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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