Adapting, Building, and Cultivating a Defense-Focused Workforce for the Challenges of 2025 And Beyond
They say time flies when you’re having fun* — and while I don’t know if any rational individual would consider the last few years of global turbulence, COVID-19, and increasing polarization in open societies to be “fun”, time definitely seems to have flown by fast.
(* = speaking of time flies like the wind, friend and colleague Vint Cerf and I were recently discussing how this is an example of an ambiguous human idiom that ChatGPT would have challenges parsing with regards to whether flies here is a noun or verb. For musings on the future of chat bots and their impact on public service, please see the posts from earlier this year including Part 1 and Part 2).
Back to the Future of 2015:
Back in 2015, a senior staffer from the Office of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Undersecretary for Personnel & Readiness gave me a call and said they were 6 months behind schedule on one of the top three priorities for then-SECDEF Carter, namely his planned “Force of the Future” initiative. They asked if I could help — specifically for free over weekends and week nights (because I was already worth the USG and couldn’t be paid more). In response, I said I would if I could build a small strike Team. USD(P&R) said “sure” — if they also were willing to work for free too.
Fortunately eleven other friends and colleagues signed up to help. We had about 2 months to get it back on track (again, for free since we were already working for the USG in different roles). We asked the Department of Defense if they had defined the personnel problems they wanted to solve — i.e., define the problem before you focus on the solutions — and they had not. Moreover when we looked at the “solutions” (despite the absence of a problem definition) — they had 900+ recommendations with about 50% or more focusing on Chief Learning Officer activities because, surprise, the personnel the different service components had volunteered to help were mostly Learning Officers themselves so of course their recommendations were biased to them.
Ultimately the agile X-Cell of 12 people working pro bono was able to reverse engineer a problem definition from the SECDEF’s public speeches and then use that problem definition to first rack and stack, and then prioritize as well as deprioritize recommendations, relative to the problems DoD faced re: personnel. At the time, the biggest issue we found wasn’t on size — the biggest issues were a lack of real-time data on the talent the DoD did and didn’t have, as well as the talent they would need and not need for the near-future. Also USD(P&R) had no viable Theory of Change for how they would actually *implement* the changes to the DoD workforce — let alone a recognition that you cannot provide 900+ recommendations and expect them to stick.
What the 2015 X-Cell Found
The motley DoD X-Cell worked with the Department to eventually reduce that number of recommendations to about 90-or-so, but even then, the 12 person X-Cell rightfully said it should be 10 or less in our collective opinion. Moreover, we pointed out that such change cannot be driven solely from the top — SECDEFs come and go after all. We also said that such change cannot be driven solely from the bottom either — as in 2015 there were too many Innovation Inflation flowers blooming then without the ability to “cross the chasm” into successful scalable, institutionalization activities. The DoD back then risked scattershot “Innoflation” that looked like innovation but missed the opportunity to institutionalize anything they did with the rest of big DoD.
Behind the scenes we made two concrete suggestions — the first of which I’ll present here. There was a proposal to (1) have DoD operate with some discretionary part of its budget, say 5%, on spotlight efforts that did transform at scale how the DoD workforce and processes operated. We also made a proposal (2) that DARPA could incubate new approaches to analytics so that the DoD could answer how many and which U.S. Army personnel both know Farsi and are trained in human terrain activities in less than 3 hours instead of 3–4 weeks.
Fast-forward to today and these ideas still have merit, so in the spirit of sharing these ideas so that others may refine, rework, and revamp these ideas potentially to further use — I’ll share these two ideas here starting with the first one. Post number two should follow soon after this one later today too and discuss the new approaches to analytics for the Department too.
Proposed: A DoD Coordinating Office of Future Force Ventures
Let’s be frank: there are too many Innovation Inflation flowers blooming across the Department of Defense and insufficient scaling across one-off prototypes to the services. Part of the challenge is incumbents don’t want to see their programs be disrupted — even if it is in the interest of the Department and the nation’s defense. Part of the challenge is risk-taking is rarely rewarded. If something does not work, pioneers risk being shunned and rebuked or called before Congress.
Some parts of the Department lack an agile mindset that incorporates the recognition that to “FAIL” is actually an acronym and Iterative Learning is necessary — specifically that there will be First Attempts at Iterative Learning (FAILs), followed by Second Attempts at Iterative Learning, Third Attempts at Iterative Learning, and more.
PROJECT CORONA back in the early 1960s explored thirteen times on the rocket pad before finally getting into space — and it was not until attempt number twenty-one that it was fully successful. Similar “adaptive learning” thinking is needed for our current decade and beyond.
The proposal in 2015 was for the a U.S. Department of Defense’s Coordinating Office of Future Force Ventures focused internally on “in situ” fielding of new workforce technologies, process improvements (as tech without process adaptations misses the mark), new incentives (as process adaptations without rewards also miss the mark), policy improvements, and new ways of working at scale and speed for the DoD. To make that happen would require a three-step lifecycle: experiment, demonstrate, institutionalize.
In the time that followed the 2015 X-Cell, SECDEF Carter and subsequent SECDEFs took some of these ideas and got the experiment part going — but the harder institutionalize part remains the chasm to be crossed. To solve that, the proposal at the time basically was to have a Department-wide internal-only VC with up to 5% discretion to bring more resources, personnel, or outside expertise for initiatives that are moving the ball forward with one or multiple Services. Employ the friendly rivalries of the Service to outperform each other as a way to motivate delivery of results at speed. Rotate personnel in and out of these projects — as Innovation is not done by a single office (sorry DIU), instead it is done DoD-wide with everyone playing a role. Recognize as well that contractors can be your friends or foes — and most quietly will smile and passive aggressively stale against anything that risks eroding their bottom line. So the SECDEF and Congress will need to provide top-cover for this DoD wide activity. Let DARPA serve as the outside incubator of an advanced analytics function to better understand the current and future workforce, to include what contractors/contracts are working, stalled, and need to be killed.
The Coordinating Office of Future Force Ventures would need to have a subordinate office focused on Digital HR Services. At the time in 2015, the DoD was spending $11 billion or more on HR functions — and it was our estimate that process improvements could literally pay for this entire effort if Congress was willing to apply pressure to be efficient with regards to HR activities and recognize some incumbent contractors might not like that but others would be motivated to deliver results differently and better.
Below are some slides from that proposal. Comments, thoughts, and feedback welcomed!
Proposed: A Coordinating Office of Future Force Ventures focused internally on “in situ” fielding of new workforce technologies, process improvements (as tech without process adaptations misses the mark), new incentives (as process adaptations without rewards also miss the mark), policy improvements, and new ways of working at scale and speed for the DoD.
One element we emphasized was that folks would need to rotate in and out regularly across the Department into the Coordinating Office of Future Force Ventures — as Innovation is not done by a single office (sorry DIU), instead it is done DoD-wide with everyone playing a role.
The idea was that top-level Departmental leadership would pose questions and challenges to drive the Office of Personnel Analytics to get better at using data to identify gaps and future needs in the DoD’s workforce.
The Coordinating Office of Future Focused Ventures (COFFV, rhymes with COFFEE) would include six focus areas for Digital HR or Digital Workforce Services. Eight years later, in retrospective the DoD seems to have attempted to tackle Digital Services but missed the Workforce Transformation part to include the people, processes, and policy shifts that need to go along with such an embrace of digital.
As always, comments, thoughts, and feedback welcomed and stay tuned for a link to part two of this discussion soon. Meanwhile Challenges and Needed New Solutions for Open Societies to Maintain Civil Discourse continue to an important topic for 2023 and beyond as well.