Defying Process

"The Process"

"If I hear the word 'process' one more time, I think my head is going to explode!"  That was me in a meeting the other day, and perhaps unfortunately, I was using my audible voice.  Maybe not my most professional moment.  And the other participants in the meeting, most of whom have to navigate these processes as a large part of their job, were generally not amused.  I had let my frustration and impatience get the better of me.

To be fair, most of these folks, largely career civilians, recognize the inherent challenges of the process and do their best to navigate the complicated bureaucracy for those of us who are, frankly, less skilled in that area.  These folks mostly consist of good, patriotic, hardworking souls who are equally as annoyed and impatient as I am (well, maybe not equally).  Some have become numb to it, and have seen hundreds of Marines like me over the years who ineffectually rail against "The System," only to ultimately submit to it in failure.  Unfortunately, however, I think that there are some, who over time have come to view the "process" as master—almost like a golden calf to be worshiped—rather than a tool that serves us...serves the warfighter. I believe that those who spend their careers navigating the bureaucratic processes are especially susceptible to this trap—almost like Stockholm Syndrome.  At that point, the person begins to believe that we must serve the process, rather than it serving us.  It certainly takes a long time to get to that point.  Unfortunately, if someone survives in "The System" long enough to get to the point where they view it as master, they are probably very senior with a great deal of influence.  DANGER!

The topic of discussion at the meeting in question mostly involved the status of certain enterprise-level efforts to get towards a secure cloud computing environment for some discreet lines of business in the Marine Corps.  I was generally an outsider in the discussion, as my role was largely that of a customer.  One of my major efforts at work is dependent upon getting a computing environment where I can load some software, store large amounts of data, do some analytics, build some models, etc. Of course, like a good logistician I do have a backup plan, even if it isn't quite as good—I really want the folks who do this stuff to get it done!

So here's the thing (or part of it, at least).  Getting to the cloud is tough. Especially when we have to navigate the bureaucratic processes that satisfy dozens of IT regulations and all sorts of cyber security requirements.  Further, the engineering efforts involved aren't exactly small.  Many of the hurdles—er... ahem... "requirements" are there for good reason (though I'll definitely stop short of saying "all").  And the folks in the room, all of whom are good, very well intentioned folks who legitimately want to do their best to do right by the Marine Corps, are working hard at it.  But here's the thing.  From where I sit as the customer (and where I think a bunch of you are), it just isn't good enough.  I need something NOW.  Really, I needed it last year.  And I can't wait for a process that's designed to take years to get completed.  So let me pause and tell a quick sea story.

Back in the 2005 time frame, I was an infantry battalion S-4 and we were preparing to deploy to Iraq.  And we needed stuff.  So did all the other deploying units.  We were sending Marines to combat, and we were not properly equipped with the equipment we needed.  The Marine Corps, as a Service, had not yet caught up to the multitude of new requirements.  So what did we do?  We threw a ton of money at battalion commanders to go and get the stuff they needed (certainly, there was oversight from the Division, Air Wing, and Logistics Group headquarters).  We bought ACOG optics for our rifles, Benchmade knives, Surefire flashlights, fire retardant suits, gloves with carbon fiber knuckle protection, tactical vests, elbow and knee pads, helmet accessories, and the list goes on.  Was there some waste?  Sure.  Did we lose some stuff?  Absolutely.  Was some of it over the top?  Well...maybe.  But we sent Marines to combat with the gear they needed to get the job done with lethality and have the best chance we could give them of coming home alive.  And eventually, the Marine Corps as a Service caught up.  Now, the Rifle Combat Optic (RCO) is an official part of the kit, the fire retardant outer garments (our beloved "FROG suit") and tactical gloves are standard issue (though I don’t think we get the carbon fiber knuckles anymore sadly), and many other updates. I suppose we ditched the Benchmade knives and multi-tools, at least when it comes to the basic kit, but that's part of the learning.  The point is, we moved out and the "enterprise solution" eventually caught up (through the good efforts of our Marines & civilians).

While I'm sure there were bumps along that road, and some folks undoubtedly made some unfortunate errors with money management and gear accountability, the Marine Corps got it right in the bigger picture.  Our leadership knew we had real, legitimate requirements that quite literally involved life and death, and they knew our established processes simply couldn't get to a solution in time.  So they allowed us to improvise...and yes it was expensive (though I doubt anyone would question that it was worth it). As my battalion commander in 2005 said, "Any jack rabbit can follow orders; they pay us the big bucks to know when NOT to follow orders" (OK, he didn't use "rabbit," but we're being polite here).  He wasn't telling me to willy nilly disobey orders or violate processes. He was talking about the judgment we must have as leaders to know when to question, push back, or do something outside normal processes or rules.

Our problem today is conceptually the same.  We have very real requirements for technical solutions. We need to collect, store, access, and analyze massive volumes of data.  We need compute power and speed that only comes with cloud based solutions.  We need hosting solutions where we can develop and test apps. And the list goes on. And while in most cases (in this specific problem set) we aren't going into kinetic fire fights, make no mistake that we are in fact going into combat in the cyber realm.  My efforts lie in the logistics realm, but it doesn't stop there. These are enormous problem sets that span all of our warfighting functions.  And, as an article scheduled for the March (Logistics) edition of the Marine Corps Gazette will point out, these logistics efforts are tied directly to the agility, lethality, and survivability of the MAGTF.  This isn't just about business reforms, efficiency, and affordability (though it most certainly is that as well), it is essential to our warfighting prowess.  If we treat it with any less priority than sending Marines into combat with the gear they need to be lethal and come home alive, we are making a huge mistake.  We are already arguably behind our peer adversaries in this realm, and every further delay makes the gap grow larger.  We need to move out, and we can't wait for the enterprise solution.

So what do we do? Our leadership needs to make the same decision they did back in the early days of Iraqi Freedom.  Let us experiment.  Get us some basic guidelines to follow and provide a fast track approval process for discreet efforts in cloud solutions, software development, analytic tools, etc.  Yes, we need to ensure we protect our data and our network.  This is essential.  But where can we take risk?  We know that we will make some errors, we'll surely invest in some tools, software, or providers that will turn out to not meet our needs, and it's likely that some of the money we spend may not yield a tremendous return.  But we will have successes as well.  Likely some big ones.  And perhaps, just perhaps, some of those will form the nucleus of the "enterprise solution," just like the ACOG became the RCO.  In other words, give us the minimum acceptable standard to meet basic security requirements, and let us RUN.  Oh, and it would be great if we could get some money, as well...(hey, a guy can dream, right?).

We can't wait.  We must move out.  We must be willing to take some risk and accept some failure.  I applaud those hardy souls who want to ensure we have an enterprise solution and follow established processes to ensure we have what the Marine Corps needs.  Continue that work—it truly is essential!  But let us blaze a trail as well, and learn from it... and deliver what our Marines need TODAY.  As described above, we didn't just let battalion commander's go and buy a bunch of stuff, we also kept the enterprise moving toward the permanent solution.  We must work in concert, acknowledging the parallel efforts.  Our efforts will complement, not compete...if we do it right.

As one of my mentors has often said to me, if not now, then when?  If not us, then who?  Let's get this done.

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