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Concepts and DoctrineOpinionPeople and LeadershipShort Read

Are we all process monkeys now?

Do you spend your day answering emails, ticking off training objectives and signing forms, or are you pursuing organisational priorities and building valuable things?

Much of our working day appears to be mired in process and fighting off bureaucracy.  From mandated online training designed to trap the user in digital hell to endless risk assessments, commanders feel held back from investing time in learning and practising how to fight better by the very organisation which wants them to fight better.

It is too easy to blame process.  As with any large organisation, it proliferates and multiplies, until the bureaucracy becomes too much to bear.  But, it isn’t process per se that is the problem, it is our dysfunctional relationship with process that is all wrong.  As an organisation, we have erred towards a risk-averse, process-driven culture that treats process as the ends rather than the means.  Our obsession with this is prioritising convenience over imagination, and this is actively harming our ability to think and adapt.  To get back on track, we need to ask if our behaviour is aligning with our long term goals and objectives.  Purpose must drive the process, not the other way around.

Process Matters

Look, don’t get me wrong, I love designing and optimising process.  Just ask my Sergeant Major, wearily nodding along as I expound on the 87th new system I’ve designed this morning for the Squadron.

Processes in general are great.  They act as a map by which you can navigate the territory of complexity.  They create general rules which facilitate decision-making.  At their best, they allow us to leverage institutional knowledge, helping us to deliver outcomes against difficult problems without really thinking too hard about them.  From the humble Battle Rhythm to the Tactical Estimate, the military has created powerful tools (processes) designed to enable rapid decisions, prevent error and mitigate risk.

Processes are a type of heuristic,1 a short circuit in our thinking that allows us to make decisions in complex, information rich environments under time pressure.  And like all heuristics, they are a means to an end.

The Map is Not the Territory

In Science and Sanity, Alfred Korzybski explains the concept of the Map and the Territory.2  Maps allow us to navigate the complexity of reality.  They are not reality themselves.  A map which no longer reflects reality is no longer useful.

Processes are maps.  Like models, all are wrong, but some are useful.3  As a tool, a map is designed to enable us to reach our desired outcome.  Maps require frequent updates from changing understanding of reality, or they don’t add value, and may indeed detract from our mission.  When the process is no longer aiding us in achieving the desired outcome, it is no longer useful.  The key to strategic effect is linking means, ways, and ends.  Process that doesn’t contribute to a meaningful outcome is activity without purpose – military onanism at its finest.

When we follow a process without having done the hard thinking ourselves, questioning why it exists and what its limits are, we cannot differentiate between map and territory.  We become process monkeys, another dumb ape smashing the cymbals in the circus tent, even when the audience is long gone.

Planet of the Process Monkeys

The process monkey has abandoned the fundamental principle of doctrine: judgement in application.4  It reacts to a fixed template of assumptions, taking the process, policy or model and treating it as holy scripture.  Deviation is tantamount to heresy.  In contact with reality, process and policy is often found wanting.  But the process monkey doesn’t care.  The process is all that matters.  It is not the means, but the end.

Before I’m accused of hyperbole, consider the following:

  • Have you ever read unit military transport standing orders, or compared military and civilian vehicle hire processes?
  • Erosion of mission command at the expense of process – here, here and here.
  • A reporting process, timeline and training which appears designed around a software system instead of a desired outcome.
  • Risk assessments that now cover basic activities – BBQs, visits to museums, pub lunches.
  • Regulation of legal behaviour, from whether soldiers can smoke to what they can say.
  • The online training burden – multiple, mandatory lessons covering the same topics.5
  • Joint Service Publication 752: Regulations for Expenses and Allowances now runs to 727 pages!  For perspective, the entire Hong Kong tax code is about 350 pages.

Process brings order to the chaos and mitigates risk.  As with doctrine, it should provide a thinking person with a useful frame of reference.6  But doing activity is not the same as achieving the purpose.  The map is not the territory.  The means are not the ends.

The consequences of this are not just wasted effort.  Thinking like a process monkey incentivises intellectual laziness, an inability to imagine, or adapt to a new reality.  Proliferation of lengthy process arguably increases risk, instead of mitigating it.  The unspoken opportunity cost of risk mitigating process is reduced innovation, decisiveness and flexibility.  Learned helplessness is the default lens through which the process monkey views novelty, because if the process can’t solve the issue, then it can’t be solved.  Sorry mate, computer says no.

In a world governed by rules and laws, with predictable deviation from the mean, the process monkey gets by.  It works in Mediocristan.  But this is not reflective of our reality.  Our reality is uncertain, volatile and chaotic, governed by entropy and fat-tails.  It is Extremistan.7  If we are to adapt in contact, we need to rapidly reconfigure our thinking to this reality.

There is a Better World

Simon Sinek proposes the simple Celery Test – ensuring that WHAT you do reinforces WHY you do it.8  Decisions are made by having clarity of purpose and prioritising it, providing a coherent, effective compass.  Sure, you still need rules and accountability—we live in a complex, litigious society—and decisions are bounded by finite resources, but whenever the rules conflict with your purpose, you change your rules and prioritise your purpose.

Netflix made that choice.  Apple made that choice.  It worked for DARPA, with independent teams all integrated around urgent, ambitious goals.9  The US Army of the 1980’s, shocked by Vietnam, challenged its assumptions and processes,10 developed the Air Land Battle doctrine and ushered in a Revolution in Military Affairs, resulting in the world’s most one-sided victory in the First Gulf War (although clearly something has gone wrong since).11

We’re already working on changing how we view process.  The Deputy Chief of the General Staff’s Army Command Standing Order (ACSO) 9001 is the best piece of policy you’ve never read, devolving Audit & Inspection risk to unit level.  The Defence Innovation Playbook highlights bravery to “Challenge a risk-averse culture” and imagination to “Explore new ideas”.  Defence Empowerment promotes “collaboration, challenge and trust”.  This is all great stuff.  It should all be communicated aggressively, until you’re sick of hearing it, then communicated more.

But we need more than initiatives.  Seeds only flourish in fertile ground.  We must fundamentally reset our relationship with process and overcome the deeply ingrained assumptions and behaviours that aren’t doing us any good.  Purpose over process must be hard-coded into our organisational DNA.  “What will you build or improve today?” should be emblazoned across the MODNET background – the first thing you see when you log in.  Our default mode is compliance and conformity.  It should be initiative and imagination.

Try a thought experiment.  Currently, policy and process provide our guiding light, and any deviation from policy must be rationalised.  Try instead, a rule that decisions taken must by default contribute to our core principles.  The Service test, conveniently brought out when punishment is required, could be used instead as a tool of empowerment.  Any deviation from the test – any activity, order or behaviour that is not directly contributing to our ability to plan and execute operations – must be explained and rationalised as to why it is the higher priority.  It’s no panacea, but it may be a small incremental step in resetting our dysfunctional relationship with process, and incentivising our inner risk-takers and disruptors.

Let’s empower our people, not our process monkeys.

Ben Johnson

Ben Johnson is a Major in the British Army, currently serving as 2IC of an Attack Aviation Regiment. He has operational experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has served within a US Divisional staff and DSTL. He has specialised in Strategy with Harvard Business School, gained an MSc in Battlespace Technology and is pursuing another in Digital & Cyber systems. He is a fellow for the Institute of Innovation and Knowledge Exchange.

Footnotes

  1. Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking Fast and Slow, 2011
  2. Korzybski, Alfred, Science and Sanity, 1933
  3. Attributed to statistician George Box
  4. AAP-06, NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions, 2021
  5. The ‘double helmet fallacy’ – Wearing one helmet improves your safety.  Does wearing a second one make you twice as safe?
  6. In a world without doctrine chaos reigns supreme
  7. Taleb, Nassim, Black Swan, 2007
  8. Sinek, Simon, Start with Why, 2009
  9. Bonvillian, William, The DARPA Model, 2020
  10. Nielson, Suzanne, An Army Transformed: The U.S. Army’s Post-Vietnam Recovery and the Dynamics of Change in Military Organizations, 2010
  11. Wong & Gerras, Lying to ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession, 2015

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