An Army approach to Transforming Landpower
John P. Kotter, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at the Harvard Business School, argues that successful transformation requires time to succeed, usually measured in years. Kotter emphasises that successfully transformation includes eight distinct stages, worked through in sequence.[i]
The success of any given stage of transformation depends on the work done in previous stages. A critical mistake, or skipping a step, in any of the stages, can have a devastating impact. Kotter forewarns that, ‘perhaps because we [all] have relatively little experience in renewing organisations, even very capable people often make at least one big error’.[ii]
Kotter’s eight stages of transformation are:
- Establishing a sense of urgency.
- Forming a powerful guiding coalition.
- Creating a vision.
- Communicating the vision.
- Empowering others to act on the vision.
- Planning for and creating short-term wins.
- Consolidating improvements and producing still more change.
- Institutionalising new approaches.[iii]
Employing Kotter’s eight stages of transformation, the purpose of this paper is to examine how the Australian Army could approach transforming land power.
What is transforming land power?
In 2004, Christian L van Tonder, observed that ‘by far the most common practice observed in [his] literature [review], is the tendency of authors to use the term transformation or transformational change freely yet without explicitly defining it’.[iv] Christian van Tonder continues, ‘although an implicit definition is sometimes apparent in these instances, it is exceedingly difficult to extract clear meaning parameters about the nature of this type of change’.[v]
Following his literature review, van Tonder settled on the following definition of transformation:
… a type of change that is not only comprehensive in its scope and severity but likely to unfold quite rapidly to a point where its impact on the organisation will be irreversible and evident in a total state change i.e. the organisation’s character, form and appearance will display this discontinuity with the pre-transformation state of the organisation.[vi]
Reflecting van Tonder’s observations on imprecise definitions, the Australian Defence Glossary provides 22 references to transformation, including transformation: centres; representatives; command; logistics; processing, exploitation and dissemination; voltage; serious games; escalation/de-escalation; encryption; polymerisation; reform; mobilisation; preparedness; capability; climate; cryptography; digital signature; mission data; and, resilience.[vii] None of these 22 references, however, describe people, leadership or organisations.
Fortunately, the Australian Army’s Land Warfare Doctrine 1: The Fundamentals of Land Power, more precisely, defines ‘land power’ as:
The ability to project force in and from land in peace, crisis and war to achieve strategic and operational objectives.[viii]
Combining van Tonder’s and the Land Warfare Doctrine 1’s definitions, it is possible to define transforming land power for the Australian Army as:
Comprehensively changing the Australian Army’s ability, in scope, range and speed, to project force in and from land in peace, crisis and war to achieve strategic and tactical objectives, through operational art, to a point where change in the Australian Army becomes irreversible and evident in total force effectiveness. In other words, the Australian Army’s character, form and appearance display a discontinuity with the pre-transformation state of the Army.
Based on this definition, it is self-evident that transforming land power is a serious business.
An Australian Army approach to transforming land power: eight stages for successful transformation
The Australian Army consists, broadly, of three capabilities available for employment:
- Combined arms manoeuvre forces. Unifying interdependent, collaborative and mutually supporting teams of armour, infantry, aviation, fires, close support forces, such as engineering, communications, uncrewed systems, and logistics.
- Amphibious forces. Specialised units which - mission and task dependent - join with combined arms manoeuvre forces and Special Forces.
- Special Forces. Specialised units which - mission and task dependent - join with amphibious forces and combined arms manoeuvre forces.
Changes in policy and strategy inevitably require changes in operational art and tactics. For example, Australian government policy decisions may, in the future, change Australian strategic objectives. In turn, changed strategic objectives may require the transformation of land power to include changes to the three capabilities available for employment within the Australian Army.
Such a development could mean that the Army’s ‘character, form and appearance [may] display a discontinuity with the pre-transformation state of the Army’.[ix] This process of change - connecting policy, strategy, operational art and tactics - could be achieved within the conceptual framework outlined in Kotter’s eight stages of transformation. Specifically:
- Establishing a sense of urgency. Significant numbers of influential leaders throughout the organisation must see the need for change and then ‘cooperate aggressively’ to achieve change.[x] These leaders must understand that ‘business-as-usual is totally unacceptable’.[xi]
This need for change may derive from the urgency of an impending or actual conflict or crisis. Alternatively, change may result from internal or external organisational pressures, including budgetary changes, capability success or failure, or recruiting / retention challenges. According to Kotter’s observations, ‘well over 50 per cent of companies fail in this first phase’.[xii]
- Forming a powerful guiding coalition. Leaders must create a shared commitment, or ‘minimum mass’ to enable renewal.[xiii] Key leaders form the core of a coalition for change representing a mix of ‘titles, information and expertise, reputations and relationships’.[xiv] To enable transformation, these leaders may need to operate ‘outside formal boundaries, expectations, and protocol’.[xv]
- Creating a vision. In failed transformations, Kotter ‘often finds plenty of plans and directives and programs, but no clear and compelling vision’.[xvi] For success, a vision requires a ‘picture of the future that is relatively easy to communicate and appeals to government, stakeholders, and employees’.[xvii] Without a ‘sensible vision, a transformation effort can easily dissolve into a list of confusing and incompatible projects that can take the organisation in the wrong direction or nowhere at all’.[xviii]
- Communicating the vision. Responding to a sense of urgency requires maximum employment of fast communications.[xix] Leaders must be able to communicate their vision in three minutes or less, while evoking a reaction from stakeholders indicating both understanding and interest.[xx] Leaders who ‘communicate well incorporate messages into their hour-by-hour activities’.[xxi] In Kotter’s view, ‘transformation is impossible unless hundreds or thousands of people are willing to help, often to the point of making short-term sacrifices.
Employees will not make sacrifices, even if they are unhappy with the status quo, unless they believe that useful change is possible’.[xxii]
- Empowering others to act on the vision. Obstacles to transformation, requiring momentum, power, or time to overcome. Such obstacles may include:
- Rigid organisational structures blocking the unconventional ideas that are called for in the vision.
- Narrow or specialised job categories that undermine efforts to increase productivity.
- Changes in compensation or performance-appraisal systems that require people to choose between the new vision and their own self-interest.
- Leaders who refuse to change.[xxiii]
Empowering others to act on a vision includes crossing organisational boundaries to unify disruptive and diverse thinkers; expanding people’s employment experience within and beyond Defence; and, nurturing creative thinking, when and where it is found, in our workforce.
- Planning for and creating short-term wins. Leaders ‘often complain about being forced to produce short-term wins’, but Kotter observes ‘that pressure can be a useful element in a change effort’.[xxiv] Kotter argues that short-term wins in successful transformation involved leaders ‘actively looking for ways to obtain clear performance improvements, establish[ing] goals in the yearly planning system, achiev[ing] the objectives, and reward[ing] the people involved with recognition, promotions, and even money’. [xxv]
- Consolidating improvements and producing still more change. Kotter emphasises that ‘until changes sink deeply into an organisation’s culture, a process that can take five to ten years, new approaches are fragile and subject to regression’.[xxvi] The protracted time periods involved in achieving transformation is supported by the late-Professor Jeffrey Grey who first articulated the idea of Australian Army ‘generations’. Grey argued that each Army generation – 1901-1939 (1st), 1939-1945 (2nd), 1946-1999 (3rd), 1999-early 2020s (4th) – has built and culminated in conflict, then entered periods of peace, before transforming to the next generation.[xxvii] It is arguable that, due to contemporary changes in the strategic environment and associated revised strategic thinking, the fourth-generation Australian Army of today will gradually transform to become the fifth-generation Army.[xxviii]
Kotter notes that ‘a combination of change initiators and change resistors [usually] create premature transformation victory celebrations’. Change initiators seek success to justify their transformative actions. Resistors, who are quick to spot any opportunity to stop change, support the enthusiastic declaration of success by change initiators. In turn, ‘weary employees allow themselves to be convinced’ that transformation has occurred.[xxix]
- Institutionalising new approaches. Enabled by a communicated vision, transformed land power seeks to build upon success and to learn from failure in order to realise change. Importantly, leaders must show people that new behaviours and approaches to transforming land power effectively employ Defence resources while improving Army’s performance.[xxx]
Employing John P. Kotter’s eight stages of transformation, this paper has examined how the Australian Army may approach transforming land power.
Transforming land power is a serious business, especially when it involves comprehensively changing the Australian Army’s ability, in scope, range and speed, to project force in and from land in peace, crisis and war to achieve strategic and tactical objectives, through operational art. In turn, successful transformation creates irreversible and evident change in the total force’s effectiveness. In other words, once transformed the Australian Army’s character, form and appearance will display a discontinuity with the pre-transformation state of the Army.
Importantly, as Kotter forewarns, transformation is difficult, ‘perhaps because we [all] have relatively little experience in renewing organisations, [which means] even very capable people often make at least one big [transformation] error’.[xxxi] Ultimately, overcoming obstacles to change requires the steadfast commitment of Army’s leaders and a clear vision of Australia’s strategic requirements for our future force.
This article is a commended entry in the 2022 AARC Short Writing Competition, 'Transforming Land Power'.
[i] John P. Kotter, Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail, Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Publishing, Boston, Massachusetts, May-June 1995 https://hbr.org/1995/05/leading-change-why-transformation-efforts-fail-2 [accessed 13 May 2022]
[iv] CL Van Tonder, “Organisational Transformation”, Wavering on the Edge of Ambiguity, South African Journal of Industrial Psychology, 2004, 30 (3), p. 54
[v] CL Van Tonder, Ibid.
[vi] CL Van Tonder, Ibid.
[viii] Australian Army, Land Warfare Doctrine 1, The Fundamentals of Land Power, Canberra, 2017, p. 48
[ix] CL Van Tonder, Op Cit.
[xxvii] Chris Field, The Fifth-Generation Australian Army—Leadership and Ethics in 2040, Australian Army Research Centre, Australian Army Occasional Paper No. 10, Commonwealth of Australia, 2021, pp. 5-6
[xxviii] Chris Field, Ibid.
The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.
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