Desert Storm - Already the Army has moved its culture
Gordon R. Sullivan and Michael V. Harper, Hope is Not a Method
(New York: Times Business, Random House, 1996) $35.00 Cdn
by Brian Hull
Gordon Sullivan, General, US Army (ret'd) was Chief of Staff of the US Army from 1991 to 1995; at the same time, Michael Harper was director of the Army Chief's policy planning group. Together they have crafted one of the most important books in military and business management to hit the book stands during a time otherwise rich in all manner of business books and organizational renewal theories.
For a start, what makes this book stand out is that it is written by practitioners of organizational renewal and reengineering. These soldiers have actually been involved in leading and orchestrating the transformation of which they write. Even more remarkable, the organization in which they have served, the US Army, has a demonstrated record of success in its renewal journey.
Hope is Not a Method is a number of different books woven into one. It is a brief history of the organizational renewal of the US Army. Not the painful rebuilding of the Army which followed the debacle of the Vietnam War, though that in itself is an instructive story. but rather the renewal which followed fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of Desert Storm [the Gulf War-Ed] when the easy alternative would have been complacency in the face of victory and complaint in the face of downsizing by a quarter of initial strength over the five years from 1990.
It is a how-to-book for organizational renewal, but not the simple cook-book type of how-to-book where one ingredient follows another in a time tested recipe. It has a much tougher message. It is a how-to-book which asserts that as each new piece of organizational territory is explored, the most important place to start may be that the key to success lies through inquiry into places where leaders don't know they don't know, "DKDK".
It is a handbook for leaders at a time when, for all of the business tracts which have been published in recent years, not much that is written will actually shed light on where to go and what to do. (So many books on leadership and management, chock full of inspiring testimonials, provide very little insight into where a leader embarked on a renewal program should actually look for guidance, or what to do tomorrow morning.)
The book is an illuminating account of what it actually takes to build a learning organization in practice. Contrary to most conventional thinking, which says results come from good plans of planners executed by trained and compliant managers, it suggests that a learning organization is one designed to be successful in spite of plans which are imperfect, even though they are the best possible in an atmosphere of rapidly changing missions and resources. Good plans in a changing environment are those evolved during their accomplishment by those mandated to fulfill them, who must be willing to examine and learn from what worked and didn't work at each stage of the way.
This learning experience, well illustrated in the book, is called the After Action Review by the US Army and used at every level in the organization and under a great variety of circumstances. The After Action Review structures feedback around measurable events and performance standards. The key questions are: what happened? why did it happen? and what should we do about it?
The book clearly illustrates the distinction between empowerment and common delegation, with which it is so easily confused. A leader exercising empowerment is one who assigns the latitude to a subordinate or subordinates to think, explore and risk mistakes in action on behalf of the shared vision while at the same time holding and being held accountable for the subordinate unit's success. By contrast, delegation too often means placing accountability at a subordinate level while withholding the latitude for decision which would enable the subordinate to act responsibly - and often succeed.
Sullivan and Harper have dared to articulate some rules for successful renewal. The first three of these bear repeating here. Rule One: change is hard work. "Leading change means doing two jobs at once - getting the organization through today and getting the organization into tomorrow. . . . Transforming an organization is hard work because the leader and his or her leadership team must do it. Change will not spring full blown from the work of a committee or consultant. . . You have to spend a lot of time communicating, clarifying, generating enthusiasm, and listening (including listening to negative feedback, resistance and general disagreement)." Rule two: leadership begins with values. "Shared values express the essence of an organization." They are what binds an organization together when practically everything else is changing. Rule three: intellectual leads physical. "Strategic leadership is the front-end work- the in-depth, serious thinking by a leader and his or her team- that results in the creation of an intellectual framework for the future. . . Without the tough up-front work of intellectual change, physical change will be unfocused, random, and unlikely to succeed."
The toughest part of starting is starting. This is especially so for leaders pre-occupied with incidents and situations which are pushed to the top of the decision tree because the old strategic framework is far out-of-line with the actual demands of the time. Leaders are apparently too busy to lead. Thus, the first phase of the renewal journey could be called: "Restoring leadership to the leaders." It is, of necessity, a humbling place to be.