Monday, January 12, 2015

Apathy isn't an argument

"Apathy is the lowest form of laziness."

Japanese shipping losses in WW2, by source, courtesy of

LtCol Candice Frost, an HR officer in the Army, recently defended the Army's personnel management practices in an online article (  Like the Navy, the Army has come under fire for an often stiflingly bureaucratic promotion system, one that overlooks officers that tend to challenge the system.  The article drips of apathy towards those that would even think of challenging how the Army does business.

I absolutely loathe that sort of "it's gotta be this way" attitude.  Whether it is a Sailor that throws up his hands and says "My command sucks and I can't do anything!" or an officer that doesn't recognize we have might have a retention problem, anyone that simply says everything is fine and dandy is a fool.  Worst of all are those that simply attempt to dismiss the problem out of hand.  It's the equivalent of trying to end an argument by saying "You just don't understand." to which I always reply "Please, enlighten me then."

We'll use submarine officers as an example.  Submarines struggle to retain junior officers after their first tour.  Why?  The HR answer is some complicated spreadsheet math answer, properly documented on Powerpoint but offering no solution except to throw more money at the problem.  I'm sure LtCol Frost could present such findings in a 60 minute brief, and everyone would walk out with lots of thoughts and no actions to take.

The real answer has been constantly captured in exit interviews: being a submarine department head sucks, so much so that most people don't want to do it.  The Navy could try doing a proper root cause analysis and determine WHY being a submarine department head sucks.  They might find that it has to do with long hours, poor treatment, conflicting ISIC requirements, and getting your ass chewed by the XO and CO on a constant basis, on top of not getting any sort of choice in where you are assigned.  These issues are all fixable if the Navy put some time, effort and money towards them.  Review the ISIC requirements and automate/eliminate some of them.  Get better equipment onboard to make maintenance easier.  Rethink how we do overhauls and do more of the work for the boat instead of pushing it onto the crew.  Make the way we route FITREPs, EVALs and other paperwork electronic and easy so that the administrative burden isn't high.  I'm sure others could find even better examples, but the Navy's response is to throw bonuses at the problem.

Or, look at the Air Force, which can't get enough drone pilots.  Ask Air Force HR, and I'm sure they are working on the issue.  But ask a drone pilot, and he'll tell you: it's a dead end job.  The Air Force is now guessed it, a bonus, because rather than address the morale issues, they will throw more money at the problem.

Money is easy: tell Congress you need more, whine about how hard the job is, and it appears.  Addressing the issues that made people not want to stay in the first place?  That's a lot harder, and something no service seems compelled to solve.

The services will continue to dismiss the issues of talent management until it is thrust in their face.  In the Army's case, it required having General Petraeus sit on the general selection board, or firing around 600 officers in World War 2 (as outlined in the book "The Generals").  In the Navy, it required firing submarine captains in World War 2 that didn't produce results, until the most gutsy and brazen captains were in command, driving submarines to sink over 50% of Japanese shipping in the war.  The Air Force began tracking bombing effectiveness and threatened bombing crews that returned early with court martial, the result being more bombs on German industry and a speedier end to the war.

We haven't faced an existential threat recently.  This has caused us to accept our current way of managing people as "good enough," and in the words of Jim Collins, "Good is the enemy of great."  Until we do, until our system is really threatened, we sadly won't see change and we won't have a great system unless we put the apathy aside and focus on making the system great.

The really sad part is that NOW is the time to change things.  Congress is already planning changes to all sorts of pieces of the military.  We've had a dozen or so investigations into military pay and retirement (meaning: your retirement is getting changed, even if the arguments don't hold water), why not the detailing process?  If I had to propose a process, it would look like this:

- You'd have a web portal you could login to, perhaps an extension to the BUPERS page.
- Your PRD would be listed and the jobs available around your PRD would be listed as well. 
- You could select a billet and it would list who was in the billet (with contact info), how it was coded (subspecialty, AQD, milestone, etc.) and where it was physically located. You could also bring up a short one paragraph job description.  The whole point of this is to give you an idea of what the job requires, so that you don't walk into a job with the wrong expectations.
- For each billet you could view the current and projected reporting senior, his/her average for your paygrade, and their official biography.  This would let people do a bit of research into who they would work for and get an idea of what sort of boss they would have.  It's not perfect, but I would personally avoid working for someone that has a 4.8 RSA unless I knew a bit more about them.
- With these details, you would electronically enter your preferences, 1-10 in the portal.  The detailer would view it and could send you feedback on whether that is a good choice for your career.  Ultimately, the OCM would assign you (I'm not overly familiar with that part, orders appearing are magic to me).
- The CO/OIC for a UIC would get an automated report on who has applied for their positions and what level they placed on them.  This is CRITICAL feedback for COs.  If nobody applies for a job, or people apply but place it at the bottom, then the "gouge" is that the job sucks.  This should provide the impetus for the CO to evaluate why that is.  Is the job too hard?  Not the right paygrade?  Not enough resources?  Not advancing people's careers?  This feedback allows COs to recommend useful changes to Millington to change the billet and make it easier to fill.
- Reporting seniors could identify key billets that would require a person submit an electronic package in order to apply and be selected for certain billets.  This would have to be restricted to no more than 5% of a UICs billets, since otherwise it would get excessive.  What this would allow CO/OICs to do is screen people for key billets or for billet they know they WILL need good people for (since the CO/OIC is looking into the future for the command).  The package would be mostly automatically generated, however a CO could request something like an essay or conduct a VTC with the officer applying.

Someone may argue that this would make it too easy to avoid hard assignments.  My response is that if a hard assignment isn't backed up with something sweet (by being a milestone, or extra pay, or working for an awesome boss) then we need to ask WHY it's so hard to fill in the first place.  There are lots of people volunteering for "hard" duty like sea duty over working on a large shore staff, because most people find the shore staff lifestyle monotonous and soul-crushing.  If a CO finds it's harder to fill the billets at his command because nobody applies, then he may have to sweeten the deal to get good people.  Ultimately, the OCM is going to assign people even if they don't necessarily want to go somewhere (that whole "needs of the Navy" thing).  If I was a CO though and noticed I couldn't get a good OPS because the billet isn't enticing to people, I'd probably work pretty hard with Millington to get it coded better.

I also think this system would ideally make it easier for the detailers to manage a large group of people.  Nothing can replace a phone call to the detailer, but unless you're an IW or IP officer, you don't have a list of the officers in different billets, so you require the detailer to do some initial administrative lifting for you.  An electronic process makes it easier for you to determine what you want and where your priorities lay while giving a detailer a feedback mechanism.  It most importantly gives feedback to COs and OICs that own UICs and could help them build a better team in the future.

I doubt LtCol Frost would approve, but luckily she's in Army HR and not the Navy ;)