Questions can say a lot, sometimes more than their answers. Usually, they explain something about the questioner – his or her line of thinking, how well they’ve grasped a subject, and how confident they are that they won’t be mocked for speaking up. At the same time questions say something about leadership. They tell us how well a leader has fostered an environment in which folks are comfortable asking questions. And posing questions is important, especially the question “What if?”
What Ifs play an important, and recognized, part in naval planning. They illustrate blind spots and flaws in everything from tactics to campaign plans, and their asking is institutionalized through the use of red-teaming and red cells. What Ifs help our Sailors, Marines, and civilians practice operational risk management while carrying out the most mundane evolutions. Yet What Ifs need not be narrowly utilized. As proactive questions, What Ifs can point the way to the benefits in new approaches just as usefully as they can highlight the unknowns and dangers in current methods. By asking them, our naval forces have the chance to peer through the possibilities and second-order implications, in prospect, and to chart a course towards a more advantageous future. They can create new avenues of research and study, generate original thoughts for experimentation and wargaming, and lead to entirely novel operational concepts. Only a small fraction of the What Ifs posed will come to pass, and many of their assumptions will not hold true. But the insights gained from them and the fruits of the initiative taken will leave the DON better prepared for the uncertainties of the future than a future in which the What Ifs went unasked.
Mike Myatt, a business expert, echoes this view, noting that great leaders aggressively pursue What Ifs – both as asker and the asked – because the “status quo is mediocrity’s best friend.” Static thinking is the best short cut to obsolescence. As the Secretary of the Navy stressed recently, innovation is about the unpredictable interaction of people, ideas, and information. Simply asking What Ifs is a great way to get all people to think differently about the future, helping make them less defensive about current practices and lowering resistance to the process of identifying completely new ideas.
As a military organization, the Department of the Navy understandably places a premium on the unhesitating support for the chain of command. In moments of crisis, adherence to this bedrock principle can be the literal difference between life and death, victory and defeat. Yet the DON must ensure a balance between obedience and the equal need for discussion, dissent, and What Ifs. This dividing line again points to the role of leadership. Instead of shooting down divergent views and diverse perspectives, leaders need to actively solicit, encourage, and incentivize the sharing of creative ideas and concerns - even those not yet fully formed. A table full of nodding heads can be one of the most perilous environments for a leader to confront.
Good leaders also know that it’s best, whenever possible, to have these frank conversations before the crisis or contingency erupts. This openness goes beyond formal contingency planning. Every member of our workforce must have access to the outlets and forums that allow them to ask the big questions and think broader thoughts without fear of reprimand and in an environment where they know they'll be heard. And there is no bigger question than What If?
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