This needless adding of tasks and information requirements is often referred to by Soldiers as the ‘Good Idea Fairy.’ This mythical creature manifests itself as ‘solutions’ put forth by leaders more concerned with being able to list the implementation of their new idea on their quarterly Officer Evaluation Report, then they are about solving real problems facing the Army. If I am to succeed in my perpetuation of design-thinking in the U.S. Army I must avoid this descriptor at all costs.
I will hopefully not be alone in my pursuit to bring design-thinking to the U.S. Army, after all an Army Design Methodology Manual already exists. A fact that I accept with cautious optimism as one German officer in World War II described, "A serious problem in planning against American doctrine is that the Americans do not read their manuals, nor do they feel any obligation to follow their doctrine."
Further, despite many years in the military it took my own humble curiosity to discover the manual, despite the large amount of time and resources that likely went into its development. The manual will at least serve as a source of authority that I can point to when confronted by peers and leaders content with living and managing by the tiresome old adage, “All policies and procedures remain in effect.”