Staff Functions

Defence Writing – where ideas and motivation go to die?

By Aaron Thomas August 4, 2020


The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is making significant strides towards becoming more agile, adaptive and capable of making full use of the technology that is available through various projects and programmes. Parliament quite rightly requires Defence to appropriately account for fiscal requirements, and so the ADF modernises; utilising modern project approaches such as agile project/programme management.

This process of modernisation screeches to an abrupt halt when it comes to unit administration; we find soldiers having minutes red-penned more times than necessary, whether it is just to utilise their own vehicle to travel to course, or if it is a Corporal, Sergeant, Warrant or junior officer attempting to voice their opinion to ‘the enterprise’ that is Defence. It is at this point that ideas disappear, along with the motivation to submit them. Is there really a need to review a document for the umpteenth time as we gradually escalate our thoughts from Platoon Headquarters (PHQ), to the sub-unit, eventually to the Commanding Officer (CO) or relevant person at Battalion HQ (BHQ)?

It’s important to note, that often our end users (soldiers and equivalent) are hired by Defence as people that perform tasks and are taught to learn quickly. While writing ability comes with age, exposure and experience, it is important to realise that this is not the purpose for which Defence brought them into the fold. Furthermore, their ability to perform tasks makes this group Subject Matter Experts on defence materiel, cultural practices and more. This means that their ideas are often valid at higher levels of Defence and arguably crucial to effective risk management and training design.

Our military leaders are encouraging collaboration and steering soldiers towards having an intellectual edge[1], inviting soldiers to provide input into ideas and creating communities of practice which enable this. Further encouragement from Defence leadership, such as the development of a future ready training system, refer to pillars of agility, simplicity, and capacity[2]. At the enterprise level, applications which encourage collaboration such as Microsoft Teams are slowly starting to be utilised, particularly at the higher levels of Defence.

This article does not contend that Defence Writing and its associated standards do not apply in the modern military environment. The Defence Writing Manual is incredibly useful in gathering ideas into a logical sequence for a decision brief as well as for more formal writing purposes, such as inviting dignitaries to attend a military event. However, these are not mechanisms that are expected of our end user at platoon level; yet we utilise Defence Writing as a PME activity year after year, to expand our soldiers’ ability to write.

Arguably, when we assess the ability to write, the author is expected to utilise preferred words likely to attract the attention of higher authorities, or are required to redesign their thoughts based on their own higher commander's thought process, just to enable clearance. At times, this may dilute the original idea or deflate the author, as their primary concern is not the verbiage but rather that the message is delivered to the intended audience and in a timely manner. Achieving this outcome would increase the feeling of soldiers having a voice - or ‘skin in the game’ - which would surely act as a retention benefit to Defence.

Could it be that we have reached a point where an idea, no matter how long, could simply be emailed through to the intended audience, through the appropriate chain of command via use of the Forward option? This allows similar functionality as a cover sheet which provides an email chain with support (or not) for the author and a BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front) prior to arriving at the intended destination with the respective Commander's recommendation? Arguably, this reinforces that the message content is what military leadership is after and would also decrease the time it takes to deliver the message. This in turn, allows the author to submit the message rapidly and then get back to the business of the day; providing capability.

If Defence, and Army in particular, is to achieve successful transformation in its training system, it needs to demonstrate to the end user what this looks like (how do we apply agile principles to a traditional hierarchical organisation) as an approach to reducing change friction, a common element in successful change management. Would revising the purpose of the Defence Writing Manual, which was designed largely with pre-email communication methods in mind, and providing guidance to the military bureaucracy as to the focus of messages from the end user, result in an increase of ideas and stimulate further innovation?

 

End notes

[1] COMD FORCOMD DIRECTIVE 17/20 DEVELOPING THE MILITARY PROFESSIONAL IN AN ERA OF ACCELERATED WARFARE: THE FORCES COMMAND PME PLAN 2020-2025

[2] https://cove.army.gov.au/article/time-the-future-ready-training-system; The Future Ready Training System: Transformation Program Strategy, March 2020


Portrait

Biography

Aaron Thomas

Sergeant Aaron Thomas joined the fulltime-Army in 2006 and transitioned to Reserves in 2017 with RACT and is currently posted to Army School of Transport on Service Option C. He has recently been accepted under the ASWOC Scheme to commission to Lieutenant WEF 2021. Aaron holds a Masters in Business and a Masters in Project Management and is currently studying a Masters in Leadership.

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



Comments

Apologies for the lengthy response, but this article raises issues that have bothered me for years. I agree that emails can and should be used as fast track communication. However, they are written not spoken documents and are on the permanent record. Consequently, considerations for effective written communication standards still apply. Emails may be more informal than minutes but they still need to express appropriate tone, be logically sequenced and be proofread for typos. I also agree that we should reconsider the purpose of the "ADF Writing Manual" (WM). Every organisation needs a style guide to clarify and standardise writing conventions. The WM draws on the government "Style manual" and so clarifies standard Australian English writing conventions. As language constantly changes, the WM should be regularly updated for accuracy and clarity. The current version is vague and contradictory in places and some guidance is outdated or incorrect. Yet even as an accurate and updated guide, the problem is not the WM itself, but how it is used. The WM clarifies 'effective' communication. However, military personnel tend to use it as a set of rules for 'correct' communication. We therefore have an obsessive fixation with secretarial errors: formatting, spelling, punctuation and grammar. The problem is compounded by inaccurate guidance in the WM or poorly understood conventions. Consequently, we tend to over-correct such as correcting errors that don’t exist or imposing poorly-remembered writing preferences from a minute-writing lesson of several years ago. While secretarial elements are critical for readability and authority, they are not the sum total of effective writing. Authorial elements such as purpose, audience and meaning-making are far more significant for effective communication. How do we organise content in a logical fashion? What word choices do we make to communicate our ideas concisely and clearly? Who is our audience? What are their needs and expectations? These are the questions we need to be asking to produce a well-written email, minute or brief. Instead of focusing on typos, we need to consider how effectively the document expresses its purpose, how appropriate the language is for the intended audience and how successfully it constructs meaning. The WM should therefore be an agile document that we dip into for guidance on structuring our writing for different purposes. It should also provide useful guidance on capitalisation, punctuation and spelling conventions. BUT… it is not a list of rules that are carved in stone. Treating it as such inhibits, rather than encourages, communication.

Note the importance of formatting for readability: the submission above was posted with paragraph breaks but they have not been captured in the comment field.

G'day Linda, our apologies. The system automatically removes the paragraph structure for comments and there is no manual over-ride. This is something we are looking to fix in our next upgrade.

As someone who has not worn a uniform for 10 years, I am still happy to credit the Army with teaching me to write, however, I suspect that I have forgotten how to format a Defence minute, a demi-official letter and the numerous other forms of written communication that I learned over 30 years. Despite this loss of skill, I still think that I can write well, so it's the writing not the formatting that is the primary skill. During a promotion course I had to write on a particular topic and I thought that I had nailed it with some incisive rationality and eloquent prose, only to find that I had misunderstood the format and had to resubmit. Don Watson and Steven Pinker, both writers of note, provide examples where imperfect grammar is not only acceptable, but necessary, to convey the right message in the writing. I could almost guarantee that Pinker, a Canadian, would not know what a Defence Minute was, but he is still a great writer. Function should flourish over form:)

In the role of devil’s advocate, I give counter-argument. As one currently serving US Four-Star General says; ‘We have to be precise in our language.’ While the nuances of the ADFWM and standard professional writing conventions can be relaxed when dealing with the common operating picture of a unit or staff section, the readers of defence documents do not have that luxury. If we admit that we should be training for how we fight, then consider the production of written orders. How many times have you been subject to a poorly drafted order from a higher headquarters? The Army’s command philosophy of mission command is enabled by the clear understanding of the commander’s intent. Frequently this requires the production of written orders. If the orders produced by Army, or JOC, or a DJFHQ are unclear, with incorrect grammar, Adhoc formatting, and poor spelling this potentially inhibits the ability of subordinate commanders and staff to do their jobs. The question a lot of division 3’s ask is ‘will this order make sense to the assistant brigade operations officer who has no background knowledge of the task.’ We can enable this understanding through the application of the principles and concepts of the ADFWM. If the written product is not easy to understand (think how many senior commander’s have specific formats they want for their briefings to aid their intake of information), contains typos (undermining confidence in the work), or contains grammatical errors (potential clouding the message) is military writing doing its job? This is further compounded by Australia’s regional focus when dealing with combined forces consisting of nations whom English is not their first language. The reality of the current force is very few people, both enlisted and commissioned, are employed as commanders; the bulk are in staff or supporting roles. If we genuinely believe that we should train as we fight, the adherence to the staffing principles critiqued above is one way we can enhance the conditions for operational success by being precise in our written communications. As stated at the beginning, this is presented as a counterpoint.

To help the reader I have inserted // at the end of every paragraph.// Defence Writing is the enemy of agility and adaptability. Re-write the Defence Writing Manual as much as you like, but the written communication challenge is more behavioural than doctrinal.// As with so many other Army activities, codifying Defence Writing results in the process becoming more important than the purpose.// If military writing was only about getting the message across, level, tone and style, format, spelling, punctuation and grammar would count for little – or would at least be subordinate to the outcome sought. But the military mind loves order and consistency and uniformity.// In practice, military writing is venerated as an act of presentation – supplication even – rather than as simply communicating for a purpose. This leads to writers massaging the same words to fit prescribed formats, as though the words are meaningless unless uttered within the correct liturgy. It also leads to endless re-working of drafts in order to satisfy personal preferences, chain of command dynamics, mood swings and career prospects.// To bring a sense of purpose to the fore in the teaching and practice of military writing it’s not just about the manual. Deep-seated behaviours have to change as well. What sub-unit commander is going to forward a soldier’s unvarnished thought or suggestion to the CO? Which CO would on-forward the document to the formation commander? How many staff officers are likely to submit a junior officer’s take on an issue – having tasked them to write it in the first place – without substantial correction, watering-down here and beefing up there and – most importantly – reading the mind of the one or two-star decision-maker?// On the other side of the argument, there is the undeniable reality that the Two or Three-Star doesn’t have the capacity to read everything that anyone is motivated to write. But once you introduce a filter you confound the original reason for writing. How many ‘not supporteds’ would any superior bother to read?// When reputations are at stake in any process, including military writing, purpose becomes subordinate to process and style trumps substance. Unless the Writing Manual becomes a Behavioural Manual, it will ever be thus.

No one should have to fight to understand a document, and it is good to see this topic getting attention. Good writing is more than correct spelling, grammar and format. These are important, but content is more important. Good content means a well-defined purpose, relevant messages and a strong call to action. The ADF Writing Manual covers these points, but they are buried in a 350 page document (the manual contains four pages of guidance on how to use a hyphen). There are better resources out there to help improve Defence writing.

While I do appreciate your message and agree that our communication processes need to be streamlined, even this short essay stands as testament for a good old fashion red-penning. In your second paragraph you misspelled 'to' as 'ti'. You also established the acronym 'HQ', to abbreviate 'Platoon Headquarters' (as the word 'platoon' was capitalised), then immediately used that same acronym to refer to what I assume was battalion headquarters, though I can't be sure, as you weren't specific. Given the subject matter, I immediately assumed these minor errors were included as satire - which significantly changes the tone of the essay. I suspected the conclusion would be a double back emphasising the importance of error checks. Upon reaching the conclusion I realised the mistakes must have been genuine and unintentional. So, I hope you can see that even trivial errors can dramatically shift a readers interpretation of the authors intent.

Hi Jade, thanks for pointing out that typo. Even the editors at The Cove can miss minor errors. We have fixed it up now.

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