Think like a civilian

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho — One of the defining characteristics of the military is a standardized way of doing business. It’s part of what makes our deployed mission possible.

However, there’s a downside to standardization — the dreaded “because we’ve always done it this way” excuse rearing its ugly head when innovation knocks. The status quo is too ingrained to change, too big to fail.

I spent some time recently doing freelance jobs for a professional photographer. While the extra money is never a bad thing, what I learned proved to be much more valuable. I didn’t realize just how different a civilian photo shoot could be when compared to an Air Force one.

In a typical public affairs office, it’s usually the lower ranking service members going out and doing the bulk of the shooting, while the senior ranking members manage and mentor from the office. Occasionally, an NCO will go on a shoot with the junior airman for training, but not as often as one might hope.

A civilian production company, on the other hand, has the senior-most artists as the primary shooters, while the junior workers make the most efficient use of that person’s time by taking care of everything else.

As I thought about this difference, I saw the wisdom. Capitalism is driven by consumers, and from a consumer standpoint, if you represent a multi-million-dollar company needing photographs for a high-visibility campaign, you usually want the seasoned professional rather than the hotshot fresh out of college.

This doesn’t mean the junior photographers aren’t qualified — quite the opposite. In fact, a truly excellent assistant knows the ins and outs of photography to a degree that allows them to anticipate the senior photographer’s needs and work independently if necessary.

Meanwhile, the photo assistant is knee-deep in the shoot and sees how an experienced photographer approaches a subject. They see the level of attention to detail, learn how to anticipate the changing dynamic of a shoot and ultimately branch out on their own with their own support team. This gives them a head start with experience before they start working on their own.

Now, I realize the way we work in the military isn’t necessarily conducive to this approach. “Excellent but efficient” usually trumps “perfect,” so we send our people out on their own once we feel they’ve met our training requirements. Skill is no substitute for experience though, and vice versa.

I saw this a few months back when I had one of my airmen shoot a group photo. This guy is as talented as they get, and while he had never shot a large group photo before, I figured his understanding of photography would more than make up for his lack of experience.

I should have prepared him better.

His technical training and skill didn’t prepare him for what a real shoot would bring. It really is an art to wrangle a crowd of military members and civilians, find the right angle, be diplomatic with the senior ranking members and still manage to get a properly exposed and properly focused photograph — an art you develop over time, not from a book. 

You need to see it, to experience it. Later, as he explained to me what happened, I felt a pit in my stomach as I realized just how badly I had failed him.

Certainly, we have more latitude in the military to put our junior services members behind the lens more frequently, and those junior members probably prefer the creative freedom, but we can do better to show them how it’s done.

There’s a flipside to this though. WE need to be that seasoned expert, and we can’t become that from simply sitting behind a desk. This requires work and continually honing our craft whether on or off-duty, so we can effectively mentor the next generation. We’re not alone in this either. There are Facebook groups, communities of practice, professional organizations and workshops out there specifically to help service members develop their craft, meet other professionals, develop contacts and become seasoned experts.

A civilian’s very livelihood depends on not just completing their “mission,” but doing so above and beyond what anyone else can do. They don’t usually need an external quality control because their work is tested in the crucible of capitalism, and only the very best can survive. It may not be life-or-death like in the military, but we can certainly learn a lot from this mindset.

This may not apply to all career fields, but I suspect it applies to more career fields than those it doesn’t. I would challenge supervisors and leaders to observe their civilian counterparts to learn how others do the same jobs we do day-in and day-out. Take a look at how we might incorporate the best parts to produce better products and better Airmen.

I ask you this: Would a customer willingly choose your office if there were other options? If not, why? The answer might surprise you.

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