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Decision myth versus reality forging a stronger personal perspective for decision support.

ASMC First Place Essay Winner for 2009-2010

Assigned Topic for 2009-2010: "What can you, as a member of the DOD financial management community, do to provide better decision support to your organizational leadership (Comptroller, Commander, etc.)?"


You can't draw a trend line through one data point. Well, you probably could, but I wouldn't recommend it. The Biblical parable about building your house on rock rather than sand demonstrates the importance of solid foundations. While a best guess sometimes will just have to do, there's little debate that good information even--just a little--is better than nothing ... or a lot of bad information.

Which is your boss getting from you? How is it formed?

Most leaders are desperately in need of more and better information to consider in their decision making. How do YOU deliver that decision support when asked? Is it with a computer model? a spreadsheet or database? a simple policy change? a new form? all of the above?

More importantly, what is that information based upon?

As members of the Department of Defense (DoD) and Coast Guard financial management communities, we have an inherent responsibility to ensure that the information our leaders get is timely, complete, and accurate. Your challenge comes in developing a mental foundation and perspective that help you construct the right answer to the right question. The tool used in developing decision support is less important than your understanding of the environment within which data is collected, analyzed, organized, and presented.

Asking an Accounting & Finance officer the meaning of decision support would yield different understandings if you polled personnel in different roles--for example, an accounts receivable clerk, an audit supervisor, or a staff budget analyst. So for the purposes of this paper, it seems reasonable to take the view of the average DoD financial management worker who routinely bears the brunt of poorly informed management decisions and simply ask him or her, "What can you do to support your leadership in making better decisions?"

A few observations might be useful in forming a solid base for improving the way you provide decision support to your senior leaders and commanders. Let's deal first with some potentially false assumptions, limited perspectives on job performance, and overly narrow considerations of environments in which these jobs are performed. Using this approach as a foundation for delivering decision support will make that support much more useful and effective.

First, let's bust some myths!

Never assume that ...

* YOUR BOSS KNOWS MORE THAN YOU DO. I still love that sign hanging in offices that reads, Do you want to speak to the one in charge or the one who knows what's going on? Like the story of the four blind men trying to describe an elephant by touching different parts of it, our senior leaders often have their own perspectives on problems but need different eyes on the same subject to give them informed alternative views of issues to help avoid otherwise well-intended solutions that actually may make things worse.

* WHAT YOU WERE TAUGHT WILL PRODUCE THE RIGHT RESULT. Don't stop learning. Our career fields are constantly being bombarded with changes in systems, terminology, processes, procedures, and goofy acronyms to the point where there are few experts in any aspect of comptrollership these days. Although schools, courses, and certifications provide broad fundamentals, assuming that this material is all you need leaves you ill-equipped to deal with problems or to zero in on appropriate solutions. Your job is to patiently test the academic and theoretical constructs against your real-world experiences and to adjust. Practical depth of experience is in short supply and valued by your leaders.

* AN ORGANIZATION CHART IS HOW THINGS WORK. You don't need a degree or a course in organizational dynamics to understand there are both formal and informal structures within an organization. Find the informal processes, key players, and resource allocation points within that organization if you really want the information necessary for your boss to solve problems. Develop sources and reliable contacts to help inform your decision support.

* COMPLEX PROBLEMS REQUIRE COMPLEX SOLUTIONS. Ockham's Razor holds that problems should never intentionally be made more complicated than they need to be: The simplest answer is usually the right answer. Commanders appreciate those who can step back from complex issues and zero in on key elements that, when resolved, make everything else fall into place. Seemingly all too often, massive computer system upgrades, mindless manpower cuts, or complex new regulatory dictums are used as the sledgehammer to kill a fly.

* WHAT YOU KNOW IS UNIMPORTANT. Comptrollers and commanders frequently find themselves trying to construct a jigsaw puzzle (solution) without the benefit of the picture on the box. The one piece of crucial information they need in order to produce the most efficient and cost-effective solution may be sitting between your ears. Don't underestimate the importance of your job, what you know, and how it may fit in the big picture. Work hard to be the best at what you do, no matter how invisible you feel or how mundane you think your job might be. Google "For want of a nail. ..."

They're Not Just Numbers

We work with numbers. Simple enough, but all those numbers on the paper in front of you have a story. Some are mundane and boring. Some are interesting; others are just plain weird. But many have exciting, meaningful, and wonderful stories behind them that deal directly with the security of our families and nation.

If you don't know what those stories are, then you won't understand the broader implications or consequences of changes occurring in those numbers and what that might mean for your commander or the impact on your unit. Asking questions of the functional experts always will help you better understand the numbers in front of you. Programmatic knowledge of those numbers not only helps to justify them but also provides a basis for making cost-effective recommendations for solutions and alternatives.

You better serve your commander by having an understanding of the programs being funded, the variables that make up the elements of that program, and the story behind the numbers. Take some time to learn where those numbers came from and how they were developed. On top of actually learning something useful, you'll be better equipped to answer questions and make recommendations when asked.

Yes, you will be asked. Will you be prepared to answer?

What Box?

Possibly more than any other career field, financial management professionals have decision processes that are boxed in by laws, regulations, circulars, and a wide variety of legal constraints designed to ensure the integrity of federal financial systems and processes. So when someone says to think outside the box, is he or she really telling you to break the rules? Well, maybe. Your first challenge is to fight an assumption that somehow our systems are perfect and inviolate as the result of all these rules. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Creativity and innovation require an understanding of exactly what that box looks like as well as an understanding of where myth meets reality. The battlefield looks much different from 20,000 feet than it does from your own foxhole. The pace of changes and variables you work with daily means the box is constantly morphing and open to redefinition and new paradigms.

Our systems and processes are getting more complex and our work places less stable. As a result, too many financial managers, uncertain of their environment, reflexively look for reasons not to do something instead of ways to get things done. Getting over this means you make your own box by changing the way you look at the constraints confining the way you think.

Admiral Grace Hopper originated the well-known saying, "It's easier to apologize than it is to get permission." Her career in the Navy battling prejudice against females taught her that there are some policies and procedures that have simply outlived their applicability and usefulness. I'm not suggesting that you break the law, but mindless obedience to ineffectual and inefficient processes is a recipe for waste or disaster. Every change imposed on those doing the actual work in financial management almost always has unintended consequences that the so-called experts never considered. Isolate those idiosyncrasies and work around them. After all, our revered "test of reasonableness" must be based on reason.

Trust Your Reality

You serve senior leaders better by understanding the processes within which you work (the box) and knowing the weaknesses, problems, and sometimes abject absurdity that ensue when mechanically following directed procedures in that process. A pragmatic approach to decision support--based on simple, common-sense solutions and observations backed by rock-solid facts--is never wrong.

Providing superior decision support today requires that you anticipate and inject yourself into the decision process before you and your great ideas become irrelevant. Timidity rarely fixes anything and leads to poor decisions. Your capability and skills for providing solid support are improved by testing your assumptions, understanding the issues, and creating a stable working framework within which your decisions can be made.

Now march smartly and confidently toward the sound of cannon . . . you're ready!


Joe Lokey began his United States Air Force comptroller career in 1971 as a military pay clerk and retired as a major in 1997 as Director, Programs & Resources, from the Special Operations Command, Pacific (SOCPAC). He is currently a senior financial analyst (Defense Programs) for SAIC, Inc., working for the U.S. Marine Corps at Quantico. Virginia, with the Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations (G3), Training & Education Command (TECOM).

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Title Annotation:ASMC First Place Essay Winner
Author:Lokey, Joe
Publication:Armed Forces Comptroller
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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