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Beyond the Friday Funnies 

Nothing Is Impossible for the Person Who Doesn’t Have To Do It



Posted May 13, 2013

A long time ago at a Navy conference, I heard an O-6 proclaim, “OPNAV instructions are for the guidance of the timid and uninformed.”

It sounded like heresy. I marveled at how the hundreds of military and civilian people in the audience—serious professionals who studied, quoted and obeyed formal guidance all day long—didn’t start hooting, throwing wadded up programs at the stage and stalking out in protest.

Looking back, I think they just understood what he meant better than I did when I was naïve and inexperienced. When I hadn’t realized that there was an ideal world and a real world that weren’t exactly mirror images. When I hadn’t spent my own personal time and energy helping craft guidance that would have worked perfectly except that the target audience didn’t read and follow it, they just kept doing whatever was expeditious.

The O-6 at the conference worked in occupational health, and I think he was making the point that if your Sailors or employees are being exposed to obvious, well-known health hazards, higher authority shouldn’t have to order you to protect them. You ought to be smart and caring enough to recognize the problem and fix it.

Many people are neither (and real busy, to boot), but the fact is that there is something about the military that just loves formal guidance, the more, the merrier. I once had a printed copy of the “Department of the Navy Directives Issuance System Consolidated Subject Index (of Instructions by Washington Headquarters Organizations),” which had 171 pages of current instructions cross-referenced by subject.

One page, for example, ran from the Office of the Secretary of the Navy's "Drill and Ceremonies Manual" to the Naval Oceanography Command's "Criteria for Atmospheric Turbulence and Icing." This page contained 90 listings. I calculated that the index easily contained more than 5,000 references. I thought of them as “The 5,000 Commandments,” although since each pub probably contained a hundred pieces of guidance, it was probably more like 500,000 commandments.

Some of the instructions were what you'd expect, covering absentees and acquisitions, barges and brigs, paint and pallets. There were six about funerals and two about gambling. Others gave the lowdown on ice, alimony, cards, coal, and platinum. I found three directives about dogs, but only two entries listed under the category of “Efficiency.” There were 11 directives on war, and 10 about meetings (you could tell it was peacetime).

I’m sure (at least, I hope) that a lot of these instructions have been cancelled by now. I’m equally sure that barrages of new directives have taken their place. And I’m not saying that formal guidance isn’t a necessary starting point. Sometimes you’ve got to have what a former boss of mine referred to as a "stone tablet" or a "note from mother."

Just ask yourself, does doling out an unfunded mandate really check the block on “doing something” about a problem? It’s easy to give tasking, and to tell “what” but not “how.” Resources are the hard part. It would be nice if official guidance was enough.

I know one thing—your average American isn’t obese because there aren’t enough diet books.

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