Small Wars Journal

Army Professional Reading and Creative Thinking

Mon, 07/02/2018 - 5:12am

Army Professional Reading and Creative Thinking

James Torrence


“Because they must be able to compensate for their own weaknesses, strategic leaders cannot afford to have staffs that blindly agree with everything they say. Strategic leaders encourage staffs to participate in open dialogue with them, discuss alternative points of view, and explore all facts, assumptions, and implications. Such dialogue, that includes inquiry and advocacy, enables strategic leaders to assess all aspects of an issue and helps clarify their vision, intent, and guidance. As strategic leaders build and use effective staffs, they continually seek honest and competent people of diverse backgrounds.”[i]

-- ADRP 6-22

United States Army Field Manual (FM) 6-22 says that “professional reading programs broaden leader knowledge, understanding, and confidence” and that units “must allocate and protect time for effective implementation.”[ii] Army Doctrine Reference Publication (ADRP) 6-22 claims that the Army wants “critical and creative problem solvers” who are “agile and able to make decisions in environments with uncertainty, complexity, and change.”[iii] FM 6-22 further says that “leaders gain a refined understanding of the [professional reading] material and develop critical thinking skills through pertinent discussion with others.”[iv] The section of FM 6-22 focused on professional reading recommends two resources for Soldiers, one of which focuses only on military and government leadership literature and the second of which no longer exists.[v] If Soldiers only read books that discuss lessons identified from the perspective of military and government, they will have diminishing returns on exposure to new ideas, critical thinking, and will not be agile or adaptive. 

Leadership researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Kahey contend that there is a “disjunction between our increased understanding of the need for change and our lack of understanding as to what prevents it.”[vi] Leadership scholars Noel M. Tichy and Warren G. Bennis further argue that “at the end of the day, the character of an organization –its culture- comes down to the behavior of its leaders and must be seen to be a central part of the whole system of training and developing leaders, and the whole process of evaluating, paying, and promoting people.”[vii]  One of the factors preventing Army Soldiers from transforming to adaptive leaders is an existing culture that does not create opportunities for Soldiers to broaden their sources of professional reading.

FM 6-22 says that “a wealth of materials are available to support” a unit professional reading program, but FM 6-22 only lists the U.S. Army Chief of Staff’s Professional Reading List and U.S. Center of Military History Professional Reading List as resources.[viii] Though the U.S. Army Chief of Staff’s Professional Reading List is extensive (64 pages long), it only contains books[ix] on leadership involving military or government experience.[x] Furthermore, The U.S. Center of Military History Professional Reading List no longer exists.[xi] The Army will not develop critical and creative problem solvers if it does not create professional reading opportunities that expose Soldiers to new ideas and leadership models. Risk expert Sidney Dekker argues that “complex systems can remain resilient if they maintain diversity.”[xii]  The Army is a complex system that must expose its Soldiers to diverse leadership resources if it wants them to be resilient, agile and adaptive.

Leadership literature based on military history and experience is very important in Soldier development, but leadership extends beyond the military. Dekker contends that “the emergence of innovative strategies can be enhanced by ensuring diversity. Diversity also begets diversity: with more inputs into problem assessment, more responses get generated, and new approaches can even grow as the combination of those inputs.”[xiii] Reading focused on the military must be augmented with leadership literature from outside of the military and government to ensure Soldiers engage with diverse concepts from other disciplines and professions.  The military must develop a professional reading list and reading resources that afford Soldiers the opportunity to read material from multiple sources. Nassim Nicholas Taleb claims that erudition “signals genuine intellectual curiosity” because it “accompanies an open mind and the desire to prove the ideas of others.”[xiv] Taleb further cautions that “scholarship without erudition can lead to disasters.”[xv] The current resources recommended to Soldiers for professional reading create a culture of scholarship without erudition which inhibit the Army from developing resilient, agile and adaptive leaders.

If Soldiers must become agile and adaptive leaders for the Army to succeed in challenging environments, the Army must also give them the resources to do so. According to FM 6-22, “creative thinking uses adaptive approaches (drawing from previous circumstances) or innovative approaches (developing completely new ideas).”[xvi] FM 6-22 does not define agile or adaptable, and only discusses creative thinking as a tenet of leaders in complex, dynamic environments.[xvii] Based on the information contained in FM 6-22, the best way to develop agile and adaptive leaders is to enable them to think creatively.[xviii]

Creative thinking affords leaders the ability to “question traditional practices and ways of doing things, to envision new possibilities, to be able to express and share those ideas, to collaborate with teams and begin turning ideas into realities.”[xix] Tim Brown, CEO of IEDO, argues that “integrative thinkers know how to widen the scope of issues salient to the problem. They resist the ‘either/or’ in favor of the ‘both/and’ and see nonlinear and multidirectional relationships as a source of inspiration, not contradiction.”[xx]  General U.S. Army (R) Martin Dempsey and Ori Brafman further contend that leaders must “learn to be alert for weak signals and to avoid becoming complacent, satisfied with information affirming their beliefs.”[xxi] To avoid reaffirming their existing beliefs and becoming stagnant thinkers, Army leaders must be exposed to information from people and sources outside of the military. The Army must develop professional reading resources centered around creative thinking in environments other than military and government to develop leaders capable of solving problems in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environments.

Professional Reading for Creative Thinking

There is currently no resource referenced in Army leadership doctrine that provides a listing of creative thinking literature from sources outside the military or government. Using the books Change by Design by Tim Brown and Cad Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies and T-Shaped People by Warren Berger, it is possible to create a baseline example of what a creative reading list should look like.

Change by Design

Change by Design by Tim Brown is an illuminating foray into creative thinking and its applicability in properly framing and solving large scale problems. One of the key lessons learned from this book is that organizations that employ design thinking create an environment where the combination of unlikely things (ideas, technology, material, etc.) leads to unparalleled innovation.[xxii] Brown argues that creative thinkers thrive under constraints because it gives them parameters in which they are forced to innovate.[xxiii] Brown says that “constraints can best be visualized in terms of three overlapping criteria for successful ideas: feasibility (what is functionally possible within the foreseeable future); viability (what is likely to become part of a sustainable business model); and desirability (what makes sense to people and for the people).”[xxiv]  Thinking of solutions in terms of feasibility, viability, and desirability can enhance a military leader’s ability to solve problems and augments existing criteria for course of action development in ADRP 5-0.[xxv] ADRP 5-0 tells army leaders to evaluate proposed courses of action (solutions) to a problem based on “feasibility, suitability, and acceptability.”[xxvi] The principles espoused by Brown are analogous to those found in ADRP 5-0, but leaders that read Brown’s book can develop new frames of reference to evaluate solutions to military problems.[xxvii]

Brown further argues that “a culture that believes that it is better to ask forgiveness afterward rather than permission before, that rewards people for success but gives them permission to fail, has removed one of the main obstacles to the formation of new ideas.”[xxviii] Chief of Staff of the Army, General Mark A. Milley, recently said he thinks the Army is “over-centralized, overly bureaucratic, and overly-risk averse.”[xxix] Furthermore, General Milley said "we are going to have to empower [and] decentralize leadership to make decisions and achieve battlefield effects in a widely dispersed environment where subordinate leaders, junior leaders ... may not be able to communicate to their higher headquarters, even if they wanted to."[xxx] General Milley went as far as to say that Soldiers must exhibit “disciplined disobedience to achieve a higher purpose” in a complex operational environment.[xxxi] To heed General Milley’s advice, leaders must read books like Change by Design to understand how to develop cultures that have removed obstacles to the formation of new ideas.

Change by Design is an excellent book for Army leaders looking to understand creative thinking, augment existing military models for making decisions, and understand ways in which civilian organizations set the conditions for the development of an innovative organization. FM 6-0 says that “the ability to recognize and effectively solve problems is an essential skill for leaders.”[xxxii] Solving complex problems requires Soldiers with exposure to creative thinking. More exposure to creative thinking from military and civilian experience and theory creates new opportunities for innovation and novel solutions in complex environments

Cad Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies and T-Shaped People

Cad Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People by Warren Berger focuses on creative problem-solving methodology and the application of abductive reasoning. Berger argues that “by relying on abductive reasoning, or the ability to think about and picture what might be, designers can glimpse possibilities that lie on the other side of the fence.”[xxxiii]  Abductive thinking is important in currently military operations where “commanders and staffs apply critical thinking throughout the operations process to assist them with understanding situations, making decisions, and directing action.”[xxxiv] Berger makes it clear that creative thinking involves multiple attempts and trial and error before arriving at the correct solution.[xxxv] Berger’s most powerful explanation of creative thinking is a drawing that he uses to introduce readers to the concept of iterative solutions in complex environments contrasted with linear thinking.[xxxvi]


Figure 1: Linear Thinking                                        Figure 2: Creative Thinking

Figure 1 represents an attempt to solve a problem in one fell swoop. The distance between the current state (A) and the desired end-state (B) seems insurmountable. The daunting task of trying to get from A to B with one attempt creates a tremendous amount of pressure for leaders and organizations. Figure 1 shows the approach of linear thinking (“I want us to get better now”) and Figure 2 highlights the iterative nature of creative thinking. The goal in Figure 2 is still to get from A to B, but the multiple iterations make it look like a much more manageable process. In figure 2 there are multiple iterations, changes, refinements, and ultimately, the achievement of a desired end-state. FM 3-12 claims that:

“Framing an operational environment involves critical and creative thinking by a group to build models that represent the current conditions of the operational environment (current state) and models that represent what the operational environment should resemble at the conclusion of an operation (desired end state). A planning team designated by the commander will define, analyze, and synthesize characteristics of the operational and mission variables and develop desired future end states. Cyberspace should be considered within this framing effort for opportunities as they envision desired end states.”[xxxvii]

Understanding Berger’s model for creative thinking affords Army leaders the ability to approach the achievement of desired end-states (and include elements like cyberspace) with an iterative approach. An iterative approach to achieving a desired end-state is more flexible, agile, and adaptive than an attempt to reach a solution with one finite method.

Berger’s writing even discusses commanders at war (from a civilian perspective). Berger says that “the commanders who do well in the fog of war are those who learn to see through the haze, recognize important pieces of information that are available, connect that with experiences from other battles, and ultimately trust their instincts.”[xxxviii]  Furthermore, Berger argues a problem-solver (and commanders) using creative thinking will never have one-hundred percent of the available information and will need to make a decision with maybe twenty percent of the information he would ideally want.[xxxix]  Further understanding Berger’s discussion of creative problem solving has direct application to Army leaders. ADRP 5-0 States that “because uncertainty exists in all military operations, every military decision contains risk. Commanders exercise the art of command when deciding how much risk to accept.”[xl] Cad Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies, and T-Shaped People is an excellent book for military professionals looking to better understand creative thinking and how they can apply it to develop novel solutions, improve their organizations, and make decisions with incomplete information.


The Army operations process consists of the “major mission command activities performed during operations: planning, preparing, executing, and continuously assessing the operation.”[xli] One of the four principles for the effective use of the operations process is “apply critical and creative thinking.”[xlii] The Army espouses the need for creative thinking, professional reading, and leaders capable of operating in complex, uncertain environments.[xliii] Though the Army wants creative thinkers who read information that broadens their professional understanding, the resources do not currently exist to provide Soldiers examples of creative thinking literature outside of military experience.[xliv] Colonel Christopher Kolenda argues that “intellectual development is the key that opens the door to meaning” and that “the education of a leader must move beyond personal experience and draw on the boundless experience and insights of others.”[xlv] Furthermore, the “opportunities for education lie in the pages of history, philosophy, theory, and the reflections of past and contemporary leaders.”[xlvi] Colonel Kolenda makes it clear that exposure to a range of literature (both inside and outside the military) is critical to the development of a holistic leadership model.[xlvii] If the Army values creative thinking as much as its doctrine implies, then it must give Soldiers the resources to access material outside of military and government experience. Change by Design and Cad Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies and T-Shaped People are two examples of creative thinking literature developed outside the Army that can inform Army leaders how to create a culture of innovation and develop unique approaches to solving problems. The Army must develop a professional reading list that includes diverse creative thinking resources if it wants leaders capable of adapting to and succeeding in complex operational environments. 

End Notes

[i] Department of the Army. Army Leadership. ADRP 6-22. Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2012., 11-8.

[ii] Department of the Army. Leader Development. FM 6-22. Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2015., 3-26-3-27.

[iii] ADRP 6-22, 1-3.

[iv] FM 6-22, 3-26.

[v] Ibid., 3-26-27.

[vi] Robert Kegan & Lisa Laskow Lahey. Immunity to Change (Boston: Harvard Business Press: 2009), 2.

[vii] Noel M. Tichy & Warren G Bennis. Judgement: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls (New York: The Penguin Group 2007), 7.

[viii] FM 6-22, 3-27.

[ix] Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last has its title because of his time interacting with marines and contains a significant amount of lessons identified based on military examples.

[x] The U.S. Army Chief of Staff’s Professional Reading List. Accessed March 14, 2018,

[xi] Center for Military History Home Page. Accessed March 14, 2018,

[xii] Sidney Dekker. Drift Into Failure (Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company 2011), 175. 

[xiii] Ibid., 175.

[xiv] Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable 2nd ed. (New York: Random House, 2010), XXIX, 48.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] FM 6-22, 5-2.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Warren Berger. Cad Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies and T-Shaped People (Penguin Group: New York), 175.

[xx] Tim Brown. Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation (HarperCollins, NY 2009), 86.

[xxi] Martin Dempsey & Ori Brafman. Radical Inclusion: What the Post – 9/11 World Should Have Taught Us About Leadership (California: Missionday, 2018), 100.

[xxii] Tim Brown. Change by Design, 41.

[xxiii] Ibid., 18.

[xxiv] Ibid.  

[xxv] Department of the Army, The Operations Process, ADRP 5-0, Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2012. 4-8.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Tim Brown. Change by Design, 18.

[xxviii] Ibid., 32.

[xxix] Todd C. Lopez, Future Warfare Requires ‘Disciplined Disobedience,’ Army Chief Says, Accessed March 20, 2018,

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Department of the Army, Commander and Staff Organizations and Operations, FM

6-0. Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2014,, 4-1.

[xxxiii] Warren Berger. Cad Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies and T-Shaped People (Penguin Group:

New York), 46.

[xxxiv] ADRP 5-0, 1-10.

[xxxv] Warren Berger. Cad Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies and T-Shaped People, 71.

[xxxvi] Ibid.

[xxxvii] Department of the Army. Cyberspace and Electronic Warfare Operations Fundamentals. FM 3-12. Washington DC: Department of the Army, 2017. . 1-8.

[xxxviii] Warren Berger. Cad Monkeys, Dinosaur Babies and T-Shaped People, 53.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] ADRP 5-0, 4-2.

[xli] Ibid., 1-2.

[xlii] ADRP 5-0, 1-3.

[xliii] FM 6-22, 11-8; ADRP 6-22, 1-3;

[xliv] FM 6-22, 11-8.

[xlv] Christopher Kolenda, Leadership: The Warrior’s Art (Pennsylvania: The Army War College Foundation Press, 2001), xvi.

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Ibid.

About the Author(s)

James J. Torrence is an active duty US Army Signal Corps officer. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy. He has a Doctorate in Strategic Security and multiple graduate degrees including an M.S. in Strategic Design & Management, an M.S. in Cybersecurity, and a Master of Military Art & Science. He has deployed twice to Afghanistan as a battalion communications officer and has served in various military leadership positions in the United States, Germany, Belgium, Korea, and Israel. He is the author of Strongpoint Cyber Deterrence (SWJ Book Pocket Book, 2020).