Small Wars Journal

Disruptive Thinkers: A Response

Ben Kohlmann posted a lengthy reply to his critics at the Disruptive Thinkers blog.  A short excerpt follows.


I don’t know everything – I know very little.  I know I know very little. But I want to know more.  And I’m going to ask the stupid questions and get things wrong (as many of you are referencing now…).  All the while I’m learning, connecting and figuring out a better way. 
This is the genesis of Disruptive Thinking.  It is not an “us vs them” paradigm, pitting one generation against another.  It is understanding the importance of “conceptual blending” and that military personnel may not have the best or only solutions to military problems.  It’s understanding that our civilian peers, not in the government, have been shaping our world in ways we hardly even understand.  How many of us have truly been affected by the economic downturn of the past four years? We’ve had unprecedented increases in resources, so how could we?  We can learn from non-government civilians, as they can from us.  It’s taking that entrepreneurial mindset and applying it within a rigid hierarchy to come up with innovative solutions and real institutional change. 
Categories: disruptive thinkers


Dave Maxwell

Sun, 05/06/2012 - 4:35pm

I received this today and although it applies to teachers, I think it also has application for disruptive thinkers as well as and perhaps more importantly the leaders of disruptive thinkers.

Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments for Teachers
by Alex Tabarrok on May 6, 2012 at 7:03 am in Education, History, Philosophy | Permalink…

Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.


Sun, 05/06/2012 - 10:20pm

In reply to by Move Forward

Very good comments--I enjoyed "Move Fwd"'s response. I'll comment on one sentence..."Tell me how we identify these young disruptive thinkers/executers vs. the average guy who is not as great or a rare 30-something non-techno or athlete world leader in the private sector."

One way you find disruptive thinkers (they don't have to be young, even though they often are) is just to identify those who had the right ideas in a given circumstance, and give them your most important venues to promote their ideas instead of sideline or attack them or attempt to throw them in jail on specious charges (Boyd, Burton, Wyly, Yingling, O.P. Smith, Hackworth, Gayl, and others variously experienced one or more of these tactics). If a candidate innovator knew what to do in the face of severe opposition and they still had the conviction to advocate change--and they were successful in advocating change--consider what they have to say all the more seriously. This is where the Pentagon Establishment is lacking in basic Integrity.

If Gen Patton wins battles, you give him more responsibility even if he is hard to work with. If a Major, LtCol or GS15 has a huge role in intiating devices that save "thousands" and "many more thousands", you invite them to speak at the war colleges, and Command and Staff Colleges, and Service Academies. You say: "how did you know what to do, when all the bright minds in the Pentagon Establishment did not (according to Mr. Gates, at least)?" We don't have to get wrapped around the axle with the term "Disruptive Innovator". Plain ol' "Innovator" or "he/she knew what to do when..." suffices.

Move Forward

Fri, 05/04/2012 - 8:31pm

Please do not take my criticisms the wrong way as LT Kohlmann has been extremely influential in raising these issues. You already see Naval HQ calling for junior leader conferences to hear some of the ideas that younger warfighters think might be valuable. However, ironically, I find that many of his and similar old-timer ideas are critical of Baby Boomer disruptive thinking, beginning with this thought:

<i>First, procurement failures. I once wrote a paper comparing the Joint Strike Fighter and F-22 procurement processes. The latter was a debacle, and at the time I extolled the former. Boy was I wrong. In 2004, the JSF was promised to be delivered in 2010 at $60 million a copy. Now in 2012, we will be lucky to get it in 2018 for $161 million per airframe. Meanwhile, I’m flying jets nearly as old as I am, with literally thousands of more hours than their initial life was planned for.</i>

Years ago, I wrote a paper and sent it to all the PMs of the Armored System Modernization Plan who had planned in the early 90s to make tank-sized everything. Everything heavy was not smart, but neither was Secretary of Defense Cheney’s attempt to kill the V-22 or to stop C-17 production at 120 instead of the more than 210 we have today. We all get it wrong sometimes.

The same article appeared in Armor magazine right after Desert Storm, but of course led nowhere, because many of my ideas were flawed. Stryker was similar to some of those ideas and FCS also would have been in terms of air deployment of armor. The difference? One program executed compromises well, and the other searched for pie-in-the-sky. FCS also had some poor assumptions that excluded security operations and engineers assuming that joint ISR could find all threats, kind of like AirSea Battle thinks it can find hidden military targets.

Ben’s $ analysis is why the business world and MBAs are not a good aspirational model for the military. Selling things often requires, shall we say, exaggeration of competing features resulting in less than truth in advertising. Talented public relations, lobbying, and journalistic spin doctors find ways to compare dissimilar numbers and nonfactuals. Who wants to bet that the $60 million predicted cost (years before such predictions could be realistically made) did not include the engine or R&D expenses while the $161 million value does and includes mandated production slow-downs.

Of course LT Ben and friends might argue that production slow-downs are the F-35’s fault. Is it that, or is it the result of F-22 lessons? Many conveniently overlook that retrofitting features onto F-22 through incremental upgrades (which the F-35 slow-down prevents) will cost an additional at least $9-11 billion.It was originally planned to cost $16 billion which would have added $100 million to each aircraft’s price. And the often quoted $140 million cost of F-22 does not include R&D or the price of TWO costly engines. When R&D and engines are added, the cost is considerably more than twice the $161 million F-35 price. The latter also supports three services and 22 carriers vs one service launching solely from missile-targeted airfields.

LT Ben continues:

<i>20 year procurement timelines with hundreds of billions of dollars in increased lifetime costs (most recent estimate, $1.47 trillion) is no way to go through life when the world changes in mere months and years. Sure, it’s useful (maybe…) against China, but would you Marines in the crowd rather have A-10s and AC-130 gunships or a pristine JSF with maybe a couple weapons providing CAS? What types of conflicts are we more likely to get into over the next few decades?</i>

How long would those AC-130s and A-10s last against current let alone future radar air defense threats? How successful have we been at predicting future conflicts? If you sat down and calculated how much you would spend on cars or houses over the next 50 years and used inflated dollars in the process, would you experience sticker shock? You also never hear from naysayers that three unrelated new fighter starts for three services or upgraded current aircraft would cost considerably more than $1.5 trillion and would field much later or be less survivable than the F-35.

Let’s jump back to the late 1960’s when late model F-4s were costing about $13 million in today’s dollars. Folks are complaining that this new-fangled F-16 and F-15 will cost waaaay too much. Imagine if they had compared the cost of the F-4 to the $30 million F-15 in then dollars and decided to upgrade the F-4. Now jump 30-40 years into the future to OIF/OEF(heck 20 years to Desert Storm) and imagine the bean-counters and disruptive naysayers had kept upgraded F-4s.

Now jump 40 years to today and 80 years to 2050. How do you think upgraded non-stealthy F-16s, Harriers, and F-18C/Ds would fare against J-20s, PakFA, S400/S-500, 2S7, etc in the year 2050? Does anyone really believe a twin-engine stealthy F/A-XX would be cheaper than an F-35 or ready just as soon? How would that help gain the extra 11 carriers and hidden land sites that F-35B brings to the table?… You got it right in part when you talked about senior retirees trying to influence procurement.

I like LT Ben and can’t emphasize how much he reminds me of myself. I watched his video of a panel of junior officers and he (like myself) was the least capable of verbally expressing ideas and showed the most attitude initially before cooling down. In his blog he admits to being an introvert and he clearly writes better than he verbally expresses ideas. When you look at Steve Jobs, the Facebook founder, the early Bill Gates, Ted Turner, and Boyd, you find folks who are not obvious examples of early extroversion, brilliant politically-correct orators and team players. Maybe some traits go with the innovator territory. However, isn’t there a greater need for those who can take current equipment and ideas and make them work?

The idea of crowd-sourcing and groups of disruptive thinkers has been tried. They are called committees and rarely are as successful or innovative unless the group has some requisite expertise in the area they are trying to change…and they are not engineers who in practice are number-crunchers and not leaders. There is a place for innovators and a place for executers.

I hesitate to bring up this reality unexpressed in all the talk of disruptive thinking: the contrast of the Me Generation vs. Baby Boomers. Let’s admit it, boomer kids were overpraised, got plenty of trophies for being average, and want it all now. Tell me how we identify these young disruptive thinkers/executers vs. the average guy who is not as great or a rare 30-something non-techno or athlete world leader in the private sector.

After all, the Greatest Generation that parented the baby boomers had to walk 20 miles to school in the snow and many of them were only average. The Baby Boomers might have biked to school that was 2 miles away, but many of us turned out average as executers even if we excel at innovation. Which talent does the military need more? The Me Generation had a car and drove to school while talking on their cell phones. However, I’m confident that ample average specimens exist in your ranks as illustrated by Occupy Wall Street…and they want it all now without ever having a job or doing what you guys put up with in two wars.

Most of you Generation Xer servicemembers are combat-tested (like many Vietnam vets), but that does not mean you are qualified to become immediate Generals. Near as I can see, plenty of Baby Boomer generals and colonels had as much or more time in combat as Xer leaders. Younger guys may have the personality to win elections…as even smooth talking community organizers have proven. You can go to combat, see your small sector, and still not be an effective executer at higher levels putting big ideas into practice.

Today’s late 20s and early 30s do know considerably more about electronics and computers…just in time to have your GPS and communications jammed and have viruses introduced into all your advanced computers. It’s difficult to feel sympathy for Ben’s complaints about today’s flight hours in an F-18 compared to yearly flight hours I got as a Army Cold War helicopter pilot. Those flight hours also cost considerably less per hour. In an era when simulator technology is so superb, why can’t the OODA loop be taught in F-35 simulators that introduce threat and dogfighting scenarios impossible to duplicate at reasonable cost in the real thing.

Guess one conclusion after reading LT Ben’s many reasonable and some not so great ideas, is that he is batting about 50/50 like the rest of us. Unfortunately, many things that the Me Generation does not seem to like were the great innovative ideas of the Baby Boomers such as LCS, F-35 and stealth, and UAS/RPAs (that don’t swarm autonomously requiring lots of maintenance and ground handling, on board computing power, and unrealistic combat ID from tiny sensors).

COIN also was a baby boomer idea in two wars and its current practice, along with body armor, MRAPs, and attack/assault/cargo helicopters and MV-22, and SOF raids have greatly reduced casualties vis-à-vis wars fought by the Greatest Generation and their parents/grandparents.

And our forefathers had the benefit of walking 50-miles-to-a-one-room-candle-lit schoolhouse to have time to think of new things like the automobile and electric light. If nothing else, far more members of the Me Generation have survived today’s wars to come home to foster future great ideas to help their own kids survive and thrive in deterring tomorrow’s conflicts. Imagine the great ideas we could have had sooner if we had not killed so many of our could-have-been great thinkers in past wars.


Fri, 05/04/2012 - 4:38pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

That's why critical thinking, testing/experimentation and implementation skills are important too. It's also important to know the appropriate context for the idea to succeed.

Moreover, the tacit assumption running through the whole disruptive thinkers debate is that the ideas will be incorporated enterprise wide. While I'm sure that many good ideas will compete and the best will become standardized and propagate throughout an organization, the important thing is maintaining the ability to innovate when conditions change suddenly. Rather than wait for orders or someone at the top to provide a solution, young sergeants and officers will get on with it and achieve. This is an important quality we need to preserve against the drawdown, interwar & austerity era impulse to circle the wagons and crack down on standards.

I'm not entirely comfortable with the reverence applied to "the entreprenurial mindset". Not that entrepreneurship is a bad thing at all, but like most concepts, if we stoop to the point of worshiping it we may overlook some things.

It's important to remember the extent to which failure is a part of entrepreneurship. We all know who Mark Zuckerberg is, does anyone know who founded Friendster? Does anyone remember the names of the legion of disruptive young tech entrepreneurs who set forth innovative dot-com ideas in the late 90s? Many of them lost their shirts, and the shirts of their investors. All well and good: they and their investors risked their own dime on their own time, and what happens happens. In the public world, though, where somebody somewhere has to make decisions about risking money that isn't theirs, somebody has to be a bit less cavalier. Is restraint in that department fear of new ideas, or is it a judicious approach to risk? Possibly a bit of both... but if we're going to go hell-bent on adopting an entrepreneurial attitude, let's not forget the risks involved and the certainty that there will be failures.

I think Ben made several good points in his response, but agree with a comment in another post relating to Ben’s article that he needs a senior mentor to help him communicate his ideas more effectively and avoid the condescending tone that turns off the very people he needs to influence.

His point about a sharp 25 y/o civilian, who was considered an innovative thinker and was sought out by our senior officers for his ideas, and then was largely ignored when he pinned on his butter bars five years later is a common story. In the military you are not the sum of your of skills and intellect, but rather you are your rank in the eyes of most military officers. I recall Ralph Peters at one of his presentations stating when he was in the Pentagon as a LTC no one would give him the time of day, but once he retired and wrote a book all the sudden he was viewed as an expert and he had more influence out of uniform than in it. The military is very much a system that tends to, but not always, ignore up and coming talent. Gen Petraeus realized this and frequently reached out to younger officers directly to get the ground truth. This frustrated the hell out of the traditionalists because the sacred chain of command was violated, but he realized you couldn’t get the truth when it was filtered through multiple levels of command. This doesn’t mean seniority shouldn’t be respected and quite frankly I have seen more innovation from senior officers (though a small percentage) than I have from junior and midgrade officers who are often focused on making the next grade and doing so my conforming to the mold. Do they have to conform to get promoted? In most cases I would argue they don’t, but it is the safest path.

Ben suggests young physicists are more creative, yet I have seen little evidence of that in my reading of history. New technologies are developed by compiling existing technologies in new ways, so it is somewhat logical (perhaps not disruptive) to believe senior personnel who have wide range of experiences and more knowledge have the potential to be more creative than their younger counterparts. Ben mentioned his mentor was a retired Navy O6, one I suspect that I know well based on Ben's writing. If it is the same officer he was always creative, but based on his broader range of experience and exposure to more ideas over time I think he is more creative now than he was years ago. If you're creative your creative, if you're a conformist you're a conformist. It is a personality trait that has little to do with time.

I think the laudatory comments about Mark Zuckerberg are often overdone, that technology existed, he didn’t create it, he turned into a successful business. Congrats for doing so, but let's not confuse that with real creativity. Furthermore, in response a mid-grade NCO saying he would stay in if he was made a General, that is quite a leap in logic in your part to assume he would have been a good one because he may be elected as Mayor of a large city (which is the result of a media campaign, not leadership, only time will tell if he is a leader or not). I can’t think of too many Mayors I would want leading my son into combat. Even if they're capable leaders they don't have the skill sets for combat.

Ben if you fix NMCI I’ll buy you a case of beer, and if you find anyone in uniform running NMCI let us know so we can send them our complaints to them. Ben asks what types of conflicts we are more likely to get into over the next few decades? That is always the question everyone wants answered, but no one can. There are those who think irregular warfare will be the way of future, but that line of thinking is based on the world dynamics today and not supportable when you take a closer look at global trends. The real question is not what type of conflicts we will be in, since no one knows (no one Ben), but what type of conflicts we must be prepared to win to ensure the security of our nation? These are two very different questions that may lead us in two separate directions.

You have a lot of good ideas, but unfortunately you don’t sell them well. If you would study our military history a little more, which is full of disruptive thinkers and leaders I think you would moderate your tone. Many senior leaders in our services have been frustrated with the same bureaucracy you're expressing discontent with. The leaders actually change it, not just make condescending remarks about it. I also encourage you seek out an additional mentor that can help you communicate your ideas more effectively, because hopefully your ultimate goal is to make a difference. New ideas are always rejected by traditionalists, they always have been, but there are many likeminded people out there that can help you if you don’t burn all your bridges before you get to them.

Robert C. Jones

Thu, 05/03/2012 - 4:55am

It is hard to argue with the facts that:

1. The Department of Defense is a mind-numbing, self-perpetuating bureaucracy, of cobbled together self-serving "Services."

2. That Military promotion systems are designed to reduce the number of "disruptive thinkers" as service members advance in grade in a very Darwinian way.

Making true changes to the procurement and promotion systems to address these shortfalls may make things less orderly, but it would also help us achieve the loft terms ("agile" "flexible" etc) we like to use to describe ourselves. How does the old saying go, "It's hard to soar with the eagles when you are surrounded by turkeys"? In the military, its hard to soar when you are surrounded by "Eagles" as well. Or those pesky former Eagles now holding down their corner of the bureaucracy. (I should know, I am, after all, a former Eagle with my own little corner to work...).

We need to not personalize observations like those that Ben makes. They are generalizations rooted in reasonable assessments of the facts. For many they fit, for too few others they do not.


I find your response neither thoughtful nor particularly respectful. Wouldn't it be better to engage his ideas than label them so you can write them off?

Maybe you can help me understand something: Why did Mr. Gates find the Pentagon "Not on a wartime footing" in 2007, long after most senior Pentagon Establishment commands were headed by senior officers who had been on combat deployments? Was Mr. Gates wrong, or did the Generals and Colonels really have systemic difficulties identifying technologies useful for the war, and support them?


Outlaw 09

Thu, 05/10/2012 - 1:51am

In reply to by Cavguy

Cavguy---if you really look long and hard at the new and I hate using the term "new" as it is not new Mission Command especially after Demsey's White Paper of 3 Apr----senior leadership "gets it".

The problem is when you sit in staff meeting and walk them through the new breakdown of Mission Command and their role and responsibilities in MC we have/are in fact empowering subordinate staffs to lean forward and be bold in support of the commander.

"Deer in the headlights look" is all you get back---there is where the problem lies-not being a disruptive thinker but realizing for the first time as a junior officer up to MAJ that you are in fact empowered to be both prudent and bold in support of the Commander intent. In fact the staff now has skin in the game.


Thu, 05/10/2012 - 11:28am

In reply to by Bill M.


One man's opinion who recognizes that there are many paths to happiness/success...the guard & reserves are a way to serve/attempt to pay-back our society while simultaneously growing/advancing outside of a sometimes stifling active duty military bureaucracy. It's hard work, but one can do both...and I have served active duty followed by guard, followed by reserves, and through civilian service as well as in the private sector.

Long story short, I encourage our talented folks to stick around in one capacity or another...America certainly needs the help... just look around at the state of today's affairs.

Bill M.

Thu, 05/10/2012 - 2:48am

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

For the young officers a few words of advice. The author who spurned this debate has identified real issues, but they do not apply evenly across the force. Most of you will at least occassionally, hopefully more often, work for great commanders who will listen to your ideas and help you push for changes in the system if they think the ideas have merit.

Not all ideas will fly, not all commanders are great, and yes the bureaucracy is real, but that is true in any profession (medicine, law enforcement, auto production, military, etc.), this is the way of the world we all live in, you can't escape it, so if you enjoy the military I discourage quitting in hopes of finding greener grass on the other side.

Admittedly the bureaucracy in the military is deeply entrenched, but much of that entrenchment comes from promotion policies, procurement laws, funding decisions, etc. that are dictated by our civilian leadership.

Strongly encourage you to read military history with the goal of identifying our long line of disruptive thinkers who effectively implemented change, and then study how they did it. It will give you hope that change is possible, and also point out it is rarely easy.

Peter J. Munson

Wed, 05/09/2012 - 9:11pm

In reply to by Cavguy

Cavguy, I'm not attacking personally any more than your characterization of my comments as a weak excuse were a personal attack, which I did not take offense to personally. In your initial post, you seemed to frame the problem as one of junior captains who did not understand their opportunities for influence. In my reply, I was pointing out that many of the stakeholders in this debate have as much or more experience than you or I (a major in zone for LtCol), and to express the frustrations these hard-working officers of proven worth within the system have. Your reply saw this as a weak excuse. In my reply, I was actually taking umbrage to that line of argument, which equates criticism with whining or weak excuses than I was to any personal affront. I know you did not specifically say to shut up and color, but calling something a weak excuse and providing examples of how one could have had influence does seem to be a bit akin to shut up and color harder, taking it one rhetorical step farter. I did find the tenor of your comments a bit condescending because they imply that the critics in these arguments, or those frustrated with their relative inability to affect change in a stultifying bureaucracy, somehow haven't been trying as hard as they should have. I assure you, the ones that I refer to are actually the ones who have had the most influence in their local environment and are most frustrated because they try, they care, and are increasingly hamstrung by an evermore bloated bureaucracy. Finally, holding yourself out as an example in your argument is fine, but it also opens you up to the appearance of criticizing others while patting yourself on the back. This is what I was alluding to. My pulse isn't up on this, so I hope you'll realize that you should expect some pushback when you characterize another passionate professional's comment as a weak excuse. It's nothing personal. I believe we're talking past each other on this topic, largely through a poor choice of words and tenor on both parts.


Wed, 05/09/2012 - 8:43pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

Well, you missed my point, and at no point did I say "shut up and color". Nor was I trying to self aggrandize. Having been heavily involved in numerous efforts to shape things - here, on companycommand, and also in several Army forums, I "get" and until your recent petty and defensive responses have been a fan of you, your blog, and your work, and agree on 90% plus. You have read things into my comments I did not post. I only meant to suggest the tone of the post and the reasons your friends gave on high staffs for dissatisfaction sounded more whiny than constructive. At no time have I suggested what you post above.

If all you have is continued personal attacks on me to responses that were meant to acknowledge problems but add substance and challenge views, then we have nothing further to discuss. If you read back, at no point did I attack you personally or professionally. I would have thought that my record here on SWJ and also in other areas would have added some context to my comments, but obviously things have changed since brother Few and Dilegge have taken reduced roles.

Peter J. Munson

Wed, 05/09/2012 - 8:05pm

In reply to by Cavguy

Well, when you lead off with calling something a weak excuse then continue to pat your own back about what a great job you've done making a difference, you should expect some sarcasm. Some of the people in this debate are quite junior and are still trying to feel themselves out in the organization. Many more of those who are most invested in the debate are more senior officers who have and continue to exert positive influence in their local organizations and beyond. Your lecturing about shaking a fist at the system misses the fact that many of us who are shaking a fist at the system are also doing things in our everyday jobs, in other writing and blogging, etc to affect positive change and to positively influence those around us. Some of the critics both in the public forums and in the background discussions are post-command O-5s and O-6s who are stellar and influential by any definition. It is actually quite condescending and is a bit of a strawman argument that tries to equate criticism on the interwebs with a lack of effort to affect things in the real world, and that simply is not the case for many of us. I do agree with your point about the problem being less with increasing promotions for the talented and more with weeding out the choking vines that hold everyone else back. But don't make the assumption that people criticizing the system in this debate are not working within the system to the best of their often considerable abilities. It is often those that work the hardest within the system that are most frustrated with the bureaucrats and organizational impairments that stifle improvement and progress. Shut up and color harder is not the way to improve the system.


Wed, 05/09/2012 - 4:37pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

Disappointed you took it that way. Your sarcasm ignores the rest of the post. I think you are providing a valuable resource in this discussion. What I am trying to articulate is EVERYONE has opinions and good ideas and it's easy to shake a fist at the "system" and "those bastards at platoon". Its up to you to get something done about them. Affect what you can at your level as best as you can. And I see "disruptive thinkers" with quality insight being rewarded at most levels and placed into developmental positions where they can both influence and shape the future force. Look, people all over will say why this or that job sucks or why something CAN'T be accomplished in an organization. Motivated officers should do what you can, where you can, with whatever you have. Write, blog, comment, question.

Yes the system is sub-optimal in outcomes. On S1 net (AKO protected, unfortunately) there is a discussion as to why an above zone selected officer gets a date of rank ahead of a below the zone selectee. Stupid things like that are actually written by Congress into the USC. Working for a single "toxic" leader can derail a career. Straying from the "yellow brick road" is career risky. All this requires a paradigm shift to impliment. Getting the discussion going is step one.

Peter J. Munson

Wed, 05/09/2012 - 3:04pm

In reply to by Cavguy

Cavguy, You're right. I'm weak, full of excuses, a whiner, and a quitter and I haven't tried hard enough or been as brilliant and successful as you. I'll try harder and certainly endeavor to spend the rest of my life following the career path you have chosen, or otherwise forever bear the mantle of a quitter and a non-hacker.


Wed, 05/09/2012 - 2:43pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

Sorry Pete - you see helplessness, I see a weak excuse. I was a lowly major in CAC in a nowhere organization and managed to affect some change - through being a better staff officer than most, writing, and influencing seniors. As a Brigade S3 in Afghanistan I was able (with support from the commander) to drive not only our Brigade but also influence the direction of ops from the division level. I too struggled against some staff officers, internal and external, who were less than value added. I worked around, through, or quicker than them, and generally got what I wanted. However, most people I worked with were high quality or willing to support as long as they were read in and saw you weren't piling more work on them.

If you are competent, motivated, persistent, and organized you can affect change and have influence at any level. I will put this again to the test in my current assignment to USARPAC. The question is whether one has the guts to take the hard path.

Talent does rise to the top in its own ways. A good example is MAJ Burke (AKA Starbuck) who was just elevated to the initiatives group of a 3-star Army component command. A friend who was a driver on the forums worked on the White House NSC and then in GEN Petraeus/Allen's initiatives group at ISAF. Certainly these motivated junior field grades have been able to reach influence above their rank and are listened to. It IS possible.

I actually would cite COL Gentile as a "disruptive" thinker - he challenged, successfully I think, some of the BS surrounding COIN dogma the last few years. While not appreciated and even martyred for it at first, his commentary led to a re-balancing of thought on the subject.

This isn't to paint things as sunny. The bureaucratic mindset doesn't stifle the top 10-20 percent of achievers (they can overcome) as severely as the middle 70-80% of "good" performers. As Jack Welch outlines in his writings, a successful organization is built on the middle band. We need to cull our herds and reform our personnel policies. Drawdowns will take care of some of this. I think culling the bottom feeders would have more of an effect than more opportunities for the "best". What offends most people is seeing those allowed to suck oxygen from their organization and draw the same pay without (visible) consequence.

I would love to see some major changes in the way we promote and select, but the reasoning that you can't create change from your level is false. One simply has to remember that while we can't change the whole system, we can affect what is within our immediate sphere of influence rather than throw our hands up. If more people did that, the military would be a better place.

Peter J. Munson

Sun, 05/06/2012 - 3:49pm

In reply to by Cavguy

Not all those who are discontented are inexperienced and unknowing captains who haven't had all the experience you have. There are plenty who have done the 2-4 year growing period, the S-3/XO bit, and then realized that there are not a lot of opportunities to shape things beyond a very local level, especially once one gets past that S-3/XO time and into the staffs at echelons above reality which are really the crux of most of the stifling done by the bureaucracy. There is the opportunity for BN-level command, a 1.5 year opportunity to do good, but with your hands increasingly tied by policies and requirements levied by those same staffs who are rife with B- and C-teamers.


Sun, 05/06/2012 - 2:53pm

In reply to by Cavguy

You bring up a great point here, if I understood you correctly. While I disagree with you about disruption (it's a real phenomenon), I think this meme has exposed a perception among a significant population of junior leaders that we don't value them or their ideas. Good on you for taking the time to talk to them and address their concerns. Almost all of the uproar along this series would be fixed with some effective communication.


Sat, 05/05/2012 - 4:45pm

In reply to by gian gentile


I actually agree, in a less curmudgeonly way. Watching the sausage get made at the field grade level in AFG the last year I have been bemused watching this "disruptive thinking" argument. I think disruptive thinking is a moniker for simply using your available human talent to solve problems and encouraging innovation when it makes sense. Kind of like "design" is at its core telling commanders to use their staff to help understand a problem before solving it.

I counseled a lot of captains this past year on the cusp of getting out. One of the things I realized is that none of the real opportunities to be heard and work on big issues don't happen until post-company command in the Army.

Almost every senior captain had a mis-perception of how their Army career would look post-command, up to that point they had only seen the high stress, high demand S3/XOs as Majors. I talked to them about how different jobs like USMA, O/C duty (now C/T), fellowships, and one-off jobs like the one I held at the COIN center. Most had no conceptualization of how they could develop in that 2-4 year period between command and S3/XO time, and how many opportunities there were to think and grow in that period.

I don't think we do a good job explaining career progression to our junior officers anymore, feeding the discontent that the system is unresponsive to their concerns, and failing to realize that they are on the cusp of having opportunities to shape things.

Back to the topic at hand, am not sure we need another buzzword - to me this whole "disruptive" bit is simply good leadership applied.


Thu, 05/03/2012 - 10:52am

In reply to by gian gentile

I do think this gets to the issue that threw this whole discussion off track. The notion that only junior leaders are creative and innovative, while senior leaders have been Stockholmed by the system and succumbed to the bureaucracy has distracted from the core issue, a very important issue, that Kohlmann raised.

Plenty of senior officers have fostered, supported, and personally attempted to implement innovation, and many of them have faced exactly the same resistance and frustration that Kohlmann cites, if not more because they actually have the formal authority and resources in hand. The folklore also projects malfeasance or apathy upon this bureaucracy, while the truth may actually be that many well-meaning people who care deeply about their organization and mission think they are doing the right thing. We build these bureaucracies to efficiently and effectively use resources to accomplish our mission.

The real issue is not assigning blame, but understanding innovation in a systemic way to implement it appropriately and learn how and when to make our organizations adapt and evolve. Static organizations make a fixed target for the enemy, even if they are more efficient and effective in the near term. Lets get beyond this distraction and find a way to explore the ideas our disruptive thinkers at all levels create and find a way to adapt and win.


Mon, 05/07/2012 - 8:34am

In reply to by gian gentile


I do not see "Conventional Senior Officer" as a cheap shot. I see it as shorthand for the point Hubba Was de Czege made elsewhere in SWJ, to wit:

"While others have lectured on the responsibility of generals, the rank immediately below them should not be spared. If you want to block reforms, install a "council of colonels" to guard the gates of change. No one is as conservative and arrogant as a staff colonel in the comfort zone of his expertise. During my time on active duty this was the most conservative rank. Had I not gotten around older and more entrenched colonels at Ft. Leavenworth both the AirLand Battle reforms and the creation of SAMS would have been stillborn. And sometimes no one is as hesitant to speak truth to power than an O-6 commander."

In the Marine Corps (MCCDC) that hyper-conservatie "council of colonels" is called the CDIB.

I'd be curious how you take these concerns seriously, and how, specifically, the Army is taking them seriously. It is my believe that the Marine Corps made some needed changes in MCCDC, MCSC responding to uncertainty in toolset selection, but only under repeated calls for change, very severe duress and very substantial "external" sources of motivation. The fox is still guarding the henhouse.


Sun, 05/06/2012 - 2:44pm

In reply to by gian gentile

Yes, I think perceived insults & stereotypes, whether intentional or not, have greatly sidetracked this conversation.

However, disruptive innovation is real, but not limited to junior leaders, nor is it some arcane hooka pipe smoking art only anointed initiates can achieve. Moreover, it's not the only or even the most important form of innovation. Most innovations are sustaining innovations and we optimize our organizations to develop these if we have a well run unit.

Disruptive innovations don't normally don't fit the existing organization, so they require extraordinary steps, such as task organization changes, to accommodate them. But how do we recognize them? Clayton Christensen has great advice on that front. Rather than looking for Maverick & Goose, focus on the ideas & the context of the problem.

But I suspect most people are using the disruptive thinker platform to express concerns that we don't value what our junior leaders have to offer. Agree or not, that theme persists. That's a leadership issue. Some of the best leaders I had were the harshest critics of my ideas, but I also clearly understood why and I knew at the end of the day they were improving my critical thinking skills and kept coming back to me for more. Cavguy talked to his people, and it seems he was surprised by the gap in the assumptions and tacit understanding he and his junior officers had about their future. It also seems to me that talking to them about it helped quite a lot and helped retain some good quality leaders.

gian gentile

Sat, 05/05/2012 - 8:35pm

In reply to by Entropy

Oh come on you guys, and Kohlman's quip about "conventional superior officers" was not a cheap shot? Again, his line of argument has continuously condemned nearly any one over the rank of major. My brigade combat team commander in Baghdad in 2006, Mike Beach, was a bona fide "disruptive thinker" if we use brother Cavguy's definition of such a person. And there are plenty of other examples.

Maybe I am cranky about this "disruptive thinking" shtick because it rings to me as more coin-nagl-learning-and adapting-soup-with-a-knife nonsense. The idea of the big stupid conventional army and marines that doesnt get it, but thank goodness for the young turks who do, who are just waiting for the enlightened general to come along and turn them loose (read the Surge triumph narrative). More snakeoil (but in different skins) it seems to me, along the lines of Galula and Nagl.

You see in fact this kind of thinking can be quite misleading and quite dangerous because it has the potential to become a belief that if only we have disruptive thinking going on in the lower ranks then voila any conflict or war in the future can be won. For example, using history, the German army in World War II had all kinds of disruptive thinkers (officers from LT through general) in its ranks and they still lost the war. It does in a way reinforce the mistaken belief that tactical excellence through disruptive thinking can overcome failed strategy and policy.

I accept the reality that Kohlman's writings have struck a nerve and resonates with a lot of folks. I take that collective angst quite seriously especially amongst our junior and mid-level officers, but I view Kohlman's actual writings, in terms of deep substance, to be, in my view, insubstantial.

As for how history will view this generation of senior officers, well if you mean the four star level of officers I don’t think history will view them as contemporary writers like Tom Ricks, Linda Robinson, and Paula Broadwell do. That is to say as generals who rode onto the scene and saved the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead I think Andy Bacevich had it right a while back when he said that history, at least with regard to General (retired) Petraeus will treat him and others roughly. My view to be sure, but I may be wrong. As Malcolm X once said, “time will tell.”

Little g


Wed, 05/02/2012 - 10:31pm

In reply to by gian gentile


I agree with TJ that your response was kind of cheap. I also have a query: As a historian, I wonder how you think history will look upon this generation of senior officers?

gian gentile

Wed, 05/02/2012 - 6:43pm

His argument has become shtick: enlisted soldiers and junior officers naturally get it and understand "disruptive" thinking while those pesky (to use his exact words) "frustratingly conventional superiors" don’t.

I guess old age and a colonelcy disqualifies me from the cool kid’s gets it club. :)