Transforming Defense Agencies for a More Complex World
With the right approach to change, defense organizations can become more nimble and better equipped to respond to new threats.
Around the world, armed forces are at a critical juncture in the competition for talent. Many militaries are falling short of recruiting targets and struggling to retain their best people, often due to cultural issues rooted in entrenched attitudes and norms. That must change. Militaries will only be able to secure the talent they need—and fulfill their mandates—by transforming and modernizing their culture.
Changing an organization’s culture—and even identifying it—can be difficult because it’s often a more informal concept that people experience subjectively. Yet based on our experience working with armed forces around the world, organizations can apply a structured approach to change. Specifically, leaders must commit to the process and objectively assess their organizations to identify current problems. They also must focus on a small number of high-impact solutions, measure progress, and apply a set of enablers throughout the change intiative.
Forward-looking defense establishments are already putting these practices to work—dramatically improving their ability to recruit and retain talent and offering a model for what’s possible. We believe this work is critical. The ability of military forces to fulfill their mandates may well depend on the success of these change efforts.
Culture is a particularly prominent feature of military organizations, which are bound by duty and often steeped in traditions that can stretch back for centuries. Many cultural traits—from a sense of honor and patriotism to a strict deference to authority—are integral to helping forces meet their objectives. The flip side of being so deeply grounded in a culture is that negative aspects of it can be hard to identify or root out. They may manifest themselves in behaviors that harm or isolate others. They may also show up as a resistance to change or an unwillingness to adapt to new standards. And in many cases, negative aspects of a culture can influence people to the point where they take toxic and even illegal actions that disproportionately affect some service members.
In the UK, two-thirds of women in the military reported facing bullying, sexual assault, and discrimination, according to a 2021 Parliamentary report. In Canada, an independent review released in 2022 condemned the armed forces culture for its toxic leadership, misogyny, racism, and homophobia. In the US, the Department of Defense has sought for years to address the widespread prevalence of sexual assault in the military, noting a 13% year-over-year increase in reports in its FY2021 report to Congress. That was followed by a 1% increase in FY2022—smaller but still an uptick, despite concerted efforts to reduce the incidence of sexual assault.
These kinds of ongoing issues undermine retention, prompting personnel to reconsider their commitment to serve and to question if the hardships and sacrifices that they—and their families—bear are worth it. They also tarnish the armed forces among civil society. Research conducted by the Ronald Reagan Institute reported that the number of people who professed to have great trust and confidence in the US military dropped from 70% in 2018 to 58% in 2021, due in part to reports of sexual assault and extremism in the ranks. In Canada, a report from the Earnscliffe Strategy Group found those who felt “very positive” about the military fell from 57% in 2018 to 35% in 2021, with sexual misconduct cases driving the decline.
The erosion of public trust undermines the credibility of the armed forces and further reduces the appeal of a military career to potential recruits. Defense leaders in Australia and Canada have spoken openly of recruiting crises, while in the US, the Army, Navy, and Air Force all reported that they expect to miss their 2023 recruitment targets.
To be clear, other factors are contributing to recruitment shortfalls, including relatively strong economic conditions that create more competition for talent and changing workforce trends where employees seek more flexibility. Those are external factors, however, whereas culture is completely within a military organization’s control.
In our experience, a cultural transformation in the military will only succeed if organizations apply a set of core priorities.
Given the importance of leadership to the command and control of military organizations, it’s crucial that leaders play an outsize role in delivering cultural transformation. Leaders must be unquestionably committed to the change and embody essential qualities—determination, courage, and empathy—to ensure that change efforts succeed. This commitment must be authentic and visible, not just among the internal audience of team members and subordinates but also among the external audience of stakeholders in government who provide resources to enable the change.
Some senior people in the organization may themselves be resistant to change, and an element of courageous leadership is knowing when to remove individuals who no longer fit with or who resist the new culture. This must be done with due process and in a transparent way that sends the right messages to the individuals being removed and to the overall organization, ensuring absolute clarity about what the target culture looks like and how the new standards will be enforced—without exception—at all levels of the organization.
Beyond leadership, organizations need to identify the most urgent priorities for change. Because culture can be so deeply rooted—yet not documented—many organizations struggle with producing an honest self-assessment, lacking the ability to be introspective and unbiased in diagnosing their own culture. They are sometimes so accustomed to the problem that they can’t see it. An external partner can often support this assessment, pushing the organization to have uncomfortable discussions and identify priority change areas far more effectively than a solely internal process.
Identifying the right levers for change in the target areas can mean the difference between success and failure. These levers are aligned with the target culture, can be communicated in terms of the benefits they will deliver, and can deliver measurable impact to demonstrate success and gain support. Most importantly, leaders must be able to effectively influence these levers. For example, changing outdated policies around personnel promotion and recruitment standards is one straightforward measure that many military organizations can apply.
A transformation plan should have a predetermined schedule, with key performance indicators and milestones to track progress. For addressing organizational culture, these should center on forward-looking behavioral and business outcomes to determine if the culture is evolving toward the target state and engendering the desired values and behaviors. Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence can improve the process of gauging performance in a culture transformation, highlighting unsuspected correlations and accelerating results.
For example, at the unit level, organizations can measure if a change in leadership leads to improved outcomes—such as stronger unit performance against mission objectives or training targets—increased readiness, or better morale.
To maintain long-term focus on a change effort and monitor the pace of implementation, organizations can designate an overarching role or body to facilitate and track performance. (See “How the Canadian Armed Forces Created an Effective Institutional Framework for Change.”)
Authentic leadership, objective assessments of the problem, prioritizing high-impact levers, and measuring progress are essential requirements, but organizations must all support their change initiatives with a set of foundational elements.
Successful cultural transformations are a powerful mechanism for military organizations to adapt to new circumstances and more effectively recruit and retain talent. These initiatives take time, and progress may not be linear, but the result can lead to more diverse, resilient, and higher-performing organizations that become an employer of choice and—more important—reflect the best of their societies.