The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers

Editor's Note:  Ben's essay has sparked a great deal of discussion and debate.  I plan to continue this debate in a series of essays from our contributors.  I've attempted to frame the problem in this essay and you will be able to find all the "disruptive thinker" essays at this page as they are published.

For my generation, there is one profession that captures our imagination more than any other:  Entrepreneur.  This is especially true of those leaving the military and going to business school.   It would seem logical for the military to find ways to blend the best of entrepreneurial and combat cultures in ventures like a joint Harvard Business School/Naval War College degree program.  

Yet, in reality, the very word entrepreneur is met with blank stares by career servicemembers– and in some cases, viewed as an anathema.  This is primarily because entrepreneurs see a need and without consulting higher authority, simply go ahead and try to solve it.  Their very nature inclines them to disrupt the status quo.  And of course, the one thing a vertically integrated organization like the military hates most is change.  Or at least, change that wasn’t decreed from on high.

Part of this stems from an antiquated, 1950s career model.   A large bureaucracy thrives best when it can promote the average individual in a one-size fits all ascension program.  This, however, necessitates sloughing off the highly talented instead of promoting them in accordance with their ability.  For example, a younger, Marine reservist friend of mine can be a Vice President of Goldman Sachs, overseeing their Hong Kong branch by the age of 31, but would barely be commanding a Marine rifle company at the same point.

To be frank, and to use the words of Joshua Cooper Ramo, “we’ve left our future largely in the hands of people whose single greatest characteristic is that they are bewildered by the present.”  This is mostly because our senior leadership grew up in a time when the internet was still a twinkle in DARPA’s eye.  The only flag officer I know of that consistently and effectively uses social media is Admiral James Stavridis.  He also created cells of innovation among his subordinates, and implemented their suggestions rather frequently.      

The future lies with those individuals who can see connections across a myriad of professions and intellectual pursuits.  The mind that can see that a phone and entertainment device can be intertwined into something like, say, an iPhone.  Or, an intellect that recognizes how secondary and tertiary networks are often more valuable than first-order relationships, thus creating something like LinkedIn.  Or the strategist who understands that crowdsourced, horizontally structured non-state actors pose a greater threat to our security than Nation states. 

A great part of this lies in how we educate our military members.  We educate them in the art of war, but do so with a focus on mere tactics.  We educate them when they are well past the age of agile and innovative thought.  We preach adaptability, flexibility and maneuver warfare, but only do so in relation to the movement of military kit.

The average age of someone attending Harvard Business School is 27 years old.  Most war colleges require at least a rank of O-4, and in some cases, O-5.  By this point, most students are in their mid-30s.  Creative impulses are largely repressed, and most go to get their check-in-the-block degree with no real intellectual rigor.  It’s considered a leisurely billet with plenty of time off where little studying need be done.    

Harvard Business School compiles the best society has to offer – from politics, to non-profits, to military, to tech, to entertainment and athletics.  They get a myriad of viewpoints, classmates who have traveled the world in entirely different capacities, and the synergistic effect of diverse intellects.  They push them hard, keep them busy, and encourage them to change the world. 

The Naval War College has no civilians enrolled.  Their diversity comes from other services, whose only difference in viewpoint comes from navigating a slightly different bureaucracy.  Far from sending students there in their mid-20s who have just returned from the dynamic task of rebuilding a wartorn Afghan village, we wait until they’ve proven their mettle in the bureaucratic morass of a staff job.  

There is a reason the likes of HBS and Stanford produce people who create multi-billion dollar, world changing organizations and our War Colleges don’t.  You can’t innovate and have a long term impact if you are only surrounded by like-minded people.  You must challenge closely held assumptions daily if you want to have an impact.  This, again, is anathema to a career military person.

Furthermore, our war colleges teach doctrinaire procedures, not critical, creative thinking.  They focus primarily on the tactical employment of forces rather than the strategic context those tactics play out in.  Where are the courses on trends in physics like chaos theory?  Behavioral economics and psychology?  Investment strategy?  Creating and adapting a dynamic balance sheet?  True strategic leaders are generalists who can pull from a variety of interests, not hedgehogs who can only do one thing well. 

The reason John Boyd was so successful was because he understood the world of thermodynamic physics and saw a connection with fighter aviation that his peers never could.  Steve Jobs built elegant and useful technology because he explored calligraphy in college.  It was the fact that they investigated beyond their respective professions that gave them a truly brilliant edge.  

At the O-6 level and below, the military has voluntarily removed itself from heavy interaction with civilians.  We’ve sent more of our graduate students to places like the Naval Post Graduate School instead of MIT in what is a very short term cost saving measure.   We limit their creative potential to defined projects, instead of open-ended interaction with brilliant civilians in an unfamiliar environment.

Instead, the DoD should be partnering with our nation’s preeminent institutions and create joint degree programs to promote cross-pollinating interaction.  HBS and the Naval War College would be perfect partners.  You give aspiring business leaders a view into strategic thought, and future strategists a glimpse of how an entrepreneurial culture is transforming our culture.  And this doesn’t even begin to address what happens after ad hoc alliances are formed between young, energetic minds of various professions. 

As a result of the frustratingly single-minded education the military offers, a fellow officer and I started an organization designed to foster what we call a “disruptive mindset.”  Our goal was to bring together intellectually curious officers with successful civilian innovators, get them to chat, and see what happened.  We did this around a monthly syllabus designed to foster creative thought and new avenues of discovery.  We call it Disruptive Thinkers, and it has started to change the shape of San Diego.

We’ve seen entrepreneurs team up with a Destroyer skipper to implement a new type of pump technology.  We’ve had teachers use our wide-ranging syllabus with students as young as the fourth grade.  We’ve helped develop the business plan for a disaster relief social entrepreneurial project.  And we’ve even gotten four of our junior officer Disruptive Thinkers to sit on a panel at a recent USNI/AFCEA conference and proclaim the gospel of innovation in strategic situations.

It’s military education without anything to do directly with the military.  We’ve done topics on the future of energy, crowdsourcing, leadership, challenging established political institutions, and biomimicry.  We’ve linked up venture capitalists and cryogeneticists with F/A-18 pilots and Surface Warfare junior officers.  We’ve seen teachers integrate our syllabi into their fourth grade classrooms.  Mostly, we’ve seen an excitement around ideas and a willingness to push innovation in the military that was not previously seen in our monolithic culture.

The most notable benefit is that our military peers are starting to see connections and relationships between seemingly mutually exclusive fields.  They see the potential for new avenues of procurement, new ways of approaching battlefield problems, and most importantly, new ways of integrating the trends that are affecting every part of our world into their professional culture.  

Orson Scott Card noted that “every officer learns how to function within the system that promoted him.”  So we get officers who think small, don’t understand the importance of broad understanding, and miss the trends that are shaping our world.  We get procurement officials who buy $150 million strike fighters when the future may be in autonomous, cheap, swarming drones

It’s time we get leadership that understands the present.  This necessarily requires understanding the context of our world.  That context is not merely in artillery shells and Tomahawk missiles, but rather crowdfunding, horizontal management, social media and broad interaction with people not like us.  Adaptable strategy requires the ability to consider everything, not merely one thing.  The beginning of such thought is a Disruptive Mind. 

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Comments

I agre with the statement that army need more creative thinking, however this situation is slowly changing for better. Well, at least this is how I see it. If you compare it to the situation from a few years, there are many more innovative, creative project within the army. I think this has been achieved thanks to disruptive thinkers.

"...Vice President of Goldman Sachs, overseeing their Hong Kong branch by the age of 31, but would barely be commanding a Marine rifle company at the same point."

You write as though it is more difficult and prestigious to be a Goldman Sachs branch manager than a rifle company commander. I disagree. Don't confuse pay with significance.

There are many thinkers in the military. Some are divergent (maybe disruptive) and some are convergent. There is a need for both. The military will not attract many of the disruptive thinkers as described by Kohlmann because there is not enough power, money, or acceptance for the way they think and handle their business. One can view this as weakness or strength depending on what side of the coin you fall with respect to the amount of power our military holds. Either way, our military will always need innovation, intelligence, and critical thinking to continue its tradition of excellence.

This article is the intellectual equivalent of junk food. It ignores the dotcom collapse and hopelessly confuses several different meanings of the word entrepeneur. Today it means HBS educated appartchiks who use insider status to float over-valued companies to bought using other peoples money by pension fund running classmates (was anyone really stupid enough to buy Facebook shares with their own money?) but it used to mean genuine innovators like Bill Packard. The two are not, not nearly, the same.

Even more seriously, the article ignores the real cause of poor performance in the US armed forces. This isn't a lack of entrepeneurial spirit but of vested interest on the part of officers, politicians, bureacrats and even voters in programs that are especially attractive for non-military reasons. For example, spending on hardware production is subject to much more stringent and effective controls than spending on R&D - so the result has been a shift to attempting to produce ever more advanced platforms exactly so that R&D spending becomes proportionately greater. Even worse, the interest of this lobby leads to strategic goals that are often insane - SDI and preparing for a carrier war with China are two good examples. The disruption the US military needs isn't "entrepeneurism" but moral integrity and intellectual rigour.

Entrepeneurialism in the Bill Packward sense is an irrelevance to countering this, and entrepeneurialism in the Dotcome sense is just another way of saying "Let's invite the chickens into the hen house - it'll be proactive!!!"

The Air Force has ruined something very similar to what Kohlmann proposes. The Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) is a masters degree program where a student can go in residence (watered down group think) or attend an honest-to-God civilian post grad school as a regular student. Used to be this program was offered to company grade officers, just the right time as Kohlmann proposes. But the powers that be (ie pilots) didn't like it because pilots are supposed to be learning how to fly planes better when they are CGOs, therefore they were under-represented in the program. Heaven forbid, we can't have that. Pilots, by the shear fact they are a pilot, are somehow imbued with distinctive leadership traits mere earthbound officers are unable to divine. Therefore GEN Jumper rolled AFIT up into the intermediate PME program, meaning only field grade officers could attend. And guess what, pilots would now get the majority of billets as well since as FGOs they have supposedly become masters of their craft and now can use that divine leadership ability to check the necessary box to eventually make O-6. Yep, we once had a great program, and we ruined it to make sure pilots can get all the right boxes checked for promotion.

That is exactly the kind of people and thinking we need in the military. I have been one my entire career and (yes I may never get all the strips possible) I will be able to sleep at night knowing I did all I could to make my unit better than it was. To often in the military we limit ourselves to only the "out of the box thinking" that the old man comes up with. I don't mind change, but only when it is for the better. To often it change is because someone of ranks says "this is how I did it" or "this is how we did it in out last unit/organization etc, and the change is not for the better. Or because they don't want to do what the last guy did or want to put their mark on it. Out of the box thinking can streamline processes, save money, time and resources and lives. If it works, doesn't break any worthwhile laws, rules, regs or violate a policy, who cares. Those type of thinkers should be rewarded and promoted.

Aha, Lt Kohlmann has struck a chord (or is it a nerve?). I am a former Marine, retired cop (33 years) and a police chief for 25 of those years. During my career, I was a disruptive thinker -- called a young turk in those days and went from being a 30 year old detective with a master's degree to head up a platoon-sized police department and then onto an organization of over 300. (I also raised a daughter who now is in your ranks as a CPT and who disrupts things by frequently reminding her commanders of the "Army Values" which are frequently overlooked by those in power.)

I have a new book out,that you Army guys may want to take a look at. It's about leadership and a positive future. (My daughter and I have also read William Deresiewicz's article, "Solitude and Leadership' in the Spring 2010 issue of the “The American Scholar.” I hope you all have, too. (Link added by Moderator) http://theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership/

I think my new book will support what some of you are trying to do,it's on Amazon.com and titled, "Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police." Keep up the good work! (link added by Moderator) http://www.amazon.com/Arrested-Development-Veteran-Corruption-Necessary/...

Ah, to be young and of a lower rank again, to view the world thru rose-colored glasses...there really is no place in the military for these types of "disruptive thinkers", at least not those that conduct business at the pointy end of the spear...business world maybe, but the U.S. military, I think not...how many times has the flavor of the month in the business world failed to work in the military (anyone remember TQM, Quality Circles, Prometheus Effect, and all that other nonsense)? Nice try though...

There was almost no room for the young turk named Patton who advocated tanks over horses after WWI. Without Gen Marshall there would have been no room for a young guy from the Philippines, LTC Eisenhower. Without WWII there would have been no room for the guy who invented the hedgerow cutter. Quantico invited all of the Regimental Commanders from the Inchon-through-Chosin campaign to speak, but there was no room for the 1st Marine Division Command who resisted the foolish ideas of McArthur/Almond.

There's no room for the disruptive thinker who wrote the bible on air-to-air fighter tactics, and discovered Energy-Maneuverability theory (on which all aircraft design is based). There's no room for the distruptive thinkers who initiated the F15 design, or the F16, or the A10, or the F18. There was no room for a disruptive thinker's ink-blot tactics in Vietnam--he wore three stars. There was certainly no room for an Air Force officer to require the U.S. Army to have honest testing of the Bradley.

There's no room for the first disruptive thinkers who advocated Maneuver Warfare used in DESERT STORM, or the change in tactics used in 2007 in Iraq. With the Small Wars Manual and other COIN books, I could not figure out in 2006 why Gen Petraeus needed to spend time writing the 3-24 COIN manual. Then, in 2007, I figured it out: he could go to Iraq and hit officers over the head with it when they did not follow its principles. I realized it was an internal marketing piece.

There's no room for advancement of the disruptive thinkers who initiated MRAPs, or GBOSS, or mine rollers, or ubiquitous UAS (the officers who really initiated these devices, not those bureaucrats who have been taking credit for them), or other aspects of the surge that occurred in 2007. No, they were sent far away from the war, away from positions of increased responsibility, railroaded or forced to retire. There's no room for the Yinglings, or the Nagls, or others who proved themselves in combat and then voted with their feet.

Along the lines of disruptive thinking, this video details the experiences of a group of fighter pilots in Afghanistan:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yz0zcg3Cl6A

I think Kohlmann certainly has some valid points, but I think some of the
impact of the article is lessened by some of his more general, sweeping
statements and viewing things from the relatively limited perspective of an
F/A-18 pilot. With all the stick time and carrier landings he had and his
time as an instructor I would presume that his experiential set is rather
limited and narrow. Some things that jumped out at me:

- "It would seem logical for the military to find ways to blend the best of entrepreneurial and combat cultures in ventures like a joint Harvard
Business School/Naval War College degree program."
Absolutely concur with blending cultures and viewpoints, we talk
about a lot of that when we discuss JIIM environment and multiple agencies
they'll have to deal with downrange. I can't speak to he "entrepreneurial"
culture because I haven't experienced it in the HBS sense that he describes.

- "The very word entrepreneur is met with blank stares by career
servicemembers- and in some cases, viewed as an anathema. This is primarily because entrepreneurs see a need and without consulting higher authority, simply go ahead and try to solve it. Their very nature inclines them to disrupt the status quo."
Since when is acting without consulting higher, trying to solve
problems as you see fit disrupting the status quo? We stress through
multiple venues the significance of CDRs providing intent and guidance that
is specifically designed to enable this very thing. This may be a blind
spot for the Naval aviation fighter culture he comes from, I don't know.

- "A large bureaucracy thrives best when it can promote the average
individual in a one-size fits all ascension program. This, however,
necessitates sloughing off the highly talented instead of promoting them in
accordance with their ability."
I disagree that the system necessitates sloughing off the highly
talented; it may be a side effect of a very large system, but I don't think
it's a necessity.

- "To be frank, and to use the words of Joshua Cooper Ramo, "we've left our
future largely in the hands of people whose single greatest characteristic
is that they are bewildered by the present.""
What a horribly condescending statement. Makes him come across as a smartass.

- "The future lies with those individuals who can see connections across a
myriad of professions and intellectual pursuits. An intellect that
recognizes how secondary and tertiary networks are often more valuable than
first-order relationships, thus creating something like LinkedIn. Or the
strategist who understands that crowd-sourced, horizontally structured
non-state actors pose a greater threat to our security than Nation states."

I'll presume that he's never had the privilege to serve with leaders like GEN McChrystal or Petraeus, or for that matter MAJ Bo Mixon my last BDE S-2. They all did all of these things, they just never applied them to the business world and made a gazillion dollars. Does that mean that they're failures?

-" A great part of this lies in how we educate our military members. We
educate them in the art of war, but do so with a focus on mere tactics. We
educate them when they are well past the age of agile and innovative
thought. We preach adaptability, flexibility and maneuver warfare, but only do so in relation to the movement of military kit."
An overarching statement made from an officer with limited
experience and perspective. I reject his assertion that service members are "well past the age of agile and innovative thought" in our PME.

- "Most war colleges require at least a rank of O-4, and in some cases, O-5. By this point, most students are in their mid-30s. Creative impulses are largely repressed, and most go to get their check-in-the-block degree with no real intellectual rigor. It's considered a leisurely billet with plenty of time off where little studying need be done."
Another snarky comment that makes him seem like a smartass.

- "The Naval War College has no civilians enrolled. Their diversity comes
from other services, whose only difference in viewpoint comes from
navigating a slightly different bureaucracy. Far from sending students
there in their mid-20s who have just returned from the dynamic task of
rebuilding a wartorn Afghan village, we wait until they've proven their
mettle in the bureaucratic morass of a staff job."
As an example of diversity in viewpoint I would point to any seminar of your choosing in either PCC or TCDP. When we go around the room on Day 1 and do introductions it is always very revealing to both me and the students what an incredible array of experiences and viewpoints are resident in a 16-man seminar. I can't speak from the perspective of a student at the Naval War College, but can say that my own experience in PME as both a student and instructor has provided plenty of diversity. Again, maybe life as a fighter jock is pretty insular.

- "There is a reason the likes of HBS and Stanford produce people who create multi-billion dollar, world changing organizations and our War Colleges don't. You can't innovate and have a long term impact if you are only surrounded by like-minded people. You must challenge closely held
assumptions daily if you want to have an impact. This, again, is anathema
to a career military person. Furthermore, our war colleges teach
doctrinaire procedures, not critical, creative thinking. They focus
primarily on the tactical employment of forces rather than the strategic
context those tactics play out in."
It's not the job of the War Colleges to produce billionaires. If that's his only measure of success he's on the wrong foot. The comment about only surrounding yourself with like-minded people is spot on, as is the comment about being willing to challenge closely held assumptions. How many of us tell students that they've got to watch out for the 'we've always done it this way' mentality in their organizations? His comments about war college curriculum is absolutely wrong and reflects his ignorance.

- "At the O-6 level and below, the military has voluntarily removed itself
from heavy interaction with civilians."
So as a BN CDR I didn't deal with the senior civilian leadership of
Columbia, SC or the civic leadership that wanted to come see what Basic
Combat Training was about? As a DCO I didn't have to deal with the CASAs of Kentucky and Tennessee, CODELs ad nauseum, the interagency members that made up the District Support Teams and the PRT? Routine interaction with
civilians of various stripes at the company grade and junior field grades is much more robust now than when I was a LT or CPT.

- "We call it Disruptive Thinkers, and it has started to change the shape of San Diego. We've seen entrepreneurs team up with a Destroyer skipper to
implement a new type of pump technology. We've had teachers use our
wide-ranging syllabus with students as young as the fourth grade. We've
helped develop the business plan for a disaster relief social
entrepreneurial project."
Once you get past the hyperbole and self-serving statement about
changing the shape of San Diego I think there are some great points. The
power of multi-disciplined approaches is indisputable. Perhaps he's never
heard of leaders from BNs or BCTs teaming up with the civic leaders of a
local city so they can get ideas on what it takes to make a power plant run
before they deploy to Iraq and have to supervise GOI guys doing the same
thing. That's a great idea that folks in the current fight have been
leveraging for years to deploy to the OE.

- Some of the best parts of the site were the comments at the bottom of the page. One of them caught my eye:
"My first step on reading this was to hop over to the Disruptive Thinkers
blog to get a hint of what thinking was actually going on. One entry summed
up very neatly one of the problems with this approach. The post describes an effort by a group of bright "disruptive thinkers" to come to grips with
California's energy picture, its future, and its problems. I quote a
relevant section: "Before we were able to come up with solutions, however,
we first had to define the problems facing the implementation of disruptive
energy solutions. And while all three groups had the task of discussing
local energy policy, the randomly assigned groups tackled the problem from
very different perspectives. In figuring out the questions to ask, we also
discovered that many of us had no idea where our energy comes from." After
actually and literally laughing out loud, I looked again at the author
information, and wondered how he would react if he heard that a bunch of
bright young disruptive thinkers who had never flown an airplane were in all seriousness holding a forum to review flight and training procedures for the F/A-18."

LT Kohlmann has some great points and has passion and earnestness on his
side. He would probably be helped out by seeking out a trusted mentor who
has more experience than him and can give him a wider perspective. Good
article.

In the military, there are a number of divergent thinkers. These are the people who we claim can “think outside the box.” There are some within the military that think everyone should be “outside the box” thinkers. As valuable as they are, there still needs to be a balance. It is desirable to have both convergent and divergent thinkers within a group. Divergent thinkers drive the innovation and forward thinking while the convergent thinkers take the ideas and think of ways to produce and implement the new product. After reading this article, I was introduced to disruptive thinkers and the idea that the military needs more of them. While I do not disagree with the premise of the article completely, I thought of a few aspects of the design of our military that have and will always limit the number of disruptive, entrepreneurial, radical, or thinkers. First, the military is designed to remain subordinate to civilian control by our constitution. Many disruptive thinkers would recognize this “glass ceiling” and avoid service in the military altogether. Second, the pay in the military is sufficient to support a family and/or a semi-decent bachelor lifestyle, but eventually a good number of disruptive thinkers will expect to receive more treasure in return for their extraordinary contribution to the military. Last, leaders in the military tend to label the people that fit Kohlmann’s description as troublemakers or dissenters. Of the handful of people with whom I have served that fit Kohlmann’s description (I am not one of these – I am extremely convergent in thinking), one still remains in the military. He happens to be a glutton for punishment. The rest became frustrated and left the military. Nevertheless, there is a need for persons to innovate and create within the military. Success in attracting and retaining these people will require more than our country is willing to accept within its military.

The Constitution established the executive branch of the government in article II. Within this article, the document establishes the military as a subordinate organization to the President of the United States who is an elected civilian. Our founding fathers crafted the military to be subordinate to civilian control to keep military power from growing and establishing a military state within the U.S. They knew that if there wasn’t a limit to the military might of a nation, the risk of a military coup was great. This creates a limit to the power of the military as an institution and the power of the individuals in uniform. When you look at the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, etc. there is a commonality between them. They were rewarded for their contributions with wealth and power. The power they attained was only limited by their own ambition. There were no “glass ceilings” like we have in the military. This would dissuade these thinkers from interest in the military long term because they would recognize this weakness and go where the real challenge for them waits.

Many people claim that they do not care about how much money they have. This is an easy position to defeat by asking them to give up all of their money every paycheck to my bank account (contact me offline if you want to prove me wrong). People expect a return on an investment. If I spend 40 hours in a week cooking hamburgers, I expect a paycheck. If I create a product that creates millions of dollars in revenue, I expect a much larger check. Now, money motivates people at different levels and has a different importance to different people. However, money is needed and to many people remains their biggest motivator to excel. In the military, there is a cap to the amount of money one can make. This compensation will, generally, be too little for most of the people that fit Kohlmann’s description of a disruptive thinker.

Recently, Congress has asked the military to cut $487 billion from its budget in 2013. These budget cuts will result in a reduction of forces. Over the next few years, there will be a mass exodus of troops from the military based on lack of performance, disciplinary issues, or not meeting the standards. With fewer incentives to stay in the military coupled with a military that must draw down, many of the trouble makers and malcontents will leave the military either voluntarily or involuntarily. Since many leaders categorize disruptive thinkers as trouble makers, they could become the targets in many cases. I predict that there will be fewer of these thinkers as they move to greener pastures in the corporate world or at Mensa meetings.

There are many thinkers in the military. Some are divergent (maybe disruptive) and some are convergent. There is a need for both. The military will not attract many of the disruptive thinkers as described by Kohlmann because there is not enough power, money, or acceptance for the way they think and handle their business. One can view this as weakness or strength depending on what side of the coin you fall with respect to the amount of power our military holds. Either way, our military will always need innovation, intelligence, and critical thinking to continue its tradition of excellence.

MAJ Patrick B. McNeace
US Army Command and General Staff College

The views expressed in this comment are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government

I think SAMS at Fort Leavenworth is or at least when I was there, following a curriculum that this article talks about.

In my humble opinion, for my generation of naval officers, the greatest disruptive thinker was Vice Admiral Hyman Rickover. As us now aged former naval officers remember, if it hadn't been for Admiral Rickover there would not have been a nuclear Navy. His efforts were opposed at every step of the way by the NSFO bred surface officers (I was an 1100) and the (13nn) Aviators, especially those at Flag Rank. His story is one to consider and explore if one is interested in the positive impact of a disruptive military thinker. He was particularly opposed by his fellow Flag rank officers due to his engineering designator. Finally as the 1960's progressed and "his" nuclear subs made consistent fools out of us in the ASW business and his brought about nuclear powered surface ships ran circles around our NSFO powered ships we (non-Flag level types) came to appreciate the incredible value of that rather eccentric Admiral. Listening to VP and VS Squadron and CAG Commanders (O-5's) and Captains (O-6's) begin to praise Rickover at briefings brought home the message of the value of a disruptive thinker who was brilliant and did his homework. If it hadn't been for his political ability and Congressional connections, the line Admirals would have driven Admiral Rickover out the Navy long before he finished his task.

The other disruptive thinker of my time was Lt. Gen. Victor (Brute) Krulak, then commanding FMFPAC who had the courage to stand up to President Johnson and Westmoreland. Krulak argued with both in favor of his inkblot strategy for pacifying South Vietnam village by village, what today would be called COIN operations, which military strategy was vocally opposed by Westmoreland. He also understood that to win in Vietnam we needed to bomb North Vietnam into submission by choosing and destroying truly meaningful strategic and tactical targets, not the nonsense targets being selected by the Johnson / McNamara D.C. DOD civilian team and to close Haiphong Harbor. His being willing to confront President Johnson with his "accurate" views resulted in his being passed over for promotion to Commandant of the Marine Corps.

The example of USAF Col. John Boyd in another posting is an example of an insightful disruptive thinker and, despite probably being considered heretical by my generation of naval officers, let us not forget USAAF General Billy Mitchell.

Unfortunately, expressing disruptive thinking is generally not synonymous with career advancement, but thankfully for us there have been officers willing to take the risk.

You got that right! Those are great examples. We could not get adequate leadership from within the Navy for Rickover's ideas, he had to go outside DoD and get it from the Board of Directors, Congress. Didn't the Senate refuse to promote any Admirals for any position until Rickover was made an admiral? Similar examples exist today.

As I sent this article around to my email distribution list I received many comments back. Although the below comment I recevied is an apparant ad hominem on our bold Lieutenant who has the cojones to write and publish this article, the points about post Vietnam as well as the development of air power do provide some food for thought. I certainly hope that Lieutenant does not become dust in the wind and keeps fighting to get his ideas out there.

QUOTE: This increasingly old fart is always amused by stories like this.  My personal experience, and, more importantly, reading of history, shows that the Lieutenant Kohlmanns of the world contribute precious little to true innovation and necessary change.  When they discover that the rest of the world is not obligated to do their bidding, and they face the inevitable friction of large organizations, they leave in a huff, or sink into mediocrity in a funk.  The innovators are the ones that stay in and learn to live with the fact that other people do not always agree with them.  Look, for example, at the generation of Army officers post-Vietnam, facing a situation infinitely worse than we face now, who stayed in the Army and rebuilt it.  Billy Mitchell contributed virtually nothing to the great rise of American airpower which contributed so decisively to victory in World War II compared to his counterparts of the interwar era who stayed in the [then] Air Corps and worked from within—the Hap Arnolds, the Spaatzs, the Andrewses, the Eakers.  
 
The Lieutenant Kohlmanns of the world make good copy, but ultimately, for good reason, all they are is dust in the wind. END QUOTE

I wish such self-described old farts would just go away. People leave in a huff because they cannot stand to look such stodgy and probably incompetent but overbearing seniors in the face for one day longer.

Interestingly, one of the reasons I started Disruptive Thinkers was to hear from people I disagree with. I've found in my personal experience that beliefs are refined best when explored beyond one's preconceived notions. Innovation usually occurs when you approach a problem in an unforseen way -- and learn from failure. Not all my solutions may be right, but I'd like to think the attempt at exploring new avenues sparks disucssion (which it seems to have done) that will come up with better ones. I've come to terms with the fricion in this bureaucracy -- and I'm doing my best to figure out new ways of maneuvering within it so that it becomes more effective.

Perhaps instead of simply dismissing an attempt at posing a possible solution to rigid orthodoxy, the gentlemen mentioned would like to contribute his years of wisdom in mentoring young bucks seeking to reform the system. I don't have all the answers, but I like trying to find out what they are -- and all perspectives help orient us to an ultimate solution. I would love to chat with him and see if he can be of any help in our endeavors.

To be compared to Billy Mitchell as a 29 year old is quite the honor. I only hope I can predict something akin to Pearl Harbor 20 years before it happens. To be sure, he was a brash officer with self-serving tendencies, but he helped lay the groundwork for the luminaries mentioned. Not every officer should be emulated perfectly -- Boyd basically abandoned his family despite his strategic brilliance -- but if we take the best of everybody, hopefully we can shape our lives in a positive direction. Which is exactly what I'm trying to do in the thought world. Business and industry isnt perfect -- but there are many good and useful lessons to be learned from entrepreneurial thought.

Finally, the notion that officers who leave are somehow ineffective is ridiculous. Civilians run our military. If I take the ideas and lessons learned while here, and apply them in industry or the civilian side of government, national security still benefits. In fact, it benefits more because of the conceptual blending that occurs.

Military members always complain that those in civilian authority lack proper uniformed experience. Then career officers scoff at those who leave before 20 years as selling out, or not being able to hack it. You can't have it both ways. The future Secretary of the Navy who spent "only" four years on a ship is probably more effective than the O-6 with 30 who simply retires on a beach in Hawaii. This is the type of insular, siloed thinking Disruptive Thinkers is trying to combat.

This was posted downthread a bit; I'm sticking the reply at the top of the pile because my egocentric nature wants it to be read. It's also important to the issue being discussed, I think...

What the author is alluding to is a very simple fact---currently we do not train "generalists" as staff officers---but in order to be effective at Design it requires "generalists"---the new adaptive forms of thinking that current ecosystems use to confront us daily in Afghanistan, to the ME, to the Philippines demands a new mind set---a mind set that is capable of challenging our own decision making processes that the system has been teaching for years

I think this misses the point rather spectacularly. Our dealings with these unfamiliar ecosystems have been hampered largely by two phenomena, neither of which have anything to do with a decision making process or a lack of generalists.

First, we have a problem that's the absolute opposite of a failure to train generalists. We often lack the knowledge that comes with real intimate familiarity with the ecosystems in question. Either we don't have qualified area specialists, or we don't listen to them because they tell us things we don't want to hear. No decisions making process, not Design, not MDMP, not Disruptive Thinking nor anything else will be effective if the basic inputs of information and assumption are inadequate or defective. Without specialist knowledge the decision makers have no way of determining whether their inputs are valid or not. The trend toward worship of the generalist actually exacerbates this problem, as more and more bright young generalists arrive in these environments convinced that they know enough to make things work, when in fact they know just about enough to make things worse.

The second recurring problem is that the scope of action is all too often limited by artificial constraints imposed by outside forces, particularly home-front policy. That's not a problem that any decision-making process on the military level can effectively address, though any decision-making process needs to acknowledge these constraints from the start. If you're in a field position with no influence over policy, the last thing you need is for a staff to hand you a very elegant plan that is incompatible with the parameters handed down from on high.

Dayuhan---if your eductional system does not allow, nor teach you the ability to ask the simple question WHY, or it does not accept you asking the WHY then all the superior external knowledge of a specific ecosystem is worthless.

Think about what you are saying---ie if I am super smart about an ecosystem then in fact I will be able to impart that knowledge into the decision making process thus impacting the outcome of the decision making---get real that does not happen often in a system that has a linear decision making process that is largely black and or white or both.

As the author indicates or is attempting to indicate just because you are not a subject matter expert in a particular ecosystem-- that should not stop one from creative thinking and contributing to the overall decision making process---I have known a number of as you state "those with real intimate familiarity" who have massively failed as they did not understand how to "sell" that knowledge into the existing decision making process that we call MDMP.

You need to spend some really long time with battle staffs at the tactical and operational levels---then you can understand "with deep familiarity" just where the author is coming from.

Will give you an example---you will remember the massive dispute here in SWJ concerning the VSO program that broke out when a creative thinker published his comments--how it was torn apart even in SWJ, how the author was attacked, and now after implementation we see countless articles slowly coming out that in fact it was the correct way forward.

Following your thinking as stated above that creative thinking author should have said nothing---is he currently in AFG just as frustrated as much as this author is---I would wager the anwser is yes as the system that we work in is currently of a different opinion and protects the current decision making process even as it talks about Design.

Are we now relying on "the educational system" to teach us to ask "why", and to think creatively? What about the lessons learned in the field, where all we learn in a classroom is catalyzed from information to knowledge?

It's impossible to do effective thinking or planning if you don't have the subject matter expertise yourself or are not willing to listen to those who do. We tend to focus too much on the process of thought, and not enough on the distortions imposed by defective inputs and externally imposed constraints, which will mangle any thought process.

To someone outside the system, the whole idea of a doctrinally prescribed process of thinking seems, I confess, quite absurd, as different people think differently by nature, and may use very different processes to come up with the same conclusions. I would merely caution against the assumption that ideas clothed in the jargon of postmodernism or in a cloak of buzzwords are automatically disruptive, original, or even productive. Very often the really creative ideas come not from the heavily educated ones with the geek-chic buzzwords, but from someone who has more time in the dust and mud than in classrooms. We have to look for and listen to those guys too, especially when they know the ground we're working on.

I am possibly biased, as an area specialist myself, and thus a bit of a dinosaur by current reckoning. Many's the time, though, that I've seen a bold and bright young generalist walk into this patch, give a superficial look around, and come up with what he firmly believes to be a bold and creative solution, but which can't possibly work, either because it's based on invalid assumptions or because it fails to consider basic features of the physical or human terrain. Of course if you say that you'll be dismissed as a traditional thinker who cam't see the virtue of challenging new ideas. Just gotta let them make their own mistakes, even if they've been made a dozen times before...

Dayuhan---and as a "area specialist" have you been able to make an impact?---doubt it.

It is in fact all about education---I would rather in a battle staff have young officers that fully understand the concepts of disruptive thinking asking the Why questions coupled with "area specialists" that can provide feedback and help shape Design. The problem is is you are in fact a DAC or Contractor "area specialist" you are often ignored as you do not wear the uniform.

But you seemingly miss the point---if the education system does not teach it then it will never occur---think about it.

Sit currently in any BCT or for that matter Div or Corp battle staff during say a CTC rotation, MRE or CPX, and you will understand what I am talking about.

Dayuhan---and as a "area specialist" have you been able to make an impact?---doubt it.

It is in fact all about education---I would rather in a battle staff have young officers that fully understand the concepts of disruptive thinking asking the Why questions coupled with "area specialists" that can provide feedback and help shape Design. The problem is is you are in fact a DAC or Contractor "area specialist" you are often ignored as you do not wear the uniform.

But you seemingly miss the point---if the education system does not teach it then it will never occur---think about it.

Sit currently in any BCT or for that matter Div or Corp battle staff during say a CTC rotation, MRE or CPX, and you will understand what I am talking about.

I recall an OPD for OERs in which an officer told me "if your a company commander, don't write 'this LT is destined for General level ranks' as your a commander...you have no idea what happens at the general level. Write at your level." It strikes me that this officer is writing above his level of expertise, regardless of founding his own think tank. Yes, some change is required, but the author speaks as if he has been to the NWC, Stanford, and Harvard. As a combat arms officer, experience is the best teacher. Some have innate talent, and those are promoted below, and in some cases double BZ. For those who have demonstrated potential to numerous senior raters, those officers receive opportunities such as attending Stanford/Harvard and JCS internships to see upper level leadership. As for the civilian integration, apparently Ben hasn't seen any other aspect of the military where civilians nearly outnumber the military. As for changes within the military mindset, Cebrowski, Gray, and Hoffman all have extraordinary insights into modifying the mentality to embrace flexibility of the officer corps vice the current standard of military training. Change is required, both in acquiring materiel to fight as well as methods to train/fight. Simply stating the integration of the civilian business model into an officers training model is narrow at best.

Warrior.0608,

Let's accept your argument that the author is writing above his level of expertise, and that he (and other junior officers) have "no idea what happens at the general level". I don't agree with that, but let's accept it as true for the sake of argument. Now's the hard part...if the junior officer corps perceives that the general officer corps is:
-woefully under-equipped to handle intellectually demanding problems
-the product of a lockstep time-in-rank promotion system
-under-served by a weak PME and NWC curriculum
-in general, composed of sycophants, careerists, and what's left after the good officers got out
....it doesn't really matter if it's true. If the perception is that those points are true (and that perception is prevalent among many military officers), the impact is the same. There is no universal arbiter to determine if our general officer corps is strong. Their credibility IS low, many good officers ARE getting out, and safe, careerist decision-making IS the standard in DoD.

I agree with you that the author comes off as somewhat condescending, and I know why more senior officers are offended. But the fact remains that this intellectual undercurrent (namely, that the military is sytematically setting itself up for a fall) is real and it's affecting our ability to make mission. Turning a blind eye to it or criticizing the experience level behind a dissenting opinion is the the response of someone who's part of the problem.

frankfurman, great points I simply cannot refute, and those I have utilized in the past. My own perceptions are that there are many, I stress many and not ALL, general officers who I do not believe are competent in the current fight. This however is probably the case in many previous wars, although I have no basis of fact for this belief. What is true is that general officers have a say in what general officers are accepted into the club, and this breeds the same type of "woefully under-equipped officer" to prevail... however a look at the current generals, of which I believe GEN Dempsey and Odierno are well qualified, stresses the general officer corps writ large (if utilizing these two as examples) is not flawed. I believe they are changing things, and for the better based upon their experiences and vast experience with the troops (of which I've seen firsthand in their circulation). So this gives me hope the next "breed" of general officers will in fact begin to knock out this perception. Alas, perception is based upon majority, and there you have your point: a few good "thinkers" cannot deny a young LT/CPTs perceptions. So the center of gravity if you will of the army is truly focused upon the younger generation of officers and providing them a new perception: change and flexibility are the new trends, and will continue post conflict.

I am a West Point graduate and Harvard MBA. I am also a Vietnam vet and married to a Harvard MBA. One of my web site readers recommended this article apparently because of similarities between Kohlmann’s conclusions and mine. The Harvard MBA is the most common graduate degree among West Point grads. There are 23 in my class. The second and third most common degrees among West Pointers are apparently the Harvard MPA and the Harvard JD. General William Westmoreland, the first American general to lose a war, graduated from a three-month executive course at HBS. I have not done a study, but my impression is that Harvard MBAs in the Army officer corps are unchanged by the degree. Even the slightest disruption by an Army officer is the end of your career. I was thrown out of the Army (honorable discharge) for “defective attitude.” What did I do? I refused to sign false documents and other behaviors that are Officially Prohibited but Unofficially Mandatary (OPUM) and I refused to comply with OVUM (Officially Voluntary but Unofficially Mandatory) behaviors like attending so-called “command performance” parties hosted by colonels on the weekend, giving “my fair share” to United Fund, and so on. There are two detailed articles at my Web site about these matters: "Is military integrity a contradiction in terms?" and “Officially Voluntary but Unofficially Mandatory (OVUM) stuff in the Army.” My solution to the problem Kohlmann is addressing is a draft and abolition of volunteering to join or remain in the military. See my web article “Should there be a military draft?” Other than specialized military skills like fighter pilot, everyone in the military at all ranks would be draftees. Persons would be assigned rank and jobs according to their civilian work experience and training. This was sort of done by the SeaBees in WW II and to an extent, a bunch of the WW II officer corps were instant officers based on civilian experience. This would make the military composed of guys who were used to getting things done and thinking outside the box. This actually happened in WW II to a large extent—former civilians who wanted to go home largely ignored the “military way.” Kohlmann correctly diagnoses the problem in the military: an inbred, never-been-anywhere-else-so-they-don’t-know-any-better bunch of overage teenagers in terms of achieving results. Kohlmann’s solution has already been tried and had no effect whatsoever. My draft would bring into the military the likes of Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Jack Welch, and the successful Harvard MBAs from the civilian world and there would be no dug-in military bureaucracy to resist them.

I am surprised that a Navy officer started this blog. Seems like the Navy has been pretty successful in that they have had a small role in the "irregular" fights of late while assuring power projection in important choke points around the globe. As we speak they are demonstrating US resolve in the Persian Gulf once again.

The existential moment, IMO, should be about land forces. Existential moments arguably occur when an institution seems to try its best and things do not turn out well...then there are the important searches for meaning.

I don't know, just seems like the Navy is doing well lately....Have not seen anything dramatic in challenging its effectiveness; on the contrary, ops in Libya, SEAL teams w/pirates & Bin Laden, etc. seem to indicate the Navy has not had an existential moment since Dec 7 41? Even then they turned the war against Japan around in a matter of months (Midway, etc.).

Oooh...I've got one prime example as a counterpart: Littoral Combat Ship - LCS. Granted, this gem of a program was supposed to be innovative and fill some sort of operational requirement, but the consensus seems to be tipping in the direction of the wrong kind of 'disruption.' More broadly, I'd argue that the Navy is facing procurement issues on all traditional, core Navy warfare communities -- subsurface (probably the best positioned community in terms of major procurement, the Virginia class boats), surface (aforementioned LCS), and aviation (among other things, how's that JSF thing working out?). The naval special operations forces and expeditionary forces suffer less from a procurement issue than an issue of continuing relevancy as force requirements change and joint doctrine never really learned how to account for the expeditionary aspects of the Navy, using them to plug gaps in Army and Marine structure. So, there's plenty of room for frustration, questioning the future, and innovation. I'm don't venture to speak for LT Kohlmann in this regard -- and I'm sure he has some unique observations on the Navy -- but toss out some general themes for your consumption. JT

Ben---this was recently released concerning the undergraduate studies in Business and what the business world thinks of those studies---this critique goes to the heart of what the military is trying to do with Design ie critical thinking.

"The biggest complaint: The undergraduate degrees focus too much on the nuts and bolts of finance and accounting and don't develop enough critical thinking and problem-solving skills through long essays, in-class debates and other hallmarks of liberal-arts courses."

"Companies say they need flexible thinkers with innovative ideas and a broad knowledge base derived from exposure to multiple disciplines (what I referred to previously as the generalist). And while most recruiters don't outright avoid business majors, companies in consulting, technology and even finance say they're looking for candidates with a broader academic background."

Now if we can get "critical thinking and problem-solving skills through long essays, in-class debates and other hallmarks of liberal-arts courses" into the officer education career development courses it would be great---sending everyone to SAMS is not the answer.

In some aspects this article is extremely interesting in the fact that at last there is some realization that something is wrong with the current officer education structure which a number of young "Hawks" have been saying for the last four years. Which by the way the "system" was largely ignored.

If we equate the concept of disruptive thinkers with the "heated" discussion Ben recently led in his SWJ articles on Design---then this article makes great sense.

What the author is alluding to is a very simple fact---currently we do not train "generalists" as staff officers---but in order to be effective at Design it requires "generalists"---the new adaptive forms of thinking that current ecosystems use to confront us daily in Afghanistan, to the ME, to the Philippines demands a new mind set---a mind set that is capable of challenging our own decision making processes that the system has been teaching for years namely MDMP. It will be the "generalist" who can look at the massive amounts of data streaming and ascertain the small shadow of the developing problem set. By the way "deep dives" do not rate as critical thinking and or Design.

Yes MDMP is great for tank on tank, but it is failing us in conflicts where there is an ever changing, constantly evolving, and adapting ecosystem.

This I think is really what the author is alluding too.

It would be interesting to see what Ben would say about this article.

By the way the methodology of Design fits anything where creative adaptive thinking is demanded. Just a side comment---15 pages on Design in FM 5.0 does not do it justice--there needs much as the author alludes to a deep change in the education of officers in order for Design to actually be effective.

JMO----

In the article he talks about a 31 year old Goldman-Sucks employee and how he would be managing a huge investment portfolio. Yet I bet 99% of the modern generation of Americans don't know that Werner Von Braun(disruptive thinker) was 31 years old when he led nearly 4,000 American scientist and technicians to develop the Saturn 5 rocket that would take us to the moon and establish America as the greatest nation on earth. When America follows money it always gets into trouble, when she follows science and invention she always rises in power and influence.

One consideration that I did see (or at least did not catch) in the above comments about LT Kohlmann's article is that the price of innovation in the private sector is a high rate of failure--depending on the industry, about 80 percent. Can the military as a bureaucratic institution afford such a level of "disruptive thinking" or creative destruction? From my vantage point, the senior leadership in this cycle of war has done well in making space that enables innovative thinking of junior officers. How much more space can be allowed for a bureaucratic institution like the military without risking institutional disruptions?

Feeding the "garbage can" (see John Kingdon's "Agendas, Alternatives, and Alternatives") is what I thought military think tanks and universities were supposed to do. Have they become overly bureaucratized and lack the fluidity needed to provide nurseries and platforms for the LT Kohlmanns and MAJ Gants? Or have they recycled safe views of sage senior policy makers or echoed the latest entrenched fads?

Another strain of commentary has questioned the need for education, particularly for the "soft" liberal arts variety. I would have thought that Samuel Huntington's "Soldier and the State" (1957) would be required reading for pre-commissioning education. Professionalism, according to Huntington, goes beyond following TTPs. It involves valuing the profession as part of a larger society; as well as how to think and recognize when TTPs are not fully adequate and provide the intellectual foundation that enables effectively adaptation and innovation.

Hemlock, I think you and some of the other recent posts provide some excellent counterpoints to LT Kohlmann's arguments. I remain supportive of his overall message, but I think he doesn't support his arguments well. I thought the comments below about most MBAs being cowards (relative to the business world) is telling, and it easy for younger minds to be swayed by university professors who love to criticize the military and hold up modern management ideas as something the military should blindly pursue, yet there is little analysis and supporting logic behind these arguments on how using these models (which is nothing more than adapting to a new norm) would actually help us perform better.

Setting those arguments aside, the real issues in the military is that culturally many are opposed to new ideas, integrating new technologies, or adjusting TTPs. This isn't an education problem, it is a cultural problem and a system problem, since significant changes require multiple levels of command to change from the service department down to the tactical ranks, and then out to the Combatant Commands. However, to claim we don't change and don't have entrepreuners is a bit of stretch. If that was true we would be fighting on horseback (no disrespect to my brothers who rode horses into combat in the 21st Century in Afghanistan). Instead we have advanced vehicles, jets, drones, advanced informaton technology, a Cyber Command, a Special Operations Command, submarines, nuclear weapons, missle defense, and the list is endless. All these technologies/concepts were disruptive and were more often than not driven by those in the military.

Where we fail too often is at the tactical level, where deviation from doctrine, when doctrine isn't working, is discouraged or not allowed. I'm not convinced we don't have disruptive or innovative thinkers, but rather their ideas are suppressed by those MBA or MBA equivalent cowards who don't want to risk their report card by trying something new at the tactical level. I think a perfect case in point, and this is an unpopular opinion, is that our COIN doctrine is far from innovative, and simply a rehash of what Bob Jones accurately calls colonial era COIN. It is failing us, but the military embraces it, and will follow it to the end to Afghanistan. This group think is facilitated by excessive micro-management from the four-star level to the pvt, we now have a level of micromanagement that exceeds any level we had in the past and it is enabled by technology (some of it Jobs developed :-). The technology isn't bad, but how we use it is. I'm stunned when I hear commanders say they need more command and control, what we actually need is less. They need to take two steps back from the tactical fight, and allow those on point to adapt and innovate. Something the American soldier is very good at when the conditions permit them to think.

I sympathize with the gist of LT Kohlmann’s article, but find that it suffers by the degree to which it disparages the war colleges (while demonstrating a highly limited grasp of the subject matter taught at the war colleges), pedestalizing HBS (you’re more likely to get an entrepreneur without an MBA as you will with one – from any business school), and ignorance of the Navy’s graduate school programs in general. By going to extremes – i.e., that war colleges produce ‘doctrinaire’ thinkers without acknowledging either the importance of doctrine or that war colleges instruct the very people most likely to change doctrine – he obviates his own argument regarding partnerships. After all, a‘partnership’ should be based on the value which each institution brings to the student, and that students bring to each other. I simply don't see LT Kohlmann acknowledging the value of education in warfare, doctrine, and mastery of some classical thought. Further, by asserting that war college teaches 'tactics,' I suspect he doesn't know much about what's taught at that level...

On the question of education, I challenge LT Kohlmann to address education much earlier in the careers of officers and NCOs not to mention the other, likely more true, sources of negative conformity. Frankly, I see the seeds of institutionalized thought being sown earlier – at our academies and, to a lesser extent, in ROTC and OCS programs. I, for one, believe that the issue isn’t truly one of institutionalized thought – and the real peril in these institutions is a socialization into other organizational behaviors, such as the emphasis on combat arms vs. combat support, the ever present “big man theory,” leadership by exclusion by rank, etc. These issues have nothing to do with graduate school and are far more pervasive throughout the services – and more pernicious in their dampening effect on innovation.

Finally, like Dayuhan, I question the premise of “disruption,” and have difficulty understanding why sources of innovation can’t come from people – thinkers – who demonstrate a mastery of a subject, and the cognitive dissonance often present in ‘schools of thought.’

Jason Turse

Of the big Mega winners, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, none of the founders attended the Harvard Business School, or any business school for that matter. I worked in several innovative startup companies out in California. As is typical, MBAs did not play a role in any of them until a team of engineers like myself had worked day and night developing hardware and software and had established a skyrocketing sales record. Only when it was clear there was no risk and huge potential rewards did the MBAs join in. That's because that is what they are trained to do; minimize risk and maximize reward. On the other hand, innovators throw all caution to the wind like fools and do what they love. They work insanely hard because they are obsessed with the work they are doing. I have found MBAs to be risk averse cowards, afraid to confront the CEO for fear of harming their careers. It always took us mouthy young (at the time) engineers to blurt out the truth about problems with the software/hardware. Harvard graduate school is for risk averse people (my wife among them). MBAs belong in Goldman Sachs, not in silicon valley. To summarize, MBAs are to innovation as Winnie the Pooh is to an Apache helicopter; that is to say, I am not aware of any particular connection.

I believe the U.S. Military has already succeeded in developing an innovative culture. When a guy like Captain (now Major) Jim Gant can write a paper like 'One Tribe At A Time' and have it land on Petraeus' desk and be praised for it and have it distributed widely, we have succeeded.

To me it is remarkable the similarities I see between Major Gant and the small innovative teams of engineers I used to work with. When they face a task they dive in and swim in it like a fish in the sea, total immersion, becoming fluent in all aspects of the problem, always wanting to learn more, fascinated by the slightest nuance. They fall in love with their problem. This is where innovation comes from.

I always find discussions of thinking to be incomplete without some actual thinking, so my first step on reading this was to hop over to the Disruptive Thinkers blog to get a hint of what thinking was actually going on. One entry summed up very neatly one of the problems with this approach. The post describes an effort by a group of bright "disruptive thinkers" to come to grips with California's energy picture, its future, and its problems. I quote a relevant section:

"Before we were able to come up with solutions, however, we first had to define the problems facing the implementation of disruptive energy solutions. And while all three groups had the task of discussing local energy policy, the randomly assigned groups tackled the problem from very different perspectives.

In figuring out the questions to ask, we also discovered that many of us had no idea where our energy comes from."

After actually and literally laughing out loud, I looked again at the author information, and wondered how he would react if he heard that a bunch of bright young disruptive thinkers who had never flown an airplane were in all seriousness holding a forum to review flight and training procedures for the F/A-18.

I realize that in accordance with the dictates of fashion we are required to write epitaphs for the specialist "hedgehog" and praise the generalist. Is it not reasonable, though, to expect that before people set out to think disruptively on a subject, they might actually try to gain some mastery of the topic? Is there not a certain inherent pomposity in proposing that simply because people are undeniably intelligent and committed to disruptive thinking, they are going to provide relevant "solutions" to complex, highly technical problems that they know virtually nothing about?

There are few things more useful and more important than actual disruptive or revolutionary thinking that's based on real mastery of a subject. That's a rare thing in the real world, and too often we see buzzword-studded superficial rants masquerading as the real thing.

Disruptive thinking is important. It's equally important for anything that poses as disruptive thought to be critically dissected to determine whether or not it is what it says it is. If it is, wonderful: it deserves our admiration. If it isn't, it deserves to be discarded. The true disruptive thinker should welcome and encourage that dissection, for without passing that test the thinking in question is unlikely to have any real impact.

I recently had a conversation with a physicist who was exceedingly cranky over the pirating of physics jargon and physics theories by non-physicists to apply to other fields (he was speaking, incidentally, of use by business/management theorists). In his opinion these uses bear no resemblance whatsoever to the actual theories and are little more than a specious attempt to toss some geek-chic jargon into the discourse. I suspect that he's right, and that this tendency manifests itself in other ways as well.

In my experience the singularly most defining feature of an expert is their willingness to listen to disparate opinions. This characteristic is strongly bolstered by the absence of vanity. They have seen and done it all and more often than not are unhappy with the current state of affairs/design. Their hope is that some left-field input will trigger the path to a breakthrough. This is where a web-based forum has the potential to develop sound ideas much more rapidly than in the past.

The strength of a true expert is he or she can cascade the forum's agenda effectively away from the obvious and steer it towards the possible with tradesman-like ease. The trigger can take many forms - Newton's apple, Turing and the Post Office technicians, Sakharov and his mother's Sloyka etc. The important thing is all participants must try and leave their egos at the door.

Regards,
RC

Certainly experts should be willing to listen to disparate opinions, especially disparate opinions based on serious study and real expertise. Checking the egos at the door has to go both ways, though, and there's often a whole lot of ego involved in trying to impose your opinions as a disruptive force without any effort to gain mastery of the subject first.

Dayuhan, you identified a problem that is common to both traditional thinkers and so called disruptive thinkers. I think what we really want to get at is the "thinking" part, and if either tradtional or emergent ideas limit thinking then they're not helpful. I can list hundreds of example in the military where planners were thrown into a room and told to develop a plan on a situation they had little to no knowledge on, so they default to the military planning process and come up with a plan that is often irrelevant. If you're a traditional military thinker though, that is a passing grade, because you're grading the process and your PowerPoint slides, not the content within them. That is limiting factor of our current norms, and it is reinforced in our various professional limitation, I mean development, schools. In this case it really doesn't matter if you're a traditionalist or disruptive thinker does it? Using your example, a traditionalist may say we need to drill more, while a disruptive thinker may say we need to convert our cars from running on gasoline to natural gas, but if those ideas were simply based on a magazine article and there is no understanding of the impact of either decision, then it really isn't anything more than guys and gals sharing some thoughts over a beer or two.

The first challenge we have to overcome is to really understand the problems we're trying to solve, and that normally doesn't result from following a prescribed thinking process. The disruptive thinker in this case, would point out that we don't understand what we're discussing, so we need to stop and first understand before we proceed. In the military that guy or gal would often be ignored. I don't think this challenge is much different in the civilian world. The author seems to be especially in awe of entrepreneurs, but he needs to put them in perspective compared to the military because we're really not that different. The percentage of business people who are outliers and disruptive thinkers is extremely small. Most spend their careers adapting to the norms, not creating new ones. We all know the name Steve Jobs because he was unusual (disruptive). For every Steve Jobs there are 10,000 business men we don't know, because they're not disruptive, but they provide critical services to the world. In the military, the percentage of disruptive thinkers is equally small, and the majority adapt to norms providing critical services to their nation. The LT probably hasn't been around enough to bump into these disruptive thinkers. It is also important to point out that a lot of people fancy themselves as disruptive thinkers, but instead are simply disruptive. It is easy to come up with ideas, but developing a plan to implement them is a magnitude tougher.

Some organizations encourage new ideas, where others insist you conform to certain view. I suspect that is true in the civilian world also.

What problem are we trying to solve again?

As a career enlisted man in the United States Air Force, I have had the opportunity to observe military leaders and managers for nearly 26 years. The difference between the 27 year old HBS grad and the O-4/O-5 war college student is their connection to the mission. The officer corps steps away from actually performing the duties of their profession somewhere around O-2 (1Lt). They are not required to think through the problems and challenges posed by the mission at hand, often leaving that task to the noncommissioned corps. The civilian HBS or Stanford graduate is still “doing the job” and thinking through problems and challenges that the mission poses to them directly. They have to be creative and imaginative; their minds remain sharp and open to innovation. What does this mean to our officers? In my experience I have found our officer cadre to be surprisingly unimaginative. They are unwilling to act without authorization from higher-ups. Service schools only exacerbate this. The service schools are conformity factories where officers are instructed in arcane doctrine that encourages a façade of critical thought.
As alluded to above, the better analogy to the young HBS graduate can be found in the enlisted corps. In other words, we have the creative and disruptive thinkers that Kohlmann seeks. Unfortunately they will always be mired behind an officer “leader” who will inherently seek to ensure solutions follow obsolete scripts.

Here is some Disruptve Thinking, an interesting video from TED by Economist Tim Harford on the God Complex.

http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/tim_harford.html

While I don't agree with all his points, overall LT Kohlmann hits the nail on the head. How often do see posts in SWJ from seniors who claim nothing has changed, or that Clausewitz understood the nature of war and it hasn't changed, or that we don't need new terms or concepts, and the list can go on indefinitely.

I disagree that flag and general officers don't understand the present, because I have seen them almost beg their staffs to be more creative, or in other words to actually think, instead of following some mindless doctrinial planning process that all too often leads to the wrong response, because planners don't understand the world they live in. That supports the LT's point, that we need to educate our promising officers at much younger age.

I will also add that some of the biggest obstacles to change I have seen haven't been the council of COLs, but long term dwell DOD civilians who embrace the bureaucracy because it empowers them. It takes a strong senior leader to come in and disrupt the organization. One thing that hasn't changed, and that is leadership is decisive.

I think LT Kohlmann's comments on our procurement system may be misguided to some extent, since the military alone doesn't drive the train on that. I think I recall a former Senator telling the Navy they needed some submarines they didn't need, because the submarines were built in his district. In some ways our system is as corrupt as any bannana republic. Corruption also limits entrepreunership.

So Bill why did you not just come out and use my name for your criticism of me. Is that really your argument? The study of Clausewitz means you are no longer relevant? Or the fact that I am opposed to just making up new terms and concepts without any intellectual rigor by those who chase the shiny new object or silver bullet and look for the holy grail in such places as business schools makes me an anachronism? There are certainly some good ideas in the Lieutenant's piece some of which I agree and have observed. But I will stand by my body of work both throughout my career and everything I have published here on Small Wars Journal. I have written a number of articles to include "To Whom Should the Generals Listen" that advocate that we should be listening to our NCOs, Warrant Officers and Junior Officers. But I also strongly believe in education to include the thorough study of history, theory, geography, operational art and strategy but I guess I am considered one of those neanderthals and anachronisms because I do not latch on to the latest new fads out there. The next time you want to criticize me or use me for an example for your argument please feel free to use my name.

Dave,

See my comments in response to Peter's, we were posting at the same time. Yes, some of your ideas are the ones I'm critical of, while on the other hand I embrace many of your ideas. This isn't personal, it is a debate on ideas, and when it comes to Clausewitz you have many on this forum alone who agree with you, the short list includes Gian and Wilf. You'll see from my comments below (maybe above) I don't think studyng Clausewitz makes anyone irrelevant, but I do disagree with your quote that no one identified anything new about war since Sun Tzu and Clausewitz.

If I could post a comment about your Congressional testimony I would, unfortunately their are some technical errors (see tech does matter), but I actually agreed with half of it.

Bill M.,
Agree with the overall thrust of your comment, however on your first paragraph, I think some of those people arguing against new terms and concepts are actually "disruptive thinkers" who are arguing for thoughtful, strategic answers to the logical interaction of technology and the nature of war rather than vapid but seemingly innovative terms and solely technological solutions. Ben's much maligned reference to the iPhone, even if he didn't mean it, conjures in my mind not a focus on high technology, but a focus on "elegant" design of solutions that are adaptable and integrated across fields to facilitate what we do in our lives. The focus shouldn't be on the tech, but how the tech fits into what we need to do. That is often missing in the "new" ideas in defense.

Peter,

Our community frequently debates the adequacy or in inadequacy of legacy doctrinal terms such as insurgency, conventional warfare, unconventional warfare, special operations, conventional operations, and the emergent views on area denial/anti-access, etc., and then we have the non-doctrinal terms/concepts of asymmetric warfare, 4th Generation Warfare, Hybrid Warfare, Criminal Insurgencies, and so forth. In my opinion those who try to shut down these discussions down are a detriment to the evolution of thought (and consequently doctrine in the military). The human race is a learning species; it is constantly learning and adapting, while on the other hand certain individuals and organizations may not be learning and adapting.
We must learn from the past, but we also need to accept that none of the following have had the last word on war: Sun Tzu (if he even existed), Clausewitz, Mao, Boyd, etc., nor would any of them recognize the world we live in today. Does that mean they didn’t recognize some eternal truths? Absolutely not, but it does mean that while looking to the past is helpful (even essential), we also must understand the world we live in today and make projections about the future (for case in determining defense requirements).
The fact is that we are faced with both legacy/traditional and emergent security challenges that we have not yet adapted to. Failing to recognize this and wallowing in the glory of the past doctrines that many of us older timers grew up with is self-defeating behavior. It is also often self-serving because it protects our legacy organizations, but if those legacy doctrines are no longer adequate for defending our nation it is time to move on. We must continue to debate new concepts that are appropriate to the age we’re living in. The entrepreneur requirement we need is the ability to change our organizations instead of being locked into a past due to our bureaucratic structures.
While we can’t focus entirely on tech, we can’t deny its impact, because it often defines what we need to do. For example, the Chinese and others have developed some fairly advanced cyber capabilities that can threaten our national security, so it specifies a requirement to develop a means to defend against this threat. North Korea and potentially other adversarial states are pursuing the development of long range missiles and weapons of mass destruction. While the USSR/Russia/China had these weapons for years, they were what we called rational actors. Once more unpredictable actors acquire these weapons they will pose a greater threat. Al-Qaeda 3.0 and other terrorist organizations and individuals will acquire disruptive technology that will significantly increase their ability to threaten us and our allies with very significant attacks. Maybe it is time to move beyond discussing building a network to attack a network, but get serious about doing so (to include forcing our interagency partners to adapt), and also reforming our intelligence community (and investing in it) to detect these emergent threats? Semi-related to technology is that the nature of globalism has changed dramatically since the Cold War ended. This was largely enabled by information technology, but also due to significant political and economic system changes, and one side effect (of many) is that it criminal organizations are able to amass greater and greater wealth and compete more effectively against states. Some countries are adapting to these threats, but are strongly criticized by legacy thinkers in the U.S. for their methods. Instead of criticizing perhaps we should be observing and become the student? The world is always changing, and to paraphrase GEN (ret) Shinseki when he was leading the efforts to develop the Army after Next in the 19902, he said something along the lines of change is hard, being obsolete is harder. He also correctly said we can’t predict the future, but we know it won’t look today.
I do agree that there needs to be a helpful level of friction between legacy and disruptive thinkers, because it is just as detrimental to progress to assume disruptive thinkers are right and legacy thinkers are wrong, so by all means the debate is good. We all need to open our minds and be receptive to both old and new ideas. Of course this is much easier said than done.

Fantastic article Lt. Kohlmann! As one of SWC original Disruptive Thinkers I will say what I have been saying for years, the idea that you need some type of College degree IS the real problem!!!!not which College you went to or the type of Degree you received. It is an obsolete concept for future.

First, I commend LT Kohlmann on his organization and initiative. Second, I caution him on the "civilian better than military" fad that seems to infect us "well educated 25-35 yr old O-3 to O-4" types with college classmates in investment banking and consulting (a fad that brings us results like the Bradley/Abrams replacement track shortage of 2003/2004 thanks to the Just In Time logistics fad that hit DOD). The issue you highlight is bigger and more complex than cross-industry partnering or military ed revamp.

Military ed may seem dense, myopic, and uninspired and in no small measure at the jr. officer level it is. But that is only a problem when you disregard what it is intended to do. Military ed is not intended to produce educated individuals, it is intended to produce trained individuals. Trained to apply a specific skill set in a specific framework. What you are talking about is not training, it is education. And by and large, we are a poorly educated officer corps, which is a direct result of a poorly educated civilian population that we come from. The military shouldn't and need not teach you philosophy, history, and critical thinking in a way that makes you understand their value in judgment. It should teach you the TTP's, and cases that you can then judge using your education and skills (skills and education are not equivalent). BA/BS, MA/MS, MBA (I exclude PhD here for a reason) are not guaranteed to help you do this in our current system. They might. But that is a matter of chance, not design. There is no core concept of what it means to be "educated" beyond possession of a degree. Our notion of core "education" curriculum is a shell of what was considered the Liberal Arts circa 1750 AD to 1900 AD. The corporate world (where I am now) is fundamentally the same as the military world (where I still am via the Reserves); mainly because it is the same people from the same society doing the same things.

People innovate the same way everywhere, incentive. As a scout PL in combat or a TF XO in a humanitarian relief mission, I had plenty of opportunity to do "by the book" or "get it done, somehow". Incentive to success mattered, not a tendency to do one way or the other. In the military world incentive primarily comes from a complex interaction of Leadership, capability, and the enemy. If none is particularly trying or demanding, stagnation is the norm. In business it comes from leadership, capability, and the market. Success is the goal of both environments. Innovation occurs in both environments. There is nothing "fundamental" to learn from either, just tricks of the trade that can be borrowed and adapted. How DOD and the services function is a product of a lot of forces, none of which is the absence of entrepreneurship. The impact on military culture from education, history, and accumulated detritus of several generations-worth of bureaucrats is the problem. All of which are addressed by culture, not "paradigm shifts".

Just some thoughts on a complex issue. Again, I applaud your DT initiative, it sounds compelling and exciting.

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