Love the References

“The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots. If you are not an idiot, but find yourself in the Navy, you can only operate well by pretending to be one. All the shortcuts and economies and common-sense changes that your native intelligence suggests to you are mistakes. Learn to quash them.”  -Herman Wouk

No stranger to the frustrations of life as a junior officer, the eminently quotable author of The Caine Mutiny repeatedly reminds us that some things never change. This particular quote is popular among Wouk’s readers who’ve served in the Navy, as it seems to expose a culture that crushes innovation in the spirit of the lowest common denominator. We have a procedure for everything, it seems; where we see room for discretion, we’re not happy until we’ve destroyed it.

When people throw this quote around, though, they usually miss that the character who said it was kind of a douchebag. He (the character, not the author) failed to grasp that the Navy is much bigger than his tiny world, and that on the other end of every cumbersome, obtuse procedure or requirement is some under-resourced staffer trying his best to address a very large problem. Our dogmatic adherence to procedure can be maddening when it’s inconvenient, but this is a culture that has evolved over the centuries through natural selection.  The inconvenience, when it occurs, amounts to a sacrifice of the tactical in the interest of the strategic. In the Navy we do things by the book, period.

booksThe division officer who gets on board with this culture early on gives himself a distinct advantage. As you’re working through quals, don’t get frustrated when someone tells you “go look it up” instead of accepting some half-correct answer. Don’t get pissed off when they answer your questions with another question, “what does the book say?” Trainers like this provide something much better than a signature: a foundation in the primary references. Properly appreciated, it will serve you brilliantly.

mosesKnowledge IS power. The classic DIVO dilemma is the responsibility to exert authority while lacking credibility. In other words, how do you get people to take you seriously when you lack experience? Here’s how: by developing a reputation for knowing your stuff.

Credibility comes from experience, and you should fight for relevant experience wherever you can find it (this is the real reason you want to qualify as fast as possible). Lacking experience, book knowledge is the next best thing. Here’s a secret trick to winning every argument: only argue when you’re right. Nobody can debate you when the book is on your side.

Know where to find it. My advice here isn’t to just know everything. That would be useless, like “be a great OOD,” “work hard” or “have a great sense of humor.” My advice is that you concentrate your efforts on knowing where to find things instead of memorizing details. You certainly will have to memorize a great deal, but you’ll forget most of it right away. Where to find it, though, that sticks with you– this is one reason you should strive to learn from primary references instead of training gouge.

You’ll rarely be more than thirty seconds away from the manual. If you can find the answer when it matters, you can provide truth when it is most desperately needed, and you’ll be instinctively prone to do just that. Provide the correct answer a few times in a row and suddenly you’ll have yourself a reputation for being right. This is how credibility is built.

Of course there will be some things that you just have to know—rest assured, you will learn them just fine. When you get it from the source material instead of training gouge, your retention will be better, your confidence will be better, and you’ll be better prepared to teach others.

Nobody can debate you when the book is on your side

Be fanatical. As you gain seniority, you’ll increasingly find yourself on the approving end of documents, tagouts, procedures, plans, and pre-evolution briefs. Cultivate a reputation for being a “reference nazi” and you’ll drastically cut down on the half-baked solutions that come your way. People should be afraid to say the words “that’s how we’ve always done it” around you. These words are a glaring red flag, and if someone utters them they have just asked you to audit their process. We operate by procedure, period. Train your people to love the references, and they will train theirs likewise.

When the Reference Doesn’t Cut It. The guys who write these things are just regular schmucks like you and me. Sometimes the equipment doesn’t work quite like they designed it, or sometimes they just suck at writing procedures. This is one of the things Chiefs are great for—they have the experience to know that if you really want to get the Distilling Unit to make good water, you have to kick it twice, throttle back on the water seal and rub the belly of the Buddha figurine hidden behind the control panel. When this occurs—when reality on the deckplate diverges from theory in the book—it is the role of Officers to bring theory and reality back into alignment in the form of a formalized local procedure (for example, a Temporary Standing Order).

Doing this takes time, effort, and a great deal of discipline. Your people will often buck this, because it can invite unwanted attention from on high, and equipment not working as designed may reflect poorly on the division. Secrets are no good, though—they will eventually come to light, at a time and place that is not of your choosing (like INSURV… or at PD in the littorals of Country X). More importantly, your sailors should not have to deviate from procedure to do their jobs. Failing to address inadequate or incorrect procedures is effectively requiring that they cut corners, which is crappy leadership of the highest order. If its wrong, take the time to fix it.

Learn the books… and fix what you can. This post isn’t meant to be a defense of the Navy’s procedure-obsessed culture. Yes, we are an enormous, hidebound bureaucracy, and yes, it sucks. Yes, it suppresses initiative and stifles innovation. Yes, it is grossly inefficient. As a Junior Officer, none of those things are your problem to solve. You’ve got a division to look out for and a ship to get underway. You can do those things better when you have the right answer.

7 thoughts on “Love the References

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  5. If I had a dollar every time someone said “That’s how we’ve always done it,” I’d be a rich man.

    One additional thing: as you find references, make it easier for the next guy. When I did my IWO and IDWO qualifications, the references were hard to find. As I found them, I collected them and posted them on an Intellipedia Wiki. Not only have I seen a decline in gouge use among other JOs, but it makes it easy when I sit qualification boards to ask “Where did you get that idea from?” when someone busts out bad gouge. You can easily build a wiki for your qual process on Intelink (whether NIPR, SIPR or JWICS).

    • Oh, if only I had that kind of tool back in the 90’s! I probably would not have struggled as much as I did during my qual process. Technology is a double-edged sword in a lot of ways, but I see a tool like this as being something very useful and good.

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