Work as War

I know that sounds drastic, almost excessive, yes? On it’s face, it’s easy to understand that reaction: obviously, we’re not shooting guns at each other. We’re not “deployed” to theatres of war, in tanks and Humvees, doing HALO drops behind enemy lines, barricading ourselves in foxholes and bunkers—it’s just work, right?

Hmm, maybe, maybe not. Let’s explore that.

The sentiments of work and war can be the same, at least when it comes to those of engaged in change activities. I’m going to draw some comparisons that may make you uncomfortable to understand how much we have in common (and I’ll avoid the typical one of leadership, but let’s not pretend it accidental that we often look to the military and draw our lessons from the military on how to manage, motivate, and lead). Pay attention: this is a worthwhile discussion.

Training and Preparation
A fit military outfit is a well-trained military outfit. Even in times of active war, men (and women) are not taken from civilian life and thrown directly into the field. Whether they get two weeks of boot camp or four years of military school, and countless hours of specialised courses, they are trained to do their jobs. They are trained on how to hold their rifles and how to shoot them. They are trained on how to pack their packs and how to prep their feet for long marches. They are trained in every aspect of living that is necessary to keep them alive when they are put into an active theatre.

So, let’s talk about change projects.

How many people have gone to school, whether high school or college or further education? Almost everyone on a change team has. What did you learn in school? If you were paying attention, you learned the following:

  1. How to pay attention
  2. How to problem-solve, analyse, and discover things for yourself
  3. Potentially practical and applicable skills (e.g., valuing a bond, constructing a process flow, drafting electrical plans, building an argument, etc.)
  4. How to work in groups…or some facsimile thereof
  5. What your abilities are

We can dig further, but it’s rather evident that you learned something. Now, you don’t know what a project really requires until you’re knee-deep in it, but once you’re in it, you’re going to take those same skills and learning activities, and apply them. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn something new to take with you to the next project.

Moving on…

If there is one thing the military loves to do more than training it’s to give people specialized training. Past your standard fitness requirements (e.g. Army PFT), there are entrance standards to a number of different schools such as: Airborne School,  Mountain Warfare School, Defense Language Institute, branch Special Operations Schools, BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition School, aka “SEAL training”) – the list is endless and the justification obvious: the nature of expertise requires focus, and the reason that specialities are important is that on projects, sorry, deployments, you need different skill sets to do different things.

On change teams, while there’s an expectation of basic knowledge and background, we have different roles for different people to do different things. We have developers, process engineers, business analysts, systems analysts, lawyers, administrators, project managers, program managers, sponsors, subject matter experts, so on and so forth; no one person can be everything to everyone, and a good change team acknowledges and supports that understanding.

Which dovetails nicely into our next parallel—

Oh, that’s a dirty word, isn’t it? In our current culture of independence, individual motivation and flat organisations, we hate the word hierarchy. It’s an anachronism, a thing of the past, right? Wrong, so very wrong, and we come back to that reason of “one person cannot be everything to everyone”.

Each person on an individual fire team has a job. It is a combination of a role, a function, and responsibility – they have a mission. Each fire team has a mission, and each squad has a mission, each platoon, each company, ad infinitum. You don’t want a single soldier in Fire Team A, of Squad 2, of Platoon 3 to have control over the entire mission of Company A! It’s almost impossible to justify otherwise.

That is no different than how a change team needs to operate. You don’t want one developer, of one aspect of the application, of one aspect of a workflow (that involves multiple applications) to have sway over the RAG Status, the risk list, the scope of an entire project. We implement hierarchy to prevent that because we understand that the perspective of that single developer, no matter how good the intent, is limited. That said, when there are specific activities which could impact the entire project, we need that “on-the-ground” perspective, but let’s be honest, that is more the exception to the rule than we’d like to admit.

Hierarchy, done right (it can be done wrong, very wrong, but that’s a whole other topic for discussion) is necessary for success.

So, what do we do with this? Should we all put on our camos and head out to the woods for lessons in land navigation to find a magnetic azimuth with a cheek-to-compass sight line? No, I think not; most of us would get eaten by wild animals in under ten minutes.

The point is be found here is thus: it is not unreasonable for us to approach our work with the rigors, the practicalities, and the seriousness of war. For change teams, especially ones involved in high-profile, high-visibility, and time-challenged initiatives, work may not the space in which to explore our emotional selves, to engage in petty politicking and gamesmanship, or to cut our noses to spite our faces. Save that for more appropriate times: the bar, the gym, while camping – not in the heat of battle.

Work as War; saddle up.

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