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Doing Less to Do Better: Why the Military Can’t Solve Its Overwork Problem

Leidy Klotz, Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less (Flatiron Books, 2021)

It’s Monday morning and the battalion is formed at the motor pool. The battalion commander steps forward and rallies motivation for this week’s training events: a Tuesday airborne jump, a Wednesday squad march-and-shoot competition, and a Thursday live-fire rehearsal. By Friday, pending all training requirements complete, a half-day of equipment maintenance and everyone should be home by 1500. Sounds like a plan.

Then, here it comes — the XO moves front and center. “Today’s focus is vehicle maintenance. Our battalion must be at least at a 75 percent readiness rate and connexes will be organized for Friday inspection before release. Also, the S1 is here. No one leaves today unless we are 100 percent on DD93 and SGLI. Installation will hold a briefing on the new blended retirement system this afternoon in the post theater for all O-5 and below. And don’t forget your flu shots! The clinic will be open first-come, first-serve 9 to 11. On the horizon, next week we begin post-wide clean up.”

What is not mentioned is that it’s the last week of the month. Companies owe equipment and sensitive-item inventories as well as monthly training briefs by the end of the week — never mind that they also have to manifest for airborne operations this afternoon at 1400.

“If we cut just 20 percent of our day-to-day tasks, our whole unit would improve 50 percent!” a fatigued first sergeant mutters under his breath. Here we go. The Army keeps rolling along.

Blind Spots and Behavior

Anyone who has spent time in a military unit has probably witnessed this scenario play out a time or two. In the words of one of my former executive officers, “I feel like I’ve been asked to fight a five-alarm fire with nothing but a garden hose.” The litany of tasks in operational units can be unrelenting. Training initiatives repeatedly evaporate into prescribed schedules. Leaders lose their sense of agency. Ends are met, by hook or by crook. And the definition of unit “success” gradually morphs from some realized goal to mere “not failure.”

The Army is hardly starved of competent and motivated individuals, yet mid-career and junior leaders routinely feel depleted. The obvious way to improve Army unit effectiveness (not to mention to discover that elusive thing called morale) is simply less. Why, then, are these changes so hard to come by? The truth is: Army leaders at all echelons are probably overlooking opportunities to subtract when they make decisions.

But it’s not their fault! When confronted with choices, biological and evolutionary forces have reinforced the human affinity for addition since time immemorial, as Dr. Leidy Klotz points out in his new book, Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less. Fundamentally, Subtract is a publication of its time. From Marie Kondo animating us to tidy up and Greg McKeown urging us to pursue only the essential, to Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus demonstrating better living through minimalism, society is loaded with reminders — perhaps ironically — that “less is more.” No strangers to busy-ness, people of the Army can relate.

Klotz and his research team establish humans’ penchant for addition through a variety of wacky empirical experiments. Test subjects’ attempts to improve riffs of musical notes and miniature-golf-course designs integrated more complexity. Even soup recipes and a Washington, D.C. trip itinerary became bloated with unnecessary components. Klotz concludes that the option to subtract is exiled to blind spots within the human psyche.

Contemporary behavioral research backs this up. Humans, like other animals, demonstrate competence through the completion of tasks. Bowerbirds construct elaborate, though ultimately useless, displays to attract mates. Similarly, individuals hoard objects even when this accumulation provides little actual utility. People even tend to value things more when they take part in creating them. These evolutionary instincts are expressed in the broader context of career pursuits as well. Obsession with performance statistics, resume bullets flooded with quantitative figures, the attainment of professional certifications, collection of social media likes or followers, and even the acquisition of luxury items all attempt to signal something about an individual’s value relative to others. (Cue the promotion paperwork gripe!)

This “more is better” attitude does not always emanate from a conscious intention, however. Sometimes, more is just the end result of other underlying behaviors. Why do people choose to stop doing when it’s “good enough for government work”?  Soldiers can thank Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon for furnishing an alibi from this professed character indictment! Combining elements of “satisfying” and “sufficing,” Simon’s ad-libbed notion of satisficing is broadly observed in human nature. To illustrate, Klotz describes a trip to the grocery store. Typically, people purchase “the first jar of pasta sauce that… does not have meat, costs less than five dollars, and [reduces] daily sodium intake within the recommended range.”

Searching for a more perfect or more complete solution to problems (i.e., the ideal jar of sauce) always requires additional effort. The habit of satisficing evolved to guard against wasted energy. Next time someone declares that “all we need here is an 80 percent solution,” or “it’s a rough swag,” or “it will buff,” feel free to blame their primitive impulses. On the downside, this attitude enables quick fixes to pile up. Routine satisficing discourages the pursuit of more elegantly designed solutions to problems.

Constructing Culture

The universal preference to add and its adverse consequences manifest downstream in the organizations and cultures that humans create. Previously, Dr. Leonard Wong showed how Army tasks at the company level cause dissonance within the profession. Deciding whether or not to cut corners is a foregone conclusion. Rather, officers often decide which corners to cut, forcing them to “act in a way that directly contradicts their hard-earned identity.”

On one hand, Wong recommends leaders exercise restraint in the propagation of requirements. On the other, improper management of a group’s “collective time” creates the sensation of time famine which can contribute to these ethical dilemmas. However, the issues that plague Army units can rarely be adequately addressed by mere better leadership. Army commanders, from a four-star at headquarters down to many captains’ companies, are readily aware of the need for less for the sake of organizational performance. Recent efforts to promote a “People First” mentality reflects this. The Army culture itself does not cultivate the ability to accept less as an appropriate course of action. Organizational design plays a central role.

The work of social psychologist Hazel Rose Markus helps explain why. Markus distinguishes two prevailing worldviews: one that defines the self in terms of its relation to others, and another that prizes individual abilities freed from situational constraints. These perspectives, steeped in cultural tradition, correlate to one’s field dependence in the evaluation of one’s environment. Independent types tend to focus on objects and do not always account for surrounding circumstances.

Cultures derived from individualistic values thus prioritize quantities. For the U.S. Army, in spite of statistics-based approaches to operations such as body counts in Vietnam, improvised explosive devices neutralized in Iraq, secured checkpoints and SIGACTs reduced in Afghanistan, none of these conflicts have given way to conclusive victory. Perpetual unit training gates, annual online requirements, and medical and administrative readiness tasks pile on at home and are often misused as proxies for unit fitness. Fixation on the object (read: objective) can cause a failure to grasp a more holistic appreciation for strategy.

How the Army chooses to handle people issues also reflects its underlying culture. Unfortunate scourges of sexual misconduct and behavioral health concerns have been traditionally addressed with stand-down days, which substitute core unit activity with briefings, counseling, and small group discussions. Expressed dissatisfaction with these approaches is widespread. Unproductive attitudes of cynicism fester from under the pile of new, and sometimes gimmicky, requirements. The problem is that more programs, more discussions, more training, and more specialized positions tangled together culminate in a kaleidoscope of additive, but often ineffective, responses to serious issues.

(How Best to) Supervise and Refine

As the primary theme of the book suggests, deliberate subtraction offers a way out from these unfortunate tendencies. If leaders start to apply the tool of subtraction against a wide range of problem sets and adapt their expectations to accept “less” as a viable end state, the Army organization and its people stand to benefit greatly.

An innocent moment building a LEGO® bridge with his toddler son provides the author’s inspiration. Rather than improve an unbalanced span by raising a too-short pillar, Klotz’s son opts instead to remove an unnecessary brick from a too-tall column. This choice offers a solution equal in outcome, through an intriguingly more efficient process.

Though not particularly surprising, some simple math demonstrates this potential. Think of the tradeoff between motor pool maintenance and equipment inventories within one leader’s span of control. Distributing manpower to maximize total effect means both activities will receive, at best, 50 percent of the whole effort. Any further inclusion of tasks — say, drafting training plans — now reduces the output potential of the first two by 17 percent, where each of the three receives 33 percent of the unit’s attention.

Alternatively, choosing to focus solely on vehicle maintenance means that single activity improves by 50 percent, now representing 100 percent of the total effort. The addition of one to a total dilutes, whereas the subtraction of one concentrates. From an operations management perspective, the more dramatic change occurs when choosing less — a convenient reminder that more does not necessarily equal better. Back to that old NCO wisdom: Taking away 20 percent (of the tasks) really can improve the team’s performance!

For that matter, the best way to improve organizational outcomes is by reducing restraining forces, not by increasing driving forces. Neither adding incentives for good behavior (e.g., early release for hard work), nor adding measures to address bad behavior (e.g., corrective physical training), relieves system tension. This is satisficing in action. It results in systems jumbled together, both excessive and wasteful of their resources. Battalion training objectives and company equipment inventories thus compete directly against installation administrative or higher headquarters initiatives in a culture where failure is not an option. Time famines ensue.

Deploying the act of subtraction affords a path to move beyond the satisficed product. To be clear, this is not to advocate for “not doing” in the first place. Cutting corners by choosing to forgo equipment inventories in lieu of vehicle maintenance fails to accomplish a directed mission. To arrive at the ideal post-satisficed less disposition requires intentional subtraction. Have commanders considered how much of the stowed equipment the unit needs in the first place? Would selectively removing certain items from a unit’s inventory unburden a future chore? Klotz endorses this sort of effort: “Subtraction is action, and less is the end state.” It requires creative thinking.

Culturally speaking, accountability of leadership usually dictates that unless commanders actively do something, they are failing in their responsibility. Subtract urges resistance against these instincts. Valuing more over less and reflexive action over tactful redesign permits satisficed solutions to overwhelm actual improvements. Choosing the latter is not for the faint of heart. Generating post-satisficed less solutions may not be demonstrable through performance metrics and will run contrary to entrenched attitudes and habits. Of course, leaders and their organizations can develop competence by subtracting. The problem is that it is near impossible to show competence by subtracting. Still, the extra energy necessary to leverage the full power of subtraction is surely rewarding. Salvaging even one LEGO® brick demonstrates as much.

The novel perspectives offered in Subtract make it a worthwhile read for decision-makers everywhere. Through its collection of contemporary psychology, anthropology, and economics, Subtract challenges its audience to defy standard modes of thinking and work to enhance organizations and cultures to reach new potentials. The people of the Army beg for post-satisficed less in the performance of their duties. With the energy of its leaders, creativity of its staffs, and the courage of its commanders, the U.S. Army can arrive there. Maybe then battalions will hit that early Friday release without hiccup.

Captain (P) J. Alexander Thew is an infantry officer and instructor of economics at West Point’s Department of Social Sciences. He commanded HHC/2-501 PIR of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division from 2017-2019, and previously served in the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. He earned an MBA at the Yale School of Management in 2021.

Photo by Spc. Geordan J. Tyquiengco

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