"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Region of Reverse Command, Problems Without Solutions, and Whining

Problems Without Solutions = Whining. This truism gets its own slide in an outstanding PowerPoint presentation entitled “Heretics and their Tools” authored by retired Air Force Lt General Paul K. Carlton, Jr., MD. The former Air Force surgeon general’s next slide develops the message more clearly--no whining. In my experience this maxim is prevalent in Air Force culture and I have heard peers and superiors alike mention that we do not bring problems to our bosses…we bring solutions. Maj William O’Connell includes this idea in his article entitled “Military Dissent and Junior Officers.” He writes that officers providing loyal dissent should provide a solution and instructs:

“Whenever you challenge the status quo, present a solution. The world is full of problems and messengers; the problem solver is the rarity” (O'Connell, 1988, 325).

I find it interesting that this message is included in these writings on loyal dissent because it seems to carry a large potential to suppress dissent. What should one or several officers do when they know there is a critical problem but the problem is so enormous, entrenched, or complicated that they cannot possibly provide the solution? This truism, taught as a part of good followership, may lead an officer to rationalize not alerting leadership to large and important problems. If the problem is self evident then a lack of follower input may result in leadership assuming the problem is not a priority. In my opinion, an officer should certainly try to provide a solution with the revelation of a problem. But there are cases when this simply isn’t possible for two reasons. First, the problem may be just too big and complicated. Second, our time to devote to the problem may be too limited.

Complicated problems may require resources and expertise that we simply don’t have and may require the pull of our superiors just to explore solutions. The divide between operations and support squadrons means that even the simplest problems often require several organizations in different chains of command to work together. In my experience, the near omnipresence of mission essential computer applications combined with the removal of computer support personnel from operations squadrons has greatly exacerbated this fact. As a result it is often difficult to get anything done in our “do…with less” Air Force without letting your boss know. Attempts to improve processes can easily result in bad blood between organizations and the boss will not want to be blindsided. When the boss tells you “so-and-so called asking why you are trying to get so-and-so to do such-and-such” the right answer is not going to be “I wanted to present you a solution along with the problem.”

The other reality is, in my opinion, that in the current Air Force we spend a great deal of time and energy just trying to keep from going backward. In the flying business there is a concept known as the “region of reverse command.” It refers to a part of an airplane’s performance envelope where it actually takes more engine power to fly slower. The reason is because at slower speeds the airplane has a higher pitch and therefore has a higher drag holding it back. This additional drag has to be compensated for by adding more power. Reducing the pitch reduces the drag, however, and the airplane sails along faster with less power required.

With long hours and undermanned offices, Airmen are simply trying to keep their heads above water while they produce the widgets and make the doughnuts. There is little if any time for reducing the pitch of the organization and making things more efficient. Besides the drag that must be overcome is enormous in many cases. It seems to me that it is unreasonable to expect officers to figure out a solution to every problem before passing it up the chain. We should just be happy they’re bringing it to our attention.

Further, I submit any message that discourages negative information from being pushed up the chain of command should be examined closely. This widely accepted cultural truism flies in the face of Crew Resource Management (CRM) and other problem solving philosophies that encourage members to not hold back if they think something is wrong. We would not tell a young loadmaster on a C-17, "if you see fluid streaming down the side of the aircraft but don't know how to fix it...well, keep that information to yourself until you figure it out." So why do we encourage such thinking when we're on the ground? I think pointing out problems is a service that should not be devalued or discouraged.

Works Cited:

Lt General Paul K. Carlton, Jr., MD., Heretics and Their Tools, Office of Homeland Security, Texas A&M.

Maj William O’Connell, Military Dissent and Junior Officers, Air University, 1988.

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