How The Dead Poets Society Advocated Disruptive Thinkers, Why DoD Shouldn't Encourage More Disruptive Thinkers, and 10 Principles for Those That do Think Disruptively
by Grant Martin
Dead Poets Society
In the movie Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams plays a private school English teacher who attempts to encourage his students to think for themselves. He encourages them with quotes like, "Carpe Diem- seize the day", "the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse- what verse will you contribute?", and "Now we all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go, baaaaa." He is met with the stereotypical obstacles of the institution- his methods are called into question, his idea that 17-year old boys should think for themselves ridiculed, and he is ultimately fired for encouraging a boy to do something that eventually leads to suicide. It is easy to see Robin Williams' character in our current hero (or villain- depending upon where you sit), LT Kohlmann, as he advocates that we break away from the bonds of our bureaucracy and attempt to become more innovative. Although some rightly have questioned his methods (HBS and MBA-style solutions), still others have questioned his entire thesis that the military needs any disruption at all (or that we do not already “disrupt”).
The Dead Poet Society's message was simple: in the world of economics, math, law, and medicine, there still exists the need for the human spirit to be fulfilled by something other than money, acclaim, and job satisfaction. Passion is invoked as a human need- and even a virtue (interesting that Clausewitz also said a thing or two about passion). What Robin Williams’ character advocated, however, was not that the entire school turn themselves into nothing but disruptive thinkers nor that anyone specialize in disruption. What he argued was simply for people to think for themselves and occasionally think disruptively. As he told one student, "There's a time for daring and there's a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for." What Robin Williams was fighting against was an entire institution that seemed to fight ALL disruptive thinking. What we must honestly ask ourselves is- and we must not get defensive about it- is our institution, the Department of Defense (and its subsections- SOCOM, Department of the Army, etc.), the same in terms of the school depicted in the Dead Poets Society? Does our institution stamp out most, if not all, disruptive thinking? If so, then we should not stand for it. I would offer one area in which we might be suffering from the malaise depicted in the movie: our epistemological approach to warfare.
No More Disruptive Thinkers (but, we might need more disruptive (and effective) thinking)
Many have made an outstanding point- lots of disruptive thinkers are just that- disruptive. It is a rare gift to find a person who can both think against the grain AND get the institution to change. Instead of encouraging everyone to be freethinkers, maybe the military just needs to do a better job in getting those who already think for themselves to have more influence on the organization. This happens already to a certain degree. General Petraeus had his independent fact-finding teams that he would send out to all corners of the empire to report back to him. Some commanders appoint red-teams. Well-used Commander's Initiative Groups can sometimes do this. Or other types of informal uses of smart folks in ones' command can be used to get contradictory thinking to the top.
The one way we may have failed in getting this disruptive thinking where it needs to be is in our doctrine on Design. Design showed some promise in the beginning when it was introduced to attempt to get at fundamental issues with the way we approach complex environments. Instead of showing us flaws in our epistemological view of the world (and war- and potentially changing the way we do most things), Design was relegated to a systems view of the world through an architect's lens and inserted into our already-established planning doctrine. Far from becoming a way to break away from possible faulty logics, ineffective systems, and biased worldviews, Design as it has been incorporated into our doctrine has simply reinforced how we already look at the world and at warfare. It should surprise no-one, then, that a concept that was supposed to fix certain problems we had in 2003 in Iraq has done nothing to help us in Afghanistan.
What DoD- and all of its sub-components- needs is more disruption allowed in our doctrine and our epistemology. Instead of striving to make everyone a "center of excellence" and a TRADOC-accredited entity, we should be going the other way, and attempting to get away from standardization of our systems. We are becoming more bureaucratic at the institutional level, not less. This has to be the exact opposite of what Design should have done for us and is anathema to a disruptive thinker. Somehow the opposing voices must not have been heard loud enough, and, unfortunately, our view of the world and warfare is becoming more institutionalized, not less. Even what many have termed our so-called "most" disruptive organization- SOCOM- is arguably becoming more conventional as its “unconventional-ness” becomes more institutionalized in doctrine and its systems accredited by the conventional institutions it once sought to offer an alternative to.
In the end we need effective disruptive thinkers. We need people who can think for themselves- critically and creatively- then build support for their positions within the organization and then see needed changes through to fruition. We need our leaders to look with a more jaundiced eye towards our self-proclaimed successes as of late and whether our Design doctrine was arrested from fully developing. We need to get some disruptive thinkers- who are effective- and train their gaze on our conventional wisdoms. We need to question all of our sacred cows, main assumptions, and our worldviews on war. If someone proclaims our capability and/or our past recent “success”, we should all raise voices in protest; we should not be ashamed of our performance of late, but we shouldn't be proud of it either (specifically of our strategic and operational capabilities- or lack thereof).
The issue with more disruptive thinkers, as alluded to in the first paragraph, is that many people are just disruptive. It takes some other qualities to make disruption valued by the institution. It takes educated and many times experienced folks to make productive disruption. It takes self-confidence and a focus on sacrificial service to the nation. And it takes the ability to drive through change in a bureaucratic system. In the next section I offer some principles for disruptive thinking as candidates for consideration.
10 Possible Principles for Disruptive Thinkers
1) Be effective. Learn to work within the system. The system won't change any time soon, if ever. Develop informal networks, build rapport, work behind the scenes, let others take credit; find those who are gatekeepers and facilitators. In short, use UW and COIN doctrine and TTPs in getting around the bureaucracy within our own commands.
2) Question your own assumptions and worldview as much as you do the conventional wisdom. It seriously undermines your position if you are as intractable as everyone else. Don't be a know-it-all or overly prideful.
3) Pick your fights. Everything can't be wrong with the institution. Some things are necessary evils, or only slightly better than the other alternatives. Many things are mandated by Congress. If you disrupt everything around you- you will be in for a short career and won't affect anything.
4) When you are in command or a leadership position (always?), encourage subordinates to tell you the brutal truth and/or their honest opinions. Seek out alternative ideas. Facilitate others to become effective disruptive thinkers.
5) Be confident. Disruptive thinkers have to lead and have to foster alternative concepts. If you don't listen to others, then you will miss someone else's good ideas. But that takes self-confidence. For those leaders who have subordinates that don't listen to anyone else- counsel them and suspect that they may have self-confidence issues. Avoid being too emotional or entrenched and defensive.
6) Continuously seek self-development and learning. One cannot be an effective disruptive thinker if one is ignorant. Much like shooting with a pistol- much of what we do is perishable and we shouldn’t be surprised at being ignorant at many things we are asked to accomplish in the complexity that is the military.
7) Seek experiences outside of your discipline. Do not discount what you can learn from those who are struggling with similar concepts, but in wholly different fields.
8) Be on the lookout for BS. BS kills our (DoD) credibility. It is sad, but from the inside we must not be able to detect our own BS- but if you talk to people outside of DoD you'll discover that our official statements, publications, etc. - seem like total BS to many. Disruptive thinkers may be able to advise commanders about BS that we don't realize is BS.
9) Show some career courage. General Dempsey talked about this before, but the sad fact is that many of us show more courage in the face of enemy fire than we do in a conference room. Disruptive thinkers have to bring up controversial topics to people who may not want to hear them. It is our duty- all of our duty as leaders- to give our professional opinions to our commanders- and then salute and carry out whatever decision they make.
10) Check your priorities. They should be country over service, unit, and self. This is sometimes very hard to figure out. Ask help from mentors. Be honest with your ethical questions with your boss. If you think something is better for the country than something we are currently doing, then you owe it to your family and those who went before you to speak up.
In summary, I recommend that as leaders we all attempt to encourage those who can think disruptively and then effectively do something about it to be the institution’s designated disruptive thinkers (or a unit’s for a designated period of time). This happens to a certain extent, but can perhaps happen more. Everyone has strengths, and if thinking disruptively is not one of them (and likewise affecting change), we should not demand it of everyone. I recommend that we revisit Design and attempt to put it where it belongs: as a concept that calls into question the way we do everything: structure, planning, operations, etc. It should be a prescription of how to think about how we think. This is much deeper (and thus more confusing) than just looking at an environment and attempting to define a problem. This would call into question our very need to define a problem to begin with. Lastly, those who do think disruptively (and effectively), I hope I have given some ideas for some principles for thinking disruptively. Ten is a “magic” number, so some of these may overlap or we may need more, but I thought this was a half-way decent beginning.