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Military Mathematics: Addition

I had intended to post a follow-up article today connecting last Monday’s personal experience post to Secretary Gates’ recent quest to lower the Defense Department budget. As I was writing that post, though, I realized I needed to explain one crucial detail about the military: that it doesn’t know how to do math.

A few months back, I published a post called “Military Mathematics: Subtraction.” In it, I wrote about how the Army can work you from 0600-1700, and still call that a nine hour work day. “Military Mathematics: Addition” is the inverse. Instead of working you more and giving you less, addition is about using more but getting less.

For the Army more is better; more people, more money, more resources, more reports. If you have a problem, throw more at it. With enough money, people, resources and reports the Army believes it can solve any problem.

If only this approach worked. Adding people rarely solves the problem. This is because in any organization, the difference between the best and the worst person isn’t inches, it is miles. For example...

Detectives - During this current deployment I started watching David Simon’s incomparable TV show The Wire. The central plot concerns a major police task force trying to take down a powerful drug lord. During the first season, the task force’s main problem is that even though it got a bunch of men, they are mostly what the police call “humps,” detectives who aren’t worth a damn. The best detectives spot tiny clues, make difficult connections, and solve impossible cases. The worst detectives usually don’t solve anything, but still take up a spot on the team.

Sales Staff - When Eric reviewed this idea with me, he brought up his experience as a fundraiser during college. The top fundraisers at his work--usually 4 or 5 people--raised 80% of the money on any given night. At least half the room raised nothing. The top fundraisers raised over $100,000, but most people would go weeks without raising one cent. The top salesperson isn’t twice as good as the bottom person, he is ten times as good. So doubling your sales staff isn’t as smart as developing your core group into better callers. (In the Annual Fund’s case, they installed auto-dialers so the best callers could call more people.)

The Army doesn’t get this, especially in staff jobs. Whether it is supply, intelligence, finance or human resources, the difference between the amount of work done by the worst person on staff and the best isn’t small, it is gigantic. If I wanted to improve my staff, in any job, hiring ten more people wouldn’t work nearly as well as hiring one person who truly excelled.

Yet every time the Army expands, it doesn’t think quality, it thinks bulk. For example...

1. Adding Human Intelligence Collectors - A few years after invading Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army realized that we needed more Human Intelligence. In fact, we needed thousands more trained Human Intelligence collectors. Instead of choosing the best people, though, the Army just filled the ranks with as many bodies as possible. Most of the new HUMINT collectors were 17 year olds fresh out of basic training, far from ideal candidates.

2. The Entire Intelligence Community - Since 9/11 America hasn’t just expanded our intelligence community, it tripled it in size. And we aren’t that we are now three times better at stopping terrorists. In many cases, we are about as good as before, but spending three times as much. [Link to Top Secret America: http://projects.washingtonpost.com/top-secret-america/]

3. Army Cyber Warfare - The Army’s approach to cyber-warfare is going through the same growing pains as the Intelligence Community. The people Cyber Command needs are hackers; the people staffing the place are not. The best hacker isn’t a little better than the hackers we have, they are thousands of times better. By hiring thousands of bodies--be they contractors or servicemen--the Army is avoiding the core issue of hiring the best hackers.

4. Army Suicide Prevention - Instead of addressing the core issue--an overworked military stressed by repeated deployments--the Army started a task force that publishes reports. Instead of solving the issue, the Army threw more at the problem.

Instead of getting rid of the worst and keeping the best, the Army just tries to keep whoever it can. Even worse, most of the organizations created since 9/11, Iraq or Afghanistan--like the Joint IED Defeat Organization, the command centers in Iraq, the bureaucracies created in Afghanistan, the dozens upon dozens of “Centers of Excellence”--aren’t staffed with the best, they are staffed to the brim. Generals add people, not excellent people.

Next Monday, I will tie this post and my last one to Joint Forces Command and Secretary Gates’ recent effort to reform the Pentagon budget.

(A side note: Manager-Tools.com mentions this idea about hiring the best and not just hiring bodies; we highly recommend their podcasts. Also, the book How to Become CEO by Jeffrey Fox covers has similar advice.)

nine comments

I agree with this principle, but think it is impossible for people who aren’t bosses to figure out who is in the achiever role vs. non-achiever.


Very well written. Don’t forget the expansion of SOF, in direct denial of three SOF truths:

Quality is better than Quantity.
Special Operations Forces cannot be mass produced.
Competent Special Operations Forces cannot be created after emergencies occur.

Eric C,

In my experience, accurate evaluation of effectiveness tends to go peer>subordinate>=superior.

Also, before I meant the overly rapid expansion of SOF, expansion itself isn’t negative.

@ Van-Van, good point on the SOF stuff. I don’t think Michael wanted to comment on that in particular, but good point.

On the evaluating quality, I tend to find the best judge of characters go Superior>peer>subordinate. Peers=friends, and people can’t accurately evaluate their friends. Subordinates tend to irrationally hate their bosses, sometimes no matter how good they are.

That said, Lord knows some bosses can’t evaluate talent at all.

Eric, I’m going to have to disagree with you and agree with Van-Van. I think peers definitely have a better idea of who the worthwhile workers are. Superiors fall too easily for those employees who just know how to make themselves look good without the actual substance to back it up.

Wow! It’s great to see thorough thinking. Trustworthy peers know who really gets the work done and voluntarily speak for the workers. Untrustworthy peers know who gets the work done and manipulate the system for self-promotion. Similar traits of self-promotion appear in various levels of competency above most novice subordinate positions.

Normative superiors prefer to appear most comforting to the most novice subordinates, knowing the superior benefits by hearing all the scuttlebutt, while not actually having to account for its source. As with all organziational psychological profiles, trustworthy superiors do it to improve, while the untrustworthy follow the same practices for more nefarious reasons.

I firmly am convinced what empowers me to identify a good leader is the same empowerment we all have: knowledge. The more one knows, the better one gets at identifying accurately.

The more one thinks one knows, similary the less one appreciates what one doesn’t know, it’s fair to say the more damage the latter will do than will the former. This is why the users use and the getters get, but those in the know get overused.

One only needs to watch the Pentagon Wars to see how wasteful government can be. A hilarious movie for all the wrong reasons.

Wow a lot of comments pretty quickly today. I will just say, in reference to Van-Van, that overly rapid expansion of any organization will cause it to lose its core values, and you are hitting the nail on the head.

@Harrison- Yeah we love Pentagon wars. I have heard the same thing about countless weapons projects, and congress is mostly to blame.

The peers vs subordinates vs bosses debate is too complicated for me to handle now. I will say that using metrics to judge people is the best method, if they are the right metrics.

Michael, I think you hit the nail on the head with that one.