Do we have permission for an Intellectual Edge?

Author: 
Andrew Garnett

 

“The most important goal is to be the best in the intellectual task of finding the most appropriate innovations in the concepts of operation and making the organisational changes to fully exploit the technologies already available.” (Marshall, 1993)[1].

The Australian Defence Force prides itself on being adaptive, agile, collaborative and responsive[2] but it has taken the COVID-19 situation to initiate disruptive innovation rather than the progressive innovation the organisation is accustomed to. Most of the recent changes that have been instigated by the ADF resulting from the COVID 19 ‘lockdown’ have seen us using technologies that have been readily available but have not, until now, been fully utilised. As noted above by Andrew Marshall, long time director of the US Office of National Assessment, the exploitation of available technologies in innovative ways is an important intellectual task. This paper argues that generally, tangible innovation within the ADF has been inhibited by the lack of hierarchical interpersonal permissions and that pursuit of an Intellectual Edge may assist to progress future reform by developing leaders willing to trust in subordinates and tolerate risk.

The need for the Australian Defence Force to develop an Intellectual Edge has been well discussed[3]. Most commentators recognise that the achievement of an intellectual edge will require organisational and cultural changes, in addition to the provision of educational opportunities to military professionals[4]. Development of an Intellectual Edge manifests in the interconnection between individual professional mastery, and a collective, institution-wide edge[5]. Recent evidence from the COVID-19 lockdown suggests that an institution-wide intellectual edge may have been previously suppressed by inadequate permissions being granted by leaders at many levels.

 

Permissions

Boella and van der Torre (2008) describe the concept of permissions within a hierarchical organisation as “negation of a prohibition” or ‘prohibition immunity” which mediates the normative behaviours for what is commonly held to be acceptable[6]. Members of a military organisation are “embedded in webs of social relations that influence their characteristics and actions… [which] both empowers and constrains the choices of the individual actors”[7]. It is within the context of these interactions that senior members give permission, either implicitly or explicitly, for the way their members normalise their actions[8]. Senior members can also inadvertently withhold permission for innovation if they are overly prescriptive on how tasks are to be achieved, constraining the thinking of their subordinates. The empowerment for innovation originates from Organisational Permissions, with each of the services having active Innovation Hubs, suggestion schemes, and continuous improvement teams. Unfortunately, it is often hierarchical Interpersonal Permissions that constrain ADF members to “Sustaining Innovations” (seeking to improve on current processes) rather than “Disruptive Innovation” (invention of a new product or business model).

 

Governmental Permissions

Organisational permissions for the ADF are, in turn, guided by Government and Societal Permissions for what is acceptable and expected. Guidance from Government comes to Defence through strategic directives and Minister for Defence (MINDEF) correspondence[9]. Government guidance, however, stems from what Australian Society finds permissible, for instance it is regarded as implausible that taxpayers would allow Government to increase Defence spending beyond 2% of GDP[10] in the medium term[11]. These societal permissions are fluid and can be influenced by many factors.  The Australian Government has had a long-term narrow focus on a large budgetary surplus but has recently committed >$320 Billion (10.6% GDP)[12] to stimulate the post COVID economy, placing the Federal Budget in deficit for the foreseeable future. This sort of Government intervention was unthinkable at the beginning of 2020, even following the devastating bushfire season, but has now become permissible only because much more of the population is affected by the COVID situation.

 

Interpersonal Permissions

Whilst some constraints on the ADF originate externally, the organisation has stated aims for reform[13] and seemingly has the mechanisms in place, but innovation cannot occur in a hierarchical organisation without interpersonal permission to try something innovative. Interpersonal permissions within the ADF have had a fundamental shift due to the COVID situation. Government restrictions have led to a series of CDF/SEC directives that have disrupted work practices, forcing the workforce to work remotely on-mass. Sudden imposition of these restrictions has forced members to use existing technologies in creative new ways. The younger members of our organisation are very conversant with online technologies, and yet many leaders within Defence have previously shown reluctance to give them the freedom to experiment with new ways of doing business.

We often hear members in authority talk about reform but are they willing to risk failure for tangible reform? Permission for innovative thinking within an organisation requires the leader to be accountable for errors that may eventuate along the way. Many leaders within our organisation have become severely risk averse and therefore they withhold permission for their subordinates to try anything new. There are times and places to take risks, but leaders need to be ‘risk aware’ not risk averse, to allow their members to think innovatively and learn from their mistakes along the way. The individual intellectual edge allows members to understand second and third order effects of reform but it must be supported by an institutional learning culture to build an organisational intellectual edge.

The one-team approach required to build a Learning Organisation is based on trust. Trust in each other and trust in those that we lead. If a commander withholds permission to attempt reform because of the risk of failure, then do they really trust those that they lead? The following guidance on trust of subordinates was published in the US Marine Corps Gazette in 1916 and I believe it still holds true.

“If he distrusts them it means he considers them untrustworthy or incompetent, in which case he has either failed to properly train them and render them competent, or to have them replaced by better officers. His therefore, in such a case, is the blame.” [14].

Interpersonal permissions arise through trust, which in turn is a product of competence and training. The ADF has introduced a structured Joint Professional Military Education (JPME) continuum to develop an intellectual edge across all levels of the organisation[15]. If the ADF aims to pursue an intellectual edge then the resulting up-swell in individual competence should naturally lead to more trust. This individual competence must be supported by an institution-wide intellectual edge where leaders also learn risk tolerance and the acceptance of error in the pursuit of innovation. Disruptive innovation comes with the risk of failure, but leaders at all levels should be as prepared to own the failures as they are to claim the successes.

 

Conclusion

Why does it take a ‘burning platform’ like COVID-19 to bring real innovation to the ADF? This paper argues that in the past, interpersonal permission for innovation has been withheld by leaders that have become too risk averse and are unwilling to allow their members to make mistakes in the pursuit of innovative practices. An ADF, Joint PME continuum that seeks to provide an intellectual edge to the individual must also deliver an institutional learning culture that develops risk tolerance and trust in subordinates so that an organisational intellectual edge is pursued in parallel.

What is different about the COVID-19 situation that caused reform to happen so quickly in the ADF? It is possible that with the CDF/SEC imposing sudden workplace restrictions, permission in this instance was given by proxy, leaving leaders to pursue innovation without being accountable for its failure. The environment now exists for these rapid innovations to be improved upon[16] and leaders at all levels should be permissive enough so that processes within the ADF do not snap-back to the way they were, pre-COVID.

 


About the Author

Andrew Garnett is a Warrant Officer within the Joint PME Directorate at the Australian Defence College, with more than three decades experience in operational and educational roles across the Royal Australian Air Force. He has tertiary qualifications in Business, Psychology and Process improvement and has a keen interest in the effects of leadership at all levels of the ADF.


 

[1] Marshal, A. (1993). Some Thoughts on Military Revolutions – Second Version, Memorandum for the Record, Office of Net Assessment.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ryan, M. (2020). The Intellectual Edge: A Competitive Advantage for Future War and Strategic Competition. Joint Force Quarterly, 96, National Defense University Press.

[6] Boella, G. & van der Torre, L. (2008). Institutions with a hierarchy of authorities in distributed dynamic environments. Artificial Intelligence Law, 16, 53-71.

[7] Hundman, E. & Parkinson, S. (2019). Rogues, Degenerates and Heroes: Disobedience as Politics in Military Organisations. European Journal of International Relations, Vol 25, Issue 3. Accessed through Pro-Quest,
04 May2020.

[8] Think here on the junior staff member working long hours, not because they are required to, but because their senior officer does.

[9] Defence White Paper and Capability Plan form the directives whilst Ministerial Submissions (MINSUBs) form the basis of ADF-MINDEF correspondence. The very nature and level of detail required in MINSUBS has a shaping effect in its own right that influences the permissions, or perception of what is allowable.

[10] Hellyer, M. (2019). The Cost of Defence Beyond 2% of GDP. The Strategist; Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Accessed online at https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-cost-of-defence-beyond-2-of-gdp/, 10 May 20.

[11] Defence as a % of GDP may see an artificial comparative rise in the near term due to COVID induced stalling of GDP, but it is unlikely this will be sustained in the longer term.

[12] This figure is the projected total across the forward estimates (3-4 years) at the time of writing. Accessed at https://treasury.gov.au/coronavirus 10 May 20.

[14]Richmond, H.W. (1916). On informing Subordinates, Marine Corps Gazette. Vol 1, Issue 4. p.375

[15] The Australian Joint Professional Military Education Continuum.

[16] See DEFGRAM 169/2020 - Defence COVID-19 Lessons Framework.