Does ‘working the system’ really work?

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mark Schenck
  • 55th Wing Plans and Programs office
Have you ever picked up the phone to call in a favor? I think we all have. I actually asked for help with this article since I was running out of time. Thanks to Mike Picard I got it completed. 

I've called the flight doc to "fit someone in." I've called down to assignments to help along assignments for a select few. In fact, I've called all over the place - National 
Security Agency, headquarters, wings, groups and squadrons - in pursuit of quick fixes to the challenges I faced. We call it "networking" and we justify our actions by the results achieved. Is this successful? You bet, but at what cost to the routine processes in place?
Not everyone could get the same outcomes using these "work around" methods because we all rely on different levels of personal knowledge, good working relationships, and personal, professional or positional power. I would also argue that many of the "go-to" people in our organizations are also using these methods when normal processes seem slow or stalled -- that's why they're our "go-to" people. 

What if everyone just called in favors to get their work done? I think it would be a nightmare to try to do anything; checklists, guidance, standard coordination and use of your chain of command would be thrown out the window. Predictable outcomes for assignments, funding, weapons systems deliveries? I don't think so. Over time, the impact on corporate knowledge, experience and professionalism would be severe as everything would become a matter of who you know. 

This kind of "calling in a favor" behavior is being encouraged at many levels. In the past I have been rewarded for my success, as many of us are, through recognition and promotion, which led to more success using these methods. 

In retrospect, I'm afraid of what my subordinates learned from observing my behavior. I wasn't teaching them to use the established processes; I was showing them that it was okay to go around, maybe bend the rules, and skip some steps. What they most likely didn't see were the boring parts; meeting suspenses, coordinating on plans and unit manning documents, program funding and researching and writing requirements. 

Those items are part of the job description, yet rarely are worthy of being considered a highlight in a medal or award write-up. For the most part, people do their jobs to the best of their abilities. But is their method counterproductive? 

Perhaps we need to celebrate sustainment, the slow and steady achievement of goals using established processes; this doesn't mean the process shouldn't be refined. Maybe our focus should shift to teaching everyone how to use the systems we have in place efficiently and rewarding work-arounds less. I don't know if that would work in today's American culture where it seems individual achievement receives the accolades, and for the most part, teamwork fails to get recognition. We need to identify and value ourselves as team members, with everyone contributing to the overall benefit of the team. That will require selflessness, but if achieved, would emphatically underscore our Air Force Core Values of Integrity First, Service before Self and Excellence in all we do.