BrAIN Story: Chapter 1

7-10 min read

Where It All Began: RUSI Land Warfare Conference 2016

Some of you probably aren’t aware that the BrAIN story was started by a question.

I’ve never really been a history buff.  I understand it’s importance but I’ve always been more naturally drawn to considering the now and the near future. Figuring out how to counter an enemy that operates in decentralised networks and moves in the cities is much more interesting to me than trench warfare or cavalry charges.

Anyway, when I saw a conference with the theme “The Importance of Adaptability” I thought that was more my bag and I signed up for a ticket to the RUSI Land Warfare Conference in June 2016.

Having only just gained my second pip (promoted to Lieutenant) I was extremely nervous when I walked in to Church House Conference Centre in London and was caught in a sea of gold braiding (lots of senior officers). It was one of those events where you desperately walk round trying not to make eye contact until you find the collection of juniors who have huddled together somewhere out of the way. Thankfully the ETS (Educational and Training Services) had a good presence at that event so it wasn’t long before I found the life raft and held on.

By the end of the first day my brain ached quite a lot. Having sat in the rafters I had struggled to hear some of what was said and I had been straining my neck to try and see the projector screen. The content had been interesting but the sessions were long and my brain was flooded.

Day 2 came; again I clung to the life raft and we made our way upstairs to the balcony seats.  But I was getting annoyed at not really being able to hear anything and one of the sessions I was most looking forward to was next, so in the coffee break I decided I was going to be brave and go sit downstairs among the gold braid. Luckily I convinced a friend to jump from the life raft too so I wasn’t totally alone!

The panel was called “Confronting the Challenge” and the description was:

“Innovative approaches to confronting the challenges of uncertain threats and constrained resources, from ‘the generation that matters’ – that which will command the British Army of the future, yet under design today”.

Even now I still feel excited/nervous reading that.

There is a link to the recording of the actual panel at the end of this article but for those who don’t want to watch it, the key themes were:

  • Apparent tension between the idea of efficiency and adaptability and the role of leaders in working through that tension.
  • The challenge of maximising the talent and realising the potential of our people.
  • Our opportunities for embedding the concept of adaptability into the Army through developing a learning culture.
  • The concept of adaptive training – preparing to face the unknown.

Fundamentally to sum it up in a single quote from the talk I would probably choose “People make the Army adaptable, not equipment or processes” – Lt Col Nick English, RUSI LWC 16.

It’s fair to say this talk got me riled up. As it progressed I could feel myself getting nervous – you know that feeling before a sports game or presentation where you get quite hot, feel sick, need a wee and need some water all at the same time?! I then realised “Oh god I’m going to ask a question”.

I had a rough idea of what I wanted to say – these were the scribblings from my little RUSI notebook (free notebooks are the best).

I include this photo because I think it shows how much adrenaline was going through me at the time – my writing is noticeably different from this session compared to the writing from the next one.

I knew I needed to stand up and say something and I knew that, although there were other hands up in the room, if I was brave enough to put mine up then I would be picked. 

Sure enough Maj Gen Bob Bruce smiled, nodded and indicated that I would be next. As the microphone got passed down I thought “What are you doing? You don’t even know what you’re going to say. You’ve written jibberish. You can’t even read it. Give that microphone back or just pass it to the guy behind you. Oh shit they’re looking at me. What’s my name again?”

“Lieutenant Kirsty Skinner, ETS…”

I still have no firm idea what I specifically said that day. They didn’t record the Q+A as it was off the record.  I have spent a lot of time trying to remember and a number of people have recounted this story from their perspective so below is a rough idea of what I think I probably said:

“It’s really reassuring as a Lieutenant to hear people talking about these themes. At risk of my own failure (by standing up and asking this question to this audience) I have felt that rank can sometimes be a barrier. We forget that we are individuals with previous experiences and ideas and we are often passionate for change. We have all chosen to serve in the military but that doesn’t mean we are the same. How can units harness the passion people bring in to the Army? Also I know that the panel were referred to as Junior Officers but as one of the very few Lieutenants in the room I see you as being quite senior. Many consider Captains as a junior officer and we seem to be losing a number of really talented people at that rank. Although the initiatives you mention are great, they are only available at Maj and above; how can we encourage more junior officers to stay? Or how can we as junior officers make ourselves heard if we have ideas?”

Queue a good 30 seconds of glances between the panel members as to who was going to respond first. To be honest I can’t remember most of the answers I was given that day, but 1 comment did really stick with me:

“Well I wouldn’t shout too much louder to be heard. I would advise going through your Chain of Command”.

WHAT?!

You’ve literally just spent 40 minutes talking about harnessing talent and listening to people and encouraging diversity of thought and bottom up innovation and you give me that.

I felt like an idiot. I was now fully expecting a proper bollocking and I was embarrassed that I had felt it was ok to ask such a question if apparently I should just shut up and go through my Chain of Command. Not only was I then worrying about being told off, I was worrying that I had embarrassed the ETS and that my friends from the life raft would be laughing at me upstairs.

I had a number of interesting conversations when that session ended, both with military personnel and civilians. Some people just wanted to say well done for asking a question, some wanted to sell their books, some wanted to tell me the Army is changing but a couple were suggesting that the Army will never listen and I should take my “talent” elsewhere.

I couldn’t help but think wow if that’s coming from military people more senior to me then maybe I should actually leave. Isn’t it a shame though that people feel they need to leave an organisation because they don’t feel listened to or appreciated. That isn’t right. People should never leave an organisation because they feel that way. That’s not a fault in the system itself, it’s a fault in the human beings that make up that system. Organisations are living ecosystems that are created and maintained by the people within them. We are the organisation. 

And if you view the organisation in that way then it can be changed. I just needed to find the other people who want it to change.

And so began my search…

Reflections:

  • Choose your seating at events carefully. Have you chosen a seat where you allow yourself to be engaged? Can you see and hear what’s going on? If you’re straining the entire time you’re much less likely to feel engaged, even if the talk is interesting.
  • Sitting with friends is nice but will you feel under pressure to act disinterested in the event if they don’t care about it? Will you feel brave enough to ask that question in your mind if you’re sat with friends playing on their phones?
  • Attending conferences like RUSI gives you an insight into what senior leaders are thinking. It’s useful to hear their perspectives “from the horses mouth” rather than via your Chain of Command’s interpretation sometimes. Keep an eye on the Defence Intranet homepage, Defence Connect, Downreps or noticeboards to see if there’s something you might like to attend. Put yourself forward, don’t wait to be offered opportunities.

Resources:

You can learn more about RUSI and watch all recordings from the RUSI Land Warfare Conferences on their YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkPv5___jXTEGQ6VE0a1gdA

Here is a link to the specific panel this story refers to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rh017iCMa-A&list=PLFAgO2TZWpwBF9y6ZtBWFPtj65BKLxPWE&index=7

Note: Major General Bob Bruce refers to “Kirsten’s presentation yesterday” – that is NOT me! I’m Kirsty 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s