EXCLUSIVE: Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan discusses his style of military management

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Patrick Shanahan, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, says that the current approach to managing operations at the Pentagon is just like the strategies found in private industry.

“I think what’s really great about this job is that I did this for 30 years already,” Shanahan said. “Working at Boeing was like spring training, and we’re now to the big game.”

Shanahan sat down with Government Matters last week during the West 2018 Conference in San Diego, where he was a keynote speaker. The Department of Defense is currently undergoing efforts to reorganize the day-to-day operations of the higher level offices, and reform the acquisition process. Shanahan believes that getting these tasks done requires not only the ability to navigate a bureaucracy, but also knowledge of what makes people tick.

“The big component of this is social science. It’s ‘How do you motivate people?’ or ‘How do you create the collaboration?’” Shanahan told Government Matters. “The first few months have been getting the basics of the place, but in parallel, we’ve been getting the right people and then giving them clear sets of priorities.”

Some of these priorities are improving military readiness, lethality and the ability to respond to emerging threats.

“The triad becomes obsolete, we’re literally modernizing it,” Shanahan said, referring to the findings of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. “[The modernization] is one more of execution than technology.”

As part of the strategy to restructure the acquisition process, the Pentagon is assigning groups of people from different departments to determine how to “buy smarter” — an idea that originated in the private sector.

“We put in place these cross-functional teams, you hear everybody talk about these all the time, but when you actually practice them properly, [and] you get a mix of the right, smart people, you create something magical,” Shanahan said.

Shanahan says that while rewarding, this modernization is the most difficult part of the new management landscape. He emphasized that while the private sector could modernize their business operations quickly, there are numerous and necessary barriers involved in performing this same overhaul in the federal government.

“It’s not something where you can just wave your hand and it happens automatically,” he said.