Small Wars Journal

Disruptive Thinkers: The Disruptive Poets Society

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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.

About the Author(s)

LTC Grant M. Martin is a Special Forces officer in the U.S. Army. He has served in Korea, Afghanistan and South America. He graduated from The Citadel, has an MBA from George Mason University, and an MMAS from the School of Advanced Military Studies. He is a Ph.D. candidate at North Carolina State University’s Public Administration program with special interest in researching the organizational obstacles within SOCOM and DoD to effective Irregular Warfare. He has been published in the International JournalMilitary, and the Small Wars Journal, in addition to contributing to chapters in two textbooks on Design Thinking.


Ned McDonnell III

Sat, 08/31/2013 - 8:35pm


In keeping with this very interesting article you have written, I would like to submit a link to an interesting discussion on "Innovation and National Security" that featured Navy-Lieutenant Kohlman and is interesting perspective:

By the way, my mexican colleagues enjoyed your article, notwithstanding my translation of it.

Ned McDonnell,
Peace Corps-Mexico.

Ned McDonnell III

Sun, 04/28/2013 - 4:43pm

In reply to by Ned McDonnell III

“How can this model be applied in a future North Korea, Syria, Iran, or Colombia? What are its limitations? What would we have to trade for doing this (there are always trade offs and negative second and third order effects)?”

LTC Martin, these were the pointed questions you asked in relation the fourth article on applying venture capital techniques to the Green Berets by E.M. Burlingame. Unlike you did in responding with my pointed question, I ducked the answering of these questions; paraphrasing my instructive film, Monty Python’s ‘Holy Grail’: “Sir Robin so gallantly galloped away…”

I have added my initial response I made to your valid questions (i.e., the gallantly galloping away) if you are interested in reading them as a comment under that article, if you are interested (…). You answered my question fairly and you deserve the same respect from me.

Ned McDonnell III

Fri, 04/26/2013 - 8:40pm

To my Peace Corps colleagues on the PCMEX web-site:

"A lot of what I write [in Spanish to my colleagues at the Science Center where I serve], dream and talk about is the idea of internal agents of transformation, people I call the Ambassadors of Open Innovation. That idea is fundamentally premised on the personal responsibility for change assumed by each member of the organization as an individual agent of knowledge. While I intended to end the attachments [to weekly letters of relevant articles translated from English to Spanish] after next week, I have decided to translate this outstanding essay by LTC Grant Martin of the U.S. Special Forces for the benefit of my colleagues at CIDESI [the science center where I serve]. Although he and I often debate heatedly on the doctrine and finer points of counter-insurgency, LTC Martin has taught me a great deal, in our exchanges, as a deep organizational thinker who gives a shekel about others than himself. Grant does a great job in laying the groundwork on how to integrate disruptive thinking into the DoD, an organization that is, perhaps, almost as ossified than our own."

G Martin

Wed, 04/24/2013 - 2:03pm

In reply to by Ned McDonnell III

Ned- thanks for the compliments and hope you do translate it and pass it around.

As to how would it work in DoD- I think it would have to be low-key, subtle, long-term, emergent-types of efforts. Setting up ad-hoc, unofficial groups is one way I've seen it done- subverting the normal channels- but in a way that doesn't bring attention to the group driving the change. Eventually multiple fiefdoms think they came up with the idea themselves...

Ned McDonnell III

Wed, 04/24/2013 - 12:43am

LTC Martin,

You and I have had our differences. Not this time. This article is elegantly written and well-reasoned. Truthfully, I would like to translate it into Spanish for my colleagues in the four-hundred person science center where I currently serve. As big and weighty as the DoD might be, the conditions you describe are true in this small center.

The question that keeps squirming in my wretched little mind is: how would disruptive thinking work its way through such a large organization as the DoD? I am with you, Sir. That needs to happen.

What I hope that disruptive thinking can do at my little center is for individuals seeing themselves not as much of a functioning cog as much as an agent of knowledge who can interact with other agents of knowledge to promote dissociative thinking as a prelude to more wide-open innovation.

Thank you again for brain-food during a long month devoted to scrubbing a data base and auditing accounting policies and application (barf…).

I salute your service to my country,
Ned McDonnell
Peace Corps-Mexico.


Mon, 04/23/2012 - 10:19pm

Entropy, your idea is a perfect example of Disruptive Thinking -- and has been discussed by the young, entrepreneurial military members in our organization. Turning boxes green is one of the most endemic and frequently mentioned frustrations! This isn't some "us vs. them" movement...its simply a way of looking at things in a new light, just as you yourself have.

Meme, formal title, whatever, disruptive thinking is looking at better and more effective ways of doing things than the status quo. Identifying the most frustrating, bureaucratic problems, then trying to do something about them. I could care less who comes up with the idea, as long as people are encouraged to be innovative, apply lessons from a myriad of professions and improve their organizations.

There is no silver-bullet prescription (i.e. an MBA, as it was just one of many possible solutions), but if you find a partnership that works, it should be fostered. Especially if it's effective and disrupts conventional wisdom. If it doesn't work, you learn from it, try something different and move on. We shouldn't be afraid of failure, we should learn from it. Much like I've learned from the obvious flaws in my initial article.

Sounds like you're well on your way to thinking disruptively yourself! Look forward to further ideas!


Mon, 04/23/2012 - 11:28am

After thinking about this whole "disruptive thinker" meme and after finishing up the ass-pain of a compliance inspection while half my unit is deployed, I think we may be looking at this backwards.

Instead of trying to promote "disruptive thinkers" we should actively focus fire on those who think leadership is turning red and yellow blocks into green blocks on an excel spreadsheet. I don't think we can get anywhere without getting rid of such "leaders" who value adherence to process above all else. Just as one example, we care more about properly documenting training according to the process laid out in regulations than we do about the quality of training itself.

In short, we don't need more disruptive thinkers and the best thing we can do is get rid of those who want to lead by metrics.


Sun, 04/22/2012 - 12:13am

In reply to by ADTS


Appreciate the slack!

On this end, am closing in on thirty years of work experience, more than ten years spent living overseas, a mba (with no specialty), a bs in civil engineering (hydraulics & hydrology specialization), a ba in biology (microbiology specialization), and some more graduate work which has yet to coalesce into another thinkatorium sounds like a fun place to work, keep me in mind when you start yours and I will do the same when i start mine. ;)

With respect to the topic at hand it was my distinct impression that Americans were perceived as disruptive thinkers by the Iraqis during my time in Iraq. :o

Do disruptive thinkers excel at crisis leadership or are they just the underpants gomes? Step 1: Stabilize the situation while developing a new business model. Step 2: Enact the new business model with a restructured organization working under new rules vs. Step 1: Gather underpants. Step 2: ? Step 3: Make money!


Fri, 04/20/2012 - 8:46am

In reply to by Surferbeetle


Ah, I see.

I will note the underspecified dependent variable (change effected, presumably) but, in recognition of the fact that the weekend is right around the corner, let it slide. ;-)

Also, I will simply observe this seems a fairly explicitly quantitative approach to thinking, which in turn strikes me as emanating from an MBA. (Once more - like many other people - my father happens to be/hold an MBA. There is nothing wrong with that.) I thus want very much to ask if this will permit one to create complementarities and synergies across all aspects of one's core competencies, related to every market segment, while simultaneously enhancing brand and reputation in the context of the accepted risk-reward profile...but once more, it is Friday morning. ;-)

In all seriousness, thanks for the citation. A former boss was a fan of The 21 Immutable Laws of Marketing (I think - wow! there are only 21?) while noting (as a positive, if I recall correctly) that the authors were not standard MBA business consultants (per McKinsey, BCG or Bain, presumably) or investment bankers, etc. Then again, while we related positively, he (not an MBA, incidentally) - like many self-made people and (at the time former) entrepreneurs, in my opinion - was a fairly prickly fellow who did not take well to authority, particularly that of the larger company in which we both worked. As an aside, should one perhaps take his characteristics with respect to PME, etc., into account? He may not be relevant with respect to MBAs, but he definitely (as probably is evident) influenced how I perceive entrepreneurs.

Thanks once more for the kind reply. I will reinterpret the original post as well and respond as appropriate.



Fri, 04/20/2012 - 12:03am

In reply to by ADTS


Contact hours is my shorthand for the amount of time required to effect change, measured in hours.

By way of example can a disruptive thinker, when developing his or her work plan or work breakdown structure, accomplish the desired outcome in 40 hours (say a typical workplace training) or 10,000 hours (Malcom Gladwell in Outliers)?

Can ttp's such as key leadership engagements be used for engaging and influencing our counterparts (... or recalcitrant non-disruptive thinkers)? How much is lost via to sender-message-receiver interactions, observation-changes-outcome, language barriers, demographic barriers, market segmentation etc., etc...and how (quantitatively) does this impact our contact hours estimate? What does this then mean in a time constrained or poor security environment...# of visits (for both sides), amount of risk to be accepted (for both sides), etc, etc....while keeping in mind the medium to be used (TV, Youtube, written material, video-teleconference, face to face, etc)

Marketing Strategy, 3rd Edition by O.C. Ferrell and Michael D. Hartline is one that i come back to from time to time.

Take care,



Before answering your question, I have to plead ignorance: "Contact hour"?



Fri, 04/20/2012 - 10:10am

In reply to by Surferbeetle


In re your specific question, to provide a somewhat lame academic response, I perceive the significance of different media is simply testimony to the fact that people are different. (Abu Muqawama seems really to be enjoying Robert Jervis these days, who I think writes roughly the same thing, except in a far more profound and lengthier way than I just did in the preceding sentence.) Sometimes "Good Will Hunting" resonates with some people in some ways - perhaps cognitively, perhaps emotionally, perhaps rhetorically (as is the case I noted with "Dead Poets Society" with regard to this post's underlying essay), etc. Heck, reading Ricks, "Gamble," and speaking of Key Leader Engagements, apparently "Titantic" resonated with an Iraqi leader (who woulda thunk it, eh?) (and Ricks himself then proceed to associate with David Mamet). I don't perceive the issue as primarily one of contact hours, which I interpret as an attempt to quantify return on investment; I perceive it as one of what stimulus or stimuli elicit what response? I suspect the argument I am arguably putting forth is respect for diversity, encourage for pluralism, appreciation of (the arguable necessity for) multiple and/or flexible pedagogies, blah, blah, blah.



Wed, 04/18/2012 - 11:55pm

In reply to by ADTS

ADTS, Grant, Ben, and Outlaw,

Follow and appreciate your comments, you each regularly provide something interesting to think about.

Effective and timely communication skills & methods are certainly key to influencing others, but perhaps the content is just as important or even more so? Grant your comment regarding the limited effectiveness and credibility of official DOD bureaucrat-ese (and Design-ese in other posts) is spot on. The cryptic mutterings of a Greenspan-like figure, or a PAO spokesperson armed with the latest talking points, have their narrow target demographic often at the expense of the larger whole. ADTS are our interests in TV classics, seemingly random Youtube vignettes, and written material are perhaps indicative of the importance of 'contact hours' whatever form they may take? Ben your unconventional, to my mind, homemade internet think-tank is much more than novel given our shared, conservative, button-down, and often yes-boss culture. Outlaw - ecosystem-style thinking truly resonates. But...what are all these things worth if we as a nation continue to drift from the raw decency of our frontier American core towards an active embrace of the baseness found in everyone's makeup?

I once took more than a passing interest in the ttp's of soft-power competition used to influence Iraqis as practiced by Iran and the US. I see some similarities when I think about the interactions of staid & slow moving military institutions with unpredictable disruptive thinkers. Things of 'value' seemed to stick...the rest not...

Perhaps this is actually an old song, that's just new to us?

Johnny Cash, The Man Comes Around on Youtube

I'll add an 11th Possible Principle for Disruptive Thinkers: Be An Effective Communicator. I'll start by noting, quite frankly, how much I liked the rhetorical devise of referencing "Dead Poets Society." It's not because I liked the movie - it's been some time, but I think I considered it pretentious and unconvincing, and in terms of Robin Williams's "serious" roles, far prefer "Good Will Hunting" (for which, of course, he won an Academy Award). Still, a reference to pop culture and the medium of film was immediately engaging and accessible and provoked curiosity, and thus was a useful "hook," if nothing else.

I suppose this leads to an 11th Possible Principle for Disruptive Thinkers, or at least suggests one: Know how to write well. Know how to convey a message well. Know how to communicate well. Perhaps that in turn raises the question: what education or educational institution or educational institutions lends itself or lends themselves to this pursuit? What tradeoffs might this imply (e.g., learning to write and communicate at the - possible - expense of learning how to analyze well and/or differently?*)

E.g., acquiring (say) new quantitative analysis skills, facility with (say) accounting, the ability to (say) conduct detailed ethnography and anthropological/sociological participant observation, etc.

Other than that - maybe unfortunately - no real thoughts other than to echo the prior commenter, and commend. Good job, good article/post.


Outlaw 09

Wed, 04/18/2012 - 7:33am

Grant's article is worth the read.

This short quote came out of the recent White Paper released by Gen. Dempsey on 3 April 2012.

"We must place students into situations of uncertainty and comlexity where creativity, adapability, critical thinking, and independent rapid decision making are essential elements (Mission command). The moral courage or nerve to make decisions in these types of situations is to be actively rewarded."

Later in the article---"Training should place commanders in situations where fleeting opportunities present themselves, and those that see and act appropriately to those opportunities should be rewarded".

Several time the JCoS mentions the terms "understanding" and "seeing" something a number of us in SWJ Comments have been talking about for the last several years. Begs the question though about where Design sits in what the JCoS talks about in his article.

What is equally interesting is the fact that the article comes from JCoS not from TRADOC.

Sounds like the JCoS seems to agree with Grant.