Commentary by Lt. Col. Robert Pavelko
21st Space Operations Squadron commander
How often does someone perform an action differently depending on whom is present — leadership, an inspector, crew or teammate? Call it the military’s version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
As a refresher, Werner Heisenberg’s quantum physics theory from 1927 stated the more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely the momentum of the particle is known at that particular instant and vice versa. By intruding into the experiment in order to determine the precise position of an object, the momentum of the object will be disturbed. Conversely, if one disturbs the experiment in order to determine the momentum of an object, one will alter the position. Any attempt to increase the precision of one measurement will result in a less precise measurement of the other. Simply put, by observing the experiment, the researcher is inextricably altering the events unfolding — the observer is now part of the observed system.
Does Heisenberg affect us today? How often have you witnessed, or been a part of an action performed differently while leadership is present than performed when leadership was absent? Would the same be said for performing actions for an inspection team? Many reading this article answered no, there was no difference depending on who was present or absent; all our actions were the same. And a few probably answered yes, I have noticed a difference in actions depending on who was present.
Every day we are presented countless opportunities to perform or not perform an action. Simple deeds such as picking up a piece of trash on the way to entering the building or crossing at a cross walk in order not to hold up traffic unsafely. We’re presented with opportunities to follow instructions, technical data and orders. Simple occasions allow one to “do the right thing,” but how many times are our actions different than had someone been observing the behavior?
A squadron commander once relayed at his commander’s call an admonition for each of us to carry around three quarters in our pocket in order to make a phone call (this was before cell phones were everywhere!). He requested each of us make a few phone calls for advice before undertaking debatable behavior. The first phone call was to go to our immediate supervisor, the second to our mother and finally our third and last quarter be used to phone him. His proposal was if by the end of all phone calls, our three mentors agreed the proposed activity was acceptable, then certainly we could pursue it with vigor. Undoubtedly, if the proposed action was of a questionable nature, then one would point out why it was a bad idea. By engaging each of these advisors via the phone, our squadron commander was suggesting an infusion of outside observation, undoubtedly altering potential actions with negative outcomes from occurring. I suggest it was Heisenberg’s theory on display — outside observation affecting the result.
Simply picking up a piece of litter on the way into work from the parking lot certainly improves the appearance of the base, but if performed by each of us it would save resources by unburdening the requirement for a large scale, base-wide “trash walk” saving time, money and personnel better dedicated to performing their primary mission. Although not required, would you pick up the garbage or simply pass it by while walking into work? What if your commander was watching? Again, Heisenberg’s theory.
Our training focuses on checklist discipline; an operations mindset is mindful of notes, warnings and cautions. An advisory is listed in order to prevent damage to the equipment, or worse, injury to personnel. An inattentive crew member can overlook these items; a purposefully negligent crew member is inviting difficulty by ignoring the steps. Would the negligent member perform those same actions differently with leadership or inspectors present? Does observation change those actions?
I suggest Heisenberg’s theory has no place in our military. What allows, or persuades, someone to ignore instructions, technical data or orders? It is complacency and over confidence — substituting individual judgment for technical orders and the chain of command. Where does it stop? Does it stop? Your actions either interrupt poor choices or condone those options. As wingmen, we must interject ourselves into others’ decision loops to prevent poor judgment. As Airmen with integrity and discipline, our actions should be the same regardless of observation — your wingman demands it, your crew demands it and your nation demands it.