Context matters: different approaches to looking at people, problems

By John Dwyer III DLA Troop Support Public Affairs

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Developing a diverse workforce that is prepared for challenges - and armed with tools to overcome them - can be a daunting task in today’s workplace environment where employees work on multiple projects simultaneously by virtue of necessity.

In acknowledgement of those challenges, leaders at the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support engaged guest speakers to discuss potential management tools and considerations to find new approaches to improve practices for current and future employees during a Campaign of Learning event Dec. 5 in Philadelphia.

DLA Troop Support Commander Army Brig. Gen. Gavin Lawrence began the event by explaining the event and campaign’s purpose.

“[The Campaign of Learning] provides us an opportunity to hear thoughts from ‘outside’ that will help broaden our aperture and perhaps enable us to find a new way to look at the problem sets that we deal with,” Lawrence said.

To help learn about team management and employee diversification techniques, the organization brought in Army Col. Hise Gibson, a systems engineering professor at the U.S. Military Academy West Point, to speak on the matter.

Army Col. Hise Gibson, professor of systems engineering at the U.S. Military Academy West Point, shares his research on how employees working on multiple projects simultaneously are effected by change during a DLA Troop Support Campaign of Learning event Dec. 5, 2019, in Philadelphia.
Army Col. Hise Gibson, professor of systems engineering at the U.S. Military Academy West Point, shares his research on how employees working on multiple projects simultaneously are effected by change during a DLA Troop Support Campaign of Learning event Dec. 5, 2019, in Philadelphia. Gibson discussed the phenomenon in terms of his research and its relation to Troop Support, and shared potential practices and considerations to maximize workforce efficiency and development.
Army Col. Hise Gibson, professor of systems engineering at the U.S. Military Academy West Point, shares his research on how employees working on multiple projects simultaneously are effected by change during a DLA Troop Support Campaign of Learning event Dec. 5, 2019, in Philadelphia.
Context matters: different approaches to looking at people, problems
Army Col. Hise Gibson, professor of systems engineering at the U.S. Military Academy West Point, shares his research on how employees working on multiple projects simultaneously are effected by change during a DLA Troop Support Campaign of Learning event Dec. 5, 2019, in Philadelphia. Gibson discussed the phenomenon in terms of his research and its relation to Troop Support, and shared potential practices and considerations to maximize workforce efficiency and development.
Photo By: John Dwyer III
VIRIN: 191205-D-XL571-0018

One problem set discussed by Gibson, was of over-worked employees assigned to multiple projects. Gibson found that an average of 45% of employees were overtasked based on his research on the Army Corps of Engineers, Europe District.

He acknowledged that working several projects simultaneously, what he called multiple team management, or MTM, was a required operating concept in the dynamic defense environment, but also cautioned leaders to take regular stock of their teams to avoid overload.

“We’re in a moving environment. We have to operate in a multiple team fashion,” Gibson said. “But I would encourage you to think: are you overtasking your subordinates?”

One of the challenges related to MTM faced by agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers, which Gibson related to DLA in terms of size and employee demographic, was in “unanticipated turnover” and its effects on productivity.

Gibson found that approximately 12-14 months after unanticipated turnover in the workforce, in this case a large group of employees returning to the U.S. from Europe, there was a marked change – for either better or worse – in productivity.

The deciding factor on the change was whether an employee or team was specialized or diversified in their duties and experience.

Those teams and employees who were specialized, meaning working a specific, repeatable task, excelled in the short term, but not in the long term. In the same instance, those who were diversified, meaning having more broad experience and knowledge, suffered in the short term but thrived in the long term.

“To play the long game, especially in a business like DLA … you need to diversify people over time,” Gibson said. “And that means you’re going to take some [losses] in the beginning [taking the time to diversify your people]. And as leaders, that’s challenging. How do you react when people aren’t doing well, and how do you develop them?”

Gibson said a mix of broad [diverse] and deep [specialized] experiences and knowledge, or “T-shaped” manager - coupled with the right kind of thinking - were tools to finding success in MTM.

To play the long game, especially in a business like DLA … you need to diversify people over time.Army Col. Hise O. Gibson

But like any good habit, it takes time to develop these solutions.

“I describe a T-shaped manager as a person who has great depth and, over time, breadth,” Gibson said.

He also said that successful leadership and management involved stopping to think about problems. He recommended a “DSRP” model of thinking that requires managers to consider Distinctions, Systems, Relationships and Perspectives surrounding a given issue.

“How do we handle ambiguity; what is and is not?” Gibson asked. “Sometimes you have to put yourself in the perspective of someone on the other end of the phone or computer.”

In doing so, he said, leaders can start to see where relationships and systems – small and large, such as office dynamics or international relations – play a part in approaching an issue.

The second part of the event continued with Army Col. Kennon Gilliam, strategic wargaming director for the Army War College’s Center for Strategic Leadership, discussing another tool to help look at other complex issues: wargaming.

Army Col. Kennon Gilliam, strategic wargaming director for the Army Center for Strategic Leadership, right, discusses the “Game of 23” with DLA Troop Support Product Test Center Analytic lead scientist Jamie Hieber during an event Dec. 5, 2019, in Philadelphia.
Army Col. Kennon Gilliam, strategic wargaming director for the Army Center for Strategic Leadership, right, discusses the “Game of 23” with DLA Troop Support Product Test Center Analytic lead scientist Jamie Hieber during an event Dec. 5, 2019, in Philadelphia. Gilliam said that the simple game of addition was a small example of how wargaming uses systems and processes – mathematics in this case – and pairs it with the human element, or players, to pit personalities and strategies against real-world scenarios and stresses.
Army Col. Kennon Gilliam, strategic wargaming director for the Army Center for Strategic Leadership, right, discusses the “Game of 23” with DLA Troop Support Product Test Center Analytic lead scientist Jamie Hieber during an event Dec. 5, 2019, in Philadelphia.
Context matters: different approaches to looking at people, problems
Army Col. Kennon Gilliam, strategic wargaming director for the Army Center for Strategic Leadership, right, discusses the “Game of 23” with DLA Troop Support Product Test Center Analytic lead scientist Jamie Hieber during an event Dec. 5, 2019, in Philadelphia. Gilliam said that the simple game of addition was a small example of how wargaming uses systems and processes – mathematics in this case – and pairs it with the human element, or players, to pit personalities and strategies against real-world scenarios and stresses.
Photo By: John Dwyer III
VIRIN: 191205-D-XL571-0029

Gilliam said wargaming involves a little bit of mechanics, and a little bit of argument in relation to how scenarios unfold.

In the end though, a wargame is about the “human element” and a factor of uncertainty to help leaders understand possibilities and interactions to “achieve positions of relative advantage in human behavior,” he said.

“[Wargaming] allows the knowledge that’s in the room and the people that know about the problem to interact with each other … and then we roll the die, and we let chance take over,” Gilliam said. “Because sometimes really good ideas don’t work, and sometimes really bad ideas – low probability events – happen as well.”

The practice allows leaders to try innovative approaches to problems and systems without the cost of a full-scale exercise, and gets participants used to learning through failure, Gilliam said.

“With true innovation – if you’re really good at innovating – you’re still going to fail about 40-50% of the time,” Gilliam said. “And if you are not willing to fail, you are not willing to innovate.”

Leveraging diversity of experience was a factor in finding quality solutions, and a key to that leverage was asking how leaders allow individuals to learn and innovate, he said.

In closing, Lawrence asked attendees to take the time to apply the tools, techniques and knowledge such as MTM, systems thinking and wargaming for the good of the workforce and organization as a whole.

“I challenge [our leaders and managers] to think about that, and I’m going to challenge myself with that as well: to not just leave here and talk about metrics,” Lawrence said. “For the good of our organization, and for the good of this agency: we have to make the time to look at these things so we can, as a whole, improve as an organization.”

The next CoL event is tentatively scheduled for April 2020.