Small Wars Journal

The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 5:36am

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. 

About the Author(s)



Fri, 04/06/2012 - 11:36am

I commend BKholmann's article. I echo COL Gentile's comments about going too far with borrowed business lexicon - the priority should indeed be encouragement for initiative. For a great read, please see "Transforming Command: The Pursuit of Mission Command..." by Eitan Shamir. Beyond lexicon, uphold initiative, creativity, and trust in teammates

Jimbo Monroe

Fri, 04/06/2012 - 11:03am

Perhaps the way to generate constructive disruption within the force is via disruption of the hidebound personnel system. J.F.C. Fuller suggested in "Generalship: its Diseases and Cure" that youth is a virtue in the military and provided an appendix of the ages of generals across history at the time of their greatest achievements. The average age was 40.36 years with the majority between 35 and 45 years old at their zenith. Fuller proposed at the start of conflict any general over 45 be put on the reserve lists or sent to training commands in order to make room for talented leaders with the vigor of youth.

Alas, it's but an amusing diversion to ponder a personnel system promoting based on talent. Short of a coup, the only way most of the lions of history could be generals in the American military would be if presidents blew the dust off the Title X authority to appoint someone to any grade.

G Martin

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 11:21pm

Ben- great article and concept. The disruptive mind concept- to me- means among other things that we have to foster a culture that encourages critical thinking. I honestly think if most field grades used critical thinking they would disrupt the majority of the activity that goes on in our headquarters.

Entrepeneurship to me means "problem solver." There is a problem out there that no-one is addressing, and an entrepeneur comes along and figures out how to solve that problem. If our headquarters somehow could instill a culture of problem solving instead of ass covering, I think we'd go a long way towards being more entrepeneur-like.

At the tactical level I agree competence is paramount, but I don't think we want junior leaders who just execute orders or stay within guidance. As one mentor once told me- we don't pay you the big bucks to follow orders- we pay you the big bucks to know when to disobey them.

I hear often that we can't expect "x" out of our junior officers or we can't do "y" in the Army. I think we expect too little out of folks- I think most would rise to the occasion. But that entails some risk, and- again- if entrepeneurship is about anything it is about taking some risk. Maybe when we become as courageous with our careers in staff positions as most of us are at the tactical level when bullets start flying- then we can be more entrepeneurial. I have no faith the system will change any time soon- IMO it is all up to each one of us as leaders- we must ensure that that culture is encouraged in our organizations and take advantage of it when you find yourself in that kind of unit.

Move Forward:

1) I like that you note how jargon-laden military vernacular is, and then proceed to use "NAI." I considerably myself reasonably adept at decoding mil-speak, but please spare me one more trip to Google if you would be so kind, and let me know as well: what is an NAI?

2) I actually disagree with much of the tone of your post, and hold liberal arts degrees in far greater regard, and also am more agnostic about the fact that (say) Apple products are made in China or that Amazon operates call centers overseas. That stated, I am exceptionally grateful you noted that Jobs was a "mega-toxic" "leader." In "Joker One," Campbell writes that it is continual and consistent acts of kindness and generosity to those whom one leads (rather than demonstration of tactical acumen narrowly construed) that permits one to be an effective leader, and later ruminates on love being the motivator that permits units to function in combat. Hal Moore, IIRC, pledged to be (and was) the first man on and the last man off the battlefield at LZ X-Ray (and in Sheehan, "A Bright Shining Lie," wept when confronted with the possibilty he would have to leave four of his soldiers MIA). Not to speak ill of the dead, but I'm not sure I perceive Jobs as having evinced love, nor do I suspect he would have set forth or conformed to the ideals that Moore both espoused and upheld. Granted, business is not combat, the pretensions of Gordon Gekko wannabes (hattip to Benioff, "Twenty Fifth Hour") notwithstanding, but still, one can at least make the case that leadership is leadership is leadership.

3) And, while I note the kind and polite response the author of the original post recently made in the comments section, I will twist the knife once more and simply note that while all were accepted to excellent undergraduate institutions, I don't think Gates, Jobs or Zuckerberg graduated from college, let alone attended HBS. I accept that HBS was used as a proxy for civilian institution, but I would once more advocate thinking seriously about varieties of pedagogy and one receives from any degree program or educational institution. If one seeks creativity and initiative, where is it most likely to be found and/or forged?



Fri, 04/06/2012 - 9:03pm

In reply to by Move Forward

"You cite inept police leaders, but perhaps you will acknowledge that union seniority and take-a-test-and-become-a-supervisor rules have led to the conditions of some of your supervisors."

I agree, and I'll include clout, favoritism, and nepotism. Legitimate issues that exist in the business world as well. I do not claim that business or educational institutions have the moral high ground or are superior to military or public service in any way; I do claim that the general structure for how those industries operate and think are different than the way we teach our people to think. For the various reasons I stated previous, I believe that exposure to these differing environments allows for continued intellectual growth.

I believe in continues to be, to our cultural shame, a travesty that job opportunities for veterans are not more abundant.

Experience no more trumps education than education trumps experience. It would truly be something if we lived in a meritocracy, but we don't. Your son may not see the benefits of his education, possibly because he cannot see the forest for the trees, possibly because he is surrounded by his own educational hacks who bring the collective intellectual level around him down, or perhaps because his instructors do not sufficiently challenge him. But in time, as he works into his business life, he will come across situations that are similar to cases he has studied or challenge his business efforts in ways he has been prepared for. It's the civilian version of field or scenario training; you practice your craft and one day, when you are in a situation that is vaguely familiar, you use the lessons from that training to create a workable solution.

My agency requires that I live within our city. I am subject to a ridiculous amount of city, county, and property taxes. I'm required to work 29 years and a day if I wish to see 75% of my salary. My pension is bankrupt because the city and the state have pissed it all away on failed social programs and triple-inflated clout contracts. Right now, they are discussing eliminating the pension altogether and telling us we are responsible for finding our own, private investment opportunities and plan our own retirement. I don't blame college or business for this - I blame inept and corrupt "leadership." I maintain that working with business is a valuable means toward expanding your intellectual skills - and provides you with a form of experience that fully rounds-out your overall skill level. Public and military service members gain value from working with educational institutions in the same way your sons have no doubt benefited from the military experiences and practical knowledge they learned from you as they grew up.

I agree with you that there is no substitute for experience. But experience is no guarantee for success and experience is always enhanced through study.

Move Forward

Fri, 04/06/2012 - 7:44pm

In reply to by JohnBertetto

First to answer ADTS elsewhere, Named Area of Interest = NAI.

Second, Peter the Pirate may be interested to know that folks still get logged off if they attempt to respond to Blog articles. I tried responding to Doctine Man's comments there so will address it indirectly here.

Third, to answer John, the police officer, obviously I find value in a undergrad degree if for no other reason than to show you have one on a resume. That's why I'm nearly finished sending two kids to college. But my son majoring in Business correctly points out that he is unsure how it would help him working in a real business. Perhaps he saw his uncle succeeding in a pool business being kind of a jerk, paying his own son only $10/hr after 6 yrs as a supervisor, and not providing any health insurance. I also ran a mom/pop business for many years and watched an infinitely more successful corporate owner lose it all because the technology of the business became obsolete, and like me and nearly all others he had to close a lot of business doors.

You cite inept police leaders, but perhaps you will acknowledge that union seniority and take-a-test-and-become-a-supervisor rules have led to the conditions of some of your supervisors.

I'm from Silicon Valley and you may not realize that a starting cop's pay in the Bay Area is around $80K...more than I make after years of experience in the military and as a defense contractor. So since we are talking about business logic, let me ask several questions. How does a California business compete when it pays state workers that much and huge pensions? My brother has a restaurant there and is taxed to death. How about property tax? Gotta pay that cop more if the average house is around half a million and property taxes are $6 grand annually.

Applying business logic to the military, why would we want to toss out 80,000 Soldiers, mostly lower-paid enlisted, who live in the South with bases in low cost areas? Instead we will keep more Marines, Navy, and Air Force bases in higher cost areas (with adjusted-up pay) like the coasts? How many of those bases were closed during the last BRAC round? Few on the USAF side. Wouldn't it make more sense to have more USAF/Navy pilots in the Air Guard and let them clean up as airline pilots? Compare the instant-go-to-war readiness of a airline pilot turned F-35 jock vs an overweight 40 year old ground reservist E-5.

The USAF and Navy also have lots of officers that make much much more than this author. And he is bad-mouthing the F-35 as too expensive, perhaps because he flies a legacy jet, and perhaps because he is not so disruptive after all? Does he not see the value in having a stealth jet launching from 22 carriers when viewed in the context of having only F-22s on nearby land bases? Thought you guys embraced AirSea Battle?

He also mentions UAS swarms. I like UAS and have worked on their issues since 1986. Yet if instead, I had gone to school and gotten a PhD on the subject, I still would not know as much as the enlisted Soldier who knows that UAS swarms would be a major airspace and launch/recovery headache, would create major info overload, could not carry much of a lethal, sensor, or fuel payload, and would raise serious issues from a rules of engagement, combat ID, and weapons release authority standpoint. How many lethal stealthy swarming UAS with day-long endurance do you think you could buy with the lower true cost of a F-35? Seen what a non-stealthy Global Hawk costs?

I love innovation, but simply being an innovator and disruptive is no substitute for experience. I don't know how you teach innovation. Heck I designed my own house based on personal studies in high school and a year of junior college. But I made several key mistakes because I lacked the experience to know when my innovative ideas conflicted with reality gained from experience.

Finally, methinks Gen Petraeus and company were pretty innovative in developing FM 3-24 and implementing COIN, a surge, and night raids in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Why all the bashing from those defending disruptive thinkers?


Thu, 04/05/2012 - 11:54pm

In reply to by Move Forward

In my work I am constantly listening to the non-college vs college debate. The non-college people believe the college people are soft and think more than they act while the college people think the non-college folks are slow to grasp emerging technologies, trends, and adamantly believe they can force any shaped peg into whatever damn hole they tell it to get in to. Honestly, I'm weary of the debate. College is no guarantee of success, this is certainly true, but it provides an open forum for idea generation, critical evaluation of existing paradigms, and the development of critical thinking, problem analysis and solving, and decision making skills. The ability to sit down with a group of people and engage in these intellectual practices and develop these skills is clear and should be included as part of regular education and training. As should practical application and field experience. We all know people who have spent their entire career in field command and could not lead a group of people out of a burning building, have no ability to create basic solutions to simple problems, and the only judgement they are capable of exercising is poor judgement. The comment "higher education or even a BS/BA actually teaches one useful skills outside reading/writing/arithmetic is wrong to the nth degree" requires no further comment.

I disagree with you that business is not a source for innovation, and find it even more incredible that you select Silicon Valley as your example. The fact that they outsource manufacturing and service - deplorable or not - speaks nothing to the technological development that is actually done by these companies. There is more than one type of business. Yes, there are the Gekko's, buying up the Teldars and Blue Stars for the purpose of chopping them up for profit. You also have companies that develop new technologies and new products. Not all of business deserves to be Occupied. Gates and Jobs certainly are/were technological innovators, and Gates compensated his employees with stock in the company.

You are right - being a 'genius' is go panacea for success as a leader, but neither is experience. The ability to run any organization requires a mix of traits, traits that include more than both intelligence and experience.

Move Forward

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 10:08pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

I-pad kneepads...or moving map display on a multi-functional display. The latter also could perhaps display UAS video in the cockpit because your UAS pilots are not using satellites. Amazing what can occur when you do things correctly instead of seeking to stay stateside while enlisted Army UAS operators deploy. Heck, why not deploy those Predator/Reaper pilots and air control stations in the back of a KC-46 aerial refueler, JSTARS, and AWACS to eliminate the 60 to 80 cyber "touchpoints" a USAF general described the other day.

I’m amused that some who commanded at LTC level and below would not want a smart 1LT to use his initiative to observe a second NAI based on his initiative, commander’s intent, and issued mission orders. Guess you wouldn’t want that ILT with better SU of the area to position his platoon to observe both the requested NAI and another adjacent area he knows is more troublesome.

The nerve of that LT for exercising mission command or the easier-to-seek-forgiveness-than-permission philosophy that ends up bagging an IED digger and saves lives in the LTC’s and his own unit. Yet this same former commander who would bash the unadvertised initiative of a 1LT would later publically bash the most senior leaders for implementing a surge, COIN, and a combat outpost strategy. Amazing how that history or Middle East studies degree trumps years of experience.

Think business innovators are smarter? The most successful will less often innovate, and more often will outsource, underpay employees, slash benefits, lay off folks in a heartbeat, bust up the company and sell it in pieces, drive the stock price up using short term strategies that hurt long term competitiveness, inside trade, benefit from stock speculation without leading anyone, and so on. A topnotch business exec would pay military service members considerably less, cut their leave, abolish the current retirement pay and medical care systems despite your multiple tours in combat.

If you believe on the other hand that smart employees should run the show, just imagine a military that was unionized. Yeah, there’s a great example of effective business.

I’m fortunate to have left a major corporation for a smaller company with an entrepreneurial leader who has good pay and benefits, and who is not constrained by stock prices. But for every business leader like that, ample examples exist of those who got ahead by knowing the right folks and talking a good game…in a language every bit as jargon-filled as the military.

How about the scientific and engineering community you ask? Without casting aspersions on the medical doctors amongst us or my med school daughter, I would not want either running a military unit. Nor would I want some of my brainier engineer classmates who are pure geniuses. On the other hand, I know of one great brigade commander who was an aeronautical engineering genius and starman. There are always exceptions. You cannot generalize that innovation is tied to degrees, schools, business, brains, or engineering prowess.

Nor would I want Steve Jobs nor Bill Gates running the military. In case you don’t recall, Jobs was a mega-toxic leader and Apple is not getting rich off providing US jobs. Nor is Silicon Valley getting ahead using tech-educated kids who grew up in the U.S. Neither Jobs nor Gates had college degrees, and the idea that higher education or even a BS/BA actually teaches one useful skills outside reading/writing/arithmetic is wrong to the nth degree….especially liberal arts degrees.

Peter J. Munson

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 9:28pm

A thought on the iPhone/technology bit. Close air support pilots are significantly aided in their work and the speed with which they can locate and "service" a target by having the right, very detailed maps in the cockpit. In order to be able to respond to a troops in contact situation across a decent sized area, these detailed maps add up to a cockpit stuffed with gazette books that really can be a safety of flight issue. Or you go with less maps and take longer to find and correlate targets, meaning soldiers can die before fires are brought to bear.

"Disruptive thinkers" in 3rd Marine Air Wing (maybe somewhere else first, but if so, they didn't know of it) realized that they could load the graphic files onto their iPads, stitch them together, velcro them to their knee, and go flying with a much more effective tool. Young officers applied their comfort with and knowledge of a new technology to a situation and offered a better way. To make a long story short, they were eventually successful in implementing this solution, with support of some enlightened members of the Wing, but not without the gnashing of the teeth of the bureaucracy that sought to provide more expensive and less effective products instead, then fretted over the possible safety risk of having a single iPad velcroed to someone's knee rather than the much safer method of having a cockpit full of gazeteers and flipping pages like dad lost on Route 66 in the family truckster.

Bottom up innovation is powerful and must be encouraged and fostered. It doesn't all have to be about technology. The bottom up "technological" solutions are more likely to be less reliant on tech and more reliant on thought than the top down ones.


Thu, 04/05/2012 - 9:38pm

In reply to by dunesandhills

And you may likely be correct on the inability to share a joint venture with the MITs and the HBSs. But these are not the only civilian learning institutions out there, and I'm sure that, should the service academies put forth the effort to develop a joint venture program, they could in fact find willing participants. The ability to study outside the 'system' would likely be beneficial to all involved. To borrow the terminology used in this article, the first step to developing 'disruptive thinking' is to exercise a little 'disruptive thinking.'


Thu, 04/05/2012 - 8:49pm

In the Navy, junior officers ARE afforded the opportunity to obtain professional military education. The courses are often taught by civilian professors who encourage candid discussions pertaining to the various curricular subjects. These officers will be sent back to the fleet with very little opportunity to apply their education. The Navy is still very much a blue-collar service, and "going out to sea" is valued more highly than an advanced degree.

There is a problem with the joint military-civilian academic proposal. The Navy cannot merely "send" someone to MIT or HBS. These universities have a very competitive admissions process (roughly 10% for an Ivy League institution) while the various service postgraduate institutions do not. For Naval officers, the difficulty in matriculation at the Naval Postgraduate School is not due to some extraordinarily high academic metric, rather, it is usually a matter of the individual's parent community allowing them the latitude to spend one or two years away from operational assignments. Additionally, many prestigious civilian universities are unwilling to associate their name with a less reputable school. Academia is, after all, a business.


Thu, 04/05/2012 - 8:00pm

A decent basic drone has been made by high school and college students for 50 Dollars. Its' not that such technology can be made for so little, its' the minds behind these feats. I advised my son to go to a liberal college, attend ROTC to get a MINOR in Military Science, get a degree in his passion (physics/engineering) THEN attend boot camp. In THAT order. I advised him this based on where society is heading as well as where war is heading. Robotics will play a major role in the future of warfare, thus-the numbers of boots on the ground in warfare will be reduced; yet the capabilities of boots on the ground will need to be heightened. These soldiers will need addittional training, be it via special ops and/OR college. We've had a disintegration of Morale in our troops for a plethora of reasons. One of these reasons is a lack of leadership in the hot zones, (Excluding the Navy). Leadership comes from life experience, training and natural abilities plus the ability to innovate, be flexible and be of sound body and mind. Can we expect a 17-19 year old young adult to fit the criteria of leadership roles? Does one year of combat make a fine leader? In my opinion, Your article is right on track. However, the Military needs to re-invent while keeping tradition in mind. There are standards which define our enlisted as troops, compared to civilians. These standards need to be continued and met by our troops, yet need to be flexible as the world and ways of war evolve. I think the flak you are receiving about this article is due to the honorable pride of those that serve who have sacrificed all. They may be equating change as one that would involve any degredation of the Military System. We need an evolving Armed Forces, yet we need to continue tradition, albeit re-invented or revised to reflect change. How can we do this? With brilliant minds.


Fri, 04/06/2012 - 2:30pm

In reply to by bkohlmann

A couple of things to think about:

1. This is the JPME educator in me: your statement, "Let's be honest -- how relevant is Clausewitz's "center of gravity" when fighting a foe with no center of gravity?" shows me that you have a limited understanding of strategy. Our foe has a center of gravity because they are pursing their objectives. The problem is that rigid adherence to doctrine by folks who are not critical thinkers fail to fully consider the foe's center of gravity and then come up with significant ways to attack that center of gravity. Innovation to me is when the military gets out of the mindset, "Well, since all I have is a hammer- then every problem is a nail"... to open the toolbox and collaborate with other elements of national power to effectively defeat our foe, which I try to emphasize in class.

2. You may want to rethink your view on NWC or distance JPME: while it may seem boring or painful, your "Disruptive Thinker" mantra will carry more weight (or be more effective) if you can couch your concepts in terms and examples that the stodgy leadership can understand.


Sat, 04/07/2012 - 9:52am

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

Rather than correct Clausewitz I was suggesting Auftragstaktik was meant to counter the overly political aspect of ‘On War’. The sentiment being it’s all good and well if you’re a prince or count but if you were the son of a Black Forest pig farmer it wasn’t so easy disobeying orders. In some ways the ‘lofty’ nature of the text does not sit well with the youth of today.

Mention Clausewitz to a twenty year-old and he immediately thinks old men enraptured with military scholasticism. The canonisation of the doctrine, stiff collars, sabres, saddles and stirrups etc demand a degree of imagination very few young people care to embrace. Get a graduate to make a call on an old dial-phone and marvel at the sullen boredom that grips them as they have to wait for the rotary dial to return on every last damn number?! And as for a TV you have to get up from the sofa to change channel – they won’t believe you.

Perhaps if you presented Clausewitz in Rap, Hip-Hop or even Blue Grass there would less cramping of the intuitive mindset in today’s generation. If your Clausewitzian charge could rap the chorus of “The Backbone of Surprise” by Flo Rider or ‘War is the Province of Danger’ by Jay Z as they scan for IEDs and Talibs there would be more buy-in for the ‘Big C ’.

A younger person may argue that most works of genius were established by young people usually at odds with the conventional wisdom. History suggests that it is a reasonable position. Obviously only the very young would list ‘genius’ on their CV but if subordinates are to emulate rather than parrot ‘great works’ it stands to reason that they are going to get up the noses of more than a few mules.


Vitesse et Puissance

Fri, 04/06/2012 - 12:31pm

In reply to by RandCorp

Well, despite this board's continued (and unjustified) animus against Clausewitz, the assertion that Autragstaktik is somehow a correction to Clausewitz's writings is simply - wrong. If you read Citino's book on the German Way of War - what you find there is a tradition of selective non-compliance that is grounded in the aristocratic traditions of the Prussian Army. Orders were, in many cases, treated as suggestions by the princes and dukes holding high command in Prussia and the Second Reich. Well, in many cases, this pugnacious independence worked out - other times not. Technically speaking, Augtragstaktik is not "mission command" or "mission orders" as we have crafted it - it is the set of deviations from textbook tactics - "Normaltaktik" exercised in response to a given situation. A less pragmatic army with a more hardened approach to doctrine (the Soviets were lovely in this regard) would "get it" more easily than our own free-form, roll-your-own TTPs military tradition. Yes, there are hard textbook TTP's in Clausewitz's "On War" and his earlier "Principles of War". So what ? In the former work, all that is the "formless" unedited material which the author was never satisfied to publish. But where does the man ever preach against innovation ? Are we too thick-headed to include innovation as part of the "genius" Clausewitz praised without ceasing ?


Fri, 04/06/2012 - 5:30am

In reply to by bkohlmann

Unfortunately the problem you have touched upon is nothing new; it probably drove Sun Tzu to drink. Fortunately the Prussians came up with a doctrine to help cure the problem – Auftragstaktik and they published it as a manual. You mentioned Clausewitz’s COG – Auftragstaktik was designed to counter the Clausewitzian influence in the German Way of War.

You touched upon winning the Medal of Honor – not a good idea at this time. This is eccentric initiative and the Prussian mules will kick you to death for that one (it will also upset your mother). You need to emphasize concentric initiative i.e. initiative/innovation which enhances the core task.

Unlike commercial concentric initiative/innovation which is solely designed to make financial profit and thus ending up benefitting a select few, concentric innovation/initiative in the military promotes trust. The commander gives broad direction to the subordinate who is expected to carry out the mission as he or she sees fit.

The commander expects the subordinate to show initiative and innovation but trusts he will refrain from dangerous recklessness. This trust gives confidence and panache to the subordinate but cognitively steers core-effective action. Over a period of time Auftragstaktik ensures trust flows up as well as down the chain of command.

The philosophy is designed to empower the execution of the task even in the heat of the moment wherein there is zero or little communication to anyone - let alone a commander. Both leader and subordinate are sustained by an intuitive understanding that everything humanely possible is being done in the moment despite their own apparent isolation or desperation.

In a less dramatic sense but as equally important is the velcro iPad mapping cockpit application (rather than gazetted folders) mentioned above. The commander may not know the difference between an iPad and a sanitary pad but he trusts the pilots would not shoe-horn this innovation into his Wing unless it enhanced the mission.



Thu, 04/05/2012 - 6:43pm

First off, thanks for all the thoughtful comments, both in favor of and challenging my premise. The best way to learn and improve is through constructive and informed criticism. The comments have all been professional, helpful and well received.

Disruptive in this context is directly derived from Clay Christensen's "The Innovators Dilemma," not the Occupy Wall Street type.

Innovation in taking a hill has been paramount throughout our nation's history. Most Medal of Honor and Navy Cross winners have exhibited instantaneous innovation in getting the job done -- they carried their orders out, but adapted to changing circumstances. I want a wingman who goes where I tell him, but also has the wherewithal to engage the enemy when opportunities arise, without my explicit direction. This is battlefield entrepreneurship. Its the type of leadership that made Nelson brilliant, and his captain's autonomously successful when left without specific orders.

It seems the HBS/NWC piece has been blown way beyond what I initially intended -- a failure in my writing. I used HBS as an easily recognizable proxy for a program that could be easily integrated with existing systems. Heck, its the closest to the NWC geographically. I didn't mean to put it on a pedestal above all others. It has it's own shortfalls.

Any civilian institution with a good reputation in any field will help expand a military person's horizon. It will expose them to new ideas and ways of solving problems, as well as expand their personal network. This is the crux of my argument. The military does this, but too infrequently. We should make this our default grad plan. You can read HBS as "civilian institution."

If we could team up military members with entrepreneurs (regardless of education), one on one (actually what DT in San Diego is working to do), that would be my ideal solution. But that hardly fits with current career possibilities and deployment cycles in a meaningful way.

Jobs was also an easily recognizable proxy for innovators at their best.

I have not been to the NWC. I would amend my no civilian comment to one that reads "no non-government civilians." If you are in gov't service (foreign or otherwise), your home culture is still bureaucratic. Frankly, in my career field, they wouldn't let me go now...I'm "too young." Additionally, when I told my detailer I wanted to apply for the Olmstead Scholarship, he said it would hurt my career. This is discouraging.

As for intellectual rigor, most of those I've talked to have claimed their NWC year was the most relaxing of their life. Probably well deserved due to our op-tempo, but slightly puzzling. The one "thinking" reference I heard from an O-6 graduate was regarding how to shape media perceptions of the military. Nothing regarding thinking in new and unforeseen ways. I very well may be wrong. I admit that. But the perception remains.

Additionally, I've rarely if ever heard anything good about distance JPME. Only complaints about its irrelevance and boring subject material. I've seen the stuff. Let's be honest -- how relevant is Clausewitz's "center of gravity" when fighting a foe with no center of gravity?

So we created DT -- to completely revolutionize the way we view these academic requirements. This plays right into there being a deficit in fostering creative solutions to big problems, using solutions from outside military circles. Heck, Gen Van Ripper's brilliance should be front and center in this education. He, along with Boyd, are strategists I've been shaped most by.

Finally, ErnieDrake is absolutely right. I'm honored to serve next to junior marine officers who are entrepreneurial every day. I truly believe I will never find better friends and brothers. I love the military, and I want to see it improve. My overarching goal is to win wars, and to do so in this uncertain, ever evolving world. This requires a new, broad, context-based approach where we integrate the newest concepts with our battlefield prowess. It requires a mind able to react swiftly and effectively to wherever the next conflict may be, whether state on state or an insurgency.


Thu, 04/05/2012 - 4:55pm

Do you know where junior officers are entrepreneurs in the Marine Corps? Wherever they are assigned. As a Harvard trained Marine Corps F/A-18 pilot, I watched my peer group every day work around constraints unintentionally imposed by a bureaucracy that just won't quit: prioritizing workloads towards night shifts to deal with horrible connectivity, building homemade 8mm decks to avoid a two-month $8,000 requisition for a $100 machine required to watch flight tapes.

My peers didn't all go to top schools, but they are every bit the entrepreneurial manager. My position is, imagine what these Marine (and Naval) officers could accomplish if higher headquarters took a different cultural approach to support. Instead of building systems that have excellent intentions but inefficient ends, work to free up the collective creative brainpower of junior officers with a culture that supports only when asked, does not constantly add reporting and paperwork requirements for "better management" from above, and is lean enough in staff to not constantly be a pain in the ass.

Old dogs can learn new tricks. We have an excellent culture of adoption in the Marine Corps Recruiting Command. I've been pleasantly surprised at the level of acceptance of social media strategy (where our target audience resides) and the re-prioritization away from old paper practices. The extra time these user-friendly solutions provide has allowed our command to seek out new opportunities. For example, we increased free advertising nearly $15,000,000 in a fiscal year, an over 200% jump, simply by prioritizing that effort. For a few man hours training and executing, we wallpapered an entire quadrant of the country in Marine Corps billboards!)

As a student at jet school in Mississippi, a junior officer discovered that foreign students were having an exacerbated version of a problem that American students were having: despite learning every system and procedure available in a book, nothing prepared them for the increased speed of communications before the rigorous drills began in the simulator and in the jet. So this Marine takes a flight tape, pulls out the audio for several types of routine hops, deletes the dead space, and viola- he created a training material for all incoming jet students on a CD or iPod to have in the car or on an iPod.

My point is- the entrepreneurial spirit is in the junior officer corps, it's part of our American heritage. The best way to tap into it is for senior leadership to constantly tear down the kudzu-like programs, paperwork, and good ideas that slow down small unit leadership. Tell the Lt to take the hill, he will find an efficient and creative way to do it as long as his DTS, MOL, iAPS (which I like), NMCI Email don't bog him down!

By the way, Ben...1)totally agree on the drones...2)it takes big brass balls to tell the NWC they don't require intellectual rigor, so enjoy working at HBS/Goldman...3)and thinking that HBS is the best that society has to offer makes me want to puke, because the best that society has to offer is the man and woman to your left and right, especially if you're in the Marine Corps.

This post has generated a lot of comments, and I haven't read through all of them, so please deduct from what I write as warranted.

That disclaimer out of the way, first, once more I find myself in agreement with COL Gentile. I've never commanded a scout platoon, but presumably competent execution of tasks is all one really desires in many cases, and it probably proves more elusive than one would like - consistent proficiency beats erratic brilliance.

Second, I think more I'm recoiling from what seems to me excessive and extreme idealization of HBS or Stanford GSB. My father is an MBA at a school that can be considered a competitor of those institutions, and I have known many MBAs at one school on par with HBS or Stanford GSB in particular. I absorbed much of my father's skepticism toward graduate business education, I think, and many of the latter referenced people were disdainful of the skills imparted in their time there, and remarked that the primary function was acquiring a credential of a (say) top business school and utilizing it primarily to network.

Similarly, I recall reading an article stating that a survey of top HBS students found their careers were relatively lackluster, and I read an article by someone at a top management consultancy (Bain?) noting that business was about people, whereas business school tried to reduce all problems to numbers. That makes perfect sense to me: having the ability to ace Accounting 101 (or however its HBS equivalent is denoted) is considerably different than managing a team of accountants or interacting successfully with a client CFO.

I think what really struck me, first, was the juxtaposition of Steve Jobs and HBS, when I doubt he would have succeeded at that place. Moreover, the assertion that an O-4 or O-5 in, say, one's 30s is a less malleable student strikes me as utterly lacking an empirical foundation. Offhand, I would think someone not from a cookie-cutter track (say, time at Harvard or Stanford as an undergrad, followed by a few years in management consulting and/or investment banking, followed by an MBA at either at those two) would offer far more to the culture and experience, and quite possibly be more receptive to what those institutions have to offer. Finally, a friend's ex-husband is a now-retired O-5 with multiple advanced degrees obtained while serving, and I strongly suspect an evaluation of his performance would refute the charge advanced.

Finally, I am in favor of the idea that people learn in various ways through various subjects, and while I think the objections to degrees which nominally fail to impart "hard" skills have some merit, I can perceive both in the abstract and in specific cases I know of where they may have proven quite valuable. (To give one example, I am thinking right now of someone with an English Literature degree who, so far as I can ascertain, has proven quite successful in marketing - perhaps due to the communications and writing skills acquired?) That said, I think considering pedagogies and disciplines rigorously, rather than simply lionizing pursuit of the idiosyncratic, may be wise.

In sum, this piece appears to be a plea to "think more," or "think harder," when really, like "be spontaneous!" no one can will their way toward such an achievement.



Thu, 04/05/2012 - 3:21pm

I am a recent graduate of the Naval war College and I can tell you that there are civilians enrolled. I can tell you that diversity comes from not just other branches of service, but from other countries and government agencies as well. In my time at the War College, I attended class with Naval Officers from Yemen, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Japan and Israel. I also had civilians in my courses from Department of State and Office of Naval Intelligence. I was challenged during my year at the Naval war College. I was taught critical thinking. Doctrine was identified, defined, and questioned, but not taught. Neither were tactics taught. The course of study at the War college involves analysis and critical thinking of case studies and examination of historical battles and events which shaped world history. We were asked to question decisions by key figures in history and make our own determination as to whether those decisions were right or wrong. We were tasked with analyzing key events. Doctrine and tactics are not what is taught at the Naval war College. We were taught to think!

Again, I do appreciate where you are coming from, and agree with your call for "disruptive thinking". I too am a fan of John Boyd. However, I ask that you learn more about the Naval War College before you throw stones at it. Maybe you should ask your detailer for orders. You would be surprised. ~ LCDR Bob Overturf


Thu, 04/05/2012 - 3:30pm

In reply to by Erich G. Simmers

You just drove a truck all over my point that we should turn to private-industry entrepreneurs, and did a damn fine job of it :-) I wish your comment had been here when I wrote mine. I might have been inspired to point out that there's plenty of examples of failed innovation and disaster in our startup/entrepreneur community (and, oh yeah, I would have taken the time to make sure I included the "extra" r every time I wrote entrepreneur).

The bottom line, though, seems to be that we need a way to reward innovation in process and structure, as well as technology, and can't assume that success in one field (tech innovation) will translate well to a problem that is better solved by changes in process or structure. And the sort of people who are well suited for solving one type of problem often have no education in other fields, and use the wrong tools to try to fix some problems as a result.

And thank-you for bringing up the hacking community. Nothing is more inspiring than seeing someone take a $10, single-purpose TV tuner and turn it into a software-programmable transceiver with almost a 2GHz bandwidth. That sort of creativity (repurposing something simple/cheap to be something much bigger/better) is hard to find, and harder to train.

Would love the idea of innovation hackerspaces throughout the military (and not just the traditional tech/staff communities).

Erich G. Simmers

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 1:47pm

I do think there are some great points made in this piece. I especially agree on creative thinking rather than doctrine and diversifying military education. However, the author himself is too focused on business and technological innovation as in "look-I-made-a-cool-new-widget." Frankly, a lot of people from diverse business and technology backgrounds have done a great job of "fucking up" (<a href="">to borrow a Boydian phrase</a>) not only the Pentagon but all elements of American society. Moreover, the author is too wrapped up in the "new" and the "now" as this moment of progress when it may be quite the opposite.

Business and technology does not have a monopoly on instilling creativity; in fact, they may be antithetical to it. The mention of Steve Jobs made me chuckle a little, because he was the champion of closed systems. Mac OS X is a great operating system with a lot of virtues, but it was built on the backs of open source projects and is largely proprietary. iTunes is a great media program, but it is built to make you dependent on Apple products and formats. Is AAC the best audio codec? I don't know, but everyone uses it because Apple has fostered that dependence. The various iPods, iPhones, and now iPad are great devices, but they too are designed channel its users to proprietary services and products. The production of these widgets might be "creative," but they follow a model that stifles creativity and choice. Why did Jobs advocate this model? To sell more widgets, not enable people. That is how Apple became a billion-dollar enterprise, and I do not think it is a model defense should emulate.

Being creative isn't a matter of using some new gadget how Steve Jobs wanted you to use it, but taking the device and using it in creative ways. That is the origin of word hacker--taking a device and doing more with it than its creators intended. When I think of this kind of creativity, I think more of people like <a href="">Steve Kondik</a> who, with a team of like-minded individuals, developed a version of Android called <a href="">CyanogenMod</a&gt;, which is intended not to sell more widgets but to overcome the limitations placed on existing Android phones by hardware manufacturers and carriers.

This mindset has direct applicability to defense. We are so wrapped up in this idea of the "new widget" whether it is an idea or a product that will win our wars; we seek to "understand the moment" as the author says. We have bought into this concept that there is this historical and technological progress that we are better now than we were, which is completely false. Case in point: the 2002 Millennium Challenge. LTG Van Riper creatively used "obsolete" tactics and techniques to overcome the whizbangery of high dollar, high technology systems. He took "old" TTP and used it in a way not imagined by their creators--to subvert high-tech surveillance. Ultimately, the vulnerability he exploited to win was the thinking of technocrats (many from business and technology backgrounds) who bought into the "new widget" rather than using widgets creatively. (As an aside, there is <a href="… great interview of LTG Van Riper over at Midrats</a>.)

The fact that the author is so convinced that today's digital natives have the solutions tells me he should do a better job of challenging his assumptions. No one should fool themselves into thinking that, because he or she understands the latest technology, he or she will be any less prone to repeating the poor decision making of the past. Trust me: tomorrow's catastrophes--financial, military, or otherwise--will be brought to you by the digital natives of today.

Vitesse et Puissance

Fri, 04/06/2012 - 12:13pm

In reply to by TJ

One can argue - and I do argue - that the lessons of the GWOT are buried in the lessons of Vietnam. The arrogance of the twenty and thirty somethings in the military right now is the same philistinism as G.K. Chesterton wrote about in the story of the man who sailed the planet, landing on Brighton beach, planted his flag down - only to realize that he had rediscovered England. The problem of pragmatism in American military thought runs deep - since we are inadequately grounded in theory, every problem is a "new" problem. Even where there are an abundance of historical precedents. It takes someone like Bing West, who actually experienced the previous cycle as a young man, to live long enough to become old and explain that the problems of the present are really the same as the problems of the past. In many respects, the issue is not just that the lessons of the past are lost as the military moves on to the next fad of the day - it is that the reforms themselves are incomplete and tentative. That's what pragmatism gives you. "Disruptive technology" is just another fad, and indeed, a philosophy of fads. Read the latest public comments of CG TRADOC to get a sense of where this is leading.


Thu, 04/05/2012 - 2:31pm

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

Do we need a stronger argument than losing the Vietnam War and almost losing OIF? How late in a war should we wait to change course? OIF was costing $9B/month. How long should we have let that go on? Is it radical to oppose the notion of doing the same thing and expect different results? Why did all those young USMC Captains in 1982 flock to a retired Air Force Colonel's odd notions, and just why did that result in the seminal Field Manuals in both the Army and the Marine Corps to change? If I'm a carpenter and I have beautiful dewalt drills, should I keep using them when I'm stuck doing plumbing day after day after day? It is perhaps neither radical nor brilliant for a carpenter to buy a framing hammer to do framing, instead of using the bottom of a Dewalt drill's battery.

COIN tactics were radical until they worked in Iraq. The surge was a radical departure from the previous strategy until it helped tip the scales. Ubiquitous UAS, ubiquitous ground cameras, MRAPs were radical before Mr. Gates, Adm Mullen, Gen Conway, MAJGEN Lynch endorsed them. Gen Marshall reached over many Generals and Colonels to pick young upstarts like Eisenhower, Patton and some of the most senior Army Air Corps officers. No doubt those he reached over thought it was a radical departer from the Peacetime Army's way of doing things. E-M theory was radical until it proved the F111 was junk. EM theory was radical until it was used to design all the aircraft that gave us air superiority today. Activity Based Costing in the early 1970s was a radical accounting method until people began to realize that it exposed "star" products as unprofitable. Perhaps it was radical for the Integrated Steel Mills to adopt mini-mill technology--they didn't and they all went bankrupt. And it will continue to feel radical to suggest there should be a place at the table to consider new ideas.

Clayton Christensen's 1997 book, Innovators Dilemma, provides a good introduction to the concept. It was the #1 business book that year, suggesting the burden of proof regarding the notion of Disruptive Technology is not on those who suggest the concept has value.

Vitesse et Puissance

Fri, 04/06/2012 - 12:19pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

One problem, simply put, is that the "status quo" is ever-changing. The US Army particularly has been in a constant state of flux since the Second World War. If you want to blame all our problems on Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, you're welcome to that argument. But that line of reasoning is not likely to lead to anything useful, any more than exercising Auftragtaktik is an antidote for reading Vom Krieg.

Peter J. Munson

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 1:39pm

In reply to by Vitesse et Puissance

The old men have led us to strategic, budgetary, acquisition, military, and personnel failure. That's a pretty convincing argument for sticking with the status quo, now isn't it?

Vitesse et Puissance

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 12:55pm

It was about this stage in the Army's lifecycle that I, not even commissioned yet, read Ward Just's "Military Men" and Tony Herbert's "Soldier". What, in fact, is new about this conversation ? Nothing, really. I was a smart-mouthed youngster, in a hurry and thought I knew it all better. But as others point out, attention to the basics is the duty of junior officers. In time, if they are successful, they will attain sufficient institutional power to "make a difference" in the manner suggested in this article. I think it is possible to have 28 year old battalion commanders - the Israelis do it all the time, and the Russians would do it in extremitis. But such people will have spent their entire careers in the line, and our armed forces do not favor the selectivity involved in creating a general staff corps (such as does exist in the Bundeswehr). So what we do have, what OPMS gives us, are well-educated dilettantes - in the old British tradition. Pragmatism is the only philosophy that works in an institution like that, and it does fit the biases of the engineering-oriented culture fostered in our military academies. Quite frankly, the radicals need to pose a more convincing case as to why "disruptive" practices will serve to improve institutional performance rather than just break the institution down - the self-actualization of brilliant individual contributors is not a sufficient argument here. What in fact one finds in the Wisdom of Robert Gates and his like is a kind of new orthodoxy that asserts that, not only is the future unpredictable, but that the future bears no resemblance to the past. I contend that this world view moves well beyond anything our generation did or attempted to do in the wake of the Vietnam debacle - despite our reformist pretentiousness. A society that actually listens to its old men is better for so doing.

So many of the comments here seem to focus on the need for advanced degrees from civilian universities as the potential way to get entrepeneurship into the military. While I certainly appreciate how graduate level courses at colleges with minimal military affiliation can be mind-expanding, it may not be the best place to learn entrepeneurial skills.

The entrepreneurs in the non-military world, those who go off and take risks to do something oddball because they are passionate about it, are often as not coming from very non-traditional, non-graduate-school backgrounds. The people I've met who've brought truly innovative and disruptive thinking to the military have for the most part come from private industry, and are just as likely to come there with an advanced degree as not.

I'd argue that something along the lines of what the author is affiliated with (Disruptive Thinkers - something I was unaware of before this article but am pretty excited to find out about) that ties military leaders with innovative civilian entrepreneurs may be more effective.

In my ideal world, military leaders would have the opportunity to go off on 1-3-year innovation sabbaticals within entrepreneurial companies not even affiliated with govmil contracting, to allow them to get completely out of the military system to learn something. Maybe something along what has been periodically proposed for the reserves (i.e., a reliable, predictable path for more senior leaders who've grown up outside active duty to jump back into the active duty cadre if they've got something to add).

I also fall into the Peter Munson trench regarding the need for alternative, aggressive promotion pipelines to give the top young leaders a chance to bloom and bring their disruption to broader audiences, faster. Yes, they still have to learn the core skills of their craft, but there's no need for someone to stay in a position for 1-2 years to become a "master" of it before moving on. Most military people who've had to move positions every 12-36 months have figured out how to effectively do their new job within 6 months (and those who attempt to use the excuse of "it takes at least a year to learn my job" when they make mistakes after that 6 month point will find out pretty rapidly that the 6 month expectation is widely shared).

In civilian industry, promotion on an annual basis for high achievers who take risks and achieve good things (and I"m not even talking the truly stellar performers like Elon Musk) is not unusual. Why the heck don't we have a way for finding and nurturing similar military leaders and pairing them with civilian opportunities that expose them to radically different ways of doing things.

Very well stated article. This notion dovetails nicely with four straight years of SECDEF Robert Gates excoriating the "Pentagon Establishment" in speech after speech.

Some of the critiques against the author above strike me as more of the same "be quiet and I'll tell you what to think." That may not have been the intent, but that is often the result of such critique, because the military simply does not want to change. Dozens of times I briefed officers within CENTCOM and its JTFs in 2006 and 2007, advocating ubiquitous availability of a range of new toolsets for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These toolsets doubled in use almost every year since precisely because many of us were trained in disruptive technology. In several cases I was party to initiating toolsets that actually had been held-up by hyper-conservative middle managers (Colonels, GS-15's) whose thinking reminded me of some of the critiques above. When I would propose a new idea (already being circulated among General Officers and top leaders in JIEDDO) their eyes would glaze over and they would explain why we could not do "that". I'd have to sit and listen to bromides borne of precisely that kind of incestuous thinking that the author here is talking about, thank them for their time, and leave them to their ignorance: Majors, Lt. Colonels and Colonels who can still think like Captains but who could not think the way Mr. Gates said he wanted them to think. I wanted to repeat one of Murphy's Laws of Combat: if its stupid and it works, it isn't stupid. As Col Jim Burton said (in Pentagon Wars), incest leads to feeblemindedness, and so does military intellectual incest. That's why Gen Galvin wanted Gen Petraeus to get a civilian advanced degree. Such feeblemindedness is expressed in the Pentagon not knowing how it spends its money, the A12, the Bradley testing fiasco, inaccurate testimony before congress, pursuing hyper expensive toolsets like FCS and EFV, The airforce resisting UAS and then demanding control over all UAS over a certain altitude. THese are systemic expressions of neglecting simpler, immediately available toolsets and innovating bigger/faster/more expensive toolsets "because that's how we've always done things."

This kind of thinking is needed at the Company level, too, as Boyd, Gray, Wyly, and in the army, BGEN Wass de Czege (one of the SAMS founders) made clear. We have mission statements, but we also have commander's intent. Expression of the broader intent give the boundaries and degree of freedom of action an officer needs to be creative. To suggest the author wants to grant to a Lieutenant the ability to choose their own strategy strikes me as a straw man argument.


Thu, 04/05/2012 - 12:20pm

In reply to by estragon421857

I'm glad I'm not the only one who's been reading this brilliant series. It's entirely relevant to this thread, and will probably ring true for anyone who's lived within govmil space at all in the last 10 years.

That quote was one of my favorites. For those readers not aware of the series, it's being serialized and posted at the excellent Travels with Shiloh blog:


Thu, 04/05/2012 - 11:15am

From True History - Imperial Farce:

“Take the entire theory behind Effects Based Operations, Network Mapping and Center of Gravity Analysis. Behind this whole strategic architecture is an almost theological belief that there’s one nodal point, and if we can just hit it – we win. All American strategic thinking is fundamentally framed by the theory behind the Death Star trench run.”


Thu, 04/05/2012 - 3:50pm

In reply to by Art Wellesley


A more direct critique of pitfalls of the rank of Colonel comes from a BGEN in SWJ:

"While others have lectured on the responsibility of generals, the rank immediately below them should not be spared. If you want to block reforms, install a "council of colonels" to guard the gates of change. No one is as conservative and arrogant as a staff colonel in the comfort zone of his expertise. During my time on active duty this was the most conservative rank. Had I not gotten around older and more entrenched colonels at Ft. Leavenworth both the AirLand Battle reforms and the creation of SAMS would have been stillborn. And sometimes no one is as hesitant to speak truth to power than an O-6 commander."


Thu, 04/05/2012 - 4:39pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

Perhaps there is a middle ground? Please excuse me if this current or past practice in the various services; I was not in the military but instead am a police officer. There are distinct benefits to various aspects of a business education, so long as the focus of that education includes innovation, understanding operating environments, and decision making. Not things that are unknown in the military or in law enforcement, but certainly appreciated to a different degree and applied/utilized in a different manner. Partnering with business schools to allow officers to attend classes on relevant subjects at those schools in classes with business students as part of that officer's education, or sharing instructors (military personnel teaching at business school and business professors at the military schools) seems like a decent compromise. Everyone steps outside their comfort zone, gains new perspective on common topics, and does not deviate too far from their core competencies. Off-duty collaborations remain a great idea as well.

The bureaucratic/rank structure of both the military and LE (in large enough agencies) has done an excellent job of relegating bright, innovative, or talented members to silent seats on the bench owing to lack of rank and/or experience. This is a shame; old dogs may be capable of learning new tricks, but the ones who teach those tricks are usually the young dogs creating them. Focus groups and best practices work is a) the call for them is not a sham aimed at due diligence b) those requesting them have the actual desire to listen and implement them, c) those doing the focusing are not pre-selected to provide the company line, or d)those selected are free to speak without fear of reprisal should the damage any egos. That's a lot of qualification. Regardless, cross-training outside the confines of your service, developing young talent in your organization, and fostering creativity should certainly remain organizational priorities.

Peter J. Munson

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 3:03pm

In reply to by Art Wellesley

Well, Art, he moderated his standpoint as well and I agreed with that more elucidated standpoint.

The project and the article is not mine, it is Ben Kohlmann's, although I have made similar arguments elsewhere.

Finally, his use of GS and HBS, despite their failures, is still compelling. The point is not wholesale adoption of business models, it is broadening our horizons. Your point about the Russians is tired. What has the defense establishment gotten us lately?

I won't be a colonel. I'm leaving the military far before then because I don't want to be a used up group-thinker who talks down to younger firebreathers as smart or smarter than I am.

Art Wellesley

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 2:30pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

Well, Peter - that's an awful quick path from the snide "You'll make an excellent Colonel", to largely agreeing with what CJ is saying.

Which would seem to be the QED argument against "Disruptive Thinkers", and supportive of CJs original contention.

You're right about that, by the way. The professional manner in which he accepted your snark in good humor, and engaged you anyways, would lead the casual blogger to think that he probably will make an excellent Colonel.

At any rate: The only problem I have with disruptive thinkers in the military is, of course, existential. Your use of GS and the graduates of HBS would have been better used before, say, 2008. If our tired old bureaucratic defense department had a track record like that, we would likely be having this conversation in Russian. In the end, efficiency is a business principle - redundancy is a martial principle.

Congrats on your project, and your zeal. But it best belongs in the off-duty hours to which you've already consigned it. I hope you stick with it, and make it to Colonel yourself. It'll be instructive to hear your recollections.

Peter J. Munson

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 11:34am

In reply to by cj.kirkpatrick

I largely agree with what you're saying here. I certainly don't think we should trade tactical and technical proficiency, but there could be more leeway for more diverse career paths, some longer at a rank, some shorter. Some to school, some to command. Cross-over farther down the road. In the Marine Corps we have a lot of guys that go to a B-billet between their Lt years and their company command or similar billet anyway. We can direct some of those hand-selected standouts to school without jeopardizing their tactical or technical proficiency even in combat arms or aviation billets. There's room for some exceptions in our assignments, education, and personnel policies. We need to diversify a bit across the force.


Thu, 04/05/2012 - 11:21am

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

We can play Goldilocks all day - too hot, too cold, just right.

I agree that we should diversify thought through a diversification of education. However, at the company grade-level, tactical and technical competency matters. There is a trade off here. Sending a 25 year old to grad shool at MIT might make him an innovative thinker, but it may not be the best preparation for company command. If we're also advocating a similar shift backwards in the FA process (maybe the 5-6 year mark?) - in other words ID those high competency individuals with the intellectual capital and faculty to be strategic planners and intel folks at an earlier age and then pairing that with diverse graduate education, then we are in total agreement. I'd even go further - the current pox on the house of non-operational General Officers is disappointing. Why can't truly exceptional FAOs or planners, etc. cross back over late in their careers to a certain extent? Again, this is a limited change and it appears that we are actually saying the same sorts of things.

What is not appropriate is trading technical and tactical competency at the company grade level for a stint at Fletcher Business School (or the MIT physics lab) for officers who remain in operational career fields until after company command. Will this further deepen what is already an anti-intellectual vibe, particularly in the combat arms branches? Probably. But it might be an improvement for the institution overall, particularly if some of the exceptional folks on different paths can cross back over later.

Peter J. Munson

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 10:57am

In reply to by cj.kirkpatrick

I find the counterarguments about wholesale commitment to a business model to be disingenuous. That's not what any of us who argue for more, different thought in the military (some of that thought coming from business) are saying, nor will it ever happen. The suggestion is to diversify thought and work more on a diverse education for leaders. More business, strategic, leadership, and leading change perspective from outside the military won't make us wholesale business people, but will provide alternate ways to consider problems. Business texts on these issues use cases from a wide range of disciplines, including military strategy. We should widen our aperture.


Thu, 04/05/2012 - 10:50am

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

I do not claim that our elders have a lock on intellect, and I do agree that the institutional inertia of both our current promotion and education system stifle innovative thinking. Add fielding and acquisitions to the list. I offer the ill-thought out axing of TIGERNET as an example. As I said, I think some of LT Kohlmann's points have merit, and anything that promotes a closer civil-military relationship is worth pursuing.

However, a whole-sale commitment to a business model is not the panacea. It's fine if developing the lightbulb took a million failures along the way. We don't have the same luxury.

I enjoy the reductionism at the end, by the way.

Peter J. Munson

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 10:35am

In reply to by cj.kirkpatrick

You are going to make an excellent colonel.

You huff about people thinking they are geniuses and having a woe is me attitude, but the point is that Goldman Sachs will trust a 31 year old with huge business responsibility, State is considering entrusting a 38 year old as the next ambassador to Iraq, twenty-somethings have demonstrated their ability to create and run some of the most successful corporations in the world, but people like you say that exceptional intellects don't merit a seat at the table until they've become a doddering old fart. I know what all your counterpoints are going to be about combat and lives and whatever, but show me how our elders have demonstrated that they've got a lock on intelligent thought in recent years. The military promotion system does not reward exceptional talent and leads to a lot of deadwood that chokes out rational thought. You're well on your way there.


Thu, 04/05/2012 - 10:23am

There's nothing wrong with innovative and adaptive thinking by junior officers. And there's nothing stopping said officers from doing so (your own group being case in point). In fact, I would argue that a young professional officer who is not actively engaged in reading and digesting a wide array of ideas is not actually a professional. Further, a company commander or field grade who doesn't facilitate and encourage such practices isn't much of a professional either.

However, I don't need a platoon leader who is going to come to every OPORD and eat up time rewriting the plan b/c he's chock full of entrepreneurship. I don't need a LT who is going to radically depart from my guidance b/c he's an innovator. And I certainly don't need a LT who is full of network-centric adaptive practices and metrics to improve horizontal integration in my company, but can't qualify his tank on Tank Table VIII or his platoon on Table XII. I do need a LT who is technically and tactically competent in maintaining and employing his equipment and Soldiers - which by the way is the only path to respect as a junior officer with the NCOs and Soldiers he is charged with. Technical and tactical competence = training, not HBS. Of course, one might respond that after that PL leaves his or her position, by all means send them to graduate school. I think this has some merit on a limited basis.

Regarding current programs, I take issue with "We educate them when they are well past the age of agile and innovative thought." Being a young O4 myself, I think I'm quite agile and innovative in my thought and definitely don't see my "creative impulses" as "largely repressed." In fact, I think the richness of early experiences enhanced what I got out of graduate school rather than leading to a doddering old fart who tottered onto campus and slept through seminars.

Regarding strategic thinking by junior officers - surely officers must recognize the strategic implications of their actions in today's operational environment. However, defining strategy (or even having real input) is something far different. Ditto for acquisitions. I could listen to the same story from a frustrated Congressional staffer who is full of great ideas. In both cases, passion and adaptive thinking are wonderful - but they do not earn (or merit) a seat at the table. Experience matters.

At the end of the day, this is more of the same that we've heard before. The Army/Air Force/Marine Corps/Navy simply does not recognize the genius that is me. The difference with LT Kohlmann (which I do respect greatly) is that he is affecting change from the inside rather than getting out and then crying woe is me from the sidelines.


Thu, 04/05/2012 - 8:56am

Overall this was an outstanding article, one that I plan on sharing with my peers. I would make one addition, and that is to open up more foreign liason billets. How many JOs get the chance to go abroad and interact with America's allies, and understand their perspectives? Regardless, this article is certainly keeping with a vein of thought that I have observed more and more: Junior officers becoming more outspoken in with reference to their stances on certain things, wanting to think outside the box, and trying to force policy change. Usually a week doesn't go by when I do not see a new story along those lines, especially from Tom Ricks' "The Best Defense".
I daresay that from a glass half full perspective, fundemental change is on the horizon. This generation of service-members ranking anywhere between O-4 and O-1 have been growing and developing with the internet, and the War on Terror. The internet has allowed the spread and expression ideas and opinions to a wide audience capable of generating massive support. The War on Terror (which I use as a general term) has forced this new generation of leaders to become innovative and adaptive as a "new" kind of war is waged. Assuming this group suffers the military for a while longer, they will begin to attain Flag rank. Then institutional change becomes possible.
That is assuming that the best minds do not jump ship for what they hope are greener pastures. Many have, and many continue to do so leaving those individuals who are so aptly referneced in the article. But if enough of us stay the course, then there is a chance to remake the military.

[edit army guy here]

I think we have about the right mix and civilian and military education. This is coming from an O4 that is about to graduate resident ILE and did KU business school at night.

I say this because, as COL Gentile alluded to, not everyone can turn on a dime and switch gears between compliance and divergent thought. I don't know if we could do it any earlier than O3 command. Not because of bureaucratic inflexibility but because the management of violence is so gosh darn technical. We may err by pulling a professional out of their job just as they are becoming a journeyman; the most crucial timing. I am a wholesale believer in the training-education-experience model and for this O4 it has worked swimmingly. I don't think that I'm more than a standard deviation or two from the pinnacle mean.

I think the biggest foul is that most business concepts are reflected through a funhouse mirror when they finally get into military thought. The conduct of war is a business, as a recent JFQ article stated, but only at the strategic and operational level. For tactical level leaders war is unique in that lives are at stake. Chance, danger, and fatigue and all that.

Thanks for your consideration,


Thu, 04/05/2012 - 7:56am

I could not agree more with your argument. Why the military waits to educate its officers at institutions of higher learning until they are at the field grade level is a waste. There are many junior officers in the military that I know who are passionate and care about contributing their thoughts and ideas on the issues we as a military and nation face. If the opportunity for graduate level education was offered earlier in an officer's career track it would afford that officer the opportunity to make a longer lasting impact over the coure of his or her career.

gian gentile

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 2:12pm

In reply to by Ken White


Agree, and i didn’t mean to suggest that a military spirit of entrepreneurship is not essential for successful operations; but instead of labeling it with some fancy-pants word like "entrepreneurship" why don’t we just use the old fashioned word "initiative." To be sure once a leader (nco or officer) directs to go somewhere and then do something the subordinate leader carries out that task using creativity and ingenuity.

But what has happened in the American Army (can’t speak for the marines here) is that this fetish with "entrepreneurship" combined with blatant derision for everybody (nearly to a person) in higher headquarters (you know the classic Mauldin line "those bastards" up at battalion, brigade, division and so on)has produced a mindset of whatever my higher hq tells me is stupid therefore by right (call it auftragstaktik or entrepreneurship) i will do whatever the hell i want to do because everybody in higher headquarters is incompetent. Now to be sure there is plenty of incompetence to go around, but I don’t think we as an institution are as bad as articles like these make us out to be.

In this sense I think CG K's remarks are spot on correct.

Ken White

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 11:06am

In reply to by gian gentile

While I strongly agree with Gian that there are limitations to what entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship can do for the military, I suggest that it is a case of proper application of principle. As is true of any virtue -- entrepreneurial thinking <i>and action</i> are indeed virtues -- misapplication is always possible and is more dangerous than failure to apply at all.

Gian, an entrepreneur might suggest your Scout Platoon should be commanded by a NonCommissioned Officer who is not selected, trained or expected to be entrpreneurial and he should have been told to head for Checkpoint 1 by an entrepreneur who happens to be a lieutenant selected, trained and expected to be just that and who very loosely directs several such Platoons -- while looking for bright young guys or gals who have that entrepreneurial spirit to promote to become fellow Lieutenants...

I also agree that the business models adopted or aped by the armed forces since the late 50s (the 80s just continued the march...) are often quite inappropriate for war fighting -- that misapplication thing...

There's a place for those, just as there is for entrepreneurs but the bureaucratic mindset has consistently opted to implement business practices with little regard to effectiveness. The US Army's very flawed Task, Condition and Standard / BTMS training system being a terrible example of utter misapplication of a 'business model' -- training assembly line workers -- to a military purpose; training soldiers who cannot get tax write-offs for their errors and just go back to work the next day.

From the Article:<blockquote>"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."</blockquote>That's quite true and is a current problem that certainly stifles creative or innovative thinking -- which is really what's wanted, not necessarily entrepreneurship -- but all should recall that the nominally meritocratic model emphasizing 'fairness' and 'objective criteria' for selection and promotion is very much a creature of Congress and presumed societal goals. As the the society has become risk averse and bland, so too has the bureaucracy. It is possible to tame the latter without changing the former but the real goal should be kept in mind -- improved performance and not just "out of the box thinking" as its own reward...

It should also be recalled that if that large bureaucracy is charged with fighting wars, it <u>must</u> be able to use a lot of average individuals efficiently. There aren't enough really bright guys and gals, enough entrepreneurs, to repopulate the armed forces if heavy combat is involved. Thus the task for the entrepreneurial military person is to ascertain the best balance and design efforts to achieve that. I fully acknowledge that we are now out of balance and stultification does cause many very capable people to seek employment elsewhere. We do need to fix that.

Note also that many successful entrepreneurs did and do not possess advanced degrees. Indeed, many had or have no degree. Awfully long way to say I agree with much Lt. Kohlmann wrote and much that you wrote, I suggest both of you might beneficially apply a more, umm, entrepreneurial (read less lock step and minimal modification to current practice) approach to your models. ;>

Peter J. Munson

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 9:53am

In reply to by gian gentile

I understand your concerns, but I think that there are plenty of entrepreneurs out there who are capable of knowing when it is acceptable to be creative and when you need to comply. Most entrepreneurs comply with the rules and laws that govern their field. Entrepreneurial or creative thinkers can still operate within a firm structure. I agree that the business model is not completely transferrable, but creative and independent thought need not be mutually exclusive of compliance with rules, norms, laws, or directives of a superior. As a matter of fact, if we actually taught toward this more, we'd have better compliance of our creative thinkers, not worse. Then again, this is coming from a guy (me) who is probably going to get in trouble for another disruptive blog post...

Finally, I do think a business model applies fairly well to what most people do on a day to day basis, which is running organizations and processes, and planning, budgeting, and executing non-combat activities (often poorly and wastefully). If we disrupted some of our broken processes, we'd be more combat effective.

In sum, there is a balance to be found.

gian gentile

Thu, 04/05/2012 - 7:44am

Well, there are limits to what entrepreneurship can do for the military. I mean shoot, if i tell a lieutenant to go with his scout platoon to checkpoint 1 and observe and report enemy activity to the west then that is exactly what i want him to do. The last thing i want is for that lt to be a "disruptive thinker", apply a business model of entrepreneurship and then do whatever the heck he wants by not going to any checkpoint at all.

I guess the point i am making here is that we should not take the business model too far with military operations, especially those in war. Yet the American military since the 1980s has looked to business models for answers in war when war by its nature is a very different thing. It is not that there are not worthwhile things to learn from the business world for military leaders, but it does not offer the cipher to success by simply adapting its models to military organizations and leadership.