Doing things on purpose: Some things to think about

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Doing things on purpose: Some things to think about

by: Col. Keith McBride, Commander | .
51st Operations Group | .
published: October 02, 2012

OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- What is your unit's culture? Do you like it? What is it?

It sounds like a fuzzy thing that is often defined using PhD terms, listed in books, and taught by high-paid consultants to help us mirror civilian industry. For military units, it is much simpler. It is our basic mode of operations or 'the way we do it.' Unit culture defines how those around you perceive your unit's performance. Out of all the fuzzy definitions available, I like "a set of common understandings around which action is organized."

Why does unit culture matter?

Understanding your unit culture reveals the unit's strengths and identifies areas for improvement. It is impossible to make change in a unit's long-term performance if you misidentify how the unit's culture drives daily behavior (usually unknowingly).

What are the common understandings in your unit? Is compliance top dog or is there a sub-culture of tolerating sub-standard behavior? Are you a party hard and take no prisoners unit or a watch out for your wingman unit?

Several 'common understandings' within your unit are the subcultures that create your unit's overall culture. If you want to make changes to your unit's culture, make changes in the good and bad subcultures.

How do you change unit culture?

It takes years to enact significant change to a unit's culture. 'That's the way we do it here' is not something that is changed overnight. When stressed, people fall back to their comfort zone, reverting to their most familiar habits. Changing these basic subcultures is not an easy goal to achieve in a one-year tour. However, there are probably aspects of the subculture that you value and want to keep in your evolving unit culture. Work with the good in the subcultures and build on that. Some examples are teamwork, striving for excellence in production, zero discrepancies or mishaps, timeliness, organization, high morale, or balance in mission and life.

What are we doing in the Operations Group?

With the help of the Operations Group enlisted and officer leaders, I've evaluated the sub-cultures that make up our unit culture and I picked a motto to describe a common understanding I expect everyone in my unit to adopt; our unit motto is "Do things on purpose."

"Do things on purpose" implies we make things happen; things don't just happen to us. We organize our daily actions around a deliberate process that we have used in the flying business for decades. Plan, contingency plan, chair fly, and execute in accordance with that plan. This way of planning, practicing and executing delivers expected results and reduces the 'make it up as we go' approach that causes us to deviate from standards. The 'chair flying' or practicing part is the key to coping with the daily changes we see at Osan. When things start to force you to depart from your plan, you've already thought about how to handle it when you did the chair fly exercise reviewing your contingency plans. Alterations to your plan become familiar and lead to the outcomes you want. Ideally, this process leads to an external perception that the Operations Group has a plan, delivers what we promise, and are in compliance. We will be successful evolving our culture to embrace this motto because it is familiar.

These ideas are embedded in fighter pilots during training so it is an established and well-recognized subculture in at least a third of the Operations Group. As a group, we make an effort to expand on the principles designed for combat training the world's finest airpower to the other areas of Operations Group's missions and daily activities. I challenge you to evaluate your unit's culture. Ask yourself, "Does it support my mission (ready to fly, fight and win tonight)?"

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