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On Culture and Design

October 21, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Retired Army Colonel Chris Paparone has published the fourth in a series of essays on the new Army concept of Design on Small Wars Journal.  The thesis is that in a military context, dialogue is central to the method of design, especially when operating in highly volatile, uncertain, complex and uncertain environments.  Army planners and commanders must ontinuously and collectively make sense of the situation.  Dialogue is the condition that enables such collective “sensemaking.”

I’ve followed this series of monographs with great interest. The author finally hit on what I believe to be the primary obstacle to effective Design in the Army: the culture. One could dedicate an entire monograph to this issue alone.

The author correctly points out that dialogue is key to effective Design. Senge devotes a considerable number of pages in The Fifth Discipline to dialogue and its importance. Senge contends that seeing each other as colleagues is essential to ensure the free flow of ideas. The author of this monograph builds on this concept, stating:

Ideally, participants subscribe to values associated with healthy dialogue. Hierarchical values are detrimental to good dialogue. Participants must somehow leave rank and positional authority at the door and not confuse passionate argument with insubordination or disrespect.

A recently published study of Army War College students showed Army leaders believed the Army culture should emphasize “flexibility, discretion, participation, human resource development, innovation, creativity, risk-taking, and a long-term emphasis on professional growth and the acquisition of new professional knowledge and skills.  However, it also found these same leaders believed Army culture actually emphasizes “an overarching desire for stability, control, formal rules and policies, coordination and efficiency, goal and results oriented, and hard-driving competitiveness.“

Obviously, we know what our culture should be ideally, however, the reality is our culture does not set the conditions for Design. Army culture arguably runs on the very “hierarchical values” the author points out are detrimental to dialogue. Furthermore, the situation is self-perpetuating. Officers know conforming to established norms, unquestioning compliance, and careful avoidance of slaying sacred cows is the way, not only to survive, but to be promoted. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but I think most Officers would agree that making waves is not the way to get ahead.

Until we address the underlying cultural dynamics which inhibit creative thought within the Army, effective Design will be difficult at best.

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