Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Quarterback or team player?

Once more, as I listened to local talk radio on the way to work, something about the people who “lost” the election took me back to a personal conversation I have periodically with myself as a result of work years ago. The topic is: Is it better to be the quarterback of the high school team, or a “merely” a member of the winning Superbowl team? My thoughts originate around a meeting in the summer of 1996 at Naval Air Station, Pensacola, where I became the speaker at a meeting that I didn’t even know was being held. Because I was going to be in town, a civil servant I had worked with before asked representatives from the surface, submarine and aviation training communities to be there to have the discussion that ensued. Here is a little background, to set the stage for the lessons learned. In 1988, I began working on a program that would allow shipboard leadership to more efficiently manage the ship’s watch stations. At the time, the process which was put in place for a good reason in the early 70s, was still being done pretty much manually, despite some degree of automation being available. I began with a diagram that laid out a series of databases and the relationships between them. Over time, this program, spurred on by the gun turret explosion of the USS IOWA in 1989, became an operating program, running on basic PC. At the time, the venerable Zenith Z-248 computers, acquired through a great Air Force contract the Navy was allowed to use, were making their way aboard ships to support the Supply departments (LOGMARS), and later Disbursing and Ships Store functions. The Shipboard Naval Administrative Program (SNAP) was in caretaker status, so essentially un-modifiable to compensate for changes mandated at the Type Commander level. Across three commands, my commanding officers allowed me to keep working with the Fleet to eventually distribute the program to 120 ships, from aircraft carriers to mine countermeasure ships. Along the way in this project, I learned many things. I consciously looked at the myriad of tools we used to put a trained person at their watch station, I found little bits of documents that led me back to why we did what we were how doing. The showed me common building blocks used, that applied to the aviation, surface and submarine communities alike. We may have put them in different formats, but the philosophy and methodology traded closely together. It was a bit like archeology, psychology, history, statistical process control, Total Quality Management/Leadship/Continuous Improvement and administration all rolled together. Additionally. I also learned a lot about “domains” and “kingdoms,” and what a bunch of passionate people (read: people who were tired of waiting for the people on “the beach” to get things done) can achieve with just the hope of success. Lesson #1: If someone is without resources, in this case money, and you show up with a good idea, they will be your friend and supporter. You will get invited to the meetings and to maybe act as a consultant, and sometimes become a foil for them to use to get resources, in this case money, a team begins to form with a vision. Lesson #2: When your “friends” can get resources, in this case money, you are not just no longer of friend, but you quickly become “competition” first, shortly before you become the “enemy.” The team now begins to divide. Those new degrees of understanding being behind me, back to “the meeting.” On the way to hammering though the real world application of a concept, the fundamental building blocks in the qualification process became clearer to me. At the meeting, senior civil servants, representing the training component of the three “line” communities and I discussed this. The stonewalling began. Since I had been involved in this process with the Surface community for 5 years, and the fact that the civilian for the shore support for Surface had taken the job a few months before, it seemed to boil down to telling me that these things couldn’t be done. As the meeting progressed, the next lesson became resoundingly clear to me. Lesson #3: It is more important to protect your turf, and stay the “head cheese,” than to team up with a greater organization and go for it! In this case, you must accept the possibility that you will “blend into the background.” What came to mind in the next few days was how some people, to use a football analogy, would rather stay as the winning quarterback at a high school team, than strive to (become pat of a team that goes to the Superbowl. There was a moment, that day, to begin piling the resources, in this case, there was a total money collectively, and produce something better. I’m hat talking about some program to make the life of staff and shore duty officers easier, but to make the lives of the poor sailors and officers at sea better. I’m not saying I had the complete answer, just I saw what could have been done by those who had made the better part of their careers on the training and qualification system. As a side note to those who know the Navy programs involved, let me state there wasn’t any plan on my part to do something like rewrite NATOPs for any qualification manuals for the submariners. The point was to capture who was qualified in order to bounce that against real-time requirements and thereby support the chain of command in the effective use of the training process resources. The history of the entire journey into how we did training was very interesting, but that will have to be for other posts. I would have been happy to a part of a revolution such as this.

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