by Mike Nelson
We thrive in chaos – or at least we did, when we were young and facing unprecedented challenges when deployed early in our careers. Then we moved to Ottawa, and it was not long until we realized the days of getting our boots dusty in far-away places were over as we oriented ourselves to the machine that is the Department of National Defence. We came in green, full of life, and ready to bless National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) with all the wisdom of our operational experiences. We believed we could have an impact, drive change, and make things better for those who followed in our footsteps.
Then came the gut punch: the realization that our new reality would not foster our motivation, initiative, or confidence, and that what we set out to accomplish during this phase of our careers might have been a pipe dream.
This may hurt to read, and you may not agree, but it is the reality for many. However, it is not inevitable. Given the imperative for digital transformation, there may be no better opportunity to revitalize Ottawa, give NDHQ life, and – just as importantly – give our uniformed personnel purpose.
Digital transformation is not so much a competitive advantage as it is a necessity for the Canadian Armed Forces, and the Canadian Army more specifically, to remain relevant among our peers, whether friends or foes, in the pan-domain reality. Further, digital transformation is not a product of technological innovation or novel organizational practices. Instead, it is the diligent pursuit of adaptation and agility in the face of evolving circumstances. It is an organizational culture.
While many acknowledge the need for change, the required actions needed to facilitate it are not always readily apparent, and the willingness to take action – or tolerate risk – is even less so.
In successful businesses the decision-making structure tends to be largely decentralized, characterizing a culture imbued with mutual trust among leaders and staff, and the ability for decision-makers at the edge to do what they are intended to: make decisions and take action. The success of a decentralized decision-making structure depends on the shared understanding of a common vision or intent, mission and strategy.
Enabling staff to make decisions at the edges allows actions to be taken faster and more accurately, given that staff may have situational awareness that does not exist at higher levels. Alignment of tactical decisions with strategic intent encourages the adaptability and agility necessary for the organizational culture of digital transformation to not just take root and survive, but to thrive in an ultra-competitive environment.
This culture closely reflects the command-and-control concept of Mission Command. A common thread conceptually unites the business world and the military: in both cases, teams of individuals are working together, often under immense pressure, to achieve a desired end state. In Mission Command, authority for specific decisions is delegated and distributed to reduce centralized control and achieve an extant capability to continue operations. This is a necessity in a variety of operational contexts. Small teams distributed over large geographical areas require increased decision-action autonomy from traditional hierarchical chains of command. In these situations, tactical actions can have strategic consequences. We train for this reality.
The business world has demonstrated that Mission Command can be successful in enabling digital transformation, even in large complex organizations. In Ottawa, however, few would claim that they feel enabled or empowered in a way that reflects Mission Command, especially regarding financial authorities and procurement. This must change if digital transformation is to be successful and we are to remain relevant. Although leaders tend to desire control over the decisions made in their organizations, to keep pace with our allies and stay ahead of adversaries in the digital age, the Canadian Army will have to exercise Mission Command at a corporate level, push control to lower levels and enable these lower levels to be successful so that organizational leaders can focus on leading change, rather than be obstacles to it.
This command-led digital culture change implies that leaders must lead from the front, take risks, create safe space for subordinates to take risk, and demonstrate that their calls for change are not merely political, but are a shared duty in our service to Canada and its people. Culture change will not be achieved solely by mandates or policies, or through leadership’s vision for change. It should also be noted that while command-led leadership may demand compliance, it can’t dictate optimism, trust, conviction, or creativity.
Culture lives in the hearts and minds of people, and is realized through their actions and their shared perception of how things are done. Changing corporate culture requires a movement, and movements are driven by emotion. Leadership must therefore harness the diffuse dissatisfaction with the status quo and demonstrate the feasibility of digital transformation and the value it delivers.
Change will result in friction within traditional defence culture. Although a modest amount of friction is positive, because resistance often indicates where the culture needs to evolve, too much friction will bring an operation grinding to a halt. Resistance to change is often attributed to the human condition, but this does not tell the full story. Defence culture is institutionalized in organizational structures, bureaucracy, administration, and processes. The institution is not built to facilitate change. It is built to maintain the status quo. Military staff embody this reality, but have little influence over it.
Leadership must therefore demonstrate that the institutional change of digital transformation is truly feasible and in the workers’ interests, and that individuals or small groups can have an impact, drive change, and make things better for those who follow in their footsteps.
This begins by defining not just a vision, but a path forward that is within the power of staff to influence and achieve tangible outcomes. For this to occur—and without digging too deeply into change management theory—leadership must invest in creating a sustained sense of urgency. The resulting pressure should instill a deep desire, and even responsibility, to change that comes from a shared sense of purpose conjuring individual emotion and inciting collective action.
To achieve buy-in from the unformed community, this urgency must not be focused on the business of defence, but rather the motivation that is rooted in protecting the soldiers that fight with or for us, while enabling them to achieve mission success. Momentum can be achieved through various mutually supportive actions, including removing obstacles to digital transformation and empowering teams of passionate enthusiasts to deliver a series of small wins that can be built upon or scaled before anchoring that change into organizational culture.
Fostering a Canadian Army digital culture is about leadership opening doors and creating space to unleash a culture that already exists, but is constrained by the organizational structures and bureaucracy of defence as an institution. Digital transformation demands Mission Command, and in order for decision-makers at all levels to take action, leadership must themselves be fully involved in each phase of the change process, from creating a sense of urgency to removing obstacles, creating short-term wins, and anchoring those changes in the culture of defence.
Mike Nelson is the founder of CINTIQS, a Canadian military technology accelerator focused on helping dual-use emerging technology companies commercialize innovative capabilities for the Canadian Armed Forces. They also work closely with the CAF to enable digital transformation via the vast opportunities available to them from across the Canadian high-technology ecosystem. He served for 12 years and has operational experience with both the conventional and Special Operations Forces.