Reinventing the wheel is known to be an old adage, but the profession it is repeatedly applied in is the military. However, good military men won’t usually admit that until you needle them a little on what all they did in their careers. Since I seem to be critiquing my brethren let me be the first to admit that the adage has not escaped me either. However, I am proud that I am admitting it today as much as I admitted it in those years in service. Most of us have lived with the perception that our predecessors just could not have been as good as us. The perception exists that within a day of their departure their perceptions, tenets and policies were old wine and that a breath of fresh air was needed. Unfortunate but true and this is the bane of the system, especially these days in the era of hyper short tenures in the Indian Army where change is seen to be innovation and performance is sometimes urged by that.
Among various reasons for the lack of continuity and progression of ideas is military ego which seems to suddenly emerge from nowhere when one gets the lipstick on the collar. I remember one of my much respected commanding officers who always said that he had waited twenty years to command our unit and no one could teach him how to command it. Now that I consider a fair one, so at unit level where we have reasonably stable tenures individuality could take precedence as long as it promoted efficiency and not turbulence. Besides that most units belonging to the Arms move location and so do not function in a fixed and static but a rather dynamic environment. It’s in the flag ranks and senior staff that the idea of continuity applies much more, especially since tenures are so short.
The problem no doubt arises from ego. All of us have our professional background and our personalities are shaped by our experience and the personality of those we admire. However, most of us cannot perceive the turbulence we cause when we attempt to foist this ego on our organisations which have to bear with it over 12 to 18 months. While change management is a subject that business schools and defence management institutions love to teach, none take on continuity management as a subject. The problem is that the organisation loves initiative and innovation is the byword, so how does one blame individuals. Command style and idiosyncrasies are often spoken in the same breath. Most senior officers usually find it is easier to force an entire organisation to change its way of functioning rather than adjust to the environment or meet the requirement half way by compromising with some issues which are their comfort level. Thoughts which come to mind immediately on what one can do to overcome this problem relate to self-reminders, curbing ego (easier said as most won’t even admit having an ego) and some kind of awareness training. The last need not be the structured kind but just some advisories by senior commanders who of course must walk the talk themselves. Even more lasting can be steps to change the culture altogether. It needs to start with the ability to introspect and have the courage to admit where one has failed before bragging about where one has succeeded.
Let me explain with a personal experience. At the end of the command of my unit I had a visit by the Corps Commander. He was one of those iconic personalities who are remembered to the day for uprightness and professionalism. It was a mere coincidence that he visited me right at the end of my command tenure. He was spending quality time with our formation and a full day was devoted to my unit. When it came to the inevitable briefing I had prepared 50 slides (plastic transparencies), with every possible detail. When the Corps Commander was settled in his chair, I started the briefing. I informed the VIP that I had 50 boring slides for him but an interesting 51st. He asked what this slide contained. I was straight faced in stating that the title was -’ Aspirations at the Commencement of Command: Analysis of Failures and Successes’. He sat up and told me to keep away the 50 slides, we would discuss only the 51st. So it was, we spent 60 minutes on that slide fifty percent of which was about failures and what I was leaving behind for my successor to resolve. We were complimented for the identification of our weaknesses and being fully aware of them.
Through the above case one can explain the concept of introspection through self-awareness and not pitching success as the only USP for career progression.
However, if this has to become a culture then it needs to filter down from the top. Currently continuity is not a concept for those occupying the lofty appointment of army commander because surprisingly there is no handing and taking over between an outgoing and incoming incumbent. The new incumbent depends on what the staff tells him or what he reads if his predecessor has been kind enough to leave behind some notes. In the Army War College’s outstanding seminar on strategic leadership in 2015, I argued strongly for the introduction of a concept whereby each outgoing army and corps commander and even the PSOs at Army Headquarters must speak either at College of Defence Management or the Army War College bringing out his aspirations at the time of assumption of appointment and the failures (first) or inability to complete intended projects, and then the successes. How will this help? Over time officers rising in the hierarchy would know exactly what the most contentious areas are in terms of problem solving. Those are the areas to focus on. They would also be initiated into being aware of the progressive failures and successes in the Army. Lastly, hopefully it would promote intellectual honesty and create a moral responsibility in officers to be aware of failure and not be afraid or ashamed of it.
There was another practice I attempted to follow in my higher command assignments which I found extremely useful. I tried to make my field commanders and commanding officers (CO) aware of the inappropriateness of the four day period of handing and taking over of appointments. No outgoing commander ever tells his successor all the nuances he has picked up nor has he the time to reflect on the lessons of his tenure which he can pass on as pearls of wisdom to his successor. To every incumbent commander or CO I gave an advice and oversaw its implementation by monitoring. The advice was simply for them to determine who their last three if not four predecessors in chain. They were to establish a link with them, an informal one, to seek their advice. They were to determine what the challenges were some years ago and how they had handled them. It also revealed that issues which we thought were highly innovative had been tried and tested in the past.
Institutional memory is a great terminology but it’s a tenet in our system which is not given any attention because putting things to paper is tiring and time consuming. No one has the time for it considering how much work there is on every day basis. In the case of units I have seen outstanding ones who maintain the most meticulous war diaries and digest of service which provide tremendous guidance in the field of continuity. Some COs even maintain them in their own hand. We need to encourage the adoption of institutional memory. Senior officers listening to briefs of subordinates must inquire on how institutional memory is being adopted by the unit or formation. I am not at all suggesting an increase in a host of paper work but there are many ingenuous ways of doing it. The Army usually finds the right ways provided there is a desire at the higher level and some level of motivation and guidance.
I am not sure how the managerial practices in the corporate world have continuity built into them. How is it ensured that managers do not slip back to the methods of the past of which they are blissfully unaware, and pass these off as innovations. I am also not very sure whether reinventing the wheel is an essential tenet of human existence because there is finite limit to memory and the achievement of perfection.
No one is suggesting the laying down of SOPs for this. What would be most desirable is to formally attempt to introduce the culture of continuity through simple advisories from time to time and aim to establish a culture of respect for the past as much as the need for innovation. Most of all the courage to admit inability to resolve a problem, not necessarily classified as failure, and passing it on to successors to have a go at it would be a fine away of adopting a positive approach to continuity.