People hate change. Institutions are comprised of people. Therefore, institutions naturally resist change. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger argues that sometimes the only way to initiate necessary reforms is to act like the cavalry and outmanoeuvre your own organisational culture.
Sixteen years ago today, a very nervous USAF colonel came to my office to inform me that I hadn’t been selected to take command of the wing’s IT support unit. I was naturally disappointed, but I couldn’t fault the board for who they’d selected. The fellow who ‘won’ the interview was young, cheerful, personable, and a known quantity. After sixteen consecutive years of having their IT group run by a politically-motivated careerist, the wing decided that having a mentor-able junior officer would be a breath of fresh air. I thanked the colonel for personally letting me know, and sincerely wished him the best of luck.
I really meant it. I liked they guy they’d picked. I’d predicted that he’d be the top candidate out of the 13 of us who’d applied. I’d high-fived him before he went into his interview because he just so happened to be one of my best mates. That’s why I knew – and the board didn’t know – that their selectee wasn’t going to accept the position if he won. It had taken the bureaucracy so darned long to get to the interviews that he’d already accepted a new full-time job out of state.
The next day, the same colonel who’d told me that I hadn’t been selected came by again to tell me that there’d been a change of plans and now I was selected. Out of respect for his dignity (and rank), I pretended to be surprised. Inside, I figured that my accidental time in the command chair was going to be a brutally rough ride. I wasn’t wrong.
The hiring board spent nearly two weeks trying to figure out a legal way to un-select me for the position. I think they would’ve rather have left the post vacant for another year than have me spend a single day in the command chair.
See, I’d been a ‘customer’ of the IT department for three years during my time as the wing’s Public Affairs Officer. I’d tried using their services and knew that they were utter rubbish at nearly everything. The guy who’d been running IT had kept order by making all of their core processes ‘black boxes’  so that he was free of accountability and oversight. He kept his people distracted by maintaining a constant cacophony of cynically-engineered personnel drama.  The IT department was widely considered to be the absolute worst unit on the entire installation. That had to change.
The trouble was, no matter how much the wing desperately wanted and needed the IT department to change, its culture was vehemently opposed to allowing (let alone supporting) any sort of radical change. I’d experienced the rigid weight of institutional inflexibility first-hand when I’d tried to reform and modernize the PA shop. I also knew that my new bosses – the same one’s who’d selected my mate over me during the interviews – were on-record as having disapproved how I’d ran my shop. I figured that I’d have one or two years at best to demonstrate positive change that my bosses couldn’t ignore or misattribute. That meant finding a way to circumvent our suffocating culture.
Culture is an oppressive force when you’re trying to reform any established organisation, not just the U.S.A.F. Back on 11th April, James Holmes wrote a compelling essay for the website War Is Boring on why the U.S. Navy needs to radically overhaul how it trains and employs junior officers. The issues he cited in his article – insufficient training, unfocused and overworked staff, lack of accountability, etc. – are some of the same issues that I was dealing with as a new unit commander. The institutional barriers to improvement were also the same. About halfway through his piece, Holmes said:
‘Change comes once events discredit old methods beyond dispute. Custodians of the status quo can no longer deny failure. But if change has to await disaster, it tends to come belatedly if not too late. We lag behind the times.
‘Bureaucratic institutions as a whole display the same vice – except worse. Bureaucracies are like machines. Machinery doesn’t easily adjust as times change; it has to be reengineered. Its operators oppose retooling. Bureaucratic leaders are charged with performing the same repertoire of tasks the same way, over and over again. They also wield coercive power that lets them enforce standard procedures and techniques with machinelike efficiency. 
‘If it’s hard to shake up an individual’s habits of thought and deed, try shaking up an institution whose overseers command the authority to reward the subordinate who remains faithful to conventional ways while punishing the apostate who rejects them.’
If you toe the party line, expect to get handsomely rewarded by the powers-that-be. When you challenge the status quo, expect to get beat down, run off, or burned at the stake. Sometimes only metaphorically!
Mr Holmes is right: I knew from my previous failed attempts to reform PA that the organisation responsible for approving, supporting, or otherwise tolerating the radical and disruptive changes I needed to make would reflexively balk at every suggestion, proposal, and request that I brought them. It seems strange; I know. The majority of users and leaders in the wing despised the IT department and constantly complained how awful it was at delivering basic services. You’d think that they’d embrace change. In reality, company cultures are highly resistant to change even when – especially when –change is necessary. Change is scary, so change is irrationally resisted. Everywhere.
Based on that, I decided that my only viable option was to adopt a leadership style and management approach that treated institutional change the way a cavalry troop handles reconnaissance: charge boldly into the unknown, move too swiftly for anyone to predict your movements, and accomplish your objectives before anyone catches on to what your objectives were. I’d have to ‘win’ by instituting crucial changes so quickly that my bosses and key stakeholders didn’t have time to oppose their implementation.
This wasn’t anywhere close to my natural leadership style. Everyone has their ‘default’ style, and mine (at the time) tended to be more orthodox and non-confrontational. I’d come from the U.S. Army, where rank, structure, and regulations were much more rigid. Paradoxically, while the Army’s approach made it obscenely difficult to achieve large-scale change, it actually made it much more effective than the loosey-goosey Air Force when it came to implementing local change. Every Army commander and section leader was afforded great latitude to run his or her function as they saw fit … so long as they stayed within the regs. Air Force ‘instructions’ were deliberately written so vaguely that senior leaders at base level had extraordinary latitude to innovate. This, strangely, stifled local change because each base-level leader was a de facto dictator.
Some leaders recognized this and lusted after the top position specifically for the nearly unlimited power it promised Others just wanted to do a good job and slowly grew corrupted by the role. The best leaders I ever knew were the guys and gals who recognized the job’s corrupting influence and refused to pursue it.
I’d seen this close up. The attempts I’d made to evolve PA had largely failed because my bosses had only allowed me to change small aspects of the job that wouldn’t be noticed outside of the HQ building. Whenever I tried something that got attention on the larger installation or at State HQ, I got stomped on for having tried (regardless of the results). Three years of hurling myself at the metaphorical wall taught me that the only way to get past it (so to speak) was to hustle around to the other side before anyone realized what I’d been trying to achieve.
With that in mind, I did very little for my first 90 days in the new command billet. I watched. I studied the people that I’d inherited. I let things run normally until people got complacent. Then, after my bosses were sufficiently distracted, I adopted a new leadership style that I’d seen demonstrated by the cavalry leaders I’d supported back when I was an enlisted medic: run like hell and never give an adversary time to figure out what you’re up to or where you’re going next.
To be fair, I did give my people an indirect warning that this was coming a week before I started: I had my graphic arts team create a giant colour poster for our unit classroom that incorporated some common thematic elements including military men charging into danger, our all-new unit logo, and this quote from Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince:
‘There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.’
Every day, my people noticed the giant new banner. Had any of them thought to research it, they would have discovered that the full quote continues:
‘For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have actually experienced it.’
Machiavelli forgot to mention that some people are bound and determined to be irrationally and self-destructively truculent no matter what you do for them.
I’d decided that was all the warning anyone was going to get from me. From that point on, our unit was moving ‘Hell-bent for leather’ towards implementing comprehensive reform. Within a year, we’d introduced a new organisational structure, reassigned underperforming workers, overhauled our service desk, implemented accountability for customer service standards, introduced transparency in work and financial planning processes, and debuted new training programs that freaked people right the heck out.
Did my ‘cavalry charge’ strategy work? Yes. Yes, it did.
It worked for two reasons: first, because I maintained a manic pace of change. None of my detractors had time to organise effective resistance to any of my reforms before another unexpected reform blindsided them. Second, because I’d strategically co-opted my boss into publicly endorsing our reforms. I invited her to come out and observe some of our more visible events. When my detractors saw my boss thoroughly enjoying her experience, they grudgingly backed down. Not permanently, but long enough for me to secure my position and get my reform agenda accepted as a fait accompli.
At the end of my first year, my boss gave me a heartfelt apology for having doubted my intent and my methods. To be sure, my approach was unorthodox and the speed at which I was manoeuvring was disorienting for everyone, but the results of my reforms spoke for themselves: customer service improved and complaints fell. Responsiveness improved and repeat tech support problems fell. Major ‘problem children’ found themselves isolated and increasingly pushed towards the door. Previously disillusioned workers were invigorated as their integrity and commitment were both recognized and rewarded. Morale and esprit-de-corps improved markedly.
It ain’t rocket science. Give a person back their dignity, show them due respect, treat them fairly, and give them a realistic shot at success and they’ll follow you into Hell itself.
To be clear, I didn’t do anything revolutionary. Thousands of better leaders have used the same tactics to accomplish grander things long before I copied their techniques. I didn’t introduce anything new; I just emulated flamboyant iconoclasts like Billy Mitchell and George Patton on a far, far smaller scale. I didn’t do anything heroic; I adopted the tactics and leadership styles of people who were better at it than I was in order to accomplish my strategic objectives.
I implemented change rapidly enough that my bosses would tolerate (if not actively endorse) me as being ‘minimally acceptable’ in my new role because they had to. The couldn’t un-do the reforms that I’d implemented after having failed to take any action at all to interfere with them when they were first introduced. After I secured that grudging acceptance, then I could throttle back and work towards implementing lasting, systemic cultural and operational reforms.
The key take-away that I want you to learn from this story is that sometimes the only way to force an organisation to change is to implement small-scale reforms so rapidly that it mitigates the office culture’s natural resistance to change. To be clear: the ‘cavalry charge approach is audacious and highly risky. Understand that it’s often an all-or-nothing gamble. That being said, when the suffocating weight of your office culture makes change effectively impossible, taking a daring risk may be your only viable option. Even if it’s not your leadership style, sometimes the only way to secure victory is don your imaginary cowboy hat, do your best cock-sure Teddy Roosevelt or John Wayne impression, and charge like a maniac. Win the day before your adversaries realize that they’ve been outmanoeuvred.
 A ‘black box’ process is one where no one outside of the process is allowed to know how it actually works. There are inputs and outputs, but no one can work out how the one becomes the other. This is common in organisations that want to shield their operations from auditors, nosy customers, etc.
 My predecessor shrewdly and cynically encouraged racism, sexism, ageism, and all sorts of other fracture lines that kept his enlisted endlessly feuding with one another. It worked, in a sense; they were too busy hating and plotting against one another to have time to devote to messing with people outside the unit.
 The hyperlink in the quoted section appeared in the original article.
Title Allusions: Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1532 book)
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.