Understanding culture inside Pentagon key to DoD success

You’ve probably heard thousands of times in government that you and your colleagues should be thinking “outside the box.” That’s fine – if you know what box you’re supposed to be thinking outside of, and what’s in the box that shouldn’t be included in your thinking.

The Pentagon’s “box” is understandably large and complex, and the idea that you should know what’s in “the box” – understand the process and bureaucracy you have to deal with – inspired Hugh Montgomery to write Bureaucratic Nirvana: Life in the Center of the Box. Mr. Montgomery was my guest as part of my “Pentagon Solutions” series for the first hour of the show today.

His book is a primer, written as a guide to demonstrate how things get done in the Defense Department. He told me today that he designed the book so that a reader can pick it up at any point, get needed information, and move on, instead of being required to sit down and read it cover-to-cover to put it to use.

One critical element of getting things done inside the Pentagon, Mr. Montgomery told me, is understanding the interpersonal dynamic at play inside DoD. “The mix of cultures is what defines a bureaucracy. You have multiple decision-makers of equal power, coming from different places, that have to come to an agreement. The system is fiercely neutral, but that neutrality comes at a price. You have to get agreement from a lot of people, and usually the more people you have to get agreement from, the tougher the decision becomes.”


Those people come to the table from three distinct – and very different – cultures. Those cultures are “the appointees, the military, and the career civilians. All three are talented; you don’t find a difference in talent. You don’t find a difference in dedication. Everybody’s doing their best. But what their best is, is usually from the perspective they’re coming from. What’s good for you may not be good for me.”

Mr. Montgomery detailed his observations of the three different cultures, and offered some very useful insights for how the three cultures can understand each other, and get along better. You can hear my entire conversation with Mr. Montgomery by clicking on the audio link.