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Long ReadOpinionPeople and Leadership

Making Change Happen in the Army

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Introduction

In a world where the speed of change is ever-increasing, keeping pace and adapting is crucial to the Army’s ability to maintain relevance and achieve competitive advantage. Successfully implementing change helps the Army remain agile, innovative, and relevant.  Nonetheless, change and innovation is difficult to implement. For example, results from the Armed Forces Continuous Attitude Survey show that only 29% of respondents agree that change is managed well in the Services (Statistics, 2022). So, whilst change is non-discretionary, it seems it is also tough to do well.

Guiding change and innovation is not simply tweaking priorities or doing different things with the same equipment or process. Change and innovation is the process of encouraging and developing new ideas, technologies, and methods to let go of old and outmoded things of the past. Leading change and innovation may involve introducing new technology, but the adoption of new behaviours will always be a central component of both change and innovation.

No doubt the strategic environment will continue to change at pace and so the Army must be ready to engage in a continual process of adaptation and renewal. However, the Army’s attempts to change are often inefficient because we lack the necessary skills to implement it in an organisation wedded to tradition and not known for peace-time adaptability. This article explains why it is so challenging for the Army to innovate and adapt and suggests what can be done about it.  It recommends an approach which focusses on the psychological aspects that are required to shift human behaviours.

Setting the Scene

For those unfamiliar with facilitating change in the Army, let us set the scene for a typical change effort. The conversation begins between you (the change maker) and an important stakeholder (someone interested in maintaining the status quo). The possible perspectives are:

You: You underestimate the complexity of what you are entering.  Further, you see the problem and its solutions simplistically and you fail to understand the complete system. Additionally, you overstate the benefits of change and underplay, or do not fully appreciate, the risks. Moreover, you take negative feedback personally and are inclined to dig in and fight, rather than listen to understand.

Stakeholder: The stakeholder generally does not care about your innovative idea. For the stakeholder, the system is working, and therefore, it is not a priority concern. The stakeholder is weary of change and worn down by constantly having to defend their interests. The stakeholders are well versed in bureaucratic games to stymie or kill change, and will bog your effort down if they feel threatened by your ideas or not listened to.

Moving forward, you encounter many more problems than you anticipated. You become frustrated with bureaucracy and what you regard as change-resistant stakeholders. Even those who are effusive about what you are doing provide tacit support but never get around to putting their shoulder behind the wheel.

This scenario, which frequently plays out when a motivated change agent pushes for innovation, is not a recipe for success. Despite all this, you no doubt have the bones of a promising idea, and the people you are engaging want to be consulted, and they, too, want a better future.  So, what can be done to improve your chances of success? It starts with understanding the context.

Understanding the Context

Here are some features of the landscape that change agents will enter when embarking on trying to drive change in the Army.

Execution over Adaptation

All organisations must be able to balance between doing (i.e., execution) and changing (i.e., adaptation).  Execution means exploiting existing competencies, such as logistics, planning, and conducting operations.  In this case, efficiency, control, and incremental improvement are valued. Whilst executing, the Army must simultaneously adapt, such as fielding new capabilities and modernising policies. To adapt, flexibility, autonomy, and experimentation are needed. This ambidexterity, as it is known, is challenging.

In the case of the Army, its abilities lie in execution more than in adaptation. This preference finds its roots in the Army’s culture and behaviours.  The Army is bureaucratic and hierarchical. Further, the Army depends on standard operating procedures and weighty policy. It relies on procedural rather than entrepreneurial thinking, and it’s decision-making is highly structured.

Bureaucracies like the Army are designed to prioritise stability and consistency. The Army is only interested in things that work and not keen to introduce uncertainty. Sometimes, templated solutions brought enthusiastically from the business world will not work in the Army, at least not without adjustment.

The Army is bureaucratic and hierarchical. Further, the Army depends on standard operating procedures and weighty policy. It relies on procedural rather than entrepreneurial thinking, and it’s decision-making is highly structured.

None of this is intended as criticism. Years of hard-won experience have forged the Army in this image. Too often, members of the Army do us down, especially when comparing the force to the private sector. The Army possesses an extraordinary capacity to accomplish remarkable things under the tightest timelines and the most demanding circumstances, whereas other organisations will not or cannot operate. The Army’s superpower lies in its ability to execute, not adapt.

Systems

As a precursor to advising that, “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it,” people typically challenge a new idea by asking what is broken This advice should be rejected, and change agents should avoid describing what they are attempting to fix. Nothing is “broken” in any complicated system of people, processes and power structures. No matter how things might appear, the current system works because it benefits some people and is maintained by entrenched behaviours and interests (Wasafiri Ltd, 2019). The powerbrokers would have changed broken parts of the system if it was not working properly. Things are how they are because it works for someone with power and influence within the system.

Power

Change agents cannot make large-scale innovation happen alone. Change agents must implement their project through the coordinated efforts of others. They need to leverage those with power in the system to obtain the influence necessary to implement innovation. For example, the most critical determinant of whether the Field Army empowerment programme delivered benefits in a unit was the level of buy-in from the commanding officer.

If the commanding officer is committed to the change, then empowerment initiatives are implemented, and benefits will be realised. If the commanding officer has not brought in to the change effort, nothing will happen, no matter how many silent believers there are in the unit. In getting things done, change agents must identify where the power lies in the system, and harness or co-opt that power to achieve their goals.

Organisational Evolution

Clever, hardworking people devised the facet of the Army that change agents might have their eye on changing. That part of the Army came to be through years of trial and error and incremental adjustments, which has evidently outcompeted all other ways of doing things. It evolved, works in relative harmony with adjacent parts of the system and is bolstered by someone with power. If a change agent wants to change things, this is what they are up against. Change agents must therefore be cautious about their ability to swoop in, reshape things, and make innovation stick.

British Troops Remembering the Fallen in Afghanistan

The idea of organisational evolution is a helpful way to think about change in the Army. When changes in the environment are slow, it’s an effective way for organisations to adapt. But evolution can be too slow in the modern world and sometimes leads to dead ends. In nature, evolution brought us the panda and, in military affairs, the fat, ponderous and electromagnetically obvious command posts that evolved for a different type of conflict than major warfighting. Sometimes, these evolutionary mutations become vulnerabilities that require a revolution to correct. (Beagle, Slider and Arrol, 2023).

That’s enough about the apparent difficulties.  Now let’s look at how the Army can overcome those challenges.

Dealing with conflict

Unless a change agent is ushering in something transformative like the jet engine or quantum computing, the project will involve trade-offs: more resource for A at the expense of B, more capable but also more complicated, more freedom at the cost of control, or modernisation over tradition. Because of this requirement for trade-off, change agents should abandon hope of pleasing everyone and they should anticipate the inevitable interpersonal conflict that comes with compromise.

Change agents will encounter three types of people during their journey. First, a small number of people will love the idea. These people can help spread change efforts. Second, the majority won’t care for a variety of reasons, but often because they are just too busy to care. Change agents should attempt to maintain this situation for as long as they can because apathy provides cover to get on with things.

Finally, change agents will encounter a few people who hate their idea. Their feedback will be the shrillest of the three. Change agents must wise up and make these people, and the conflict that results from their interactions with them, a resource, not a threat. Here is how to do that.

Change agents must not fall in love with their idea. They must be ready to adjust throughout the process.

Firstly, change agents must be aware that the problem is not personal, but with the role that they represent (Heifetz and Linsky, 2002). The recalcitrance exists for a reason, and it is rarely personal. Change agents must never take things personally, nor lose their composure. The moment that they do, the problem becomes the change agent and not the project.

Second, change agents must remember that resistance to change is, in many ways, desirable. The conflict it creates is a resource that can lead to a more thorough consideration of options. Change-resistant recipients often see their actions as supporting a more rigorous process.

Thirdly, change agents must remember that an idea that some people hate might be powerful in the long term – given that the popular, easy ideas will all have been tried already.

Much conflict can be avoided by engaging people early, being transparent with them, providing them the opportunity to voice their concerns and allowing them to help shape aspects of the plan. If conflict should arise, the key is to create a vessel for that conflict to happen in, to contain it somehow, perhaps in a room one-to-one, and let the ensuing dialogue take the sharp edges off the disagreement.

Change agents must not fall in love with their idea. They must be ready to adjust throughout the process. Change agents should have coffee once a month with the person most committed to seeing their project fail. If a change agent can turn them, they can turn anyone.

Designing and Implementing the change

Use change management models

Whilst there is a wealth of guidance on portfolio, programme and project management (P3M), guidance on change management is less evident. Sure, most people likely consider themselves excellent project managers, but which of those people are excellent change managers?

Familiarity with change management models will help a change agent shape their approach, especially when neatly integrated with P3M methodologies. Like standard operating procedures and tactical aide memoires, change methodologies do not need to be followed slavishly, but instead used as a guide to shape innovation and give a road map for when uncertainty hits. Four such methodologies are:

Developing a case for change

The first significant step in any innovation project is establishing a case for change. This involves a change agent clearly explaining what they intend to do. The case for change must create a sense of importance and urgency and should pass the following tests (Katzenback and Smith, 1993):

  • Do all team members understand it and articulate it the same way, and do so without relying on ambiguous abstractions?
  • Can it be explained simply in less than 60 seconds?
  • Does it contain themes that are particularly meaningful and memorable?
  • Does credible evidence back the requirement?
  • Can it be demonstrably related to some enduring imperative, such as underpinning a people-first approach, improving retention or operational effectiveness?

Change agents must develop a pitch to sell their innovation. The pitch will take time to develop and will likely adjust throughout the process. Creating a pitch is a change agent’s first milestone. Change agents must get exceptionally good at explaining their innovation effort and be ready to do so instantly. Indeed, their ability to articulate this case for change with charisma and energy, and in different media, is a change agent’s core competence.

Deal with hubris

Change agents can be prone to hubris.  Simultaneously, inexperience encourages hubris.  The more inexperienced a teammate, the more likely they will oversimplify the problem.  To combat hubris, change agents must understand that someone has likely been here before. No matter how niche the project, at some level of abstraction, someone has faced the same problems in a similar context: doing more with less, prioritising better, digitising, or re-organising a department. Change agents must not start designing until they understand what has been tried before and what the lessons from those previous efforts.

Encourage creativity

To solve problems and face down challenges, change agents must use imagination and generate creative and original ideas to introduce something new. The good news is it’s possible to generate the conditions for creativity through the following components – and of course, creativity is destroyed where these components are not evident (Amabile, 1998):

  • Technical expertise and intellectual capacity. Change agents must enlist people who are experienced in a relevant topic but are restless for change and new ways of doing things.
  • Creative thinking skills. These include the ability to think flexibly, openness to new ideas and being able to draw on a range of problem-solving tools.
  • Intrinsic motivation. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge entailed rather than external pressures or rewards.

By this logic, the most creative teams are likely to be those that have developed a compelling case for change, who have diversity built into the team construct, and where there is a healthy team culture. Diversity in our context means creating whole force teams of different trades, ranks and including contractors and Civil Servants.

Move to action

Change agents must think less about the eventual solutions and more about the approach that will lead to the solution. For instance, what combination of activities will lead towards a robust solution, or will help implement it thoroughly?  This approach will probably start with intuition and guesswork and give way to analysis and logic. This will require change agents to start interacting with people and running small tests or experiments when their ideas are still developing. A strong bias for action, both for the change agent and the innovation team, is critical to make this a reality.

Change agents will experience a hard time if they cannot answer doubters or if their experiments fail. But they must remain resolute.  Ideas get forged in the white heat of stakeholder feedback and early experimentation. No breakthroughs will happen through endless intra-team brainstorming. Instead, they happen when the change agent, and their team, are open to various stimuli.

Understand our brains

Imagine you have successfully crafted and deployed a case for change and moved through the project’s diagnosis and design phases, and it’s time to transition to implementation. At this point, the project starts to take a very familiar form. No matter what the change is associated with, it is likely that the crux of the proposal rests on the premise that short-term pain will lead to long-term gain.

Change agents typically ask people to expend more resources on something in the short-term in the belief that the organization will reap greater benefits later. This requirement to accept short-term pain for long-term gain is the essence of many change initiatives. This is where things start getting tricky.  But why, and what can be done about it?  To understand this, change agents must understand how our brains work.

The brain has two independent systems at work that exist in tension.  One is the rational, conscious side (the planner). The other is the emotional, instinctive side (the doer). Think of them as a rider (rational side) sitting on top of an elephant (emotional side) (Haidt, 2021). The rider appears to be in control of the elephant, but that control is precarious; if the elephant refuses, there isn’t much the rider can do. This shaky control explains why people sometimes act irrationally. The rider’s strength is long-term planning, whilst the elephant’s strengths are emotion, loyalty, and pride, and it brings the energy and drive to get things done.

Nevertheless, both the rider and the elephant possess flaws: the rider procrastinates and over analyses, while the elephant is lazy and skittish.  When change efforts fail, it’s because people either generate understanding without motivation or passion without direction. In the case of short-term pain for long-term gain scenarios, especially when there are delays and setbacks, often the rider is unable to keep the elephant on the road long enough to see the change through.

Change agents typically ask people to expend more resources on something in the short-term in the belief that the organization will reap greater benefits later.

Change agents must give the rider what they need by clarifying the change effort’s ideas and showing a clear change plan. Script the critical moves and waypoints to clearly illustrate where the change effort is headed, define the end state, and explain how success is measured. So much change resistance results from a lack of clarity on these matters. Change agents must identify small successes within the change effort and consider scaling those up. The rider will like that.

Change agents must give the elephant what it needs by breaking the innovation into manageable chunks. Innovation is more likely to succeed when addressed in manageable segments. Encourage the elephant to focus on the bits that give the most bang for buck and leave the rest. And help both out by showing a case for change that appeals to both the head and heart. Get it right, and the change agent will have the rider providing planning and direction and the elephant bringing the energy (Heath and Heath, 2020)

Communicate

Quality communication has a significant impact on the success or failure of your project. Communications plans should be focused on three dates – notification, implementation and delivery. The notification date is when a change agent notifies key stakeholders and other important people that a change is coming. By notifying these people ahead of time, they will be able to help shape the message through their understanding of the local context and perhaps shape the product itself. This also helps turn them into potential proponents for the change. The implementation date is the time to formally communicate with the advisers, trainers, or commanders that the change is ready to be implemented.

At this point these agents must have all the information required to perform their obligations. The delivery date is when the end users are informed and they can begin using the change effort’s output. The opposite of this is a communication plan built on a single date where everyone is surprised at the same time. Surprise and change do not mix well.

Summary

The goal of this article is to provide an accurate and insightful way of thinking about change. It suggests that often one’s initial instincts can lead them astray, especially when attempting to bring change into a bureaucratic organization. In finding a way through, individuals should rely less on logical thinking and more on psychological thinking because the essence of the undertaking is always more about shifting human behaviour than implementing lines of development (Sutherland, 2021).

Red flags should rise when tight compartments generate strategic plans in haste and then issue those to the Army as orders to implement. This may doom the organisation to lengthy wrangling over whether and how to implement the changes because the plans arrive half-finished and without an adequate explanation of why. Change management scholar John Kotter argues that rushing or skipping steps in the process only gives the illusion of progress (Kotter, 1995). At the very least, the project team and senior leadership that devised the idea must remain as the focal point for implementation.

The Army must cultivate a hardcore of change-makers. Change makers can come from anywhere, but the Army Advanced Development Programme seems well suited to grow these people. Someone who works in an environment shaped for creativity and has change management and P3M skills becomes a change-maker. Individuals seeking to be one of these change-makers need to wise up on change management, possess exceptional reserves of resilience, positivity, and often sheer persistence.

The Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, spoke powerfully to the Wavell Room (Podcast, 2021), in which he encouraged the Army to try new things, pointing out there is seldom a cliff edge over which the organization might  plunge if the change does not work. Speaking to the Army as part of Teamwork, Stephen Bartlett echoed these sentiments when he spoke of ‘type 1 and type 2 decisions’ (Collins, 2019). The essence of which being that individuals should get on with things if they feel that the downside risks are containable, or that the change is reversible.  Therefore, try things and see where they go. In the private sector, dithering is punished. The same holds true in the Army, but sadly the burning platform is just as hot but sometimes not so easy to identify.

To conclude, become a change maker, but do not try to change the army. More likely, it will change you. Instead, focus on the bit you control, however tiny. What can you do to shift the balance from executional to adaptational excellence? Good luck.

Lt Col Simon Graham

Over the course of twenty years, Lt Col Simon Graham has commanded at troop, squadron and unit level, and as a staff officer, worked in 2-star and 4-star headquarters, LWC, DE&S and MOD Main Building. During his service with the Army he has gained an MSc in Battlespace Technology and an MBA. He has worked on various change programmes including equipment programmes, the Field Army Empowerment Programme and Programme Castle. He was a member of the first cohort of the Army Advanced Development Programme and is a fellow of the Forward Institute leadership programme.

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