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Strategic thinking will help you be more successful in your career

I was a young staff officer in the Ministry of Defence in 1993. I was tasked to write a proposal for the Minister's approval to change the name "reservists" to "NSmen". For those unfamiliar with Singapore armed forces terminology then, the term "national serviceman", or "NSman" referred to a conscript serviceman who was serving the regulatory two- or two-and-a-half years of full-time national service. It was only after their Run-Out Date (ROD) - the date their full time national service had run out - will they be known as "reservist". The truth is, all reservists wear their service status as a badge of honour - they had survived the grunt years, and were now known as the "old birds" (lao chiao, as they say in Hokkien). There were even establishments that used the name "reservist" in their name, most notably the SAF Reservists' Association (SAFRA). The term "reservist" is also used in statutes, the SAF Act. So changing the term "reservist" to any other term would affect many people, many establishments. It was against this backdrop that I was tasked to write that paper. Imagine, a young army captain changing the course of Singapore's history? Well, at that time, I was not really focussing on the impact of my proposal, simply that I thought it was a stupid idea, and sought to propose NOT to change it.

But I had to have data to support my brave proposal. For that, we commissioned a climate survey of all the reservists through the SAFRA clubs. (There had been a previous survey done, but that was 6 months old, and I needed to know how the ground felt since then...) When the survey was completed, and the results compiled, we had found that the ground had swung from 58% in favour of the change, to only 43%. There had been a negative swing in the popularity of this change, and this was the ammunition I used to propose NOT to change the term!

The paper was thus written as such, and floated through all the channels until it reached MINDEF HQ (MHQ), the highest policy board chaired by the Minister for Defence, Dr Yeo Ning Hong. I was given the rare honour of presenting the paper, and the decision that came out of that meeting flabbergasted me. He said, "In order that the ground swell does not go further against the idea, we will implement the change eariler instead." So, instead of enacting the change on 1 July 1994, it was to be enacted on 1 April 1994, shortening the already diffcult timeline by 3 months! In addition to not getting what I had wanted, I had now placed even more stress upon myself - and all the other departments in MINDEF - because I had thought that it was a "stupid" idea. (If I had kept my mouth shut and went along with the idea, we would at least have had 3 more months to get the job done!)

This was the first time I got exposed to policy making, and it would not be my last. Over time, I got better, and also got recognised and promoted for it. What I did was to embrace strategic thinking, though at that time I didn't know that was what I was doing. So in this article, I shall articulate the lessons learnt from my days as a staff officer in MINDEF, and to emphasise that we all have to think strategically in whatever capacity we are in, and that will get you noticed and advance you in your career.

We will look at this based on Prof Jeanne Liedtka's strategic thinking model:

Understand senior management's (commander's) intent

It really does not matter what I think is good or bad, it simply needs to be aligned with senior management's - the commander's - intent. Apparently, Dr Yeo had already committed to making this change in light of a growing trend of unfit reservists reporting for their annual training. There was also this mindset that reservists are - well - in the reserve. They are in the back, while the active servicemen fight in the front. This mindset undermines the new army organisation structure that puts reservists and active servicemen together, fighting side-by-side in the front. Hence, there was a need for the change in nomenclature, to kick-start the change in mindset. If I had known this rationale, I would probably have taken a different tack with the paper, but I was fixated on my own intent - which was to maintain the status quo because to change would involve almost all the departments in MINDEF and would be a huge undertaking! The one-plus year given to us to make the change would not be enough! (Turned out that we ended up with less time, but still pulled it off!)

Thinking in Time

This is the process of looking at the past to understand your future. It is a means of assessing how you got to where you are now, and if indeed there are some important decisions or actions that were taken that will point you to your way forward. Well, it so happened that there was, but I failed to see it. Before I was tasked to write the paper, Dr Yeo had already gone to Parliament and announced that there will be a change in the term of "reservist" to better reflect the new operational roles that they will undertake. That term had not yet been determined, but it would be one that would befit the reservists' expanded role. Again, had I known this, and realised that the paper that I was to write was simply a rubber stamp to set the process in motion, I would not have wasted time, energy and money to do the survey and such. But I was not apprised of what Dr Yeo said in Parliament, and if someone had wanted me to write a rubber-stamped paper, perhaps they should have alerted me to this fact? Well, let me tell you something - no one will do that! It is incumbent on whomever is writing the proposal to get all the facts down, the decisions made in the past, the perspectives of the senior stakeholders, before committing it to paper! No one is going to do it for you, no one is going to point out that you missed this key input, and no one is going to bail you out once you have made this mistake. It behooves the person writing the proposal to apply thinking in time, to get all the facts straight, (and in today's context of fake news, to fact-check everything!!) and then form an opinion. One should NEVER jump to any conclusions without facts, no matter how seductive those conclusions may be!

Systems thinking

Not all proposals require systems thinking, of course. However, if you are looking at trying to solve a systemic problem, and your proposal includes recommendations for solutions, then it would be worth your while to spend more time diving deeper into the drivers that push or pull your system toward, or away from, your stated intent. In my case, the solution was also proposed by the Minister - to change the name of reservists to NSmen. It was recognised that nomenclature was a centre of gravity of soldier apathy - "if you call us reservists, we will act like those who are in reserve; we would be a contingent force." Hence, to move our reservists away from this, a whole new set of terms needed to be instituted. Our solution ultimately, did not simply call reservists NSmen - the technically correct term is Operationally-Ready National Servicemen (ORNS) - but we also had to change the Run-Out Date (ROD, which connotes that your service will run out on that date) to Operationally-Ready Date (ORD). All of these sub-drivers contributed toward the larger "nomenclature" driver that needed to change before there was a concomitant change in soldier attitude. Systems thinking therefore is a very powerful and useful tool to dive deeper into the system, identify the key loci of change, and focus our attention and action there.

Intellectual opportunism

This is Liedtka's euphemism for reframing, and admittedly, changing the name from reservist to NSmen was a huge reframe in and of itself. My paper was not meant to offer new frames or perspectives, and in truth, in my attempt to negatively influence this new frame, I actually shortened my rollout timeline. Yet, reframing is an important skill for a staff officer who needs to look at a situation from multiple angles, and perceive new options, new ways of doing things. Very often, a senior officer questions the validity of a junior's work, not for poor thinking, but for the lack of cognitive flexibility. If you are unable to identify the different frames impacting on a situation, if you are unable to articulate the options to take per those frames, and if you are unable to ultimately zero in on the most likely frame, and the ways to reach the end point in the most judicious way, you will not be able to convince senior management that your recommended course of action should be approved. And then you would end up like me, having less time, less resources, or worse, be chided for lazy thinking. Finding new perspectives, and offering them up as fodder to reinforce your conclusions on the best frame, and recommended solution, is the hallmark of a great staff officer - and the fuel for your career advancement.Creativity is key!

Hypothesis-Driven process

There are two ways to be hypothesis-driven - to go to market on a small scale and test your ideas, or to apply intellectual flexibility through scenario thinking. In the military, we cannot do things in half measures, and we cannot go to market simply to "test an idea". Hence, we will have to apply scenario thinking to identify the variability of the solution, and to understand the inherent risks in our ideas. This is why you need to have options; you cannot offer a recommendation based on only one course of action; it shows that you either were too lazy to think up more ways of getting things done, or you were arrogant to think that yours was the only way. Both of these are not good outcomes for staff officers. And that was exactly what happened to me. Thinking that I had the upperhand on the situation through my data, I had recommended that the change not be done, with no alternatives. Such binary recommendations (yes or no) are seldom welcome by senior management. And on hindsight, I do admit that I had been intellectually arrogant in thinking that my logic could sway senior management thinking. Ultimately, the decision was not mine to make, and instead of being captivated by one course of action, I needed to have a few, and then narrow them down by constraints and risk. This we can do through scenario thinking.

For each option, we identify the assumptions we used about it. Then we build scenarios based on the assumptions - the best case scenario is one where all the assumptions are right; the worst case is when all are wrong; and the most likely case, is one where the assumptions are reasonably expected. When we build these scenarios, we are then able to see the variability of our option, the upside and downside, and other actions we can take to mitigate that downside. In other words, through scenario thinking, we can make our options more robust, and allow us to zero in on the best option for the situation.

This is yet another skill that will help you be more successful in your career.

Only time can tell

The issue with strategic decisions is that you can never know if your decision will yield the outcome that you desire - only time can tell you that. But that does not mean that you don't make a decision - indecision is worse than no decision at all. What allows you to have the confidence to tell people that you have made the right decision are the right decision inputs and the right process. These five strategic thinking competencies as identified by Prof Jeanne Liedtka in 1997 form the backbone of our strategic decision making model, one which we had co-created together with her and V. Professor Luda Kopeikina from Sloan-MIT. It is only through the combined strengths of inputs and process that can lead you to the right decision.

So, was it the right decision to change the name from "reservists" to "NSmen"? I have had the good fortune to remain in service as an NSman from the time I left regular service in 1996 until I retired from military service in 2014. I have noticed a marked improvement in the way NSmen view their contribution to the nation. They no longer view themselves as a reserve force, and are proud to be frontline soldiers, fighting alongside younger full-time and regular soldiers. The best thing about it is - they carry themselves well, and can sometimes outperform the full-time servicemen. Not bad for lao chiao soldiers, don't you think? Yes, that was the right decision in 1993, and one that would not have come to light if I had been more convincing.

I am glad to have been wrong, and given a public lesson in strategic thinking. I am a strategic thinking subject matter expert today, simply because of that.

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