Institutional Inertia

“My greatest contribution as the chief of staff was to nourish the mavericks.” – GEN Matthew Ridgway, Commander, 82ND Airborne Division (1942-1945) and Chief of Staff, United States Army (1953-1955)

Samuel Colt. Dr. Richard Gatling. John Moses Browning. Gaston Glock. These men are universally recognized as inventors of game changing items that swept the world and their names instantly recognized among many circles. But here’s another whose invention was almost killed by members of the old guard with their set paradigm within the Army’s Ordnance Department… Eugene Stoner and his AR-pattern rifle. Another example of an earthshattering development being resisted by the old guard is the repeating rifle– in fact it took President Abraham Lincoln interceding to force its adoption. Why? Institutional inertia. How do we break through this obstacle without presidential influence? First we have to define the problem.

Institutional inertia is a term many of us have seen thrown around but what exactly is it? Who has defined it? I’ve searched the interwebz and found many articles that discuss it but no real definition. So let’s start by defining it, at least with the aid of the online dictionary and sprinkled with my opinion on the subject.

Institutional is defined as, “of or relating to an institution or institutions”. Inertia in the sense of physics is defined as, “the property of matter by which it retains its state of rest or its velocity along a straight line so long as it is not acted upon by an external force”. With those definitions of the two words individually, institutional inertia to me is the fact that an organization will remain at rest or if already moving it will continue on the same path unless acted upon by another force. The larger the organization, the more force required.

In modern-day governmental agencies such as law enforcement or military organizations this is a big deal. The world changes daily meaning missions and requirements change daily, yet we see organizations often change their course to meet the need or to incorporate best practices with the agility of a battleship turning in a bathtub. Some changes are quicker than others and some made rapidly, especially within smaller or more specialized organizations, but to the majority out there it seems change is impossible at worst and extremely difficult at best.

Institutional inertia may be good in some ways as it protects traditions and prevents changing just to change. Anyone who favors change just for the sake of changing evidently never tasted New Coke. Large scale changes should absolutely be done carefully to avoid disastrous second and third order effects. However, when new technology is found or developed to better enable mission accomplishment with minimal tradeoffs, or when new tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) are developed into best practices, the wise would adopt them.

Let’s look at a couple of examples from my personal experience. The first example was about two and a half years ago in conversation with a member of an organization who was in a position to improve the ways things are done in the Army with regards to weapons training. We were talking about zeroing and I suggested that the Army relook the 300 meter zero as the one size fits all solution. I wanted to see doctrine and training updated to allow for a 100 or 200 meter zero, dependent on mission, equipment, time, terrain, troops, and civilian (on the battlefield) conditions, or METT-TC. His answer was no the Army would continue with a 300 meter zero being the only official answer “because the M16/M4 was designed for it”. No, the rifle itself is just a rifle not designed for any zero but rather the iron sights were designed for a 300 meter zero, and the vast majority of the formation now has a red dot optic that can be zeroed for 7 yards or 500 meters so long as the individual understands and applies appropriate holds. He continued to say no because the rifle was designed for it. This individual was either a mindless drone or given a party line and stuck to the script. Either way his answers were wrong and his attitude in refusing to see current capabilities and needs was unacceptable.

The next is a noncommissioned officer I worked with in my last assignment in the Army. As TC 3-22.9, Rifle and Carbine, was published he and I talked about it at length. The beauty of the TC is it took all of the concepts of marksmanship, renamed some, reorganized them, and transformed what had effectively become a checklist of rote memorization (the fundamentals- steady position, breath control, aiming, and trigger squeeze) that most misunderstood and used as “if I build a position, check my breathin’, aim center mass, and squeeze the trigger without yankin’ it I’ll hit my target”. TC 3-22.9 made a teachable holistic system of target engagement using the shot process and its supporting functional elements. This individual absolutely hated it because, well, words. He got wrapped up over fundamentals and missed the point. As a result he resisted the book and talked badly of it in his formation, causing confusion and doubt in the ranks when it was approved and accepted by the Infantry Commandant and signed by the Chief of Staff of the United States Army.

Then we could talk about equipment. The development of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle was dramatized and turned into comedy by the movie Pentagon Wars. Although the account in the video was dramatized, a lecture presented at the University of Maryland lends credence to the idea that the movie’s account was at least partially rooted in truth.

I also know of at least one senior noncommissioned officer that told me in conversation this week that his organization required him to get a memorandum of approval signed by his commander before using a personally owned and more effective optic on his issued rifle, but can’t produce an example of said memo. This individual has received quite a bit of training and is more knowledgeable than most of his senior unit leadership concerning weapons employment. He knows what will fit his needs and capabilities better than his commander yet was forced to seek permission for a scope. It’s true that changing the way the rifle or its ammunition functions could result in legal troubles concerning the Law of Armed Conflict and/or international conventions/treaties, but we’re talking about an optic that affects neither and actually decreases the chances of collateral damage through better aiming capability.

Similar accounts from a different angle were noted a few days ago in a P&S post. What causes this backwards thinking and resistance to change? The answer is simple and it’s complex. The root, at least in my opinion, is self-preservation and the pervasive attitude of going along to get along. There is an element of “I know what I know and it works”. It’s a product of refusing to see things from a different point of view or acknowledge newer developments or better ways of doing business. It’s a lack of critical thinking skills or the refusal to use them. People get set in their ways and don’t like to have their worldviews challenged out of fear of being proven wrong or being forced to change. There is also the risk aversion that seems to plague leadership in many places. People want to avoid rocking the boat, get that good evaluation, and get the next promotion and/or choice assignment. At the very least they want to survive the current position and get to the next unscathed.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to be confident in what you know and use. It’s good to not jump on the next piece of kit or supercool ninja technique because some gun rag or YouTube expert declared it the new hotness. It’s also good to constantly keep an open mind to new developments though. If a leader isn’t constantly searching for a way to better accomplish the mission and take care of his personnel he’s failing.

How do we combat this? It’s not easy. Combating institutional inertia requires intellectual honesty and courage. It takes dedication and thick skin. It takes a willingness to potentially risk a career or at least good standing. It takes gumption. Currying favor as the golden haired boy is much easier to do by clicking your heels and saying yes sir than by being a squeaky wheel constantly calling attention to issues. One could easily become a pariah for raging against the system and could potentially be dismissed. The bottom line here is picking your battles. Some are worth it and some aren’t. Choose wisely so as to not expend precious political capital or expose yourself to adverse effects unnecessarily.

Once you’ve seen the issue and decided to propose or implement a solution, prepare yourself for intellectual battle. Always formulate a solution to avoid just being the guy bitching about things not being right. You know there will likely be a fight because of the “this is how we’ve always done it” mentality. You know you will find some obstinate individual and it may well be the old timer naysaying because he was walking patrols when you were in diapers. It could just as easily be the bean counter who has never stepped outside of an air conditioned office, yet knows what your needs are because budgets and baseline requirements. Either way you are facing an obstacle.

Do your research. You don’t want to walk into this fight armed with your opinion and no supporting evidence. This is like walking into combat with a paintball gun; you’ll make a mess people will see but you’ll most likely get burned down. Collect empirical data of the why as well as the what. Be able to provide specifics on what’s broken, what the solution entails, how the solution improves the situation, what the endstate will be, and what it will cost.

The ideal situation would allow you to build consensus. This may be with peers, with supervisors, or with both. Building consensus is much more powerful if you’re dealing with people who are sought for their opinion. No one listens to the guy everyone knows to be a rock chewer, but if a handful of those recognized as authorities in a field are saying the same things it tends to attract attention. Consensus also provides buy-in. Most times one won’t build this consensus in the vacuum of one team; building it across an organization  means more people in more places within the larger organization agree and are ready to implement change, instead of one small team trying to spread the gospel across all elements it has no regular contact with. If there’s any doubt about this technique, ask a master of it- Ash Hess.

It’s important here to tread carefully. You’re armed with knowledge and preferably have consensus within a group of respected individuals coming from different areas. The next step is to convince the Boss that a change is needed. This is delicate as egos, standards, and budgets are involved. Give the Boss multiple options including the status quo and show the cost versus benefit of each. A good method is the decision matrix. This will quantify why you’re recommending a specific course of action and show considerations in black and white. Use of the decision matrix and course of action development can be found in publications on the military decision making process (MDMP). Once the Boss buys in you have what you need. Conditions are set.

Once you’ve set conditions, seize the initiative and take control of the conversation. I’ve likened it to entering the breach and to a degree it is, although in a figurative sense. Once the breach is open get through it and start taking the objective. Every second delayed is momentum lost. Push through. Keep momentum. Overcome obstacles while remembering it’s for the greater good and not completely destroying relationships (if possible). Use information like Mjolnir and smash the problem.

Be the maverick General Ridgway spoke of. It’s the mavericks that produce change.

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Mike Lewis
Retired Senior Noncommissioned Officer of Infantry with 20 years of active service in the United States Army.

"During my tenure, I was blessed to serve in some of the most storied units in the Army, including the 82nd Airborne Division and the 506th Infantry Regiment (AASLT) (Band of Brothers), and with some of the finest human beings one could know. I have deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan in support of combat operations, served on deployments to Egypt and Saudi Arabia in support of peacekeeping and stability operations, and served on the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). My final assignment in the Army was as the 82nd Airborne Division Small Arms Master Gunner, developing and instituting weapons training, conducting force modernization activities pertaining to small arms weapons and enablers, and consulting with the Maneuver Center of Excellence (Fort Benning, GA) on said subjects. I have attended both shooter and instructor level classes from some of the best trainers in the industry, am an NRA certified instructor, and have conducted firearms training on the civilian market for concerned citizens since 2007."