It’s OK to Break Things

Anyone who has ever worn a uniform doesn’t need to be told that when the Commanding Officer (CO) says “My door is always open” they really mean “after you have gone through the chain of command and at least five other suitably qualified people have assessed your request and deemed it important enough to bring to my attention”. All things considered it’s a system that generally works reasonably well to get problems solved at the appropriate level. After all, when a single person is held accountable for the lives and careers of several hundred people, it’s impossible for them to personally deal with every single broken shoelace or lost drink bottle and still focus on winning the war.

It’s either a very brave, very desperate (or very stupid) person who decides that they can stick their head in to the CO’s office unexpectedly and ask them to help with the changing of a truck tyre.

For many veterans complying with accepted procedure (in Military Speak – following orders) is not a conscious choice. Conditioning is designed to initiate an instinctual response to a given situation – bypassing a conscious, deliberate decision process. When you are conditioned to instinctively obey orders and follow procedures it takes a considerable act of will and quite a bit of practice to first identify, and then interrupt an instinctual response. In extreme cases being required to break behavioural conditioning can trigger physical fear responses and anxiety attacks – or in some cases –  unreasonable aggression.

So the CEO of a very large international conglomerate sitting on the stage at the front of a large room full of veterans must have got some fairly uncomfortable or “Parade Ground Face” looks when she offered “If you’d like to ask me anything, just give me a call”.

She might have been surprised to find out several weeks later that almost nobody would have taken her up on her offer. Directly contacting the CEO of a huge business is simply not natural to many veterans – it’s just not going to happen that we will stick our heads in a CEO’s door and ask if they want to go for a coffee.

Unless we decide to break something.

A few weeks ago a man I’ll call Data Jesus facilitated a discussion on student learning preferences during a WYWM Data Analytics Bootcamp. We were discussing the general veteran preference for a “like this – do that” instructional format. To follow the procedure and not break the software – to not break the rules.

The reality in a civilian context is that more often than not employees learn through trial and error “On The Job” rather than experiencing the luxury of dedicated training time set aside from the normal work day. It’s not only acceptable to make a mess of things (to break things) and then spend time reworking – it’s quite often “just the way things are done around here”. When it comes to learning new software, skills or habits Data Jesus nailed it:

“Our veterans have to be enabled to learn that it’s OK to break things”.

He wasn’t just talking about software.

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