30 July 2014

How to Spot a Waste-of-Time Meeting

Peter Drucker was a genius. And he should have been made an honorary sergeant major in charge of the Army Meeting Command.

But it would have been a boring gig, since he likely would have abolished most meetings. I had read a long time ago that Drucker, who preached efficiency by bucking conventional wisdom, believed meetings to be a sign of organizational dysfunction.

But are they? I did a little reading up on the matter. Turns out that meetings get a bad name because there are so many bad meetings. But there are a few instances when it is appropriate to hold meetings.

He categorized meetings thusly:
  • A meeting to prepare a statement, an announcement, or a press release.
  • A meeting to make an announcement—for example, an organizational change.
  • A meeting in which one member reports.
  • A meeting in which several or all members report.
  • A meeting to inform the convening executive.
  • A meeting whose only function is to allow the participants to be in the executive’s presence. 
Of this last kind, the management guru said, "there is no way to make these meetings productive. They are the penalties of rank.” We wouldn't know anything about that in the Army.

You see, Drucker's concern was productivity, which always comes down to cost analysis. In the Army we are subject to many meetings, but they aren't inherently bad if they are productive, and don't detract from otherwise productive work. 

A few things will harm productivity:
  • Convening a meeting in the middle of the work day without fair notice.
  • Failing to provide a written agenda
  • Letting discussions wander into unplanned realms
  • Failing to follow up on agreements made
Finally, the maxim that meetings are a symptom of organizational dysfunction isn't an indictment against meetings, but rather one against dysfunction! Nobody cures poor eyesight by swearing off spectacles.

I view bad meetings as a symptom of poor organization, in the same way that an excess of meetings indicates poor organization. As ironic as it is, though, we might need to hold a brief meeting to fix all those problems. 

28 July 2014

Teaching at Musa Zajmi

The following originally appeared in the blog "Musings of a Factotum" on June 6, 2009

Serving a peacekeeping mission to Kosovo has given me many opportunities, and a recent one I had was to reconnect with my civilian profession: teaching.

I never realized how much I enjoyed teaching, especially math, until I began a career as a full-time professional Soldier. I left the classroom over two years ago, just days before I shipped to Basic Training. Since then I have worked as a consultant, visiting many classrooms and students, but not having any to call my own.

Last Friday visited another classroom, at a school called Musa Zajmi in Gjilane, Kosovo. I had asked the month before if I could teach a math class, and the teachers there graciously assented. It was a bit unnerving—I had never taught to a classroom full of Albanian-speaking students—but I feel very at ease teaching, so I quickly found myself lost in the moment.

Soldiers looking for improvement would conduct an After Action Review following any drill, exercise, or mission. Good teachers do the same thing. Here are a few things that I noted.

Three things I did well were in the areas of preparation and presentation. First, I followed a lesson plan that has served me well in my years of teaching my own students and evaluating other teachers. It consisted of a warm up phase, a short presentation, practice, and a closure. Even in the short classes (30 minutes) I was able to keep students interested by moving from one activity to the next frequently and efficiently.

My second strength was to have everything written for the students. I had everything translated into Albanian (I even learned a few phrases myself) so that student could check what I was saying against the written version.

Finally, I had a specific objective that corresponded with our activity and end-of-lesson exercise. Students understood that my expectations of them were very narrow, and they didn’t have to concern themselves with peripheral facts and formulas.

A few things I could improve on are: creating a small homework task that was more tightly-aligned to the objective, having students identify themselves, and being clearer about instructions during the lesson.

The last point is a particularly important one. Clarity is the most important trait instruction can have (after accuracy, I suppose). I did my best, given the circumstances, to make my intentions crystal clear to these Kosovar students. But even small things, like asking for volunteers, can get muddled and have cumulatively detrimental effects on learning. For instance, in an attempt to get a variety of students up to the board I employed a simple strategy that I have used in the U.S., which was to require the student at the board to choose the next participant. In my experience, students choose their friends or others who might not want to go to the board. 

What happened at Musa Zajmi was that students chose their classmates who also raised their hands. Thus, only the most confident students got to the board. I could have been more explicit about my desire to see a greater variety of students demonstrating at the chalkboard.

I had a lot of fun, and practiced a skill that is too easily lost in my case. I want to remain sharp, reflective, and progressive. Teaching at Musa Zajmi helped me do it.

26 July 2014

Needless Irritants

Who can I complain to?

The Army is adept at throwing wrenches in the smoothly turning gears of war. Actually, I'm going to blame support elements. This is a story about what GEN William Westmoreland called "needless irritants."

First, a bit of background. In the early 1970s, Westmoreland, as the Army Chief of Staff, was staring an all volunteer force in the face. Before then, the Army filled its ranks with conscripts. Those who volunteered often did so because they might otherwise have been drafted. So the draft gave the Army the luxury of treating its peronnel like chattel.

I sometimes wonder how much has changed.

You see, we had to move yesterday. I'm talking about a the furniture, lugging, dust-sweeping, clothes-organizing, kind of barracks move.

Two days ago, we arrived at our room, greeted by a notice to vacate the premises within 48 hours.

Not cool. When something is not cool, lodge a complaint, right? Except the guy kicking us out is only following orders. He has no authority, nor any desire to pass any feedback up the chain.

This, from an Operation Ready leader's handbook, describes my feelings well:
How would you feel if your next commander changed the tapes? Then the next commander comes along and changes them back? We do this to soldiers in the barracks all the time, for no better reason than to prove to them (and ourselves) who is in charge.
As their appointed leader you have great power to create misery and little power to reduce it, for you will be blind to its existence—unless you vigorously seek it out.
As with the moving imperative, whoever got the idea up his butt for us to move three buildings down the road excercised "great power to create misery."

It was an irritant, to say the least.

Westmoreland understood that the needless irritants (colloquially known as Mickey Mouse, or chickenshit, according to scholar Beth Bailey) were particularly deteriorating to readiness, for several reasons.

First, irritants take away resources for doing actual Army work. Second, they dminish the pool of willing violunteers. Third, they drive people crazy, often tipping the scales in favor of getting out of the service sooner.

I hear quite frequently from Soldiers on a deployment that they're getting out. Not because they had to move needlessly, but because of that plus 1,000 other petty tyrannies.

And cna we complain? Nope. The sergeant in charge of the circus is doing the bidding of some major probably, who doesn't give two spits about how maddening it is. But he'll never hear about it, because his sergeant wouldn't dare give him negative feedback-- the very type of feedback that helps good organizations make real-time adjustments to its practices.

Needless irritant? Yep. Need not complain, because it never does any good in the Army. 

24 July 2014

They The Builders of a Nation

How similar are pioneers of American West lore and deployed US Soldiers?

I've never crossed a vast plain pulling a handcarrt, so I can't for sure say. I've driven through Colorado and Kansas on the I-70, though, which was definitely a trial of my faith. It felt like a three-month journey.

But the question is a serious one, and I've been posing it to Soldiers over here who have ties to Utah or know the story of the generation of '47. Many seem to think there are comparisons to be drawn, and I agree. But for a different reason.

The old Mormon hymn, which gets sung but once a year, might give us an idea:
They, the builders of the nation,
Blazing trails along the way;
Stepping-stones for generations
Were their deeds of ev'ry day.
Building new and firm foundations,
Pushing on the wild frontier,
Forging onward, ever onward,
Blessed, honored Pioneer!
Many service members see a parallel between military service and what the Utah pioneers did because of the work ethos and willingness to sacrifice.

I see an analogy between us for the reasons we work. Military members in Afghanistan are nation building. The effort here is nothing less. Kandahar Airfield and the dozens of other NATO bases sprang up because people worked their butts off to build them. Why? Well, setting aside the motivation gap between strategic planners and tactical elements, the short answer is to put Afghanistan on a path toward inclusion in the world.

It's not always popular of course in elite circles-- which might include multi-culturalists, academics, right-wingers, and anti-militarists-- to claim a right to build a nation, but that's what we're doing. And Afghanistan wants us to-- overwhelmingly.

The massive counterinsurgency enterprise here is armed nation building, and I am proud to be a part of it. The people I serve with do so voluntarily. Afghan churchgoers might one day sing, "blessed, honored, Warrior!"