I came across an article that isn’t about the Navy, but provided for some interesting reflection on the role individual discretion should play in everyday work. A lot of good stuff there. I apologize for a large block of quotations, but I can’t say it any better than they do:

“Using case studies from a wide range of fields, [Schwartz and Sharpe] argue that our institutions, structured as they are around incentive and punishment, prevent us from good practice, from doing our work with purpose, empathy, creativity, flexibility, engagement, and temperance. In a word: wisdom…

Professional life, at its best, combines a sense of mission with wise practice. Professionals who have the “will” and the “skill” to do both good and well—and are given the discretion to deploy effectively their expertise and sense of calling—are those who are most fulfilled in their work, who are happy with what they do and whom they serve. Schwartz and Sharpe write, “We are happiest when our work is meaningful and gives us the discretion to use our judgment. The discretion allows us to develop the wisdom to exercise the judgment we need to do that work well. We’re motivated to develop the judgment to do that work well because it enables us to serve others and it makes us happy to do so.”

What cripples this judgment, and makes us unhappy in our work, is a culture of rules, one based on audits, incentives, and punishments. Schwartz and Sharpe show how this rules culture demands universal principles and scripts no matter the context, and marginalizes imagination, empathy, and courage.”

I then began to wonder what this would look like in the Navy and in particular the nuclear Navy. We’re always told to utilize the watchteam, drawing on their experiences and judgement to decide the best course of action. The reactor operators and electrical operators are experts in their panels, who take pride in being able to shift the electric plant quickly or safely and efficiently startup the reactor. As EOOW (engineering officer of the watch), we’re tasked with leading the watch in maximizing propulsion and maintaining reactor safety.

How can we best lead professionals who have the will and skill to accomplish this mission? Allow them to contribute their hard-earned expertise and discretion (in accordance with written procedure of course). What exactly does this look like in the nuclear Navy, though?

Very curious what this would look like:

“Canny outlaws” offer hope for our institutions. “Canny outlaws” are creative, flexible, improvisational individuals who find ways around the rules that constrain their professional practice. Yet they alone are not enough; we need “system changers,” people who find new ways of doing things and are able to implement them on a broad scale. Practical Wisdom gives us a rather inspiring framework and set of strategies for finding those new ways, and it might persuade more than just canny outlaws that doing so is pretty necessary if we are going to continue to find value in our work.”

Posted by Jeffrey Withington in Training & Education

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  • GIMP

    While I think there’s a lot of to like and a lot that makes sense in the excerpts from Practical Wisdom, I also think that there is no chance for any of that in the Navy.

    While we are technically a Navy at war, we’re really not challenged to develop great leaders in the same way we would be if this war involved any threat to the survival of the Navy at sea. That fact allows us to both be a Navy at war and maintain a peacetime outlook on leadership selection.

    Cost saving, budgetary efficiency, and delivering good news are valued highly. Combat readiness, combat effectiveness, and brutal truth telling are neither required nor desired.

    Just look at LPD-17, LCD, Optimum Manning, INSURV failures, etc., and you can see that. Plenty of people knew they were disasters, yet nobody spoke up. If they did, they were crushed.

    Canny outlaws are the last thing the Navy wants, and that will remain until such time as the very survival of the fleet is at stake, at which time all will “become suddenly aware” that you can’t create combat readiness and effectiveness through “synergies and efficiencies.” You create it by going to sea – a lot, flying – a lot, using all your weapons systems in fast paced, difficult exercises – a lot.

    And it will all work out because we’re the best Navy in the history of the world, which will only serve to justify the Navy’s present processes in some minds, when the truth will be that great people stepped up and saved the Navy from itself.

  • Old Soldier

    Canny outlaws? Like MSgt Steve Bilko?

  • Andy (JADAA)

    As others have pointed out above, there are places for “canny outlaws,” in the right time and circumstances, which is arguably right now. In the safe and certain operation of naval nuclear power? Uh, I’d say how about “No.” And I’m no nuke. (but I roomed with one on cruise once!)

  • jwithington

    @Old Soldier
    Well, I was thinking more along the lines of Patton…but yes “that guy” in the movies who can get what is needed like Sefton from Stalag 17.

    It sounds like you’re bemoaning the way you see things currently and are resigned to accepting them. You’re not defending them it correct?

  • jwithington

    Just to clarify my response to Old Soldier: Sefton and Bilko are charactiures of the “uncanny outlaw,” but I think there are more successful ones to consider. For instance, GEN Van Riper thought outside the box to beat the US in wargame (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/aug/21/usa.julianborger).

    And no one would ever claim that a ship/organization consisting of those who fell into the category of an “uncanny outlaw” would ever be functional, but I am curious is there room for the occasional one?

  • Benjamin Walthrop

    Progress is possible, even under the overwatch of 08. The USN learned from Thressher. Keep asking good questions.

  • Phil

    I have long had an problem with the Navy’s fetish with “best practices” and this blog is the cream of the crop. Best practices are always context-specific. Without a context, how can one know what is best? So the first responsibility of anyone who proposes a new order of things is to understand where the idea came from and under what circumstances it seems promising, then to ensure similarly salient conditions exist in the target organization. Anyone who thinks the musings of a literature professor about autonomous self-actualized employees would be a relevant model for Navy nuclear reactor operations ought not to allowed near either (the professor’s musing or a nuclear reactor).

  • eastriver

    Imperfectly quoted from RADM D.V. Gallery’s WWII memoir — at the beginning of the war, in a conversation with an old senior officer: “It’s a funny Navy where they make the plebes senior to the first-classmen…” “Yes, sir, and when the war is over, sir, and it’s safe to do so, sir, we’ll get back to the old system.”