Embed "Stand Down and Bubble Up" Into Your Culture Now So You'll Be Ready Later
Derek Cabrera, PhD
Derek Cabrera (PhD, Cornell) is an internationally known systems scientist and serves on the faculty of Cornell University where he teaches systems thinking, systems leadership, and systems mapping and is Program Director for the Graduate Certification Program in Systems Thinking, Modeling, and Leadership (STML). He is a senior scientist at Cabrera Research Lab. He’s authored 8 books including, Systems Thinking Made Simple and Flock Not Clock.
More posts by Derek Cabrera, PhD
Recently, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III ordered a "DOD-wide stand down to discuss the problem of extremism in the ranks (1)." But what is a stand down order?
Generally speaking, the term stand down means to "relax after being ready or alert" as in "no further action was required and all units stood down (2)." But a stand down order of this ilk is slightly different. It's not a stand down of military operations but something akin to a stand down in organizational culture. And that, is what I thought I'd blog about today...
It's a fascinating concept and one that could be quite useful to business and organizational leaders of all kinds. Let's look at how it happened and then look at what it means and how it could be used in your organization.
After the January 6 Riot on the Capitol, it became clear that a fair number of the insurgents who attacked the Capitol were military or ex-military personnel. Concerned with this trend in extremism and radicalization in the ranks of the US Military, military leadership issued a stand down order. From a systems thinking perspective, this looks like feedback being received from reality, a concept manifested in the Systems Thinking Loop shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1: The Systems Thinking Loop (ST Loop).
Military leadership, having received feedback from the real world system, realizes that the collective mental model may have built into it some degree (even if a small percentage) of extremist or radicalized ideas. In many cases such as these, we see folks wanting to immediately react to the situation, to change it, stamp it out, or otherwise counteract it. But the stand down order is something different. It has a different flavor. It says, rather than solve this problem before we understand it, let's stand down or "relax" and take some time to chat about it and understand the system before we start problem solving. We preach this quite a bit to our graduate students at Cornell University: rather than diving prematurely and headlong into solving the problem, first, seek to understand the system, and you may find that you need to solve an entirely different kind of problem.
The "stand down" idea is that military leaders throughout the rank and file should take some time to reflect, to discuss, and to learn about what is going on. It is, in this context, an organization-wide, casual but serious, conversation about culture. Dr. Hise Gibson, Army Colonel and Academy Professor at West Point, explains it this way, "A stand down order equates to a deliberate pause in operations. It allows the organization to reflect, learn and reset (3)." It's a fantastic cultural cue that should be purposefully embedded in every organizational culture that can be pulled out and utilized in times when something global and serious about the culture must be considered. At its core, it gets at shared mental models, but at the ground level, it gives people the space to discuss and share their individual mental models and how they roll up to shape culture.
But a stand down order is not enough. There also needs to be a "bubble up" directive. This is a technique used by Ritz-Carlton, one of the world’s most recognized luxury hotel chains, with 90 hotels and resorts around the world. At 9:00am every morning, Ritz-Carlton employees (referred to as “ladies and gentlemen”) meet for their 15-minute Daily Line-Up. All employees, irrespective of position, meet to discuss their wins and losses, and to share their own stories (4). The best of these "wow" stories, in turn, "bubble up" or "rise to the top" where the very best stories of customer service are made available through their intranet (internal website) and video productions. Some even become organization-wide policies or practices. This bottom-up learning influences the entire organization—that’s organizational learning in practice.
It should be obvious that the best stories need not always be positive. What bubbles up to the top could also be innovative ideas or solutions, wicked problems, or just detailed on-the-ground anecdotal accounts of learning moments.
What does a Stand Down-Bubble Up Order entail?
Stand Down: Chill. Relax. We don't have to solve this problem today but we do have to understand it asap, because its a potentially big problem. Have conversations and try to figure out what's going on. Get together in small groups and talk...and listen.
Bubble Up: We want the best ideas to rise to the top so we can use them to understand the system and fix the problem. Let us know if you have any novel ideas, if you discover wicked problems or roadblocks, or if you just a have a good anecdotal story to tell.
Let's work together to understand what's going on and then solve this once and for all!
Embedding positive cultural dog whistles like "stand down and bubble up" into your cultural norms before a dilemma occurs, makes it possible to easily call upon them when faced with trouble or opportunity.
As part of your VMCL and culture building work, be sure to build in stand downs and bubble ups as a useful tool to increase the effectiveness and adaptability of your organization.
1. Austin Orders Military Stand Down to Address Challenge of Extremism in the Ranks. [cited 4 Feb 2021]. Available: https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2492530/austin-orders-military-stand-down-to-address-challenge-of-extremism-in-the-ranks/
2. Stand Down. Lexico Dictionaries; [cited 4 Feb 2021]. Available: https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/stand_down
3. Personal Communication, 2020.
4. Cabrera D, Cabrera L. Flock Not Clock: Design, Align, and Lead to Achieve Your Vision. Plectica Publications; 2018.