There’s this concrete pathway on the joint installation where I work, built to serve as a route across the grass from a parking lot to a cluster of office buildings. I remember a time, maybe ten years ago, when setting foot off the edge of that sidewalk might trigger a sharp bark from an eagle-eyed Navy Chief. True to form for senior non-commissioned officers of any branch, many of them were deadly serious about that grass being not for walking on.
These days, that particular stretch of sidewalk is bordered by something far removed from the well-manicured grass that once denoted unflinching control over contained, singular samples of mother nature. Instead, for twenty feet or more, the sidewalk is flanked by footpaths thick with mud. The once pristine stretch of sidewalk is now broken and sunken concrete that sometimes collects pools of water, draining only when it hasn't rained for at least a week. In the fall and spring, the route is a semi-permanent water feature, with the gathered precipitation getting as much as four inches deep at times. The surrounding grass has lost soil structure after repeatedly being under water and walked over by those circumventing the natural hazard that now stands in the way.
The Chiefs, who would once have bellowed gleefully at a young airman like me to keep off the grass, are now right there alongside us picking out the less muddy trails that detour from the established route. At spots, we daintily make each step on our toes, trying not to get our boots or dress-shoes too wet or muddy. I often think back to earlier times in this very same place, and I marvel at the stark contrast in the culture of a singular space, precipitated by a prolonged losing battle with predictable geological forces.
The Ever-Shifting Shape of Things
The deterioration of systems and the environments in which they operate is a phenomenon so reliable that its basis in physics, entropy, was described by theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli as the originating mechanism for the direction of time. It is inevitable that the straight paths we lay today will bend, as over time the earth beneath them flows like an impossibly slow liquid; and they will break if the paths we laid were too brittle.
It is inevitable that the straight paths we lay today will bend, as over time the earth beneath them flows like an impossibly slow liquid…
Similarly, the processes and systems organizations establish will succumb to the pull of a different type of gravity. They lose structure and integrity with the passage of time, as distance grows from the original context and intent. Even when well maintained, they lose their tailored fit as their environment invisibly morphs around them and unanticipated users and contexts emerge. As the substrate crawls like a liquid underneath, they can also break if their structure is too brittle.
Failing to take these principles into account doesn’t just result in our systems losing effectiveness. Their degraded status often becomes the new normal. Future stewards can lack the imagination to envision more functional systems. The prospect of repair or re-calibration seems increasingly unreasonable as repair cost approaches that of replacement. At a certain point, these aging, neglected systems will begin to cause damage to the surrounding environment. They can be the impetus for habituation of negative behaviors, and can ultimately undermine the value they were designed to create. The concrete path did not simply stop providing a dry walkway—it now does a stellar job of retaining a pool of water for those who stay on the path to walk through. Neglected, our creations will turn against us. This type of maturation into obstruction is part of the natural life-cycle of systems and structures designed and executed without consideration for the inevitable effects of time. It is as predictable as the fact that an aircraft without continuous lift will plummet to the earth.
These immutable laws of nature have implications for how organizations across the Department of Defense should plan, organize, and deploy the systems and structures we expect to rely on in the future. Just as the designers of an aircraft account for the fact that gravity is going to have influence over their vehicle staying in the air, we need to consider the effect the passage of time will have on the policies and processes we employ.
Throughout my career in the Air Force, I have seen many demonstrations of these destructive dynamics. I will focus on one example to illustrate.
Policies Don’t Value People—People Do
I have struggled with the Air Force's Exceptional Family Member Program for my entire career. One thing the program does is ensure families with special medical needs are assigned to installations where necessary services are available. Though I believe the program does significant good, there have been several times when Exceptional Family Member Program policies failed to protect my medically fragile daughter, and even threatened to cause my family greater hardship. Additionally, I have seen families suffer the hardship of separation because of the strictness of the program. In a few cases, my family's well-being was put in serious jeopardy. Senior leaders eventually intervened, because the program’s policies were doing quite the opposite of their intended purpose, not unlike a pathway holding water for pedestrians to wade through.
No policy or process, regardless of how well designed or extensively amended, can avoid the challenge of unanticipated contexts and users, which inevitably emerge in waves of variance, increasing in frequency and amplitude with the passage of time. This requires interdiction, because systems left untended eventually violate their original intent. Our experience with the Exceptional Family Member Program is an example of what I call “the changing shape of things” in that our circumstances were simply the appearance of contextual variance that was increasingly likely to emerge with the passage of time. We were idiosyncratic pegs to the standardized holes of policy; and being forced through those rigid openings was bound to take off some flesh.
No policy or process, regardless of how well designed or extensively amended, can avoid the challenge of unanticipated contexts and users…
When execution is overly-limited by design, a system will violate its founding values at some point. Frequently, as has been the case with Exceptional Family Member Program, severe design flaws are fixed only with the addition of policy language that addresses the new context. But, with time, unforeseen contexts emerge, and we should all know that policies themselves won’t ever be capable of distinguishing when they are humane and when they are harmful. Adding additional rigid guidance seems the default solution to this challenge. We make changes to what we execute, but seldom how we execute it.
Innoculating Against the Ravages of Time
Achieving lasting efficacy in the face of the natural forces and tendencies described here requires adherence to three conceptually simple principles radically difficult to implement.
Design from a basis of value
Modern design and development methods teach that good design starts with empathy for primary users, gaining clarity about what problem we are solving. Good design is about discovering the value we want to create. To find a solution without letting unvalidated assumptions dictate design, we eliminate solution-oriented language (e.g., "I need a car") and substitute problem-oriented language (e.g., "I need to be at work every day" or, even more simplified, "I need to accomplish work"). This is how we discover the value-basis for what we’re designing.
Employ and Execute on Behalf of Values
When we change the way we design, but not the way we execute what we've designed, the resultant systems might work well for all users and contexts initially anticipated, but it is simply not realistic to expect those to be the only conditions for our systems' employment. To account for this, execution itself must also be imbued with the values of the system, so every discrete employment is another test of the design of the system.
A good example of execution on behalf of values is the principle of non-maleficence in the medical professions, apocryphally attributed to the Hippocratic Oath as the precept to “first do no harm.” Medical professionals have simple, foundational guidance for how they should execute their practice, regardless of context or contingency. The value of non-maleficence draws a clear line that helps practitioners to navigate unfamiliar territory and avoid actions that might violate the ethical underpinning of their profession. Values-based guidance reduces uncertainty in unfamiliar contexts, because values drive execution.
A value like "first do no harm" could be appropriate in more contexts than just medicine. In our history of struggles with the Exceptional Family Member Program, there were times when policy as written could have been cruel and hurtful to the very people it was designed to protect. In these instances, a core value like "first do no harm" might have significant impact, giving the unempowered airmen at the Air Force Personnel Center a basis from which to interdict or cancel the assignment and help my family stay together. But it was rigid policy, untempered by contextual consideration, that all too often informed such decisions. It took someone at a higher level to feel empowered to consider values in execution and interdict. Acting in service of our Air Force values to take care of airmen and families, my unit and wing leadership ultimately intervened. They saw the design and execution of policy as conditional—in service of values. When policy failed to support those values as written, they knew interdiction was warranted. Because they prioritized and executed their tasks this way, they were able to identify the impending failure of this policy.
Execution on behalf of values makes every execution of a system another test, ensuring the design doesn't remain static after deployment. This consideration addresses inevitable points where other systems and structures often fail to stay functional. Those who execute blindly stop paying attention and asking questions; what follows is that norm-enforcement takes priority over sustaining values.
Interdict on Behalf of Values
The most crucial step in all this is ensuring we are capable of course-correction when we observe—through values-based execution—design failing to support our values. Values-based execution and interdiction is a way we can ensure the design process never stops, and it requires those at the level of execution be granted three things:
Purpose: Those executing or implementing policy or process need to know why they are doing what they are doing. They need to know and support the underlying values that processes and products are in service of. Without that, they have no basis to recognize when interdiction is required.
Relevance: Executors need to feel their perspective holds value; to know at the point of execution they are not just there to pull a lever, but rather to facilitate a value. All those at the point of execution are consequential, the last line of defense against design-context misalignment and value atrophy; and they must feel interdiction in service of values is worth the friction they will face from norm-enforcers. To speak truth to power, all airmen, sailors, soldiers, and marines need to feel they personally have a stake in the outcome of the policy or program they execute.
Empowerment: At the level of execution, individuals need to be capable of bringing processes to a halt and being heard, in the same way operators in the Toyota Production System are enabled to stop the production line when errors are detected. Hierarchy must flatten completely when it comes to the enforcement of values, because a leadership structure that prevents interdiction when values are being undermined is itself poorly designed. Solutions can emerge from any level of the organization, and the fresh observations of newcomers should be elevated, because their perspectives have not yet been shaped by prolonged exposure to dysfunctional systems.
Occasionally, when it hasn't rained for long enough and the pool of water has had a chance to dry up, the concrete pathway doesn't look that bad. It even passes for functional, and we have time to recover from the outrage we felt when we found our boots covered in mud sliding through the grass, or felt that unnerving twinge of water wicking into our socks. We in the military are a resilient bunch, perhaps to a fault, and we relish the chance to let our frustration subside as we push the memory of a problem that feels so irrelevant to us into the back of our minds. I occasionally pass by groundskeepers on other parts of campus and I choose to simply offer a greeting without mentioning the sidewalk.
At the end of the day, I cut across the dry grass on my way to my car.
Daniel Hulter is a U.S. Air Force Non-Commissioned Officer. His current role and subject of study in recent years have focused on enhancing and facilitating innovation in his Wing and across the Air Force. He is an active member of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum and wrote this essay as part of DEF Gutenberg. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Marine Corps Boots (Rob Curtis/Marine Corps Times)