Smarter Defense: On wingwalking and A Global Force for Good
Delaney Turner 270003RQ8K Delaney.Turner@ca.ibm.com | | Tags:  ibmsoftware
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A 1920s carnival stunt was last week transformed into an insightful lesson on organizational transformation for troubled times at the 4th annual IBM Smarter Defense Summit in Ottawa.
The day-long event boasted a rich showcase of IBM Software and business partner solutions geared to help military and civilian leaders “optimize to transform” their organizations in an era of unceasing austerity and unprecedented change.
The day began with a keynote address by Ann E. Rondeau, Vice Admiral (Ret'd), United States Navy. With equal amounts of polish and poise, she told the story of the Navy's own transformation from a “rusted” organization rife with race and gender problems into "A Global Force for Good." In doing so, she conveyed hard-won and valuable lessons for any organization – military or civilian – that's struggling to cope with the pace of change.
Wingwalking is the practice of literally strolling along the wings of an airplane (usually a biplane) in flight. Contemporary wingwalkers perform with modern safety equipment; early wingwalkers however, made their way from a plane's wingtip to its cockpit using only the connecting rods as support. With each step, they faced a decision: stay and hang on for safety, or let go and risk it all.
This dilemma - not to mention the height and speed - made many a wingwalker dizzy and disoriented, said Rondeau, and it's just as likely to afflict contemporary decision-makers as it is the organizations they lead.
Take the Navy, for example. Rondeau joined at the end of the conflict in Vietnam, which at the time was merely the latest in a string of conflicts stretching back to the Second World War. Three decades of action had taken their toll on the entire organization, Rondeau said. Its ships and planes were rusted and worn. Many of its personnel were struggling with drug addiction; tensions along race and gender lines were endemic. At home, too, Americans themselves were conflicted about military issues and their country's role in the world. America's economy was sputtering, the post-war boom a distant memory.
But rather than founder, Rondeau recalled, the Navy began a process of transformation that continues to this day. To begin, its leaders put forth three critical questions. The answers would serve as its blueprint for change:
Answering them was not easy, Rondeau said. The questions cut to the very heart of the organization. They challenged values and beliefs that had been developed and nurtured over the course of more than 200 years. Yet Navy leaders knew these values and beliefs would need to change. Behaviors at all levels of the organization would need to change. Yet dramatic change could make matters even worse.
Much of the transformation, said Rondeau, was driven by the change in propulsion systems. Whether from steam to nuclear or from gasoline to electric, she explained, the change isn't simply a matter of swapping out one engine for another. Any vessel is merely the most visible element of a massive (in this case, global), complex and interconnected ecosystem of processes and personnel. Readying even a single vessel and crew for a given mission demands this ecosystem function with the utmost efficiency, agility and effectiveness. Such a large-scale changes demanded not only new equipment; personnel needed new knowledge and skills as well.
Yet, says Rondeau, the Navy was indeed successful. Among its unprecedented actions were to give up its shipbuilding function; to cede personnel and budget to other parts of the armed forces, and, most tellingly, to change its mindset from engaging in conflicts to learning what it takes to avoid or prevent them, hence, "A Global Force for Good."
In closing, Rondeau imparted the lessons she'd learned in her own years of metaphorical wingwalking:
Transformation in any era, in any organization, is not easy. However, said Rondeau, it is necessary and it is possible. Challenging times can lead to extraordinary moments, Rondeau said. Leaders must be brave enough to ask themselves the tough questions and honest enough in their answers to drive positive change. “It's not always safe, but it's possible, provided we have our legs under us, our sense of self and a sense of direction."
Like it or not, we're all wingwalkers now.