Fight the Distant Fight

As long as it is appropriately prioritized, I think that everybody can benefit from the occasional distraction of an idiotic time-waster, whether it’s playing video games, reading cheesy novels, or watching stoner cartoons. Personally, I enjoy mindless smartphone games, specifically those of the Tower Defense variety. There are hundreds of them out there. In any Tower Defense game, your objective is to strategically deploy defensive turrets or towers in order to protect your (castle/city/ship/whatever) from a never-ending onslaught of (zombies/aliens/NR Reps/ATG/whatever).

dga-thumbThe key to surviving in any tower defense game is the strategic use of limited resources. It doesn’t take long to figure out that you can’t just build up all the guns right next to your castle, concentrating all your firepower on the closest threats. That may work for a little while, but sooner or later you’ll get rushed and the monsters will break through and eat your princess. Instead, you’ve got to build up a layered defense, efficiently weakening the long-range threats so that they’re easily dispatched when they get too close.

Life on a ship is a lot like that, but for some reason we habitually neglect the long-term threats.  We stumble around in a managerial daze, still wondering if we really survived the last crisis when the next one smashes us in the face. They’re like waves pounding the rocks into sand; they just keep coming. We complain about never having time to really be a leader, and dismiss all the things we signed up for as naïve and idealistic concepts from a fantasy Navy with parts, money, manning and a sane OPTEMPO. Smash—another crisis hits.

If this describes your situation, you’re probably somewhere near the intersection of unrealistic expectations and bad management. Before you go off to complain about your superiors’ mismanagement, though, stop to consider your own contribution. If you’re constantly aiming for the closest alligator to the boat, you shouldn’t be surprised when you get eaten.

Management guru Steven Covey addressed this in his classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Yes, I know that management books are incredibly lame, but you’re at an advice blog so just roll with it). If there’s one thing to take away from that book, it is the time management matrix. Rather than try to explain it, I’ll just show you what it looks like for the typical JO:

gridPretty self-explanatory, right? It’s a great tool for categorizing the consumers of our time. Try it out—think about all the things you do throughout a given workweek, and see if you can place them into their appropriate quadrants. If you’re anything like just about every JO in the Navy, you probably spend the majority of your time in the two leftmost quadrants, and never get to the top-right.

The Important-but-not-Urgent quadrant is where it’s at. Whether we’re talking about sports, investing, or a multibillion-dollar warship, consistent attention to long-term objectives in spite of short-term noise is what separates winners from losers. These are the long-developing, delayed-gratification efforts, and require significant discipline to establish. Properly developed, they can produce incredible returns. When they go neglected, they tend to slide left and turn into first-order crises.

Let’s make the bold assumption that man-hours are finite. In this case, hours devoted to one quadrant have to come out of another. We can’t take time away from the important/urgent fires that are actually burning right now, but we can probably shave some time off the unimportant nonsense that consumes our workday. At the very least, we can eliminate the bottom-right; if you don’t value your own time then you can’t complain when other people don’t value it.

At this point you’re probably fuming that none of the things in the “Urgent” column are your fault—those things are the result of your occupational culture, and the oblivious, inconsiderate people you work for. That’s good, hold on to that anger—get really good and pissed off about it. Now, use the same matrix, only this time fill it up with the things that occupy your subordinates’ time.

You’re an officer– so be the management

How much time do your guys spend waiting around for your signature? How much time do they spend in training that has no value? How much time do they spend waiting around just in case they’re needed later? Have I made my point? That stuff is your responsibility. As a junior leader in your organization, you should never allow yourself to play the victim when faced with what you think is bad management. You’re an officer—so be the management. If you remain aggressively focused on fixing those things within your sphere of influence, you’ll find that it is bigger than you think and it expands quickly.

Man-hours are not just finite; they are a precious commodity which has been entrusted to your care. Too often we treat them as our sole expendable resource and burn them with pure planning ineptitude. When that commodity wears thin, everything suffers—quality of life, warfighting effectiveness, safety, readiness, material condition—everything. When thorough planning and attention to deep objectives results in a balanced and economical use of manpower, everything benefits.

Fellow JO blogger The Navy’s Grade 36 Bureaucrat has a good perspective on dealing with administrative hot taskers here.

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