Finding Common Ground: Harnessing Disruption for the Good of the Service

Introduction

When Navy LT Ben Kohlmann published his landmark essay The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers, he ignited a firestorm.  He certainly wasn’t the first junior officer to criticize the ossified bureaucracy towering above him, but his critique was one of the most provocative and resonant, and it found a receptive audience in the military blogosphere and Twitter community.  The label “disruptive thinker” was sharp and controversial, a perfect brand name under which frustrated junior officers could rally.

Essays by such officers now make regular appearances, usually striking the same notes: frustration at the military’s poor leadership, cumbersome bureaucracy, failure to reward talent and innovation, and lack of flexibility in matching talent to assignments.  Small Wars Journal has continued the Disruptive Thinkers series, and journalist Tom Ricks regularly gives space to junior officers on his blog The Best Defense.  Ricks’ new book The Generals—about the military’s failure to hold senior leaders accountable—has also been popular reading among the junior ranks.  Most recently, former Air Force officer Tim Kane released his book Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution.  These provocative pieces are so common now as to be cliché.

The response usually follows a wearisome cycle.  Debates erupt in online comment sections, and bleed over into Twitter, milblogs, and the workplace.  Half the audience (usually fellow junior officers, but not always) resonates; they rally around the author, forward the essay to their colleagues across the globe, and pile on with their own critiques of a broken institution led by mediocre, risk-averse leaders.  The other half, typically more senior, grumbles; they savage the author for his or her immaturity, inexperience, and unwillingness to play a more constructive role in solving the institution’s problems.  They make quips about “disruptive non-thinkers.”  They point out that the military is not a business, and warn that adopting best business practices will ruin the military ethos.  If the author writes anonymously, critics accuse him or her of moral cowardice.

These emotional, polarized debates have several consequences.  First, they sap morale and widen a dangerous chasm between junior and senior leaders.  Second, the tediousness of the debate can lead to burnout; officers of all ranks can only handle so much argument before they disengage from an extremely important discussion.  Third, and most important, the accusations and recriminations are unproductive; they do not change minds and do little to solve problems.  All too often, officers fortify their positions and miss out on valuable opportunities to improve their organizations.

This article proposes a positive vision for how disruptive junior officers and established senior officers should move forward.  Both groups share significant common ground, because both are committed to the excellence of the organization and its capability to execute the mission.  Each brings unique perspective.  The two sides must build on their shared commitment to organizational excellence, in order to create achievable, positive change.  That will require continual dialog and significant shifts in mindset for both junior and senior officers.

Although this article uses the term “officer” to be consistent with related books and articles, these principles apply equally well to the enlisted force.

Is There a Problem?

Young disruptives and their allies claim that frustration with the military’s cumbersome bureaucracy is driving “the best and brightest” out of uniform.  Tim Kane made this argument in a 2011 article titled Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving.  His recent book Bleeding Talent repeats this claim and argues that the military’s personnel system is far more broken than senior leaders realize.  To retain entrepreneurial talent, he says, the military needs to radically overhaul its assignment, evaluation, and promotion systems and move from a centralized, top-down system to a free marketplace of labor.

Kane’s work has provoked criticism from senior officers, many of whom disagree that “the best and brightest” are leaving.  They perceive Kane’s writing as an attack on the many good men and women who continue to wear the uniform when their commitment is up.  Furthermore, they say, many separating officers have idealistic visions of life on the outside; their parting critiques are not always fair or reasonable.  Sometimes the criticism takes on a more personal note: if the best and the brightest are leaving, what does that say about me?

Do we actually have a problem?  Is it true that an ossified bureaucracy, risk-averse leaders, and a talent-blind promotion system are driving out the best and brightest?

This question isn’t especially helpful.  It is difficult to identify who the “best and brightest” officers are, so a definitive answer is impossible. Furthermore, the question’s framing antagonizes those officers who stay past their commitment and contributes to the polarized debate. 

Let’s just say that some superb officers stay, but some superb ones become disillusioned and separate.  That much shouldn’t be controversial.  It also shouldn’t be controversial to suggest that senior leaders should care whenever any of this talent is bleeding away.  They should also care if officers who stay past their commitment continue to wrestle with the same frustrations.

Numerous surveys show that this is indeed the case.  According to Tim Kane’s 2010 survey of both serving and separated West Point graduates, only 32% felt that the military personnel system promotes the right officers to general, and only 4% felt that it does a good job retaining the best officers.   A 2011 Center for Army Leadership study found that a majority of Army officers, warrant officers, and senior NCO respondents believed the Army wasn’t heading in the right direction, with 58% of the subset noting the service’s inability to retain quality leaders.  According to a separate 2011 study, 80% of respondents reported that the best officers they knew were leaving the military before serving a full career.  The top two reasons cited were organizational inflexibility, especially in the personnel system, and a lack of commitment to innovation. 

Whether or not the best officers are getting out, the bottom line remains the same: a majority of officers, both serving and separated, feel like the system is broken and in need of reform.

That should concern everybody.

Is the system actually broken?  Some senior leaders don’t think so.  They argue that the military is a unique institution, with difficult requirements that will inevitably lead to frustration.  I have my own opinions, but recognize this is a legitimate debate.  However, a majority of junior officers certainly think the system is broken, and that in and of itself is a problem that leadership needs to address.

These issues cannot be ignored.  They cannot be left to fester.  Both junior and senior officers must find a way to move forward, learn to communicate, and address the widespread discontentment with military bureaucracy.

Finding Common Ground

Most military officers are genuinely committed to their military service.  They want to fight and win the nation’s wars, and they want their organizations to excel.  That is the common ground that officers of all ranks should build on.

Junior and senior leaders approach these goals from different perspectives, each of which has its strengths and weaknesses.  Disruptive junior officers are acutely aware of the organization’s shortcomings, and they have the passion and idealism to strive for positive change.  They bring fresh, outside perspective that can renew the organization and help it adapt to new challenges.  At the same time, their idealism, inexperience, and limited perspective can lead them to push change too quickly or in ways that are ultimately unproductive. 

Senior officers are no less committed to the mission and to organizational excellence, but they have a greater sense of the constraints that make change difficult.  They have a realistic sense of what is possible and what is not, and have learned through experience how to effectively translate ideas into action.  They also are likely to foresee second and third-order effects of change that junior officers might be blind to.  These traits naturally make senior leaders more conservative and skeptical of change.  This can mitigate risk, but it can also needlessly obstruct necessary reform.  Senior leaders typically have a bias for the traditional and familiar, and can be out of touch with the changing dynamics of the world around them.

Officers of all ranks should strive to build military organizations that embrace the positive characteristics of each group.  This process begins by identifying the common ground on which they stand: equipping their organizations to fight and win the nation’s wars through continual improvement.  Such learning organizations must intentionally cultivate dialog between junior and senior officers.  Both groups must take the others’ concerns seriously, and must be prepared to listen and learn.

Advice for Disruptive Junior Officers

Junior officers who want to create change have a huge learning curve ahead of them.  Leading change is hard.  A junior officer who wants to create positive results--and not just be a squeaky wheel—must learn how to translate ideas into action for the good of their organization.  That means understanding themselves, understanding their organization and its mission, and understanding how to effectively communicate and implement new ideas.  Below are a few pointers for junior officers who want to create change.

The goal is persuasion.  Are you just making a statement, or are you trying to create positive change?  If you’re making a statement, rant all you want.  You’ll feel better (maybe) and that will be the end of it (and of your credibility).  But if you’re actually trying to create real change, you must learn how to persuade.  You probably aren’t important enough to create change by yourself, so you must persuade those who are.  That principle should guide your efforts.

Understand the problem.  Before you spend your precious capital tackling a problem, research why that problem exists.  Is there a rationale behind the status quo?  Why hasn’t this been addressed already?  There is a good chance your bosses are aware of the problem but are constrained, perhaps by their own bosses or by regulation or even by Congress.  Some problems you might be powerless to change; it’s probably a good idea to move on.  In other cases, you can identify who is responsible for the constraints--and who you need to persuade.

Don’t whine.  Nothing will destroy your credibility faster.  Senior officers want subordinates who can propose solutions and do what it takes to implement them; all whiners do is sap energy and poison attitudes while leaving the hard work to others.

Take yourself out of it.  Stick to facts.  Strip away emotion.  Learn from others so you can reach beyond your own experience.  You can sparingly use personal vignettes, but show your seniors that this is about the organization and not about you.

Be respectful.  You won’t go far in persuading your seniors if you insult them.

Build a reputation for commitment and competence.  As much as you’d like to think that your ideas stand on their own merit, the messenger matters.  Senior leaders will listen to you if you have a proven track record.  If your reputation is poor, your ideas probably don’t stand a chance.

Learn to communicate.  To persuade your superiors, you must package your idea well.  Learn to write.  Learn to speak.  Arrange demonstrations.  If you must, use PowerPoint.  Do whatever it takes to communicate your ideas to those who can implement them.

Edit down.  Your superiors are busy, and your proposal is one of twenty things that will cross their desk that morning.  Be succinct.  Present your ideas clearly, up front.  Your boss will not read twenty rambling, unfocused pages; there are no exceptions.

Use official channels--at first.  Official channels sometimes don’t work; they can be clogged and unresponsive.  However, sometimes they do work, and they are in place for a reason.  You owe it to your bosses to try them.  If the system works, excellent.  If not, then you can consider other avenues to advance your idea.

Enlist allies.  Somebody out there--in your own unit or elsewhere--shares your passion and stands to benefit from your proposed changes.  Find those people.  Build on your shared interests.  Hash out ideas together.  Pool resources and attack the problem from every possible direction.

Don’t worry about credit.  It might be your idea, but it will probably pass through countless hands and layers of supervision before it sees the light of day.  Be okay with that.  Be generous in sharing credit, and be prepared for the possibility that you won’t get credit at all.

Advice for Senior Officers

Senior officers have responsibilities of their own.  First they must recognize the depth and breadth of junior officer frustration.  Dissatisfaction is rampant and cannot be shrugged off.  If senior leaders genuinely care about organizational excellence, they should not casually accept the exodus of any talent.  If processes can be improved, they should be improved.  If they can’t, senior leaders must explain why.  Either way, they must lead and communicate.

Senior leaders must also recognize that creative, innovative officers are an asset.  Opinionated officers don’t write articles on Small Wars Journal because they are troublesome; they write because they care.  Their frustration is a motivating force that, properly harnessed, will lead them to make positive contributions to improving the organization.  If not properly channeled, that same frustration will simply embitter them.  Senior leaders must understand that they have a significant role in determining which outcome will occur.  The following principles can help senior officers bring out the best in their junior officers.

Recognize the value of disruptive junior officers.  They might take your time and energy, but they are one of your most precious resources.  They want to do good for you and for the organization.  Find ways to help them do it.  Everybody will win.

Get involved in the conversation.  Countless junior officers are talking about disruptive thinking, innovation, and reform of personnel systems; with a few notable exceptions, the absence of senior leaders from these conversations is striking.  That sends a message.  Get involved!  Your junior officers will gladly help you find an inroad.

Take the initiative.  So far, junior officers have been leading the debate and senior officers have been on the defensive.  Don’t settle for that.  Lead!  Think, write, and speak about how disruptive junior officers can constructively channel their energy.  Show them that you value what they can offer.

Bear with inexperience.  Your disruptive junior officers are still learning the difficult art of creating change in a vast bureaucracy.  Their communication skills will vary, and they are drawing on limited experience.  They will make mistakes.  They will propose bad ideas, and their tone will sometimes offend you.  Hold them accountable, but be patient.  Remember, there is talent and passion latent beneath that inexperience.  You want to draw it out and put it to work for you.

Mentor disruptive junior officers.  You are a leader; one of your most important duties is to help subordinates learn and grow.  Teach them how to communicate and how to create change.  Show them how they can channel all their frustrations into something positive.  Counsel them when they make mistakes.

Ensure your formal channels are open.  When ideas languish and die in formal channels, it reinforces the message that leaders don’t care.  Disruptive junior officers will be tempted to seek alternative means of advocating ideas, which can be dangerous for everybody.  If you want your junior officers to work within the system, ensure your system works.

Give feedback on every idea.  Your junior officers will often bring forward ideas that are impractical, unworkable, or just plain lousy.  They won’t understand the problem or constraints; they will be blind to second or third order effects; you will anticipate problems that they don’t.  Instead of killing the idea without explanation, take the time to discuss your reasoning.  Affirm their commitment to work for positive change.  If the idea can be improved or altered, give them direction.

Reward innovation at your level.  The military’s assignment and promotion systems are largely incapable of rewarding creativity, innovation, and unique skill sets.  There is little you can do to change that, because the policies are set way above your level.  Don’t let that stop you from rewarding innovation at your own level.  Be generous with verbal praise.  Highlight unique accomplishments.  Create in-unit awards, if appropriate.  Do whatever is within your power to show that you value creativity and innovation.

Take a chance.  Many of the ideas your junior officers bring forward really will be good ones.  Don’t reflexively shoot them down.  If an idea might work, try it.  Your organization will be better if it works.  If it doesn’t, you and your subordinate will learn something and you will have demonstrated trust in your people.  It is also possible that the experiment will lead to a better, revised idea.

Conclusion

Although extremely important, the debate about junior officer frustration with military bureaucracy is stalemated.  Significant changes to evaluation, promotion, or assignment systems can only come from the top down, and these overarching solutions are not yet in sight.  Although vigorous debate about these issues is necessary and important, disruptive junior officers and established senior officers must find a way to break the deadlock and move forward within the existing system.

Both groups share significant common ground.  Officers of all ranks should be concerned with organizational excellence and the ability to execute the mission, which requires continual improvement and innovation.  Both groups bring unique perspectives to this process, and both groups must be in continual dialog.  Even as the debate continues about reform of military personnel systems, both junior and senior officers must listen, communicate, and focus on their shared commitment to creating and leading superior warfighting organizations.

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Comments

Mark, what a great addition to this conversation. What I love most about your input (notice I said "love" ... more on that in a minute) is the way it focuses on communication, which is what this is really all about. My own view is that we have a long road ahead because -- as we must -- we tuned the bureaucratic machine to permit maximum success in this war. That tuning process shifted us away from some things we care about. We made many Faustian bargains, knowingly, to remove obstacles to our best contribution. At some point, it's necessary to either shift back to those values (which will take years from the moment we acknowledge it is necessary), or openly discard them. As long as we refuse to acknowledge there is a huge difference between what we say is in our culture and what we do in our organizational life, dissonance will continue to ring in the minds of officers and enlisted members who bought into those old values. Open, honest communication is the only way forward that has a chance of preserving the military the nation deserves. Your superb article is a great step in that direction, and I hope it catalyzes a new level of discussion.

A couple of thoughts I had as I digested this. First, the role of time. Your recommendations for junior officers are spot-on ... for each of them to be viable, junior officers need time to reflect on their profession. This is something many don't currently have (though sequester could change that). Second, the role of rank and ego. GO/FOs are by definition individuals who have given their entire life to become part of the senior management team. This sometimes gives rise to the "seniority complex" ... a lack of humility that severely undervalues the contributions of junior and mid-level officers. General or not, when you're talking to a 45-year-old wing commander, you're not talking to a "young officer." I don't think we can expect to stay ahead of adaptable enemies like AQ if we don't take someone seriously until they're 50. This doesn't mean a GO should suffer a fool gladly. But s/he must suffer them long enough to determine them a fool rather than relying on age or rank as filtering processes.

One of the embedded assumptions in your work is that people hate bureaucracy. Got me thinking .... why is that? Is it endemic to human impatience and individuality? I submit it's less about its anecdotes and more about what it does to combat performance. This is an important point. Officers aren't looking to disrupt because they envision a military workplace akin to Google or the Body Shop. They hate losing. They see what mediocrity does to their ability to fight effectively. Accepting that we must have a bureaucracy is wise. Accepting that we must have the most rampant, onerous, or ineffectual one is a recipe for failure. One need only read "Blowtorch" Bob Komer's work on Vietnam for a stark example of what happens when we take industrial management too far.

I'll contend with one thing you said concerning the practical inability to find and elevate our best people. We can and have done that successfully. Early broadening helps. Carefully administered promotion incentives help. More than anything, a clear articulation of what we champion helps, because it gets the horses galloping in the first place, so we can eventually see which ones are the strongest and fastest. But what it takes more than anything, I believe is a useful evaluation and feedback system and the will to use it to discern qualitatively between people. I touched on this earlier in the week. I think it's a much bigger problem than it is credited to be, because it keeps us from knowing who's who in the zoo. Of course, we have to want to know that ... and maybe we're OK right now just making everyone feel more or less equal. But that's no way to run a railroad.

The one addition I might suggest if you were to revise ... would be to place midlevel officers in their own category. Commanders at FGO level are the bridge between the good ideas of people and the corporation that needs to hear them. This is of course not the only role for these people ... but it's an important one. It only works if those folks understand it's their job to open up comm channels and also be willing to upchannel things to senior leaders ... using the techniques you outlined. Senior leaders need to trust their FGOs and the processes by which they came to their positions ... and take their inputs to heart.

Finally, Mark, I will just say that emotion plays a role in persuasion. There is no such thing as winning an argument on completely rational terms. I certainly agree with you that *negative* emotion is almost always the wrong way to go ... but *positive* emotion is essential. As Gen Johns (fmr AMC/CC) was fond of quipping: "people don't care what you know until they know you care." He was right. When presenting an idea for consideration, don't leave out the underlying values it connects to.

As you can see, I found your article provocative and useful. I hope it finds a wide audience because you're writing about something critically important. I appreciate you stepping into this discussion and setting a great example for us all.

this is a well balanced article and hopefully it will be read by people on both sides of the equation. a point that is touched on in this article that is sometimes neglected in other discussions about disruptive thinkers is the mentorship factor, and how it can mold ones perception on whether or not they can be persuasive enough to enact change. the difference between thinking "nobody is listening to me" and "at least one person is hearing me out" is astronomical. i work at a headquarters unit and see the importance of this firsthand. during my last deployment there was a well-known bust up between some junior officers and senior officers and warrants. us enlisted folk were never meant to know about it, but since some of the more intellectually astute enlisted were part of workgroups that the junior officers had put together, word got out anyway. within a year of returning, my unit has lost all of its West Point-educated officers to ETS; none of them signed on beyond their initial commitment despite offers of company commands and such. among the four enlisted personnel here who entered the army with bachelors degrees (myself included)and were in the aforementioned workgroups, one is putting in a WO packet and the rest have ETSed as well. having gotten to know all of them in afghanistan and in garrison, i cannot help but wonder what this group of creative and exceptional minds heard from their superiors to convince them all to separate with such haste.

Thanks for the feedback, guys. Esteban, you raise a great point. It would be so helpful if the U.S. military could conduct better exit surveys. I'd also like to see the military keep in touch with separating officers, perhaps sending them follow-up surveys after a year and then five years, to see what their experience has been like in the civilian world. Would they stand by their original critiques of the service? Is the civilian experience better or worse than they expected? Are they seeing business practices in the private sector that they think the Air Force should adopt? Having answers these questions would go a long way in addressing the underlying issues in these debates.

Outstanding work Mark! I appreciate you helping move the conversation forward in a viable way. A lot of people who left the Air Force really did care and wanted to improve the organization - but probably didn't really know how. S.O.S., for example, inspires and activates us to lead...however, we are not taught how to implement these changes to actually influence the system. There could be some insightful feedback to mine if only the Air Force had a real Human Resources department equivalent...I mean, nobody ever asked those who VSP'd or elected to RIF why they actually wanted to leave the Air Force.

Great article, sir.
The importance of allies cannot be overstated. Having a group of like minded people to bounce ideas off of, and vent steam with, is paramount. Ideally the group should have a mix of non-military folks who can bring outside perspectives and new ideas.
While social media is making it easier to do this with people we've never met in person, there is no substitute for person-to-person contact and discussion.