By April 8, 2021General
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CULTURE AND STRATEGY: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Renowned management consultant Peter Drucker asserted that, as important as strategy is to success, an organization’s culture is a more powerful and pervasive influence. (Graphic by U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center (USAASC))


After 40-plus years in and around Army acquisition, the big concerns about modernization revolve around culture.

by John T. Dillard, Col., USA (Ret.)


I was recently asked for some parting thoughts upon my retirement from a 20-year career teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School, following 26 years in the Army, serving mostly within the area of acquisition. It’s been a splendid time working in the Department of Defense all these years, with many relationships formed and maintained still. And I’m still volunteering for the Army from time to time.

I was recently asked what my concerns were now for the future of defense modernization, and I narrowed it down to just three, with perhaps the overarching concern being about DOD’s own culture. I had been told countless times over the last five decades that “DOD culture needed to change” to facilitate more efficient and effective acquisition. Why would that be? After the first few years of being an assistant program manager in a major system project office, I felt I had a pretty good idea.

Folks don’t often understand or agree on what organizational culture really is. But I feel culture is best defined as: what the organization believes to be true.

A CULTURAL CUSTOM: The culture of DOD is rooted in the mission of national security and based on common values of liberty and freedom. Master Sgt. John Naumann, 103rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command, is promoted to sergeant major by Col. Tomika Seaberry, the command’s assistant chief of staff and support operations officer, May 1. (Photo by Spc. Dakota Vanidestine, U.S. Army Reserve)

This is opposed to climate, which is the tone or environment that leaders can most readily influence through their personal communications, their demonstrated competencies and their behaviors. Culture is more of a lasting thing in organizations. It is shaped by its internal and external reward and control systems, collective values, power structures, routines and behaviors, as well as lore or history. It was Peter Drucker, the legendary management consultant and author, who said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Not meaning that strategy isn’t important, but that it can be either facilitated or hampered by organizational culture. And it was Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, who wrote, in his revelatory memoir, “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?,” that culture was perhaps the single most important thing in executing a large corporate turnaround.

We could have a very long discourse on what we believe our DOD culture is today. But suffice it to say we are very large, hierarchical, rule-laden, centralized, mechanistic and bureaucratic. DOD has two dominant subcultures:

  1. A highly mobile military force, typically serving for shorter job and career spans, filled with periodic promotion opportunities based upon performance and potential.
  2. A civilian workforce, enjoying fewer such evaluative opportunities, with promotions being more vacancy-based and with job tenure being rewarded over merit, especially during a reduction in force.

Perhaps tongue in cheek, Drucker also once said, “So much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work.” The many pages of acquisition rules and regulations, coupled with the many layers and branches of management, make those charged with actually being change agents feel swamped by the red tape. In his classic treatise on organizational behavior, “Images of Organization,” Gareth Morgan said that large mechanistic organizations have difficulty adapting to change and are not designed for innovation. He makes a strong case for compatibility between internal management processes (such as organizational structure, managerial decision-making, technological and strategic) and positioning along a continuum of changing external environments, from stable to turbulent. So DOD must be adaptable if the environment warrants change. And I believe that the landscape today tells us it does.

WHEN SUBCULTURES UNITE: At Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Blanchfield Army Community Hospital Commander Col. Patrick T. Birchfield gives an elbow bump to Screaming Eagle Medical Home Behavioral Health Consultant Joan Lovett before presenting her the Commander’s Certificate of Achievement on Oct. 20. When civilian- and military-led expertise comes together, remarkable partnerships can result. (Photo by Maria Christina Yager, Blanchfield Army Community Hospital)

What’s encouraging is DOD’s cultural core and backbone, its stable platform upon which to pivot: the mission of national security, with universally shared values of liberty and freedom upon which we were founded. And let’s face it—DOD has ultimately been regarded as an early adopter with regard to technology and even some social initiatives.

So beneath this large concern, which I believe will contribute greatly to our success or failure, are my three subordinate :

  1. Technological urgency As the Army chief of staff recently said, we have to modernize now. Twenty years of overseas operations have badly beaten up our major platforms across all formations. They need modern replacements now, and the Army’s new “Big 6” can’t arrive soon enough. We will have to use some $60 billion devoted to our modernization over the next five years very prudently, with ample experimentation before commitment. And we know it will be much longer before development really ends on these systems and fielding can commence—longer still before full fielding and operational capability.

The Army is much more diverse than the other services, and with more mission complexity. And so it may require large organizations to allocate resources based upon operational mission and capability analyses, etc. But it has never been lost upon me that the Navy has no Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), Army Materiel Command (AMC), or Army Futures Command (AFC), and seems to do just fine with its own modernization efforts. Having these three, four-star major commands now, I certainly hope the Army can adapt to Morgan’s paradigm regarding the current environment and facilitate each other’s efforts rather than get in each other’s way. To be nimble and agile doesn’t require us to be small. But as my friend Vice Adm. (Ret.) Tom Hughes said to me regarding organizational agility a few years before he passed away, “The DOD is often a victim of its own size, its bigness.”

He felt that the sheer scale of DOD’s organization and mission sets made it difficult to maneuver and reform. Participants of the O-5/GS-14 Product Manager Pre-Command Course conducted at the Pentagon in the last five years have said to me privately, after senior leaders leave the room, “There are a lot of folks between them [senior leaders] and me who haven’t yet gotten the memo on that urgency thing.” Once again, a culture of lethargy and rewards for mediocrity, with no penalty for delaying progress, hinders those trying to “move the needle.” We cannot let ourselves be a victim of our size. When former Under Secretary of Defense (Acquisition, Technology and Logistics) Ashton Carter stood up his Strategic Capabilities Office, many saw it as an attempt to form a smaller unit, outside of the very large efforts and bureaucracy that he oversaw, that could move system developments forward. If our existing internal management processes and organizational structure and culture cannot adapt to change in the current era, national security may well be at risk.

MEETING THE CHALLENGE: The Army’s urgently needed modernization of its “Big 6” priorities requires an organizational culture supporting prudence and creativity to make the most of about $60 billion designated for the effort over the next five years, and that’s just for the early phases of development. (Graphic by USAASC)

  1. Relaxation of acquisition policy and the implications of service-level milestone-decision authority. As the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 eliminated the position of undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, and, presumably, a lot of oversight at the level of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), the milestone-decision authority for the programs to produce our developing systems now rests largely with our Army leaders. Looking back, the Goldwater-Nichols legislation in the 1980s gave us the program executive office (PEO) structure and streamlined the chain of command for major system program managers. But the service and OSD-level staff bureaucracy remained, in what was essentially a centralized decision-making mode.

Over the years, we voiced to congressional staffers that it wasn’t more legislation that was needed to speed acquisition so much as more decentralized decision-making. Our DOD Instruction 5000 series acquisition regulations espoused program managers having more responsibility, but the plethora of meetings and “rings to be kissed” (bureaucrats to be satisfied) en route to a decision were extremely burdensome and even disruptive, with many “powers of no.” Frustrated, former Army Acquisition Executive (AAE) Heidi Shyu called this “too many cooks in the kitchen” and often used a cartoon of a bus driven by a PM, with each passenger having their own brake pedal and steering wheel. Again, she saw that our own management culture appeared to be more oriented to permission than progress, resulting in hindrance.

WHO’S DRIVING HERE? Former Army Acquisition Executive Heidi Shyu understood from firsthand experience how disruptive it was for program managers to have to attend so many meetings and obtain so many signoffs before getting to a decision. She used this image frequently to get other people to understand how the culture of Army acquisition valued permission at the expense of progress. Army stakeholders are represented in green, Congress in gold, and external stakeholders in red. (Image courtesy of Office of the Assistant
Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology)

Today, an entire layer of bureaucracy has presumably been reduced, except that the overseers are still there in the Pentagon, offering advice and healthy skepticism for the services to listen to. Sometimes the overseers are right and, just like the old expression, “Be careful what you ask for, you might get it,” we’d better know what we’re doing as we go up the chain for a . PMs can’t discard the 1,000-plus pages of the Defense Acquisition Guidebook and all of the corporate wisdom about systems acquisition accumulated therein through the years. It is incumbent upon acquisition managers to make themselves technically competent in every sense, so they can steer the chief and AAE toward good decisions and prevent or curtail bad investments.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. It’s on us now more than in the past—and in an environment that is a bit less risk averse and more permissive than ever.

It behooves us to seek as much advice as possible. The collective wisdom is out there. Right now, the ongoing COVID constraints are certainly not helping, but we still have to engage with all stakeholders. And when we cannot obtain buy-in, we must elevate issues to the level of resolution. Lt. Gen. Paul A. Ostrowski (USA, Ret.) used to say frequently to his young product managers, “Elevating issues to a higher level for resolution is not a failure on your part. Make the unreasonable ones defend their positions in front of their bosses.” With authority comes responsibility and accountability—it’s never been more true.

  1. Our organic ability to modernize our forces demands education on both the requiring and acquiring sides of the DOD. Acquisition has never been “amateur sport,” and our commitment to technical excellence has never been needed more. While a new back-to-basics initiative is underway to revamp credentialing for acquisition professional training, education and experience, the train is still moving. We can’t wait for new policy and the training institutions to catch up before we edify ourselves about our work and . The requirements side needs all the help we can give them in understanding what is doable and affordable in a given time frame. Acquisition is on the secretariat side since Goldwater-Nichols ‘86, while operational requirements are with the Army G-staff, along with resources to prioritize and get it all done.

These two sides of civilian- and military-led expertise, respectively, don’t have to be separated by walls; they can work together in real synergy. A tremendous partnership results when the requirements side knows what is needed, how it’s going to be employed in battle and how many are going to be acquired; and the acquisition side knows the cost, schedule and performance levels of the capability to be acquired. The library of acquisition knowledge is at our fingertips, thanks to information-age technology and the public domain. For those that want a graduate school education, the Naval Postgraduate School has education programs for military and civilian acquisition professionals birthed and sponsored by the AAE’s military deputy (MILDEP) and the Army’s director of acquisition career management (DACM).

Understanding the need for more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, three successive MILDEPs since 2012 (Lt. Gens. William N. Phillips, Michael E. Williamson and Ostrowski, plus Craig Spisak, the DACM) directed NPS to launch an interdisciplinary degree that would provide needed education in the areas of systems engineering, program and contract management for its military and civilian workforce. Since the degree was established in 2018, fully 10 percent of the military Army Acquisition Corps has been enrolled in the resident 18-month program. Almost 70 civilians have done the same with their 24-month nonresident version of the degree program.

BIRD’S EYE VIEW: The Naval Postgraduate School has launched an interdisciplinary degree to provide additional education in the areas of systems engineering, program and contract management for its military and civilian workforce. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Naval Postgraduate School)

They graduate fully equipped to deal effectively with all possible stakeholders in science and technology, testing, logistics, finance, contract and program management. I was truly privileged to have helped these general officers get the education programs going while at NPS. That effort in educational reform for the Army Acquisition Corps was to help create a culture shift as it pertains to American society today, where a lack of STEM education overall presumably has  placed us behind peer threats in tech areas like artificial intelligence, hypersonics, directed energy, etc.

Drucker also once told leaders that if they were unable to effect true change of culture, “work with what you’ve got.” So all in all, I feel Army acquisition’s stage is set for the next act. Will our bureaucratic culture slow our modernization efforts? Or will our stable backbone of values and a unified vision move us, aided by urgency, decentralized authority and enhanced education? I’ll be close by and watching for what happens next. Good luck—and my colleagues are free to reach me  at


JOHN T. DILLARD, COL., USA (RET.), recently retired from the Naval Postgraduate School, where he was a senior lecturer in the Systems Engineering Department of the Graduate School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He also served as the technical representative for the Army’s M.S. programs in systems engineering management. Dillard managed major weapons development efforts for most of his 26-year career in the U.S. Army. He holds an M.S. in systems management from the University of Southern California and is a distinguished military graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a B.A. in biological sciences.


Read the full article in the Spring 2021 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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