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Strategic Change: The Way Forward
Keynote address by Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, Army chief of staff, the International Strategic Management Conference, Dallas, Monday, April 24, 1995

Thank you for having me here today. It is an honor and a privilege to be here representing the United States Army and sharing my thoughts with you about changing an organization; in my case, transforming an organization that was arguably the best army in the world into the best army in the world.

The convergence of key trends over the last five years, primarily geopolitical and technological, coupled with smaller budgets and the desire for smaller, more effective organizations, is influencing and changing virtually all of the processes that order our lives. It is leading all of us to find ways to become better organized to confront the future, better positioned to seize opportunities, and more capable, effective, and efficient.

Within this context, the magnitude of the Army's task -- transforming one of the largest institutions in the country from one that was prepared to prevail against one immense, monolithic enemy to one that is a third smaller but can protect the nation's interests against multiple, as yet undefined, enemies -- has been staggering.

Today, what I would like to do is to talk about our perspective on all this -- how the United States Army, as a member of a joint military force, sees change in the world and how we are working to create the kind of Army we think we will need in the 21st century. We have been on a journey, a part of America, since 1775. And the objective of the exercise today is to transform the best army in the world, arguably, into the best army in the world; and maintain links with our past -- Concord and Lexington, Gettysburg, Normandy. Maintain links with our history. Meanwhile, keep in mind that getting smaller is not better. Better is better -- that's the challenge.

We began our journey in 1989 with almost 2 million people in America's Army -- active, [National] Guard, Reserve and the civilians who support us. That's a very large organization. I was a three-star general in 1989 when I first went to the Pentagon, and looking ahead five years from 1989, the United States Army was programed to have a budget in 1994 of $100 billion. In fact, the 1994 budget was $60 billion.

We have lost almost 45 cents on every dollar, taken 560,000 people out of the organization, come back from central Europe and seen our missions go up 300 percent. And in the period since 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, the United States Army has issued over 700 Purple Hearts -- that's for men and women wounded or killed in action against an armed enemy. So the imperative was clear: Change, transform and keep links with the past all the way into the future.

Interestingly, expectations for organizations such as mine are also changing. Military force today is being employed in social, political and technological environments significantly different and diverse from those that dominated our thinking during the Cold War. After all, we were optimized then to defeat a single threat -- the Soviet Union. Now what we are faced with is a much different world, posing challenges that promise to be difficult for both our nation and our Army. As a partner in the defense of America, our challenge is twofold: Change to become better in everything we do, and change in a way that does not diminish our capability to protect and defend the nation and its interests. Transform ourselves and perform at the same time.

Thus, what you see is an organization faced with enormous physical change, the need to change itself fiscally, an expanding strategic role and fundamental technological change -- the Information Age. The power of the microprocessor, in particular, is fundamentally changing how we organize and operate: How do we train and equip the force, and attract the young people we need from America, and develop in them -- the leaders of the 21st century -- the skills we need, the skills and the traits that we desire in them?

I can tell you, I am pleased to say, at least at this point along the journey, we have succeeded in transforming ourselves, in adapting to these challenges. We have done what has never been done before: We have accommodated tremendous changes in the Army, including the most radical restructuring in a generation, and we have kept the Army trained and ready. We have broken the historical mold. If you add five years to the end of any war in this century -- World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the war in Vietnam -- you would not find the United States Army as trained and ready as it is today. And unfortunately in the past, we have paid the price for that unpreparedness with the blood of American men and women.

We have, in fact, broken that mold. As I pointed out earlier, over 500,000 people have left the organization, we have closed almost 600 installations, we have taken tactical nuclear weapons out of the United States Army, and we are destroying our chemical weapons. We have fought your wars; we have fought forest fires, storms and earthquakes. Whatever the mission, your Army -- America's Army -- has delivered victory when you have asked us. We have maintained the best army in the world, and we have proven this with an unprecedented record of success. From Panama to Iraq and from Rwanda to Haiti, together with the Air Force, Navy and Marines, and, at times, the Coast Guard -- we have shown what America's Army can do.

Let there be no mistake. These have not been easy times for any of us. Taking the Army down by a third while increasing our workload by a factor of three with almost half the resources is quite ambitious by any measure. But the challenge was not to be so focused on the downsizing and daily operations at the expense of confronting the bigger challenge. What we really had to do was get ready for tomorrow. All of this geopolitical, physical, fiscal and technological change meant that we had to transform ourselves -- to prepare to fight and win tomorrow's wars as well as today's -- and not make yesterday perfect.

Organizations such as mine tend to look at yesterday and try to make that perfect. Thus, there was enormous resistance to change -- a natural tendency in any successful enterprise like ours when things are going well. In my business, such organizations fail to adapt their doctrine, structure or strategic posture rapidly enough to be effective in the new environment.

So what we did was create a climate in which change was OK. And one way we did that, after assessing and understanding our operating environment, was to craft a vision. A vision, in my mind, is an articulation of a future state. It reflects the larger objective toward which the organization is moving and unites the organization by providing a common understanding of its direction.

Lacking strategic vision, an organization will tend to rely on individual milestones -- the next budget, the crisis of the moment or a specific operation -- to guide its journey to the future. Moreover, it will tend to evaluate itself at each step by looking backwards, using a comfortable and irrelevant paradigm to judge its progress.

We needed a vision to empower people and to align the processes of change; we needed a broader vision to take us beyond the defense of Central Europe. It had to be clear and compelling, a blueprint for growing into a qualitatively different force. It had to build on the past and provide a conceptual framework for the future. Our vision is fairly simple:

"America's Army (active, Guard, and Reserve, the civilians who work with us, corporate America who has been with us since there was an Army) serving the nation at home and abroad; a strategic force, capable of decisive victory ... into the 21st century."

This statement has provided a basis for thought so that the young men and women of the Army can think about the future and think about what they are doing today. Let me highlight the key elements.


  • America's Army. Active, Guard and Reserve, civilians, industry and families, inclusive.
  • Service to nation. A concept consistent with our ethos, our values and our history -- the Panama Canal, settling the West, protecting the settlers, fighting and winning your wars.
  • Capable of decisive victory. Decisive victory in today's world is a little elusive. Decisive victory today and into the next millennium is success at whatever we are called on to do. Fighting and winning our nation's wars remains at the heart of our purpose, and we organize and train for that because it is our most demanding task, but we are learning to see and employ ourselves much more broadly. For example, I think the American people are generally happy with what happened in Haiti. It is hard to think about what went on in Haiti and what is going on there as decisive victory. But I think you like what we, along with our sister services, did there -- provide stability so that the Haitian government can grow and prosper, and the Haitian people can live in a democratic, prosperous environment.
  • Into the 21st century.
Having established our vision -- a vision affirming senior leader commitment to our values and to Army people, as well as providing a framework for thought and setting our direction for the future -- our next step was to develop a broad consensus for change. We had to translate the vision into action.

The most insightful vision statement in the world will not get an organization where it needs to go if there is no way to bring the activities of the organization's various components into alignment. A way must be found to translate the vision into a plan of action that will pull every part of the organization into the future. The vision will have no value if you cannot make the transition from theory to practice.

This is an area that the Army enjoys a considerable advantage over most other institutions and organizations, because the Army has a long-established and well-respected forum for the articulation and dissemination of the leadership's strategic vision in order to gain the requisite commitment and understanding: We call it operational doctrine.

Doctrine is a soldier's word for the professional discipline of thinking about operations. Doctrine is not so much about what to think, but rather it is how we think about war. Doctrine provides a common framework, a common cultural perspective within which soldiers think about and debate the issues of their profession. Thus, for us, change had to begin with doctrine.

Since 1991, we have rewritten our basic doctrine. The doctrine prior to 1991 was one designed, as you would expect, to confront the Soviet Union. We have rewritten our doctrine to include military operations other than war, peacekeeping, a doctrine for deployment and a prototype doctrine for thinking about the future -- conceptual pieces to think about the future, an Army organized around information. We have written this in the context of work with the other services -- Air Force, Navy and Marines -- so we also have new joint doctrine.

This fundamental reorientation from the Cold War represents a profound change with enormous implications for virtually every facet of Army operations. Doctrine is the basis for translating ideas into new or modified weaponry, organizational designs, tactical concepts, and training and leader development programs. Army doctrine is therefore fundamental in translating intellectual change into physical change.

Now I understand, very clearly, that you in corporate America and even nonmilitary governmental organizations lack, for the most part, a ready equivalent to Army doctrine -- where senior people come together to think about how they will use the organization. The process of writing doctrine enables us collectively to think about change. I understand that you use newsletters, professional journals, formal policy memoranda -- any medium where the ideas that guide an organization are disseminated -- to promote the vision.

The essential task is to reach every nook and cranny of the organization so the vision can be used to focus the energy of every component. This articulation and dissemination of the vision is nearly as important as the vision itself, because unless it can be shared, it cannot be brought to bear. I suggest to you that high-performance systems talk with each other. And in this regard for me, for us, doctrine is important, just as I think journals and conferences such as this are important for you.

Now the process of rewriting the doctrine -- that interestingly enough took almost two years -- brought our senior people together to think about this constantly changing environment in which we live. Then we put it to work at our national training centers. I just came from visiting one in Louisiana today.

At those training centers, at the end of each exercise -- that is based in doctrine for which there are tasks, conditions and standards -- we sit down and reflect on what really happened, vis-…-vis the mission. What did we think was happening? And how could we have done it better? In other words, with this after-action review, we created a learning organization. The after-action review was actually designed after Vietnam as a part of a process of rebuilding the United States Army. This is an extraordinarily powerful tool that makes change agents out of all our people.

But learning alone was not enough. We also had to seek ways to actively foster innovation and growth. So we created ways to cut across organizational boundaries to integrate change efforts and provide the senior leadership with the tools to sponsor and legitimize change at every level. We went back in our history and looked at [Army Gen.] George Marshall prior to the Second World War and saw that he created a process known as Louisiana Maneuvers -- a process to facilitate change.

We are now using an updated version of this process, a tool to drive people to think about the future, to experiment in the field, in our training centers and in simulations, using doctrine as the basis to experiment with organizations organized around information, not equipment -- "mix and match" capabilities to respond to a very diverse market, not a single market. You are asking us to fight and win your wars and to go to places like Haiti and Rwanda and save lives. You are asking us to do lots of things. For me, for us, it is a very challenging world.

Now to demonstrate the power of our ideas about the future, we had to create a model, something people could see and touch. We had to provide proof that change was real, useful and purposeful.

We had to create something not unlike a Grecian urn. Many people have problems dealing with concepts. So we have created a series of experiments. These experiments are designed to bring people together so that they will understand what this new Information Age will enable us to do.

Now, you can read [John] Keats' poem. You can read it for hours and not really understand what a Grecian urn looks like. For many of us, myself included, we must touch it. Until you hold one in your hands, the magic escapes you. So it is with change.

In some cases you have to create prototypes in order to create disciples. And what we are doing is putting new organizations on the ground, leveraged by information to see if, in fact, we can become more effective. Demonstrations make ideas real. Such proof is essential to making change happen.

Then, of course, one of the most important things for me, as well as you, is to resource the change. Now the challenge for an organization such as mine, an army in a republic, is that our financing comes from the American people, from you. I have to balance current operations that are going through the roof with modernization for the future, and field a force that can fight and win your wars into the 21st century, an army of learning organizations that will enable us to apply scarce resources more effectively.

Having said all this, I must also add that change cannot run rampant in an organization such as ours. The Army has found that under conditions of rapid change, soldiers and units can become preoccupied with turbulence and its associated uncertainty. They can lose their focus, becoming more concerned with the longevity of the organization than with the ability of the organization to perform its mission. Leaders must control, to the extent possible, the pace of change.

There are many techniques to do this. One of things we are doing is placing constant emphasis on values. The Army as an institution embodies values, the values of America. It is those values that provide the context for our actions, as well as the foundations for purposeful change. We expect our leaders to have a sense of duty, integrity and selfless service, and the professional core qualities of commitment, competence, candor, compassion and courage. That's what you expect of your soldiers. We must act responsibly. We must accomplish our tasks in a manner consistent with our values.

We must live by General Order 100 issued in 1863: "Men who take up arms against one another in public war do not cease on this account to be moral beings responsible to one another."

Now what I am telling you is: You must have something substantive to enable you to take an organization of 2 million people, transform it physically and intellectually, and keep it ready to serve the American people. I have been a soldier for 36 years; I have not been in corporate America. I will tell you, to transform ourselves that profoundly in times such as these, we must have a strong value base. A strong value base enables us to rely on others to operate and to act responsibly, to communicate with each other and to learn.

Now what we have learned is that we can transform ourselves. We can, in fact, break the mold, look to the future and not prepare or optimize ourselves to win the last war. That's what you expect of us. You expect us to remain trained and ready with the resources you give us. Break the mold.

To do it, we first broke the intellectual mold. Intellectual must lead physical. Working from within the Army culture, the most senior leadership took a careful look at the defining purpose of our organization. We put a lot of thought into understanding the context within which our organization operates -- the changing world through which we have to lead the Army.

Then we set about the critical task of rewriting basic doctrine -- the bridge we would use to render the Army's intellectual transformation into purposeful physical transformation. Write a doctrine. Think about the future. Force yourself to think about the future. In the case of the Army, think about how we apply the power of the United States of America, in concert with the other services and our allies, in the future, given soldiers who come from America who want to be all they can be.

While that process was still under way -- still under way -- we went to work breaking physical molds -- organizational and relational and technological and procedural molds. This concurrency, in itself, is an important change. In the Information Age, organizations cannot restrict themselves to the linear and the sequential. Constant iteration, feedback, will be the rule of tomorrow; leaders must, therefore, begin making it the rule of today.

We have created a climate in which change is understood as an opportunity, and we have provided the Army with a framework to foster and nurture change and growth. We have done what we set out to do. We focused on the future. We are not sitting around talking about what was and how great it was. We are not discussing what used to be. We are not making yesterday perfect. We are discussing change and growth, and we are making it happen. Serious people are acknowledging it and writing about it.

A tremendous amount of work has been done to prepare the Army for the next century, but the job is not finished -- and never will be. Change is a journey, not a destination, and a host of potential ambush sites line the path: future budget fights, congressionally mandated changes and reductions, and a host of unforeseeable contingencies.

The Army leadership also must guard against potential internal ambushes: complacency and bureaucratic resistance to change. Success to date does not guarantee success over the long course. Change is difficult, especially in a period of very austere fiscal resources that threaten to decline even further. The Army so far has maintained a fine balance between requirements and resources, but it is a fragile balance.

Well, I will tell you, ultimately undergirding it all must be young men and women who understand the values of America. They must be, in a sense, like America's jazz musicians who can improvise, especially when placed in unstructured situations -- improvise around a doctrine, mix and match capabilities, not like a conductor of a symphony orchestra following carefully arranged scores. You cannot predict the world with precise certainty. What matters, frankly, is not getting it too badly wrong, because if you get it too badly wrong, you may not be able to get it right when you need to.

Mix and match capabilities and attract young people that you can develop and nurture and grow so that they will embody the values found in a letter written by Gen. [William Tecumseh] Sherman to Gen. [Ulysses S.] Grant in March of 1864, near Memphis, Tenn. Grant was in Washington. Sherman wrote this letter. He said: "Throughout the fight, you were always in my mind. I always knew if I were in trouble and you were still alive you would come to my assistance.

"I always knew if I were in trouble and you were still alive you would come to my assistance." You must create in your people, in my view, the essence of that letter. That's what your Army is all about. That's our theme.

And we must transform ourselves and learn from the operation and learn from our intellectual pursuits. And keep the organization trained and ready so that we can win tomorrow's wars.

Now I am optimistic about the future, although I truly do not know what is out there. But I can tell you, America's Army has moved out. And we are proud of what we have done. We are honored to be here today to share what we have done. We are prepared to fight and win your wars and to serve America proudly today and into the 21st century.

Thanks a lot. Thanks for having me here.


Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at