Small Wars Journal

Maintaining the Razor’s Edge: An Argument for Army-wide Cultural Change

Tue, 08/04/2015 - 10:46am

Maintaining the Razor’s Edge: An Argument for Army-wide Cultural Change

Scott A. Porter

The Secretary of the Defense, Chuck Hagel, announced on 24 February 2014, his intent to reduce the Army to its smallest size since before WWII.1  Accompanying the impending personnel drawdown is a capricious fiscal environment amid an uncertain, complicated and rapidly changing international security situation.2 However, the Army must still be capable of conducting its core mission, “…to provide to combatant commanders the forces and capabilities necessary to execute the National Security, National Defense, and National Military Strategies”.3  According to the 2015 Army Posture Statement, to remain capable of executing this mission, the Army must reduce its end strength as rapidly as possible while still meeting operational commitments in order to concentrate remaining funds on rebuilding readiness.4  The forthcoming reality is that the Army must continue to meet operational commitments with significantly fewer soldiers and funds. This means an Army-wide change in the stewardship and vigilant management of scarce resources is necessary to maintain combat readiness.  Achieving this transformation toward operating with less will be a significant challenge because of the current organizational cultural dependence on abundant manpower and other resources. Army transformational change is addressed in FM 1:

When large, complex organizations pursue transformational change, a key measure of success is leaders' ability to reorient peoples' attitudes and actions. For Army leaders, these people include Soldiers, Army civilians, and families. The Army is changing policies, training, and behavior to create a culture that embraces the operational and organizational challenges of a turbulent security environment.5

A process to implement transformational change exists, and it is on the Army Chief of Staff’s Reading List: Leading Change by John P. Kotter.6 Using Kotter’s model in conjunction with existing Army methodologies and processes will enable the Army to maintain its adaptability and agility and find innovative solutions to face future threats.  Adaptation is an Army tenet of Unified Land Operations that requires a common understanding of the operational environment and then rapidly adjusting to maintain the initiative. Adaption is enabled by agility, which includes the flexibility and ability to successfully respond to change.7 Brian Reed in his Land Warfare Paper Leader Development, Learning Agility and the Army Profession simply states that adaptability is an action and is, therefore, an outcome of learning agility.8  Innovation is the adaptable action put into practical use. The most important criteria for successful innovation is that it constitutes a significant change in the Army’s way of doing things while also proving to be effective in accomplishing the mission.9  Consequently, the Army must have all three to successfully transform, and Kotter’s process for change enables agility and adaptability while encouraging innovative methods to improve an organization. Eight essential steps comprise the model, and according to Kotter the steps may overlap at times but should be sequential.10 The steps include: establishing a sense of urgency, creating the guiding coalition, developing a vision and strategy, communicating the vision, empowering the vision, generating short term wins, consolidating gains and producing more change, and anchoring new approaches in the culture.11

Establishing a Sense of Urgency

During periods of force downsizing and the associated resource constraints, a wide-spread sense of dissatisfaction throughout the ranks will initially occur.  We have already seen numerous articles in the media that signify a heightened attentiveness towards the impending personnel downsizing and associated fiscal uncertainties. These articles and opinions in the media typically are expressed as discontent, but how the Army senior leadership addresses them can either be an acceptance toward reduced force readiness or an opportunity to initiate a positive change.12 The Army has three courses of action. This first is to take no action.  This means subordinate units must discover their own way of adapting to a constrained fiscal environment.  The advantage of this course is that commanders can choose how to cope with greatly diminished resources at their own level. The reality of this course is that a disjointed approach to managing scarce resources could make the situation worse by unintentionally encouraging unhealthy resource competiveness throughout the force.  The second course is to mitigate the dissatisfaction by means of immediate and drastic top-driven counter measures.  This involves minimizing the impact of scarce resources by cancelling Army level events and initiatives.  This course is helpful in the short term but an overall losing proposition. For example, cancelling major training exercises and new equipment acquisitions will save significant resources but ultimately breed complacency, lower performance standards, and ultimately degrade readiness. The third course is to leverage the dissatisfaction by creating a sense of urgency towards operating more efficiently with fewer resources.  This involves a major cultural change within the Army that is based upon an analysis and understanding of how the Army will have to train and operate in the near future.  Changing any culture to meet new realities is challenging in the short term, but produces advantageous long term results.

Michael Beer, in his discussion of organizational change, emphasizes the leadership challenge is to use the correct model and process to overcome any resistance to the desired change. According to Beer, a followers’ dissatisfaction is often a strong motivator for change.13  For example, in Kotter’s first step of his model, creating a sense of urgency, an Army senior leader can leverage dissatisfaction by taking immediate further actions that will enhance a heightened attentiveness to the resource constrained environment.  These actions could include eliminating all signs of excess, setting higher standards in all planning processes, improving internal measurement systems, increasing performance feedback, and demanding candid and effective communication from all leaders.14

Although began at the top, no organizational change can occur without a robust and committed team approach.  The primary challenge at this point is to form an initial team, or guiding coalition, that will possess enough power and influence to aggressively pursue a change process throughout the entire force.

Creating the Guiding Coalition

The Army’s exercise of authority and direction is based upon a philosophy of mission command, and it enables the advantages of Kotter’s model.15 The first principle of Mission Command is to build cohesive teams through mutual trust, and Kotter’s second step to create a “guiding coalition” echoes this principle.16  Forming the guiding coalition is critical in the establishment of the overall credibility and expansion of the change, so the coalition must consist of the “right” people who truly believe in the need for change.17  Fortunately, the structure and culture of the Army provides an ideal opportunity for the creation of guiding coalitions.  Subordinate commanders or directors, senior non-commissioned officers, and senior civilian executives are all committed to organizational objectives and goals.  The senior leader must inspire and build this cohesive team based upon mutual trust and a strong commitment to steward the profession, especially during times of severe resource constraints. Thus, bringing them on board to help lead the change effort is invaluable. Senior leaders must appeal to the Army’s organizational culture of loyalty by building teams, or guiding coalitions, through the consistent application of mission command.  A coalition of the willing is critical, but at the same time a sense of direction must be clearly communicated. This is why it is important for the guiding coalition to collaborate with the senior leader to help construct a positive and logical way forward.  As mentioned above, Beer states the way forward must include a “process” that accompanies the model for change.18

Developing a Vision and Strategy

For Army cultural change the process includes the application of Army Design Methodology (ADM).19 As a constituent of the guiding coalition, the senior leader must designate and guide a core design team to understand, visualize, and describe problems and approaches for the desired cultural transformation (ADP 5-0).20  ADM is particularly useful when practices and techniques that were originally effective now fall short of achieving the desired impact, and meeting future operational commitments with fewer troops and resources certainly addresses that need.21 The design team first frames the operational environment in terms of the current and desired future culture of the Army.22 Understanding the concept of organizational culture is essential for the design team, especially in framing the problem. Schein provides valuable information on defining culture in terms of how it can be influenced.23  “Culture is both a dynamic phenomenon that surrounds us at all times, being constantly enacted and created by our interactions with others and shaped by leadership behavior, and a set of structures, routines, rules, and norms that guide and constrain behavior”.24  He emphasizes the importance of leadership on affecting culture: “The ability to perceive the limitations of one’s own culture and to evolve the culture adaptively is the essence and ultimate challenge of leadership”.25    Schein lists three levels of culture; artifacts, espoused beliefs and values, and underlying assumptions.26 Artifacts are those visible products of the Army, such as uniforms, customs, ceremonies and processes. Espoused beliefs and values include our stated oaths, loyalties, discipline, and Army values.  It is at the basic underlying assumptions level whereby a mindset of routine actions are so taken for granted that the entire force practices them at will.  This is the level of Army culture that must transform.  No longer can soldiers at all levels take for granted a robust supply of manpower and resources. The force must come to terms with the upcoming reductions in personnel and other resources. An Army level vision and strategy will provide the framework for soldiers to meet and accomplish these terms.

The design team, using this vision along with their own analysis, delivers an operational approach consisting of broad general actions.27  From this approach begins the overall strategy development and integration with the Army’s framework for exercising mission command, the Army Operations Process.28  The interface between ADM and the operations process is especially relevant within the context of the senior leader understanding the operational environment and visualizing the operational approach, complete with an end state. This is why “create shared understanding” is the second principle of mission command, and a method to begin this shared understanding is through a leader’s vision.29 Peter Senge from his book The Fifth Discipline, describes and organizational-level vision as “A picture of the future framed by a value-based purpose that creates a path to drive behavior, change, and motivation.”30 Based upon the Army’s slightly different doctrinal definition of an organizational-level vision, Walker and Bonnot have divided it into three key components: what (a picture of the future), why (framed by a value-based purpose), and how (a path for driving behavior, change, and motivation). Implementing a vision is fundamentally a form of problem solving, and Army leaders are responsible for developing a vision; but not in isolation.31   The guiding coalition is crucial for helping create a collaborative “shared” vision and developing a strategy that enables ownership in the overall change effort.32 This collaborative effort from the guiding coalition also provides years of experience and expertise, especially in the use of a shared vision to support the senior leader in the development of the “what, why, and how”.  By the end of Kotter’s Developing a Vision and Strategy step, a fully developed plan is complete, with prioritized tasks and associated resource allocations and programs. The senior leader must still accomplish a shared understanding of his vision throughout the entire force.

Communicating the Change Vision

As part of the operations process, the senior leader describes the change plan throughout the Army to facilitate shared understanding and purpose.33 To maintain a unity of effort for the change plan, the Army must use every means to communicate the senior leader’s message. Because of the scope of the task, it must include an Army-wide information campaign that is designed to reach every soldier and civilian in the force. Most importantly, the senior leader circulates throughout all major commands to inform and influence soldiers.34 To assist the leader in disseminating his message, at every echelon is an established mission command system to support decision-making and facilitate communication.35 Within the execution of mission command, the leader expresses his vision as a clear intent, especially focusing on the purpose and end state of the Army’s cultural transformation. Fullan describes in his book, Leading in a Culture of Change, that a moral purpose is essential for change to be effective in an organization.36 Moral purpose in this case means acting with the intention of making a positive difference in the lives of soldiers, the Army, and society as a whole. This definition is certainly in line with the Army’s doctrinal recognition of a broader purpose in the commander’s intent.  Again, the guiding coalition also plays a key part, this time in helping to communicate both the vision and plan.  In essence, the aim is for guiding coalitions to multiply throughout the echelons of command as subordinate commanders and their coalitions become engaged, and ultimately committed, to the need for cultural change.  This means the message must be much more than a PowerPoint briefing that demands compliance.  Although this hierarchical means of communicating is through the senior leader’s positional power, the influencing techniques should be through the use of personal power.37   For example, authoritative pressure will accomplish short term compliance but not long term commitment. An intensive integrative approach that is categorically highly participative and encompasses inspiration, rational persuasion, and relationship building will empower real commitment to cultural change.38

Empowering Broad-Based Action

The “exercise disciplined initiative” principle of mission command transforms the vision and strategy into broad-based action.39  Given the senior leader’s intent, commanders at all levels begin to direct and lead the process by nesting their intent and using mission orders to create opportunities for their soldiers to find innovative solutions. In other words, this is when the total force cultural transformation actually begins to occur within the Execution phase of the operations process.40  Although there is a strong decentralized element to this principle and Kotter’s step, the role of an organizational leader is just as profound as ever.  The Army-wide cultural transformation to steward and manage scarce resources in order to maximize combat readiness is fraught with obstacles and barriers. Leaders at all levels must recognize and reduce these obstacles, including systems and structures that undermine the change vision.  After all, soldiers cannot be expected to simply “adapt” and eventually overcome any adverse situation.  Leaders must still shape the environment to provide soldiers with the very best chance to succeed.  This means leaders must anticipate how change will affect not only their internal organization, but influences outside their chain of command.

There is a way leaders can anticipate the internal and external challenges associated with the change process. In the midst of change, Kim and Mauborgne discuss resource hurdles and the accompanying cognitive, motivational, political hurdles.41   Cognitive hurdles include not only communicating the change vision, but ensuring junior leaders understand and internalize the vision in the context of adapting to resource constraints.   Likewise, overcoming motivational hurdles require that the resource challenges be specified and understood at each subordinate level.  After all, expectation management is a prerequisite to soldiers finding innovative solutions.  For example, if a soldier understands the amount of latitude and the associated risk deemed prudent by his superiors, then the soldier will be more likely to demonstrate initiative.  All leaders realize political hurdles are ever present, especially during periods of change. Organizational leaders must recognize and neutralize bureaucratic and systemic obstacles that impede this cultural change.  This includes, but is not limited to, wasteful spending procedures, inefficient scheduling of training resources, stove-piped planning, and procedures that encourage excess parts and equipment. Kim and Mauborgne also discuss “tipping point leadership”, whereby once the trust and power of a significant mass of people are engaged, conversion to a new idea will multiply like an disease outbreak, bringing about fundamental change very quickly.42 Empowering broad-based action relies on this tipping point, but results-oriented organization like the Army must have tangible victories.

Generating Short-Term Wins

These tangible victories, or short term wins, must occur from strategic down to the lowest tactical levels. Again, an information campaign illuminating all short term wins must be waged at Army level, and soldiers must also experience the positive benefits of the cultural change.  Short term wins could consist of training with allied partners, maintaining combat training center rotations, or simply meeting the training requirements on a Mission Essential Task List. However, these short term wins in cultural change won’t be in what soldiers do, but how they do it.  Recognizing and rewarding soldiers at all levels who adapt and innovate to produce these wins will help perpetuate the cultural change.  Still, leaders should not declare victory too soon on the cultural change.43   The critical point is that the force must remain combat ready, and soldiers must realize that the Army will probably continue to transform into a smaller force while also demanding enhanced capabilities. These enhanced capabilities include a more expeditionary force, one that has the agility to respond to immediate threats.  Alberts describes agility as having both a passive and an active component. Passive Agility involves possessing a set of characteristics that allow an entity to continue to operate effectively, despite changes in circumstances or conditions. Active Agility is the ability to effectively respond or adapt when required.44 Within this challenge to become a successful expeditionary force, the Army must be proficient in both the passive and active components of agility. 

Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change

Maintaining the momentum in achieving adaptability and agility is perhaps the most difficult part of the change process.  To accomplish this, the senior leader may elect to keep urgency levels high.  This could result in changing more systems, structures, and policies internal to the Army, or reinvigorating the process with new information campaign themes or major initiatives.  For example, examining how to eliminate interdependencies within the bureaucratic framework of the Army would continue to both increase system efficiencies and produce more change.45

However, for long term success, the core design team will likely need to reframe the environment and problem, as the change strategy must also adapt to changing conditions. Has a new threat emerged?  Has force structure significantly changed?  Have advances in technology been significant enough to warrant more change?  Once the strategy is re-examined, momentum and continued success with short-term wins are important, but long term Army cultural change will depend on larger wins. These larger wins at the operational and strategic levels include not only battlefield victories but the continued support of the American public and international partners.    

Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture

Anchoring, or institutionalizing, the cultural change means that new innovative practices have actualized the senior leader’s vision. Kotter states that anchoring a change in culture comes last, as alterations in norms and shared values come at the end of any successful transformation process.46  Therefore, re-examining espoused U.S. Army values and the Army Leadership Requirements Model’s (LRM) attributes and competencies may be necessary, incorporating new ones or altering the old.  In 2012, “Stewards the Profession” was added to the LRM as a competency and a sub-category of “Develops”.47   ADRP 6-22 states:

 “Stewardship is the group of strategies, policies, principles, and beliefs that pertain to the purposeful management and sustainment of the resources, expertise, and time-honored traditions and customs that make up the profession.  Leaders serving as good stewards have concern for the lasting effects of their decisions about all of the resources they use and manage.  Stewardship requires prioritization and sacrifice”.48

There is little doubt that stewards the profession will become more of a priority, and possibly attain a higher standing in the LRM.  Prioritizing stewardship also means rewarding those that use innovation to become more effective, and altering promotion processes to be in line with the new practices.

Determining Army cultural transformation, or more precisely, the senior leader’s end state, is fraught with hidden traps.  Assessing any culture is a behaviorist venture, and the Army’s leaders typically make decisions upon fact-based, or at least cause and effect, assessments.  An example of a possible hidden trap includes the confirming-evidence trap, or a tendency to seek out information which supports current intuitions and avoid information that contradicts it.  The re-callability trap involves placing too much undue weight to a recent significant or dramatic event.  This is a typical trap when a “big win” occurs, and may not be connected at all to the change process.49

So, how will Army leaders know when they are successful? Assessing the Army culture in terms of orientation, empowerment, decision-making, communications, and tolerance for prudent risk is a good start.  An Army culture that is externally oriented rather than inwardly focused indicates an engaged force in terms of combat readiness, deployability, and threat awareness.  Empowerment, or the opposite of centralized stiff bureaucracies, provides an environment for leader development, adaptability, and innovation.   Timely analytical and intuitive decision-making is yet another good indicator, along with the leaders applying good judgment on calculating risk and benefits before specific actions.


Cultural change is difficult for any organization, especially for one as large and old as the U.S. Army.  An Army culture that valued robust formations with overwhelming resources must now transform into a culture that embraces the reorganization of the current operational force while also eliminating all excess. Although it may begin with wide-spread dissatisfaction over personnel downsizing and diminished resources, it will end with a cultural transformation consisting of a more expeditionary Army that maintains its adaptability and agility by finding innovative solutions to face future threats.

End Notes

1. Thom Shanker and Helene Cooper, “Pentagon Plans to Shrink Army to Pre-World War II Level”, NY Times, February 23, 2014. Online at <>. Also see US Department of Defense, Secretary of Defense Speech, 24 February 2014, online at <>.

2. John M. McHugh and Raymond T. Odierno, Statement, Posture of the United States Army (APS), Committee on Armed Services, United States House of Representatives, Second Session, 114th Congress, 11 March 2015, ii.

3. Field Manual (FM) 1, The Army, (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office [GPO], 2005), 2-26.

4. APS, 3.

5. FM 1, 4-33.

6. John P. Kotter, Leading Change, (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996). Also see the The U.S. Army Chief of Staff’s Professional Reading List, 2014, online at <>.

7. Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 3-0, Unified Land Operations (Washington, DC: GPO, 10 October 2011), 7-8.

8. Brian J. Reed, Leader Development, Learning Agility and the Army Profession, The Land Warfare Papers, (The Institute of Land Warfare, No. 92, Arlington, VA: 2012).

9. Jon T. Hoffman, General Editor, A History of Innovation: U.S. Army Adaption in War and Peace,(Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C., 2009), v-vi.

10. Kotter, 23.

11. Kotter, 21. In later editions Kotter renames stages to steps, and also some of his stages, such as 7 never letting up and 8 as instituting the change. See online at <>.

12. Richard Hughes, Robert Ginnett, and Gordon Curphy, Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience, 13-9, 4th Ed., (New York, McGraw-Hill: 2002).

13. Ibid., 13-3.

14. Kotter, 42.

15. Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 6-0, Mission Command, (Washington, DC: GPO, 2012), 1.

16. Ibid., 2.

17. Kotter, 57.

18. Hughes, Ginnett, and Curphy, 13-3.

19. Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 5-0, The Operations Process, (Washington, DC: GPO, 2012), 2-4.

20. Ibid.

21. Anna Grome, Beth Crandall, Louise Rasmussen, and Heather Wolters, Army Design Methodology: Commander’s Resource, (United States Army School of Advanced Military Studies in partnership with U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences, Arlington, VA: February 2012), 14.

22. ADRP 5-0, 2-5.

23. Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, 3rd ed., (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco: 2004), 1,

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid, 2.

26. Ibid, 26.

27. ADRP 5-0, 2-6.

28. Ibid, 1-2.

29. ADP 6-0, 3.

30. Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, 88, (New York: Doubleday, 2006).

31. Carey W. Walker and Matthew J. Bonnot, The Vision Process: Seven Steps to a Better Organization, L100 Developing Leaders and Organizations, (Ft. Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2012).

32. Senge, 191-192.

33. ADP 5-0, 3.

34. ADP 6-0, iv.

35. Ibid, 11.

36. Michael Fullan, Leading in a Culture of Change, (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA: 2001): 3.

37. Gary Yukl, Leadership in Organizations, Sixth Ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc., 2002), 160-161.

38. Gene Klann, The Application of Power and Influence in Organizational Leadership, L100 Developing Leaders and Organizations, (Ft. Leavenworth, KS: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2010).

39. ADP 6-0, 2.

40. ADP 5-0, iv.

41. W. Chan Kim and Renee A. Mauborgne, “Tipping Point Leadership,” Harvard Business Review, no. 3353 (April 2003): 1-13.

42. Ibid, 3.

43. Kotter, 12.

44. David S. Alberts, The Agility Advantage: A survival Guide for complex Enterprises and Endeavors, (Command and Control Research Program, Alexandria, VA: 2011), 3.

45. Kotter, 103-105.

46. Kotter, 157.

47. Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 6-22, Army Leadership (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office [GPO], 10 September 2012), 7-15.

48. Ibid, 7-15 and 7-16.

49. John S. Hammond, Ralph L. Keeney, and Howard Raiffa, “The Hidden Traps in Decision Making”, Harvard Business Review 76, no. 5 (September-October 1998); 47-+.






About the Author(s)

Scott Porter is currently an associate professor and team leader in the Department of Command and Leadership at The U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.  He is a retired Army Armor officer, a veteran of three conflicts, and a former board member at the National World War One Museum at the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.   In 2013 he was the Civilian Educator of the Year for the Department of Command and leadership, The U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and TRADOC.