A few years ago I was having dinner with some Canadian friends. They raised an interesting issue. “You Americans are an incredibly militaristic society! You declare a ‘War on Drugs’, a ‘War on Poverty’, a ‘War on Crime’. Your language is full of military references. You guys can be really scary, sometimes.”

This statement really made me think. I never considered myself or our society as particularly militaristic. I started to become consciously aware of my own and others’ language regarding military references. I continue to be surprised.

“We had no time for documentation in the heat of battle!”
“It was a death march project!”

“Let’s run this idea up the flagpole and see who salutes it.”

“Sure, but how will the guys in the trenches feel about this?”

“We shipped the product, let’s celebrate our victory!”

“We must bring the competition to their knees!”

“Heads will roll if we don’t hit the deadline!”

There are lots more, just listen. Are we the Klingons on planet earth? For those of you who are not Trekkers, the Klingons are an alien society in the Star Trek universe whose entire culture is based upon conflict. Their highest compliment is something like “May you die in battle after killing many adversaries!” Even when they try to be friendly, they’re rather frightening.

I’ve mentioned this concept in several software organizations and received lots of approving smiles. The really cute thing is that the folks who seem to like the Klingon analogy the most are the really pasty geeks whose idea of ultimate exercise is pushing their mouse all the way across the pad. Klingons would eat them for breakfast except that there’s probably not enough nutritious protein in their bodies to make it worthwhile. Twinkies, pizza, and Jolt Cola do not a healthy body make.

Should we worry about this? Why? One possible reason is that pervasive militaristic thinking may be reducing too many relationships to adversarial ones. I’ve read in journals that of all the advanced Western societies, Americans have the most adversarial relationship between government and industry. Some view the Software Engineering Institute’s Capability Maturity Model as springing from this adversarial relationship. “How can we better control the insidious cost overruns of our contractors?!”

We have way too many adversarial relationships in business. Competitor-to-competitor is typically viewed as healthy. (Is it always?) But I’ve seen adversarial relationships between customer and supplier, management and engineering, marketing and engineering, hardware and software, developers and quality assurance, programmers and configuration management, software engineers and testers, teachers and students, purchasers and vendors, “people who do real work” and consultants, the list goes on and on. Whenever I see an “us versus them” mentality. I can almost always expect to uncover some dysfunctional behavior.

Sometimes the “us versus them” mentality can degenerate even further &endash; into a “me versus the-rest-of-the-world” attitude. We typically want teams to work together in order to accomplish desirable business results. But as adversarial relationships are promulgated in the business environment, human nature can cause a “trickle down effect” &endash; “if it’s good for our business, it must be good enough for me!” And the every-person-for-themselves mentality will short circuit good teamwork in many ways. Successful teams have to recognize individual weaknesses and healthily bond together to cover them, capitalize on individual strengths, and produce results that are greater than just a combination of each individual’s output. Who wants to jeopardize their own personal success for the good of the team in an adversarial environment?

Now I fully recognize that in the military, teams (squads, platoons, etc.) can work exceptionally well. So, since we’re talking about a militaristic society, why can’t we transfer this type of success to the business world? I spent three years as an enlisted man in the Army, as a Mathematics-Statistics Assistant (a chairborne ranger!). Since then, I have also had the opportunity to teach and work in many military environments.

Something that I’ve observed is that there is a BIG difference between how a military team operates in a combat (genuine life-and-death) situation and an environment more closely resembling the business world. I had a Marine officer tell me once, “You know, I can order my troops to die for their country and be confident that they would fight valiantly to the end, but I can’t seem to order them to do software process improvement!” In true combat environments, individuals are trained, treated, and led differently than in non-combat environments. The military has much of the same difficulty motivating, managing, and leading in non-combat situations as does the business world. Truly having your life (and those of your teammates) on the line is MUCH different than having your salary, prestige, ego, or “the success of our company” in jeopardy.

So, recognizing that trying to be business Klingons probably does more harm than good, what should we do? First of all, realize that if you have adversarial relationships in your organization — all the maturity models, development tools, communication bandwidth, and exhortations to victory may not help. You have a different problem. You are being exclusive instead of inclusive. And this cannot be changed overnight. Chances are that the politicos are firmly entrenched and have what they perceive are vested interests in maintaining the status quo. (Success breeds success until it degenerates to inbreeding!)

Step one is similar to solving any problem, you have to recognize it and share the recognition. “Hi, I’m and I’m an alcoholic.” “Houston, we have a problem.” In the case of adversarial relationships, it might sound something like “We’re tired of being on the opposite side of the table &endash; what can we do to foster better collaboration?” (I almost slipped into military-think to say “How can we join forces?”) Moving from adversarial to collaborative relationships is a cultural change that takes time, patience, and compromise. But nothing will happen until you start sharing an idea.

Our differences engender the diverse beauty of creation but our similarities bond us together for success.