The Atlantic recently covered exodus of military officers into other sectors. The central argument is that the US military has become a bureaucratic mess where risk-aversion is rewarded, length of service is the primary driver for promotions and specialization isn’t possible if you’re going to be promoted.
In a 2007 essay in the Armed Forces Journal, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling offered a compelling explanation for this risk-averse tendency. A veteran of three tours in Iraq, Yingling articulated a common frustration among the troops: that a failure of generalship was losing the war. His critique focused not on failures of strategy but on the failures of the general-officer corps making the strategy, and of the anti-entrepreneurial career ladder that produced them: “It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties.”
What they present is a case that the military needs to undergo another fundamental shift like they did in the 1970s – the change from a drafted group to all volunteer:
The all-volunteer force must be understood in terms of a philosophical shift: the military rejected centrally planned accessions in exchange for a market mechanism. Faced with having to attract and retain volunteers, the military filled its requirements for labor with the right price: better pay, better housing, better treatment, and ultimately a better career opportunity than it had ever offered.
The case that they present is one that many companies could stand to learn from. While yes, the military is a completely different organization tasked with protecting a nation – something in which failure is not an option – many companies struggle with how to incentivize entrepreneurship. One idea presented is to introduce some chaos into the development process. Many large tech companies have complicated processes of getting product plans approved. A former military officer in the article working in Silicon Valley explains his policy:
When I asked him about Silicon Valley’s lessons for the military, he mentioned his firm’s internal market for matching engineers and projects, where the bottom line is that engineers rule. Team leaders have to advertise their projects and try to attract engineers, and it’s uncommon for an engineer to be told what he or she will do. Happier workers mean higher productivity. “I don’t want to oversimplify,” he says. “But this is about incentives and control.”
It’s also an argument to improve job satisfaction. You can’t expect to retain employees, especially in the public service where generally you are underpaid compared to the private sector, if they are not happy with their jobs. Happy employees also means more innovation. If people are working in something they are passionate about, they are likely to push the envelope, not just maintain the status quo.
Never having served in the military, I can’t comment on how to improve, but many companies are just as bureaucratic with archaic policies. Introduce some Chaos – it can’t hurt. You can’t expect your leadership to master plan every move.