Why “To Change an Army” Still Matters

Way back in 1983, the US Army’s Military Review professional journal published an article written by General Donn Starry, called To Change an Army.  In the article, just over six pages long, Starry described the process by which the US Army had transformed itself between its withdrawal from Vietnam, and the organisation that would exemplify Air-Land Battle in the 1980s.  It is an essential reference to those who seek to lead strategic and institutional change.

I came across this piece when I was writing my first Masters paper at the United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College in 2001.  It had an impact on me. But unfortunately, it was soon lost in the pile of articles and books that I used as research for my Master of Military Studies paper on the implementation of manoeuvre theory in the Australian Army.

Fast forward to 2008.  I was placed on a small team that was looking at the future effectiveness of the Australian Army, and how it might organise itself to be sustainable in current operational commitments (at that time, this was Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor and the Solomon Islands) but also be adaptive enough to reorient for future contingencies. After our first session with some senior officers, it occurred to me that Starry’s article might offer us some useful insights if we were serious about strategic and institutional reforms in our Army.

So, I went home one night and wrote a short two-page brief. With the highly original title of “Brief Insights into Institutional Change for Armies”, I submitted it to my boss the following day, thinking it might have some influence but no more.  The result was I was nominated as the lead action officer for a program that would be called Adaptive Army.  This program, implemented by the Chief of Army from mid 2008, fundamentally re-shaped the structure and temporal learning loops of our Army.

Some years later, after commanding the 1st Brigade in Darwin, I was asked to become the Director General of Training for the Australian Army.  As part of my duties, we undertook a diagnosis of the current challenges and opportunities in Army training and education.  In short order, this led to a strategic review (with the unfortunate title The Ryan Review).  

Once again, Starry played a role.  I was keen to ensure that the review did not become another piece of shelf-ware, sitting gathering dust while not having the impact it was designed to provoke.  So, we wrote an entire chapter on implementing change based on Starry’s article. The chapter (Chapter 8) identified key lessons contained in To Change an Army that were thought to be useful in the disciplined implementation of the Ryan Review.  You can read the review here.

While absolutely relevant in 1983 when the article was published, I also believe the insights from Starry retain an enduring relevance for future-focussed and adaptive institutions – for the military and the wider national security community.  These are NOT just Army lessons.

I thought I would pick four of the most relevant lessons from the Starr article, and discuss briefly why I believe they retain ongoing relevance.   

Insight 1: An institutional mechanism is needed to identify the need for change, to draw up parameters for change and to describe clearly what has to be done and how that differs from what is done now.  This gets to the heart of institutional change.  It is not about change for change sake but gaining an appreciation of the wider environment and how it is driving change for the institution to remain relevant and effective.  Diagnostic activities, before any kind of design or planning for change, are vital.

Insight 2: There must be a spokesman, for change. Whoever or whatever it may be, the spokesman must build a consensus that will give the new ideas, and the need to adopt them, a wider audience of converts and believers.  Senior leaders must own change but must also be able to explain the purpose for those changes.  This advocacy must extend through the entire leadership of the institution (who must also understand the rationale for change).  This advocacy extends well beyond the institution concerned; it must encompass those organisations that the institution works with, and those who it reports to.

Insight 3: There must be continuity among the architects of change so that consistency of effort is brought to bear on the process.  Consistent leadership, through continuity, is vital.  Changing out senior leadership half way through significant institutional reform risks a dilution of focus, the potential loss of key senior advocates and a loss of cohesion in the messaging by senior leaders. As an aside, I wish we had used social media more back in 2008 for the Adaptive Army initiative!

Insight 4:Changes proposed must be subjected to trials. The relevance must be convincingly demonstrated to a wide audience, and necessary modifications must be made as a result of such review outcomes. Institutional change is expensive – in time and money, but also in lives if we don’t get it right.   Experiments and trials with new concepts and organisations are a central element of any program of organisational change.  There are many useful historical examples of trials informing change.

Finally, thanks to Joe Byerly for stimulating this article.   His recent piece on the relevance of General Starry and his leadership and writings on our profession prompted me to think about how General Starry has influenced me over the years.  Thanks Joe!