From a Veteran to Tech: How ARFORGEN Relates to Startups and Organizational Transformations

Originally published on LinkedIn April 8th, 2019.

Position improvement never stops. I learned that lesson as a PL on the gun line from my Smoke during our reset and training cycles as part of an artillery battery in an IBCT that had just come off of mission execution as part of the surge. In that context, “position improvement” was a technical step by doctrine that I learned as part of my responsibilities for standing up firing capabilities. However, its a mantra that speaks for itself and carries organizational applicability well beyond the gun line: if you want to outlast your competition, never get complacent and always be engaged in activities to elevate and bolster your organization’s posture and capabilities.

Position improvement never stops. Its an ethos that speaks to core ideologies behind entrepreneurship and startups on many levels, and a fundamental point of view that drives organizational transformation initiatives. It can be a rallying cry for teams mired in the pain points of those endeavors as well. As we all know, building an organization from scratch or teaching an “old dog” organization “new tricks” is hard work and not everyone is cut out for what it takes to be successful in those circumstances. The Army and the tech world see eye to eye on that point, so let’s call it a fact.

Day in and day out my LinkedIn feed stream is saturated by a few constant themes of pain which I hope to help offset by sharing my insights here. I see countless job descriptions and posts desperately seeking candidates with “startup” or “transformation” experience, endless articles about how hard of a time tech companies are having finding “top talent” or the “right fit” for their roles, and also, unfortunately, a seemingly insurmountable amount of dialogue related to integrating Veterans into the civilian workforce and the confusion that ensues between those who have served and hiring professionals when it comes to translating the Service Member experience into commercial terms. If you’re a Vet (or will be one), commercial organizational leader, or a hiring professional handling startup and/or transformation related roles, my insights on ARFORGEN and how it relates might just be the “aha” information you need to help improve your position, ease some of your pain, and achieve success in your organizational objectives.

What Is ARFORGEN and Why Do I Care?

The acronym ARFORGEN stands for Army Force Generation. ARFORGEN was the “process of structured progression of unit readiness over time to produce trained, ready, and cohesive units prepared for operational deployment” in support of the Army’s requirements. The ARFORGEN process was first conceived in 2004 and formally adopted in 2006 as the Army’s mechanism for aligning its modular-brigade-centric strategy against the enormous mission requirements of the time for the most effective sustainment of its capabilities and mission success. That was a long sentence. More succinctly, ARFORGEN is about establishing organizational capabilities within a prescribed time period and validating total organizational effectiveness on a gated audit schedule.

ARFORGEN was replaced with SRM as of 2017 (as the requirements for deployed forces has decreased and to better integrate reserve organizations), but at the height of its use the ARFORGEN process managed 40+ BCTs and 70+ modular support brigades for the Regular (active) Army (a total of more than 400K personnel). What that means is that there is a greater than 90% probability that Vets who served during 2004-2017 have first hand experience going through the phases of ARFORGEN. What’s more is that Vets who served during the ARFORGEN time frame are the vast majority of former Soldiers who have been entering the civilian workforce over the last 5-6 years in the face of the Army’s most recent transformations and reductions of personnel. The value of ARFORGEN experience to today’s fast paced and often ambiguous startup and transformation organization environments simply cannot be overstated.

Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing

ARFORGEN at a macro level takes a phased view of brigade (4000+ people) “organizational maturity” which aligns almost perfectly with the phases of team building that I’ve seen play out over and over on a micro level throughout my 21-year career. During the ARFORGEN phases from Reset to Train-Ready to Available, organizations move through the progressions of forming and storming and, ultimately, get to the point of norming and performing as a cohesive team and well oiled machine. However, ARFORGEN attaches time span “due dates” to organizational development. Part of the ARFORGEN model’s goal is to completely build and validate brigades’ capabilities from 0 to 100 within a two year cycle (on average) so that brigades are certified as operating to the full potential of their capabilities at the point that they are deployed for combat. Failure is not an option, and achieving full “readiness” at the company level (50 – 300 personnel depending on unit type) or battalion (300-800 people) by the end of the cycle is no small task, but is still much less complex than getting certified as a “ready” brigade.

If you’re a startup entrepreneur or a change manager responsible for a large scale organizational transformation effort please think about that for a moment. Very few startups reach organizational maturity and are operating a their optimal potential (aka “scalable” design) within 2 years, in spite of the best laid plans and business models. Major transformation programs for existing companies (especially for larger organizations) often occur over the course of a 3 to 5 year timeline. What if I told you get it done in 2? It may seem nearly impossible, but its not. I’ve seen it done like clockwork over and over during my 10 years as a cog in ARFORGEN, but it does take the right framework and people with the right attitude and culture to make it happen. In this article, I’ll be focused solely on relating the Reset Phase of ARFORGEN to startups and transformations.

Reset Phase = Early Startups & Transformations

During ARFORGEN, when a brigade returned from combat deployment it entered what was called Reset phase. During this time period (theoretically 6 months on average, but I’ve seen it take a year or more to fully complete) most (nearly all) of the personnel – including organizational leadership – are re-assigned out of the brigade. Simultaneously, big Army begins piping in new recruits and senior personnel from other other units to join the organization and re-stand-up the brigade as the start of its new cycle to prepare for its next mission (which may not even be fully assigned at that point in time).

In some cases, a brigade may go through an entire organizational conversion as part of its Reset. “Normal” Resets already have some flavors of startup mixed with transformation tastes in the recipe. However, organizational conversions are like a total transformation and startup soup that tastes completely like both, all the time. Conversions require standing up brand new units which were not in existence at all during the previous ARFORGEN cycle while completely transforming the design and systems of units that were, simultaneously.

In any case, the key leaders who join an organization during its Reset phase are usually getting their first opportunity at the role they’ve been assigned. Commanders who deployed with the units previously depart, and new Commanders take over. The same goes for junior officers and the enlisted side of the house; that is, the department head staff leaders and senior managers whom the organization will rely on moving forward are getting their first shot at stepping up to the role they’ve been assigned. Thankfully, big Army “qualifies” personnel before they are assigned to those roles based on their performance history and records of service. However, just like with any organization that is comprised of “new hires” to the team, much chaos ensues during Reset phase as organizations grapple with learning themselves. Often, it turns out that some number of key new leadership and/or manager “hires” may not actually be the best fit for the role they’ve been assigned. Turnaround of personnel joining and departing the unit is pervasive during Reset and allocating the time and effort it takes to receive, properly place, and on-board new personnel during this phase becomes a major shaping operation for a unit’s main effort. Sound like a startup yet?

During Reset phase, Army units struggle with many of the same woes that plague the productivity of startups. That is, there is no shortage of work to be done to get organizational traction and forward momentum, but not enough people to do it all. The folks who are on hand to get things done are often required to be “semper Gumby” (always flexible) and lend a hand in any number of areas which may be outside of the scope of work of their particular area of expertise. The manning carrot constantly dangles in front of the hopes of the team during this seemingly Sisyphean phase of organizational maturity. It says “new people will get to the unit soon – and they’ll be competent. Keep plugging away and carrying the extra load for now – we’ll get to full strength soon.” But in reality, units may need to “make it work” and go for long time periods without many key personnel, just the same as startups experience staffing challenges as well.

What’s more is that the culture struggle of the organization is in full affect during Reset Phase too. While many facets of what “right” looks like in the Army are covered by regulations and policy, there’s huge variety between Army units when it comes to organizational culture, identity, and unit TTPs & SOPs. During Reset phase the overall team dynamics begin to take shape and so does the organizational identity and culture. Many units in the Army do an outstanding job of maintaining their culture and traditions throughout the test of time (Brave Rifles!) regardless of resets and transformations.

However, for most units at the battalion or company level, though, the operating standards and culture of the unit under the new command team is being learned during Reset Phase. Personalities conflict. Points of view on the best way to do things conflict. Folks who are not “brand new” to the industry will project that their previous unit did “it” best, and so that’s how we should do “it” here, often with opposing points of view. Standards unique to the unit aren’t yet clearly defined. Even though the unit probably does understand its overall purpose, how it conducts its business within the higher corporate structure and for the most effective use of its resources for its customers are still very much moving targets during Reset Phase. Organizational learning and innovations to adapt the unit to its operating environment take hold. The culture and process standards of the unit manifest, for better or worse, ultimately as a result the Command team and their subordinate leaders, just the same as happens in commercial organizations based on their CEOs and leadership teams as well.

Lastly, but certainly not least, units in Reset normally have to struggle through the winds of financing change as well. Part of what occurs during Reset is technological changes. Old equipment is life-cycled out and new equipment is phased in. The ability for units to progress in the ARFORGEN cycle and out of Reset phase is often dependent on funding from congress and further funding allocation within the DoD and all its layers. Units becoming beholden to slow, red tape laden contracting, procurement, and vendor management friction processes as they attempt to nail down operational timeline and capabilities planning. Often, Commanders and other key leaders have to sell their business case and advocate for their organization in order to get the funding approvals and/or priority of fill for personnel and equipment (=$$$) that they might need to be successful. The unit is only able to truly achieve norming to a degree congruent with the level that its capital and personnel resource requirements are met along its timeline. It can’t scale until it has the resources to scale. A “Ready to scale” status is essentially what is achieved at the end of Reset Phase as ARFORGEN moves into the Train-Ready portion of the cycle.

However, in the meantime of everything “magically” coming together so that a unit is properly resourced and can move from forming and storming into scalable norming and performing, position improvement never stops. Soldiers working through Reset Phase stay semper Gumby. They work as long in hours a day as it takes to ensure the unit stays on track. They navigate ambiguity and change, and adapt accordingly. They work outside of scope, achieve through resourcefulness, focus on developing junior personnel to be more effective and take on more responsibility, and interact their efforts across functional silos to get things done that simply must get done because the circumstance makes them recognize that they must. The overall team works together throughout forming, storming at times, and problem-solves its friction points. They build the systems, processes, and frameworks that are needed to make the organization successful. They establish the organizational culture and performance standards. Is this not the same things that occur at startups?

Attitude is Everything

During my time in Reset phases, I don’t recall hearing “that’s not my job” much, if at all. However, since my discharge I’ve joined corporate America and I’ve heard it plenty, even for what I consider small stuff. It seems some large portion of people in the workforce are averse to doing much outside of their job description at all, much less with a good attitude, and/or without a lot of push or bonus incentive. I’ve definitely been shell shocked by what I see as a pervasive “me” mentality rather than “team” mentality permeating corporate cultures. I am certain that my units would not have been able to achieve reaching our organizational norming and performing deadlines on the aggressive ARGFORGEN business plan timeline if the “me” mentality was at the forefront of our unit culture.

If you’re a leader in a startup or an organization poised for transformation, you may be going through similar organizational challenges as I’ve described during Reset Phase. If you’re making hiring decisions for a startup and didn’t understand the relevant experience in that arena that many Soldiers get from the Army, I hope I’ve widened your view of the talent pool. If you’re not finding people with the right attitude to fill your ranks and make things happen on time as a team, you might want to target hiring veterans of ARFORGEN to help you build the organization you envision. The odds are really good that you’ll get someone who is team-centric, happy to do what’s required outside their normal duties, and is semper Gumby when it comes to navigating change and adapting to the ever evolving industrial operating environment. You’ll find managers and leaders who can see the bigger picture and make the right decisions at the ground level to make it happen. You’ll find the kind of seasoned capability builders you need for your vision to become a scalable framework.

If you’re a Vet and you’re looking for a job at a startup or as part of an organizational planning team don’t forget to translate your ARFORGEN know-how to the hiring manager. It is a valuable part of what you bring to the table and is a substantive transferable experience set. Remember: In today’s competitive industrial landscape, every company needs talent with a “position improvement never stops” mentality. No slack! Get some.

Note:

I stopped at Reset Phase for the purposes of this article. However, for more insights with a bit more “meat” on leading an organization from startup phase to a fully capable “Ready” status, be on lookout for my upcoming article on applying METL commercially

Something Extra for Startup Investors

If you look at it through the right lens, the Army’s technique for ARFORGEN management has an application use for offsetting risk and yield of startup investments on some levels. If all startups followed the same exact timeline from inception to scalable, then you’d invest in (4) companies now (for example) and they’d all pay off at the same time. Sadly, the reality is that all startups don’t stick to a set “same” schedule like ARFORGEN, and many never scale. However, exactly for those reasons it could be a wise move to develop and implement a startups’ capability assessment/status tracking mechanism in a similar fashion to ARFORGEN.

Just as a Division (and big Army) has to plan and monitor the progress of its brigades, investors have to track and project against the progress of their ventures. For example, startup organizations in a portfolio that are poised to scale may be assessed an “available” cycle status, whereas brand new companies might be assessed as in “reset” when they are first funded. Figuring out the “right way” to audit startup capability posture (qualitatively) and offset the timeline expectations within an entire portfolio (quantitatively) might prove to be a fruitful strategy if you’re an investor in startups and need a system to assess and mitigate unpredictability beyond traditional numerical methods. Just sayin.

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