08 February 2012

Lessons-Learned and Evil Twins

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis caused something of an intellectual dustup earlier this week, when, in an February 2012 Armed Forces Journal article titled "Truth, Lies, and Afghanistan," he alleged that senior military leaders are not accurately describing conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. He writes, for example:
Entering this deployment, I was sincerely hoping to learn that the claims were true: that conditions in Afghanistan were improving, that the local government and military were progressing toward self-sufficiency. I did not need to witness dramatic improvements to be reassured, but merely hoped to see evidence of positive trends, to see companies or battalions produce even minimal but sustainable progress.

Instead, I witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level.
Davis, an active-duty officer, has a history of engaging public and policy discourse. He's written other opinions and analyses (see his personal website for links to examples), and has personally visited with members of Congress regarding his concerns. He was recently profiled by the New York Times.

I'm as uncertain of Davis' motivations as I am of his methods. Does he consider himself a crusader? A whistle-blower? A fly on the wall? A gadfly?

Is his latest Armed Forces Journal article an act of self-promotion? Or has he merely guaranteed he will never see again see a promotion in rank?

I hope he knows what he's doing. Because I think he may be my evil twin. Or maybe a doppelganger from a mirror universe.

Certainly, for me personally, he represents a road not taken.

Davis' words don't bother me much. Many soldiers and veterans echo his anecdotes and criticisms. I am bothered, however, with his decision to personally lobby Congress as a current member of the U.S. military. Feb. 6 New York Times profile of Davis even goes so far as to picture him visiting Capitol Hill while dressed in Army Combat Uniform (A.C.U.) and patrol cap.

Keep in mind, it was only last month that I criticized the actions of U.S. Army Reserve Cpl. Jesse Thorsen of West Des Moines, who made the poor decision to speak at an post-caucus political rally while wearing that same uniform.

There's a right way and a wrong way to make your points, both in and out of uniform. In both regards, Davis may have made some poor decisions.

That's not to say that Davis' words are without value or validity, however. In an essay posted earlier this week, reporter and blogger Carl Prine ("Line of Departure") placed Davis in the historical context of other 21st century truth-telling soldiers. Other critics have been less forgiving of Davis, trotting out old warhorse arguments and digs on character that seem to range from "only top brass have the true big picture" to "low-ranking soldiers doing odd jobs for the Army aren't entitled an opinion."

In one attempted assault, one commenter on Tom Ricks' "Best Defense" blog dismissed Davis as a "traveling boot seller," an apparent reference to Davis' role with the U.S. Army's Rapid Fielding Force.

But I tell you, "Blessed be the boot-sellers."

In some ways, I think Davis and I have walked similar paths. I was a knowledge manager for a U.S. National Guard brigade preparing for deployment to Afghanistan, itself an odd job in the Army, one that involves internal organizational-level communications and lessons-learned collection. As part of that job, I got paid to walk around in uniform and talk to soldiers of all ranks, to see what was working and not working within the organization. Then, as a National Guard retiree and civilian journalist, I got to visit those same units, which were nearly at the end of their 9 months on Afghan ground.

There, our paths diverge. I'm not trying to insert myself into the current controversy, but I'd like to think I made some different choices than Davis. As both a soldier and as a journalist, I saw things downrange both good and bad, but I never saw it as my duty to call "shenanigans". Certainly, he provides a good counterpoint to the ways in which I've been personally and professionally wrestling with issues related to the deployment of the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division.

Since my buddies and I returned to Iowa, I've been trying to figure out not only why "we" went to Afghanistan, but what it means now that we're back. Here's the quick and dirty insight: "Why soldiers go to war" and "what soldiers think about why they went" are two fundamentally different questions.

In his own way, perhaps Davis is trying to raise related questions.


Here are some lessons-learned rules of thumb that Davis' critics might wish to consider:

The Army is designed to be a learning organization. "A lesson is knowledge based on experience. A lesson-learned is knowledge based on experience that results in a change in individual or organizational behavior." Lessons-learned culture is one of hidden strengths of the U.S. Army.

Instructors at the Center for Army Lessons Learned, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, often tell of an attempt to export "say anything" American culture to the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. Things went okay until a Japanese general walked into the room, the story goes. The lieutenants and captains in the class practically drowned in flop-sweat, afraid to make mistakes in front of their superiors.

Somehow, I doubt that type of organizational culture or environment would generate an independent thinker like Davis. That's to the Army's potential credit.

Everyone gets a chance to be heard at the after-action review (A.A.R.). After every military maneuver and deployment, a group of soldiers is mandated to review and discuss their actions, individually and collectively. What the private first class experienced and observed is as valuable and valid as what the brigade commander did and saw during the same mission. We talk through the process, identify how to improve next time, document those insights, and share that knowledge with others.

Everyone's perspective is potentially valid. Forget "Army of One": In the U.S. Army, everybody is a "sample of one" (also sometimes called an "N of 1.") The implications of such an egalitarian attitude can seem pretty radical: If a general says Davis' observations are just one man's opinion, for example, that's just his opinion.

Of course, it's up to both parties to back up their talk with facts and data.

To best know the terrain, you have to walk it. Civilians call it "management by walking around." Army leaders call it "battlefield circulation." It's not just to see and be seen. It's to observe conditions, hear opinions, and personally determine the difference between PowerPoint realities and ground truths. Not everyone can do it, and rank can be as much a limitation as it is an advantage. I'll get to that in a moment.

Two's a coincidence. Three's a trend. If you hear the same opinion or make the same observation in three different places, from three independent sources, at three different times, you have an actionable item. It works for commanders and command sergeants major. It works for lessons-learned guys and embedded journalists. It even works for traveling boot sellers.

Any soldier can call "cease fire." It was Toyota—a Japanese company—that was one of the first celebrated practitioners of Jidoka: After detecting a fault, anyone on the assembly line is empowered to stop production until the problem is fixed. Likewise, in the U.S. Army, any soldier on the firing line is empowered to call "cease fire."

Sometimes, rank gets in the way. Here's what I understand as to be the crux of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: "The act of observation changes the observed behavior." So does what you're wearing. Commanders and command sergeants major will hear different opinions from rank-and-file soldiers than will chaplains, contractors, embedded journalists, and itinerant shoesalesmen. Remember Henry V circulating incognito the night before the battle of Agincourt? Ever watch "Undercover Boss"? The technique worked for Shakespeare, works for reality TV, and might work for you.

Don't believe your own hype. Apple Computer co-creator Steve Jobs was celebrated for his ability to demand seemingly impossible changes to products and delivery times. People went as far to call it his "reality distortion field." Command is the art of imposing one's will upon an organization. In the right hands, it can seem like Jedi mind tricks. In the wrong hands, it can turn into magical thinking.

In other words, the objective of any leader is to create new realities, without losing a grip on the ones we've got now.


Here are some links regarding Lt. Col. Davis' "Truth, Lies, and Afghanistan" essay, and reactions to it. Be sure to read the comments sections of each, too:


  1. Good points. I have however met people whose lessons learned as published in Leavenworth were so radically different from the report they wrote as to include events, individuals, and units that were not involved at any stage in a positive outcome. Something happens in the chain, I have no doubt the same happens, in stages, to other reports as well.

  2. Completely off-topic. I have nominated you for a Liebster award


  3. @ Karl: Roger that. In my lessons-learned roles, I was lucky enough to mostly avoid the Reality Distortion Field-generating red pens that seem to come out in some organizations. If you take out all the details and less-than-successes, all you're left with pablum and fluff. Then again, our lessons-learned team was out to help everyone improve, rather than make anyone feel bad.

    @ Pax: Very much appreciate the blog-love. Still researching ways I can retaliate and/or pass it forward ...


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