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The Pentagon’s Office Culture Is Stuck in 1968

The U.S. national security bureaucracy needs a severe upgrade.

By , a security fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and , the author of The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon.
The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013.
The Pentagon is seen from the air over Washington, D.C., on Aug. 25, 2013. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Pentagon is a curious place. It is the heart of a colossal machinery of war and security, a $700 billion-plus behemoth. You might expect, then, that the headquarters of the U.S. Defense Department would be cutting-edge itself, staffed with world-class talent making split-second decisions while working on futuristic projects all to protect the nation. Kind of like Apple, but with lasers.

As anyone who has walked the Pentagon’s musty corridors—or struggled with its paperwork—knows, though, the reality is very different. It is as if former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s Pentagon had been preserved in aspic when he resigned way back in 1968, leaving behind a living museum to the workplace culture and administrative processes of the Mad Men era. And while much has changed in the intervening half-century, much has stayed exactly the same.

The department remains rigidly hierarchical, in sharp contrast to modern organizations that have long embraced flatter organizational structures that facilitate faster—and often, better—decisions. It remains obsessed with protocol, where modern organizations have become not only more casual but more diverse, inclusive, and dynamic—all of which facilitates creativity instead of dampening it. It remains burdened by the strict adherence to slow, sequential processes, while more contemporary workplaces have learned that parallel, simultaneous, and asynchronous methods dramatically speed their delivery of value.

The Pentagon is a curious place. It is the heart of a colossal machinery of war and security, a $700 billion-plus behemoth. You might expect, then, that the headquarters of the U.S. Defense Department would be cutting-edge itself, staffed with world-class talent making split-second decisions while working on futuristic projects all to protect the nation. Kind of like Apple, but with lasers.

As anyone who has walked the Pentagon’s musty corridors—or struggled with its paperwork—knows, though, the reality is very different. It is as if former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s Pentagon had been preserved in aspic when he resigned way back in 1968, leaving behind a living museum to the workplace culture and administrative processes of the Mad Men era. And while much has changed in the intervening half-century, much has stayed exactly the same.

The department remains rigidly hierarchical, in sharp contrast to modern organizations that have long embraced flatter organizational structures that facilitate faster—and often, better—decisions. It remains obsessed with protocol, where modern organizations have become not only more casual but more diverse, inclusive, and dynamic—all of which facilitates creativity instead of dampening it. It remains burdened by the strict adherence to slow, sequential processes, while more contemporary workplaces have learned that parallel, simultaneous, and asynchronous methods dramatically speed their delivery of value.

Yes, the Defense Department develops some amazingly effective weapons—but a frighteningly large amount of the money it spends is frittered away on contract overheads and acquisition programs that take so long that weapons can be nearly obsolete by the time they are fielded. World-class talent? The Pentagon does have sharp minds, but many of them are on the verge of retirement, and hiring someone new requires mastery of the dark arts of both personnel management and massaging egos. Working conditions in the Pentagon and at other executive branch agencies are often so backward and demoralizing that the national security community was in the midst of a workforce crisis even before COVID-19 struck in 2020. Making a decision? Between coordinating horizontally with every office that has an “equity” in whatever decision needs to be made and then working through seven or so vertical layers of approval, bold ideas often either suffer death by a thousand paper cuts or are perhaps more benignly just smothered in boredom.

The bottom line is that while military strategists can argue all day long about whether or not the nature of war is changing, there’s no doubt the nature of work has—and the Pentagon’s turgid bureaucracy is falling further behind every day.

In fact, there is a workplace revolution of sorts underway, one that’s overturning more than a century of management theory and transforming both workplaces and the very way in which work itself gets done. Partisans of this revolution call it by many names—agile, lean, and design-thinking, to name just a few. They can be found in nearly every sector of the knowledge economy—from the usual suspects in Silicon Valley start-ups to newer converts you might not expect, including stalwarts of the manufacturing, finance, information technology, and consumer services industries.

Based on everything we’ve learned in recent decades about human and organizational psychology, these revolutionaries are actively reinventing their organizations—integrating functions that were once siloed, accelerating decision-making by granting more authority and resources to those with the most information and greatest competency, and growing workplace cultures that are more open, transparent, and human-centric.

They’ve recognized that even—perhaps especially—in an era of big data and smart machines, an organization’s people determine whether it will succeed or fail and that people do their best work when their talents are cultivated and coordinated—not commanded and controlled.

Consider the Defense Department in this light. One senior official recently described work at the department as “disconcertingly retrograde,” going on to detail pitiful scenes of employees huddled around those few areas of the Pentagon’s 6.5 million-square-foot building that have even a trace of cellphone reception—forget about Wi-Fi—and enduring day after day of perfunctory, if not outright performative, meetings.

Here, stolid managerialism is the default, and people are too often treated as interchangeable widgets in an immense industrial machine. Founded on a doctrine of hierarchical control informed by both the military traditions and the pseudo-scientific management theories of the 19th century, it has elevated conformity to virtue and excels at stifling dissent; initiative and creativity are just collateral damage. Information flows up—or is “staffed” in defense parlance—and power trickles back down. Important leaders choose less important leaders; everyone else competes within the rigid confines of a civil service system that we’ve known to be fundamentally broken for decades. Compensation is commensurate with status and tenure, not talent or contribution. Tasks are assigned, performance is evaluated, rules are promulgated—forming the basis of a culture of risk aversion that makes the faithful maintenance of the status quo a much safer bet than attempting to challenge it. Pentagon reporter Jeff Schogol perhaps put it best when he compared the Defense Department to a “Sears mail-in catalogue that is struggling to stay relevant in an Amazon Prime world.”

The existing system was designed for an era during which the rate of change was much slower and the centralized management of large bureaucracies by individual leaders much more feasible. It was not designed for an era such as our own, characterized by relentless and accelerating technological progress, growing uncertainty, and the intersection of a host of proliferating global risks. The complexity of today’s competitive space makes it quite impossible for individual leaders, no matter how sharp or experienced, to keep up with every challenge—or even with the scope of work being done by their own organizations.

The evolving character of war and an ongoing reframing of national security require a more complex and adaptive defense enterprise, one whose workforce is empowered to collaborate across functions and regions, at scale. The 4G revolution is already here, but the coming fifth- and sixth-generation telecommunications technologies, along with more capable and widespread artificial intelligence, will together drive both an untethering from fixedness in place and accelerate the pace of data delivery everywhere—allowing the enterprises that modernize effectively to become more distributed, asynchronous, and flexible.

Reaping the speed and efficiency gains that these technologies make possible, however, requires an administrative overhaul that gives more agency and autonomy to individuals and small teams within organizations. In tightly managed hierarchies such as the Defense Department, information is filtered, distorted, or lost at every rung on the organizational ladder before it reaches someone with enough authority to make a decision—and then gets distorted once again as decisions flow back down to those who implement them.

To be fair, there are some promising experiments underway. Newer organizations with departmentwide remits, such as the Defense Digital Service and the Defense Innovation Unit, are working to challenge ingrained habits and question long-held assumptions about software development and procurement. They, along with their service-specific counterparts—outfits such as the Air Force’s Platform One and AFWERX, for example—are already having a noticeable effect on how the Pentagon does business.

Unfortunately, these experiments remain just that, however, and have had little effect on the larger administrative procedures of the department writ large. Despite their real achievements, they are largely disconnected from the bulk of the work the department does on a daily basis—so many, islands of occasional excellence that sometimes make progress in spite of continuous institutional pushback.

Similarly, much has been made of ongoing and troubled efforts to modernize the Pentagon’s information and communications technology infrastructure. The Defense Department and the U.S. intelligence community are making big investments in digital communications, cloud computing, and, of course, AI. But even if they could somehow swap their legacy systems with cutting-edge cloud platforms complete with AI to manage them tomorrow, it would not help as much as you might think. Necessary investments to modernize communications technologies without commensurate investments to modernize organizational and administrative technologies is like building an interstate highway system that’s only meant to be traveled by horse-drawn buggies.

There is hope. The fact that other large institutions in the private sector have made impressive organizational transformations proves it can be done, so long as there are incentives to do so. Taking a hard look at talent hiring and retention as well as broader management processes—perhaps through a Defense Science Board study or a dedicated commission—could be a key first step to understanding the scope of the problem. But it will take serious, sustained effort over several years—at all levels of management—to effectively reform the Pentagon’s organizational culture. From there, constant care is required; you can never take your hands off the wheel when it comes to maintaining an inclusive, diverse, and vibrant workforce.

Many individuals who have survived the Defense Department’s bureaucracy—ourselves included—cope with the absurdity of the Pentagon’s vintage business processes by laughing; one of us even wrote a book about it. But while that absurdity can at times be amusing, the global competition the United States as a nation finds itself in is deadly serious.

The United States cannot afford to shrug this problem off any longer. Managing the challenges of an increasingly aggressive China and a stubbornly revanchist Russia, not to mention everything else, requires a Defense Department that runs at the speed of today’s challenges. Until the Pentagon can recruit and retain the nation’s top talent—and change its organizational culture to better allow great ideas to make it to the top—the United States will at best muddle through the challenges it faces. But the stakes are too high; muddling through simply isn’t good enough anymore.

All views expressed are those of the authors alone and not of any organizations with which they are affiliated.

Zachery Tyson Brown is a security fellow at the Truman National Security Project and a board member of the Military Writers Guild. He is a graduate of the U.S. National Intelligence University. Twitter: @ZaknafienDC

Kathleen J. McInnis is the author of The Heart of War: Misadventures in the Pentagon.

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