Archive for September, 2011
Well its that time of the year again. The time when OPSO’s get all pissypants about this thing called the OPTAR budget. You are in one of two situations – you either fly as little as possible to accomplish the objective, or you fly as much as you can to accomplish getting hours. This is all to satisfy a magical number of flight hours for the fiscal year.
Doesn’t anyone see how idiotic this is? We can’t finish the year 1 hour short? What the fuck’s going to happen? More importantly, who gives a fuck? This is symptomatic of a culture of consumption. I’m not talking about the American consumer culture, but merely trying to point out that in the face of HONA, we fly the planes to get hours, and don’t strive to make what limited flight hours we have left count.
I thought we were supposed to extend the lives of the planes because the P-8 won’t be getting here in a timely fashion? “But the OPTAR Budget!!! We have to fly a set number of hours!!!!” Yelling it doesn’t make it right.
For some added levity, I’ve attached a picture of this choaderrific patch.
Straight from Wikipedia: Risk is the potential that a chosen action or activity (including the choice of inaction) will lead to a loss (an undesirable outcome). The notion implies that a choice having an influence on the outcome exists (or existed). Potential losses themselves may also be called “risks”.
Now before you get all pissy about me using Wikipedia as a reference, know that I merely wanted to define what I was talking about, and the Wikipedia definition was quite suitable.
Further definitions – Let’s examine a scenario in which I give you one of two choices:
- I give you $50.
- I flip a coin. Heads – I give you $100. Tails – you get nothing.
Statistically speaking, both choices are equal when viewed over an infinite number of trials. A risk neutral person would be agreeable to either scenario. A risk averse person would choose the 1st option, even if it was for less than $50. A risk inclined person would choose the 2nd option, even if the 1st was for more than $50. This is just a simple explanation of terms I plan on using. This simply exemplifies the character types defined from a scenario with a known probability and quantity of outcome.
Most people are risk inclined, up until what is risked is of such great value to the person that they become risk averse. The lottery is a perfect example of this. It offers terrible odds, and even the payout isn’t comparable. One version of the Lottery offers a chance of winning the jackpot at 1 in 175 million with each ticket costing $1. The actual payout for the jackpot averages less than 175 million. Therefore, anyone playing the Lottery, whether they understand the statistics or not, is risk inclined. Consider what would happen if the lottery tickets cost $1000 and the jackpot had the same odds but paid out 175 billion. Most everyone that previously purchased $1 lottery tickets would stop buying them because $1000 is of great value to them. Somewhere between $1 and $1000 per ticket people changed from risk inclined to risk averse. If we have a risk averse culture (which I believe to be true), we can infer that the majority of decisions we make or the outcomes that may come are of great value to us.
Whenever we make decisions, we intrinsically go through an evaluation process:
- What is the decision to be made?
- What things affect the outcome?
- What is the probability that those things will happen?
- What are the potential outcomes?
There are many things that shape the decisions made in the VP Navy. Most are able to be quantified in some fashion, like the probability that the airplane will experience a catastrophic wing failure. But some of the biggest forces that shape our decision making are very difficult to quantify, like “What will the Skipper think if I do “X” and then “Y” happens?” Unfortunately, the many uncertainties we face often either paralyze us into inaction or make us act only to avoid negative outcomes, rather than acting to cause positive outcomes.
Let’s consider a detachment to San Diego: The Commodore has expressed interest in hearing about how his squadron supported a Carrier exercise. The Skipper understands full well that no matter how well the crews perform onstation, anything that reaches the Commodore will be perceived as nothing more than grandstanding embellishments, because no one ever reports doing poorly. Therefore, the Skipper concludes, perhaps unknowingly, that the only way to look good, is to not look bad. Remember that he’s competing against only 3 others for continual advancement.
So the Skipper has to decide how to not look bad. What things affect that outcome? The easiest performance metrics to quantify are mission completion rates, hours flown, and whether the onstation times were met. Its not surprising then, given that they are easy to measure, that we judge our performance almost solely based on them. This, by the way, contributes to an ever decreasing lack of emphasis on tactical performance. Another thing that affects whether or not the Skipper doesn’t look bad is liberty incidents, and must be avoided at all cost. No matter how good the onstation performance is, a liberty incident negates any positive outcome.
We know that the odds of taking off on time and completing a mission is somewhere between 50 and 95%. That’s just an experienced guess, but I think everyone’s guess would be somewhere between those two numbers. But given that there are only 5-10 flights, its not unfeasible for the Skipper (or det OIC) to eye a number closer to 100%. What are the odds that there will be a liberty incident? Well, experience teaches us that its certainly higher on detachment than at home, but probably on the order of 5% or so.
A risk averse person would, believing the outcome to be very important, take measures to improve the outcome, regardless of the probability of the outcome being negative. This behavior leads to backup preflights, ops readies, and midnight curfews. This of course lowers morale, and generally makes people pissed off (If you’ve done a backup preflight at 2:00 a.m. you know what I’m talking about). Is this necessarily a bad thing? Some would argue that its but one small sacrifice to defend freedom. I would argue that measures like those are the actions of leaders that are paralyzed with fear about looking bad, and are unnecessary. There are more examples of risk averse behavior (like this anonymous blog). This behavior serves to undermine our real performance, lower morale, and in general make us feel like a bunch of douches.
So what exactly has driven our community into this cowardly abyss? For your convenience, I’ve created a list (feel free to comment on more and I’ll edit them in and credit your fake name):
- Promotion system
- Evaluation system
- Information availability
- Media exposure
- Too few openings at high levels
- Little opportunity for success outside the “golden path”
To be concluded…
Have you ever wondered how we end up with such mediocre leaders and aviators as Department Heads and Commanding Officers? I bet you have. Most of us have. We think back to various Department Heads and XO/COs we’ve worked for and can pick out a few great ones, a few awful ones, and a whole lot who could best be described as “adequate.” There are a lot of factors that lead to this giant sea of mediocrity, but the most significant is the importance of “sustained superior performance” in our FITREP and career progression system.
First of all, it’s important to note that the ratio of highly-capable, capable, and incapable (if you’ll bear with me as we use those terms for three tiers of officers) is consistent with the “bell curve” we all remember from our grade school days. Many large groups fall out that way – a few high performers on the top, a few weak ones on the bottom, and the rest getting by in the middle. In theory, that concept is applied to a P-3 officer career path. In the first tour, an officer is measured against a large pool of peers. The expectation is that the weakest will be weeded out with poor FITREPS and “career-ender” shore tours. The best will go to VP-30 – the proven path first shore tour (another topic that I discussed in a previous post). The middle group will be spread out amongst other training commands and shore billets. I’m not suggesting that this is the best way to do things, or that this is how all Commanding Officers think with regards to FITREP rankings, but the perception certainly exists that this is how things function. The idea, then, is that the best people will be in the best position for success when the time comes for DH screening. Only the best people become Department Heads, and only the best of those become Commanding Officers, or so the system suggests. Too bad it doesn’t work.
The biggest issue is the ranking system. Think about how many times you’ve heard about “sustained superior performance.” I’ve lost count of the number of Command or DH screen board recap briefs I’ve seen. It’s always the same shit. The percentages may move a little bit, but the concepts are the same. A high EP out of the first tour gives you really good odds for DH. A VP-30 tour makes it a veritable lock. A Carrier tour after that gives you the best odds at command. Throw in some jokes about the “bureau” and the hilarious stories from the “tank” (like the time where the guy had a regression in his record and a few seconds after the record went up on the screens there were 20 laser pointer dots on the area of issue, or like that time when the one guy forgot to vote yes for a really strong record where the recorder said “this guy was a 30 guy and boat guy so let’s all “hit 100” so we can go to lunch”, and everyone waited for the last guy to “hit 100” until finally someone yelled “who didn’t vote?” and then you saw the final vote quickly go up and everyone laughed and laughed and WOULD YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP AND GET ON WITH IT! …..)
Sorry about that. I get carried away with those “bureau jokes” that exactly two people in the audience can relate to, but that are made at each and every one of those briefs. Again, I apologize.
So, getting back to the rankings, we are talking about how so many mediocre people can make it so far in a community that places so much emphasis on “sustained superior performance.” Let’s start with the Junior Officers. Let’s say you are up for your final competitive FITREP as a Lieutenant. You will be ranked against a pool of all the other LTs in the squadron. You would think that the best LT in the squadron will be ranked #1. But what if the best LT is not up for his final competitive FITREP? Straight seniority does not necessarily mean someone contributes more, or is more valuable. So timing is clearly a key component, and one that the people being ranked do not control. If you happened to check in to the command with a weak group of people, you can leave with a high FITREP number by just being decent in your job. There may be five other LTs who are much better than you, but if they still have another FITREP before checkout, you’ll be ranked above them (as long as you are at least in that “capable” middle group we talked about – if you are in the incapable bottom group, this may not apply). The command doesn’t want to screw you by ranking someone who is much more junior above you. You may not be terrible, but you’re also not great. But from now on, on paper, you look great. Was your performance really “superior?” Of course not.
What if you are being ranked against some other LTs on their final FITREP cycle, but they want to go to a non-standard shore tour? Again, you might be a decent, but not great, performer being measured against much better performers, but you can come out on top if the others plan on leaving the Navy, want to do a unique shore tour in D.C., want an NROTC job, etc. Some Skippers may say that future jobs aren’t factored in on rankings, but I’ve been in the Department Head meetings and on the email discussions where this comes up. The rationale is to avoid “wasting” a good FITREP number on someone who won’t be competing for DH or Command. Because of this, at the Department Head board, there will always be a lot of #1s and #2s who really should have been #3s, #4s, and #5s (or even lower). On paper they performed well, but in reality they were beneficiaries of good timing or good luck.
This idea applies at the DH level just as much as it does amongst the JOs. Again, I saw this numerous times on a DH tour. Two LCDRs are ranked against one another, one who completed a CVN tour and another who performed very well at a VPU disassociated sea tour, and the ranking is all but set in stone even before either has had a chance to demonstrate their “superior performance.” The rumor that the folks at Millington try not to pair up two “strong” records (and, thus, have them compete for a single #1 ranking) has been out there so long it is all but gospel now. Well, where does the sustained superior performance come in then? As long as you’ve been in the right jobs (which you may have been in because the better people didn’t want to go) and have high FITREP rankings (which you may have because the better people were choosing to leave the Navy or go off the proper career path, or because there were no better people in the small group that was leaving the command in your time frame) you won’t have to really be “superior” – the deck will be stacked in your favor.
So, the result of all of this is that a lot of average people are made to look above average. And once you’re christened with that label, if you stick to the career plan, it’s a tough one to shake. I’m wondering about the downside to ranking people strictly on their performance in their job for the period of evaluation. What if past and future jobs are not considered? What if rankings are across all peers, and not just the few who are checking out at the same time? Wouldn’t we get a truer sense of “sustained superior performance?” Why should it matter that the best guy is getting out of the Navy? How is that “screwing” the ones who are staying in? If they wanted to be ranked ahead of the guy getting out, then they should have done a better job than him. If we keep doing things this way, we will continue to have what we have now, which is a lot of mediocre people in high places.
Is the promotion system the only thing keeping us from excellence in the higher ranks? Not at all. It’s but one part of a couple of interacting forces. I think the promotion system has cultivated risk-averse behavior in every thing we do – from daily FOD walkdowns to liberty policies to mission performance. The only way to prove that you are a sustained superior performer is to get a #1 ranking. Ask yourself how do many get that ranking?
I’m working on a risk aversion article that is pretty extensive. Hopefully it sums why our pussies are so big. In the meantime, here’s some more credible reading on mediocrity in business. I found many parallels to what we do.