US Army Colonel Randy Chase spent 10 days on a navy ship for cross-training.  On his second day, he ran out of toothpaste so went over to the ship's store to buy another tube.  The stores on navy ships aren't as big as your typical suburban supermarket (only two people can fit in the store at a time), so he had to wait in a short line to get in.  While he was waiting, he struck up a conversation with the enlisted man in front of him who looked at him and walked away.  Almost immediately, a navy lieutenant appeared and asked "Sir.  What are you doing?"

What had he done wrong?

Randy had done two things wrong.  1) Officers don't talk to enlisted men on ships except to convey orders.  2) Officers don't wait in lines.

The lieutenant moved the colonel into the store.

True.  True.  This incident took place in the last century.  But the cultural differences between the services are still there.  As Boris Groysberg, Andrew Hill, and Toby Johnson describe in "Which of These People Is Your Future CEO?" in the November 2010 Harvard Business Review, the Navy and Air Force are strong on process and light on flexibility, while the Army and Marines are lighter on process and stronger on flexibility.  They argue these differences stem from the toys the different services play with.  A small mistake on a ship can have devastating impact, as can not reacting to a changing situation in ground warfare.

There are some deep-seeded cultural differences in organizations that have their roots in the context in which those organizations operate.  It's important for people joining organizations to understand what drives behaviors and attitudes before trying to fight them or change them.

Got any examples of when you or someone else has done this well?

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