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Sometimes in the course of military operations ill-conceived ideas survive to produce unacceptable outcomes. When this happens, frustrated leaders might ask, “What made us think this would work?” The last decade of persistent conflict has made this a common experience especially when we face problems that are unique. Why would this be the case?
Military professionals prefer thinking that is rational and analytical, and which helps in the selection of ideas that meet feasibility, acceptability, and suitability criterion. In addition, they prefer to select rational and analytical ideas that have a history of working in similar situations as before. This creates a "paradigmatic" mode of typical thinking, which is the opposite of deep, reflective, multi-perspective thinking. This "field expedient" means of just enough thinking to find usual solutions has been so successful, through trial and error, that it takes a deliberate act of will to do original thinking that may take practitioners out of their professional paradigm. It has been so successful that there is great pressure among practitioners to keep doing it precisely because it has been a good way to solve problems that fit within the accepted paradigm of the military profession. In fact, it has made those kinds of problems so "solvable" that we are increasingly only left with the kinds of hard problems that our paradigmatic thinking is not well suited to handle. However, it is not the paradigmatic way of thinking that is "faulty," but rather that when we try to apply it outside of the appropriate context, it begins failing us. The fault is not in the mode of thinking but in its improper application to certain contexts. These contexts are the medium to ill structured problems that FM 5-0 introduces to the profession.
To meet these types of problems, the military profession is expanding its thinking repertoire to include concepts such as “Design”, in order to allow its critical and creative thinking to account for problems that fall outside of the assumed context of the military operating parameters. Professional military education institutions have furthered this effort by turning to theorists who have labeled the mental activities of critical and creative thinking. Several military professional practitioners have described a practical explanation of the same type of activities.
This essay will summarize how cognitive theorists have described critical and creative thinking in general, and how some military practitioners have applied them. In doing so, this essay will propose principles of critical and creative thinking applicable to the military profession to provide a common vocabulary that describes the type of thinking we do. To expand and improve critical and creative thinking, military professionals need a common vocabulary that accurately describes the very thinking we are to expand and improve on. Below is a synopsis of how a sampling of theorists and military practitioners describe the mental activities associated with critical and creative thinking.