Small Wars Journal

Disruptive Thinkers: Defining the Problem

Mon, 04/09/2012 - 6:00am

Benjamin Kohlmann’s essay, “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers,” struck a chord like no other essay published recently in the Small Wars Journal.  In brutal honesty, I have to say that the many sniping comments struck exposed flesh.  While an ardent fan of Kohlmann’s essay, I have to agree that his argument was more akin to birdshot at maximum range than a mailed fist to the throat of the problem.  Perhaps a better analogy is that his was a marking round lobbed in the general vicinity of the problematic enemy fire.  Whatever it was, it was a wildly popular read.  For all the comments on the article, the one that rang truest with me came from commener “Null Hypothesis” and asked, “What problem are we trying to solve again?”  This was absolutely the right question.

Kohlmann called for disruptive thinkers, but the real question is why?  And what are we disrupting?  We cannot waste time with harassment and interdiction fires.  We must define what targets we are servicing.

Today’s military is facing a significant crisis.  This crisis has several dimensions.  The rank and file of the military who have made or witnessed the massive efforts and sacrifices of the past decade, and who have seen so very little in the way of satisfying results in return, are puzzled by the self-assuredness of their leadership.  They question the slogans and the continued assurances that things are “on-track” and that we are accomplishing the mission.  They are disappointed by the failures of leadership and imagination that have yielded toxic commands, a rash of firings in some services, and a breach of trust with our most vulnerable servicemembers.  They wonder about the future of the weapons systems that support and defend them as they read tales of acquisition woe.  They question the growing focus on bureaucratic minutiae.  They question how they can be trusted so completely in a combat environment, but are treated as children in garrison.  They wonder how a military system that prides itself on justice will reward the generals that have presided over failure, whether at the operational and strategic levels on the battlefield, to the continued failures of the institution in the realms of personnel, acquisition, and budgetary policies, while at the same time eroding the autonomy and discretion of junior commanders with a creeping campaign of bureaucratic centralization. 

These are symptoms of a malaise facing the military, of an ossified and decadent institutional culture and a bloated bureaucracy that has grown a profusion of power centers that jealously guard their territory and their budget.  This sick institution is facing a time of strategic reset and budgetary retrenchment.  Without disruptive thinkers in the organization to question sacred cows, debate reappropriation of funds and efforts, and to challenge the conventional wisdoms created by institutional stakeholders to defend the status quo, America’s military will miss an opportunity to cut and reshape itself into a force both affordable and relevant to coming challenges.  Without disruptive thinkers, the coming cuts and reorientation will prove to be a disastrous reinforcement of the dysfunction that decades of an advantaged “resource position” have bred in the Department of Defense.

What problem are we trying to solve again? 

The Department of Defense is exhibiting the classic symptoms of a “resource advantaged” corporation that has passed its prime, as I will describe in slightly more detail below.  This is a common problem in the business world and, while we cannot run the military entirely like a business, we can certainly learn lessons from the business world about how to avoid decline into irrelevance and how to regain competitiveness.  Sure, the U.S. military remains peerless, however we must acknowledge that it has lost some of its edge and surely has passed the point of diminishing budgetary returns.  At the grand strategic level, we must recognize that a national security apparatus that insists that we must spend as much on defense as the next 19 nations combined, only two of which can be defined as potential adversaries, has lost sight of the big picture.  We should be seeking to husband our fiscal resources and recreate the conditions for our hegemony by investing not only in military capabilities, but in the bases of our economic predominance.  Thus, the problem we are trying to solve is as follows.  America’s defense complex faces a period of strategic reset and retrenchment, during which disruptive thinking is required in order to challenge the status quo and effect a reorganization and reprioritization of the Department of Defense and its industrial and conceptual supporters.  A detailed treatise on all the aspects of this challenge and the potential solutions lies far beyond the scope of this essay.  My intent here is only to begin to outline the broadest aspects of the mission and to highlight some specific problem areas where disruptive thinking is needed and some solutions have already been suggested.

The first challenge is to acknowledge the effects of a long, “resource advantaged” position. Richard Rumelt described this well in his business book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, must reading for anyone interested in charting a path for organizational success.  (It is important to note as an aside here – in light of the debate over business schools and other degrees stemming from the Kohlmann piece – that Rumelt is on faculty at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and has also taught at Harvard Business School, where he attained his doctorate, and INSEAD.  He started off, however, as an electrical engineer with a Masters degree, working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories.  He, like many others, was a doer, a technical expert, before turning to management.  Business school is not solely made up of young elites headed for Goldman Sachs.  Things, institutions, and people in the real world are far more multi-dimensional than either Kohlmann, or especially some of his detractors, would have made it seem.)  Rumelt describes a very familiar picture of a resource-advantaged organization. "Success leads to laxity and bloat, and these lead to decline.  Few organizations avoid this tragic arc."  While organizations with few strategic resources are forced to "adroitly coordinate actions in time and across functions," as these organizations gain a strategic advantage, they will "loosen their tight integration and begin to rely more on accumulated resources and less on clever business design. ...  They will lose the discipline of tight integration, allowing independent fiefdoms to flourish and adding so many products and projects that integration becomes impossible" (pp. 136-137).

Rumelt goes on to describe how organizations on the rebound from monopoly positions or regulated industries have a difficult time in adjusting because of the “inertia in corporate routines and mental maps of the terrain.”  They also lack cost data because they have “developed complex systems to justify their costs and prices, systems that hide their real costs even from themselves.”  It thus takes years to “wring excess staff costs and other expenses out of its systems” (p. 195).  These organizations have created not only a culture, but institutional structures, procedures, and doctrinal justifications for an inefficient, uncompetitive status quo.  Why do we need disruptive thinkers?  We need disruptive thinkers to challenge this status quo, to break its inertia, and to fight for the much needed cultural and institutional changes.

“The first step in breaking organizational cultural inertia is simplification,” Rumelt continues.  “This helps to eliminate the complex routines, processes, and hidden bargains among units that mask waste and inefficiency.  Strip out excess layers of administration and halt nonessential operations – sell them off, close them down, spin them off, or outsource the services. … The simpler structure will begin to illuminate obsolete units, inefficiency, and simple bad behavior that was hidden from sight by complex overlays of administration and self-interest” (p. 211).  Following this logic, the coming defense cuts present a significant opportunity to simplify the organization and reinvigorate its culture, but only if disruptive thinkers are willing to challenge the growing mantra in staff headquarters across the military:  “Protect the institution.” 

To break up these dysfunctions, we need not focus on an entrepreneurial mindset in the form of innovative product development, but rather bold leadership of institutional change and adroit change management once the course is set.  We need thinkers willing to disrupt the status quo and willing to do the detailed work of streamlining and reorganizing institutions.  We need leaders cognizant of the power of powerful inertia of organizational culture and structure and versed in how to affect change.  Despite the many comments to the contrary, these skills can be learned from the business world and from business schools.  These skills need not be delivered in the form of a MBA, but they could be.  A model to consider is the executive MBA program that many schools have begun to offer for mid-level executives.  I am not arguing for a one-size solution for the force, but we may consider creating a tailored executive MBA-type course, or sending those mid-level executives we believe will be change leaders to existing courses.  These courses require significant self-study along with a series of residencies, but they are designed for fully employed managers and can be completed in 1.5 to 2 years.  The MBA is not the be-all, end-all, but without skilled, educated, and empowered change leaders, all the other educational and entrepreneurial initiatives would be for naught.  We must start with change of the organizational culture and structure, breaking up the fiefdoms and conservative “protect the institution” praetorian guards.

The focus on institutional change is paramount.  Without institutional change, all other initiatives will only be window dressing.  What is more, many who doubt the extent of the cultural problem have only their relatively positive experiences at the division level and below as a reference point.  This is where leadership talent is rightfully focused and where long-standing tables of organization have kept wartime bloat away, however these commands have very little control over the broad organizational and strategic decisions that will affect the future of the force.  Service and combatant command headquarters, on the other hand, have seen a profusion of additional staff, activated reservists, contractors, special staff sections, and centers of excellence in the past decade – the symptoms of a resource-advantaged position that Rumelt spoke of.  Each of these added populations brings its own incentives and interests to defend, complicating the organizational dynamic. 

What is more, the desire of most officers to be in the operational world, and the institution’s rightful decision to put our best leaders in charge of troops in combat, means that with the exception of select pockets of excellence, staff headquarters are often a bit of a B-team, and they know it.  When you add all of these factors together, the dynamic within these headquarters that determine the future of the force is decidedly dysfunctional, if not outright toxic.  Finally, decisions are increasingly made by consensus between these headquarters, allowing each to protect their interests in a very political log-rolling dynamic.  Rumelt warns, “Universal buy-in usually signals the absence of choice” (p. 64).  Without bold institutional leadership and organizational and cultural change, a crisis is coming as we drift through the cuts and a strategic reset. 

The catch-22 is that military leaders have been trained and educated to take bold and decisive action on the battlefield, but have been bred to be risk averse in the organizational environment.  This culture came through loud and clear in the comments, from the abhorrence at the term “disruptive” to the many jabs at LT Kohlmann’s inexperience and junior rank.  Kohlmann’s treatment was mild compared to those who question budgetary and institutional sacred cows. Few people will continue to put their head above the intellectual parapet in such an environment.  Granted, Kohlmann’s essay had flaws, as does every endeavor, but we do not encourage the refinement of dissenting thought, we attack it.  This is a facet of the institutional culture I discussed above.  Furthermore, while many attacked his assertions about professional military education (PME), I would agree that it is doctrinaire, especially in the distance education formats that most officers take, and that is not a good thing (please look it up). 

More damning, education and intellectual abilities are not truly valued.   In the Marine Corps, for example, our physical fitness scores and height and weight are prominently displayed on every fitness report, yet PME, while required, cannot be failed unless one does something criminal.  While real learning can be gleaned from PME, at least in residence and if one fully applies oneself, it is not institutionally valued

Furthermore, PME does not provide students with radically different outsider perspectives.  While the attendance of different services’ officers, foreign officers and defense civilians, and employees of other agencies provides some diversity, this hardly brings disruptively new ideas to the classroom from disparate fields of experience.  In all, these deficiencies are extremely crippling when it comes to trying to change the institutional culture of a closed organization.  While corporations can bring in outside experts and executives to reinvigorate their culture, the military would never countenance such a thing in their leadership ranks.  This is reasonable, but all the more reason to encourage diversified education and innovative thought from the earliest days of an officer’s education and training.  The attitude of many commenters toward outside perspectives was quite symptomatic of a force that is increasingly isolated from society and has a growing sense of entitlement and superiority.  These are hardly characteristics of a healthy organization, especially one facing a period of reorganization and retrenchment.  Building more cross-disciplinary ties and increasing linkages with the society we serve – the sole reason for our being and the sole source of our military might – are absolutely critical to our future.  We must mend our relationship with society and should seek partnerships that nurture both the business sense of our leaders and the innovative talents across our force.  Most solutions will not come from PME or MBAs, but creativity must be nurtured by healthy and vibrant relationships and experiences, giving our talent "more dots to connect" when creating solutions.

Finally, as the military begins to draw down in the coming years, a dysfunctional institutional culture will drive some of its most talented officers out.  Whether due to generational differences or a decade of operational experience, or perhaps the tyranny of the creeping centralization by the growing headquarters staffs, many of the “middle management” in today’s military are deeply disgruntled with the dysfunctional, if not toxic situations they find themselves in.  They are disgusted by the excesses of a resource-advantaged organization and dismayed that despite their best efforts, their leadership has not been able to lead them to strategic victory, or at least something approaching it.  When they do comment on their perception of the strategic, budgetary, acquisition, and institutional failures of their organization, they are patronizingly told that they do not and cannot understand the issues.  Their concerns are dismissed, often with disdain, by the guardians of the institution and the hangers-on who are older and supposedly wiser.  These dismissals ring especially false in the face of continued poor institutional performance.  As a result, there is a growing breach of trust and respect between elements of the middle management on one hand, and the institutional leadership and their guardians on the other.  It is not pay or operational tempo that will drive talent out, but disgust with a broken organization that does not utilize them to their full potential. 

Kohlmann’s reference to a 31-year old Goldman Sachs  vice president was perhaps unconvincing to this audience.  The critics will likewise find fault with this example.  President Obama nominated 38-year old Brett McGurk to be the next ambassador to Iraq.  While many are attacking this choice, McGurk is being considered for a job roughly equivalent to that of a 4-star general, while his military counterparts of the same age would just be pinning on lieutenant colonel.  What is more, he has already held positions of far more influence than even a lieutenant colonel would muster.  The point is that a military that needs agility and cultural change would be well served to bring some flexibility into its personnel policies, recognizing that some people will internalize more experience in 15 years than others would in 30.  Additionally, the growing trust gap is I alluded to is fuelled when extremely talented middle managers languish under incompetent leadership that the system has promoted beyond their level of competence. 

On the point of competence, I completely agree with all the comments that stressed the bedrock requirement for tactical and technical proficiency above all.  Competence breeds confidence and confidence is what is lacking in almost every toxic commander.  Like a flight instructor, you have to be confident in and cognizant of your capabilities and limitations in order to let the student learn to fly the plane.  Toxic leaders lack this confidence and self-understanding.  They scream at juniors for trying to fly the plane ahead of their time.  Then when they need the junior to fly a plane they haven't been taught or groomed to fly, they scream at them for not knowing how.  Just as we must learn our tactical jobs, leaders need to be properly selected and educated for the far different challenges of organizational leadership and management at higher levels.  Our promotion and education system often fails in this task, putting senior officers in waters they never could handle, while talented juniors look on in disgust, the most talented knowing they could do better.  If we do not let them do better, we are missing an opportunity to improve the organization and we will be missing their talents when they walk away to greener pastures.

Disruptive thinkers are not a threat to good order and discipline, nor to mission accomplishment.  Disruptive non-thinkers, on the other hand, are.  We are in for times far more challenging than most of our force can currently foresee.  In order to find success, we will have to encourage disruptive thinking to spur innovation from the bottom up.  This will never happen, however, if we do not get the coming transition right by empowering the right change leaders to think and act disruptively to change our organizational structure and culture from the top down.

Categories: disruptive thinkers

About the Author(s)

Peter J. Munson is a Marine officer, author, and Middle East specialist.  He is the author of War, Welfare, and Democracy: Rethinking America's Quest for the End of History (Potomac, 2013) and Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy (Potomac, 2009) and .  A frequent contributor to multiple journals and blogs, including his own, he was also the Editor of the Small Wars Journal from January 2012 to June 2013.  You can follow his Twitter feed @peterjmunson and find his LinkedIn profile here.  He is leaving the Marine Corps in summer 2013.



I appreciate your willingness to use your influence to stimulate conversation, even if I don't concur with your assessment of the quality of the discussion. But I'm curious: Why do you think Mr. Gates found the Pentagon "Not on a wartime footing" in early 2007? He leveled that critique several times. Most senior leadership positions, by that time, were filled with combat vets. Why wouldn't these Generals and Admirals have come home from the battlefield and put the Pentagon on a wartime footing? Or, was Mr. Gates incorrect in his assessment?

Bill M.

Fri, 04/13/2012 - 6:52am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Design isn't taking off for a couple of reasons, and it has nothing to do with disruptive thinkers. The design thinkers, and I like the idea, have yet to develop a comprohensive system that demonstrates how design can be "effectively" implemented. This led to joint doctrine writers bastardizing the concept in the new JP 5.0 to make it fit into the current doctrinal process. The bastardized version isn't worth using, they call it design, but it is nothing more lines of efforts pointing to objectives and a list of effects. It is worse than what we had, it breathed life back into EBO (which should have died), and claims to be design, it isn't desig anymore than a man dressed like a woman is woman. In my opinion this is the problem with disruptive thinkers who are effective doers, they come up with ideas, but can't effectively guide their implementation. Any six year old can have a disruptive idea, very few can carry that idea to reality, because that is hard work.

Outlaw 09

Fri, 04/13/2012 - 1:58am

And we wonder why the concept of Design is not taking off, nor being accepted even by those that put it into doctrinal motion.

Bill M.

Thu, 04/12/2012 - 11:47pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell


I thought the LT's point was poorly argued. The military is full of disruptive thinkers, it always has been. We're in a profession where you have to be a disruptive thinker, because failure is unacceptable. It was almost laughable when he confused the world's biggest conformists (MBAs) with innovation, but despite this he is pointing at a very real problem, and it is toxic leadership who in turn create toxic work climates.

I challenge the LT to read some the articles that CJCS wrote when he headed TRADOC. While he embraces Army traditions and history, he is also a very disruptive thinker. So are many other four stars, need another example read or listen to some of the speeches the CDR of USEUCOM has made. LTG McCrystral and ADM McCraven are famous for pushing innovation (or disruption),GEN Shinseki was a very disruptive thinker with his Army after Next vision, and the list goes on and on. I challenge you to find equivalent leaders in industry. Pushing a pet project into the market may be disruptive, but it pales in comparison to what our senior leaders have to wrestle with.

We don't have a shortage of disruptive thinkers, and we're often blessed with innovative leadership in senior positions. On the other hand we're a large organization and unfortunately we have more than our fair share of lame leaders, and many of those are toxic leaders who somehow manage to get promoted up through the ranks. You'll recognize them when they make comments, like stay in your box, color between the lines, follow the doctrine, no one asked for your ideas, don't question me, the Regiment(ed), etc.

Conformity is demanded and intellectual curiosity is discouraged. I think we promote all of our people, the best, the mediocre, and our worst. That is the core of the problem. We have an up and out system, and fairness means everyone gets promoted so they don't get kicked out. No surprise we get what we deserve.

This isn't a recommendation to put disruptive thinkers in charge of all organizations. Being blunt some disruptive thinkers are simply lost. They can't articulate their ideas, they can't defend them, they're simply trying to be different. Other promote good ideas that stand up to debate, but then don't know how to implement them. I think the key is to encourage people to be critical thinkers, question everything. If you're brilliant enough to come up with a better approach out of left field and have the moral courage to within the public beating you're going to get from friends and foes when you first bring it up, but after the beating it still appears to be a good idea (after objectively listening to those who made arguments against it), then the hard part comes, building a coalition and plan for implemented the idea. Good leaders will provide mentorship to innovative thinkers, they'll challenge their ideas again and again forcing their subordinate to think harder about them, and then they'll help them articulate their idea to a wider audience, and ultimately if it starts gaining support, they'll help them implement it as a test project or something along those lines. A toxic leader will publically assassinate the innovative idea and the officer who came up with it, that officer will perceive the military to be led by idiots. The truth is some units are led by idiots, others are led by outstanding leaders. Once you have a couple or more decades in you'll view it as a "parade of personalties," some good, some not. The trend in recent years has been more in the "some not" category, and we need to turn that around.

Peter J. Munson

Thu, 04/12/2012 - 10:59pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

These two comments are very well thought out and substantive. The other comments, particularly the one about people leaving in a huff and being dust in the wind, really have no value whatsoever, which is why you are not getting substantive feedback on them. Please give that individual my email address and I'll be happy to try to elicit something more thoughtful from him.


Thu, 04/12/2012 - 10:07pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

The "innovators are freaks and deviants" is a straw man. You can certainly find more examples of dangerous, incompetent, criminals amongst the greater population in any organization. What I find more disruptive - to day to day operations and morale - than disruptive thinkers are contracted think tanks. I don't understand why organizations are willing to look outside their own walls for people to examine a problem or system and develop new 'innovative' solutions, yet so frown upon developing their own internal think tanks comprised of innovative thinkers. Imagine if those inside "research and development" actually got to research and develop.

Dave Maxwell

Thu, 04/12/2012 - 9:03pm

To the Small Wars Journal Community: I know some of you find the comments I have been passing on from more senior people to be of little value. But I want you to know that I am trying to get these ideas in front of as many senior leaders as possible and share some of the responses for which I would hope you could provide effective counters (so far I have read no good responses). I do not want SWJ to be an echo chamber of disruptive thinkers who will not listen to anyone else who might have some different insights. It is interesting to read so many comments that sound just like those that many criticize. There is some irony in that disruptive thinkers want everyone to listen to their disruptive thoughts yet will discount anyone who disagrees with them.

There are two things that I think should be kept in mind. First of all is the most effective way that disruptive thinkers will be able to really have a positive effect is through leadership – both enlightened senior leadership as well as effective leadership by the disruptive thinkers themselves. Second is that disruptive thinkers do have to be able to demonstrate their credibility and value and they must be able to effectively communicate their radical ideas. Those who just fall into the tired old refrain that they are misunderstood and not taken seriously or respected or valued may find that the reason is that all they are doing is criticizing and saying "woe is me – I know better and no one will listen to me" but really do not communicate anything of value.

But I digress.

Below is a comment from a retired General Officer (with extensive combat as well as PME leadership experience) that I think some of you disruptive thinkers might enjoy followed by a response from a 90 year old disruptive thinker known as the Warlord, named COL(RET) John Collins from whom many of you might learn. In addition to providing a response to the General's comments he provides a list of various historical figures from his book on Military Strategy. I wish I could highlight in these comments sections but what he refers to as being in highlighted in red are sentences 2 through 5 in the General's comments.

I would hope there are some disruptive thinkers on Small Wars Journal that will be the 21st century strategic theoreticians, strategic practitioners, and creative practitioners and have the same effects as the historical figures described below.


I can provide you the military equivalent of that litany, as can most. There are military strategists who are one in a million thinkers but mediocre leaders. We are all familiar with folks who are Senior GOs for their magnificent leadership abilities but may be miserable strategists. And so on. It is our great failing that we can not and do not accept and manage that all people have strengths and weaknesses, and that our management of human capital should include the management of diversity in both God given talents and aspirations. There are minimum standards of ethics and integrity. Everybody will not fit in with us. But the ranks of those who do are filled with people whose extraordinary talents are not understood, developed or exploited.

So I would side more with the sentiments of the junior officer. I am accepting that our bell curve is not as wide as that of business or the population at large. But ours is still a distribution of talents requiring better understanding, appreciation and management as the junior officer so emphatically states.

I part company on the mechanics. Business schools are less important than advanced civilian education for the most promising officer after company command and deliberate management thereafter.


Jim’s contentions highlighted in red below are absolutely correct. Some politico-military strategists in uniform and mufti are strictly theoreticians, others are practitioners, while a handful of switch hitters wield pens as well as swords. Ten thumbnail sketches attached herewith identify role models in each category who flourished during different periods in different environments, addressed distinctive segments of the conflict spectrum, and displayed unique styles. Additional candidates qualify, but brilliant strategic stars have never been numerous. JOHN COLLINS


Strategic pioneers create theories, concepts, and other intellectual tools for use by doers who prepare overarching plans and conduct implementing operations. The written legacy includes works by such luminaries as Antoine Henri Jomini, Basil H. Liddell Hart, Guilio Douhet, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Bernard Brodie, the world’s first nuclear strategist. Sun Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz, and Herman Kahn, who made admirable contributions that still influence offensive, defensive, and deterrent schemes, represent three different countries and time periods.


Sun Tzu, who put strategic thoughts on paper in China circa 500 B.C., is history’s first theoretician in that sparsely populated field. His concise treatise entitled The Art of War, which is the soul of simplicity, transcends time and place. No one in the 25 centuries since has had a better feel for strategic interrelationships, considerations, and constraints. Steadfast admirers on every continent except Antarctica still revere Sun Tzu, quote him at length, and consider him a relevant tutor.


Clausewitz, who had little formal education, joined the Prussian Army at age 12, quickly won a commission, and served 17 years as a staff officer. His deathless reputation, however, derived not from campaigns against enemies but as Director of the Kriegsakademie (War College), where he wrote his magnum opus On War, which was published posthumously in 1832. That classic continues to influence more students of strategy than any book before or since, with the possible exception of Sun Tzu’s 13 essays.


Extroverted Herman Kahn was a citizen-soldier whose three years of military service during World War II terminated at the grade of sergeant. His education emphasized mathematics and physics, which seem odd starting points for a military theorist, but he built a towering reputation in the 1960s with such seminal works as On Thermonuclear War, which delved deeply into that topic. On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios, still a standard textbook, covers the entire conflict spectrum.


A second group of politico-military strategists perform practical feats on land, at sea, in the air, and surely will do so in space, but never publish theories or concepts for enthusiasts to study. Thucydides, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Ghenghiz Khan, and Admiral Yamamoto, who master-minded Japanese naval victories early in World War II, are a few of the famous names that left indelible marks. The trio selected for exemplification spotlights Cyrus the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, and General of the Army George C. Marshall, who respectively served ancient Persia, post- revolutionary France, and the United States during its early days as an international power.


Cyrus the Great, whose reign ended almost 200 years before Alexander’s conquests began, was the progenitor of all strategic practitioners. He mopped up the Medes in 559 B.C., subjugated Babylon as described in the Book of Daniel, then pieced together a prototype Persian Empire between the Aegean Sea and the Indus River. His holdings were larger and lasted longer than any before, partly because his enlightened policies placated defeated peoples and made elaborate coalitions possible.


Napoleon Bonaparte, who was Emperor of France and Supreme Commander of the Grande Armée for 15 years, is renowned primarily as a peerless practitioner of operational art, but he strategically melded diplomacy and military power in ways that confounded opponents until his gigantic reach exceeded his grasp in 1814. He employed universal conscription (levées en mass) to wage war on unprecedented scales, played opponents one against another to isolate each politically, and thereby facilitated the defeat of numerically superior foes.


General George C. Marshall participated in Allied policymaking conferences at Casablanca, Cairo, Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam. He. was a principal military adviser to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman during World War II and a key architect of Allied global strategies (Winston Churchill called him the “organizer of victory”). The Marshall Plan thereafter helped reconstruct war-ravaged Europe and concomitantly stemmed the spread of communism west of Stalin’s Iron Curtain.


Strategic theorists who practice what they preach are rare indeed. Frederick the Great, French Marshal Hermann Maurice de Saxe, V.I. Lenin, Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap, and space visionary Wernher von Braun typify the few who qualify. The selected four represent continental, naval, aeronautical, and revolutionary warfare schools of thought during the 20th century. Two of them (Billy Mitchell and Admiral Gorshkov) excelled despite concerted counteractions by powerful opponents in their own countries.


Général d’Armée André Beaufre, who was the youngest officer on the French General Staff in 1935, later became Deputy Commander in Chief of French forces in Indochina, commanded troops in Algeria, then led the French corps that assaulted Suez in 1956, and subsequently occupied senior posts within NATO. Liddell Hart called his Introduction to Strategy “the most comprehensive and carefully formulated treatise on strategy… that has appeared in this generation - - and in many respects surpasses any previous treatise.”


Admiral of the Fleet Sergei G. Gorshkov took command of the Soviet Navy in 1956, when it was a coastal defense force. He produced a first class “blue water” navy during the next 30 years, despite strong opposition by superiors who preferred land power and the absence of naval traditions in a nation that lacked ice-free access to open oceans. Gorshkov’s Sea Power of the State expressed strategic concepts and implementing force postures that gave U.S. opponents a bad case of jitters well before he retired.


Highly-decorated Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, a flamboyant and vociferous proponent of air power, expounded his views in print, on speakers’ platforms, and eyeball-to-eyeball with star-studded disbelievers. He conceived vertical envelopment (parachute assaults) in 1918 and proposed that General Pershing prepare a division for such purpose. Three years later he demonstrated the potency of bombers against battleships. A court martial convicted him of insubordination in 1925, but World War II vindicated his strategic visions.


Mao Zedong concentrated on political thought, social studies, and the military history of China’s classical kingdoms before he became Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and a hard-bitten field commander (Sun Tzu was his mentor several times removed). Mao fathered fundamental concepts of revolutionary and guerrilla warfare, then proved their worth in battle against Japanese invaders and Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang troops. Students of those subjects consider the Selected Works of Mao Tse-Tung to be required reading.

The "All innovators are freaks" meme is tiresome, but I'm glad Dave is sharing some of these comments with us, because it illustrates how musclebound their thinking is. In addition to several mobilizations where I worked on what could only be called disruptive technologies I do consulting at many different world-class companies, not just military industry companies, so the datapoint itself is meaningless. I see great work in many organizations and I participate in some of it. You can innovate without being a pervert or having an emotional IQ of 20. If you have a thoroughbred, you have to find a track for him to run on.

These are the kind of senior military leaders who falsely accuse innovators of mishandling classified information in an effort to classify them as freaks, deliberately hiding their own intellectually bankrupt thinking that indeed leads to the loss of Vietnam and the near-loss of OIF. You cannot believe how pleased many of us where at the huge turnover at the top we observed under Mr. Gates, or how he got behind disruptive innovation like Gen Petraeus' work, or COIN technologies like MRAPs, UAVs, and ubiquitous cameras. Mr. Gates' changes were great, but they did not go far enough.

Jack Gander

Thu, 04/12/2012 - 11:00pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

Well said Peter!

These are the Officers who created the mess the military is in today -only makes sense they defend it to the end. I hope you, Ben and others are only strengthened by their resistance. Keep up the fight!

Peter J. Munson

Thu, 04/12/2012 - 6:43am

In reply to by Surferbeetle

I'm truly disturbed by the quotes Dave keeps pulling up out of his distro list, but then again I don't really care what these stodgy old men think. It does make me angry though. My kids and I will be paying for their mistakes and for their pensions/welfare packages for the rest of our lives. Some of this is a generational divide and some is a civ-mil divide in which the folks have an incredible mentality of entitlement, feathered by their retirements and continued sponging off of defense spending as contractors and such, which leads them to protect the institution with vigor.


Wed, 04/11/2012 - 11:21pm

Peter, Ben, Dave, et. al,

Times are changing and only the successful will quickly figure out what's really necessary and what is just excess weight.

Advocating for the institution to simply turtle along generational and other fault lines, to continue to expend resources at the current burn rate, to advocate to continue on a 'steady as she goes' course, all the while downplaying the concerns & earnestly proffered solutions of our younger generation and future, is sadly reminiscent of the daily spectacle which occurs in nation's capital.

When I read that an attempt to find a sustainable path for our institution is just 'dust in the wind' while 'successful civilians' are autistic, sexual harassers, and coke/steroid-fiends I wonder if people have just been quoted out of context or if the civilian-military divide is indeed the chasm that it is sometimes described to be.

Surely we are more flexible, surely we are more adaptable, surely we truly understand the importance of teamwork, surely we can lead by example, and surely we can do better by our nation?



Robert C. Jones

Thu, 04/12/2012 - 9:44am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

So, what was his conclusion? It seems like he is saying that the type of people who make an organization great serve equally to make many in the organization uncomfortable. Better to be mediocre and comfortable than uncomfortable and great?

When one studies the military history of the US there are countless examples of thinkers of this ilk that flow into the Army in times of war and make the warfighting force tremendously successful, but who largely leave or are quickly marginalized or run off by the peacetime career military for making the system uncomfortable. General Grant is perhaps the greatest example of this; "Once an Eagle" perhaps the greatest fictional case study on this dynamic.

We espouse the value of "diversity" and then assume that a room full of like-minded individuals of a wide range of ethnic, gender, religious backgrounds is somehow automatically diverse. What we are really talking about with "disruptive" thinking is diversity of thinking. We need to have as much tolerence for diversity of thought as we are working to create for virtually every other aspect of human nature. But like most subjective topics that are hard to count or brief on the daily Powerpoint to the commander, diversity of thinking will likely always come at a "cost" that organizations such as the military are unwilling to pay. Besides, to recognize that those deemed unsuitable to the group offer something not just different in certain areas, but also better in certain areas than the group itself, is a self-judgment most groups are not ready to recognize.

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 04/11/2012 - 3:56pm

Here is another response I think is worth sharing from someone with extensive senior military AND senior civilian (commercial industry, non-government) leadership.

BEGIN QUOTE: The problem with disruptive thinkers is that they are rarely outliers in just their thinking. Some examples:

* The brilliant semiconductor designer who was borderline autistic. He couldn't be trusted around customers because he had absolutely no sense of empathy. He would say outrageous things about the customer or our own company without without grasping he was being hurtful. But he could design a one-million transistor chip that stumped everyone else.

* The marketing manager who could open a market that no one else could and make hundreds of millions for the company. But he was a walking sexual harassment case and spent a lot of time in HR being harangued for his sins.

* Our arch-competitor, who built a multi-billion dollar semiconductor company ex nihilo. He combined technical brilliance with ruthlessness, cunning, and drive. He was tireless, working 20-hour days. He was also a coke addict, a steroid addict, and an adulterer. He is a very wealthy man but no longer runs the company he built or is married to the woman who supported his rise.

Perhaps the reason your mentor never met any of these incredibly effective but flawed human beings is that none of them came even close to living military values. None would have made it through the screening process let alone their first leadership assignment. My third example supports my assertion. He washed out after one year at a Federal military academy.

Employing any of these guys has an enormous cost. In some cases, civilian leaders (or investors in the case of the arch-competitor) made choices that allowed them to take advantage the benefits disruptive thinkers bring while mitigating the costs. The military, by screening and winnowing, avoids these costs to a much greater extent than most military leaders realize. But by narrowing the bell curve (reducing the variance) and shifting the mean to the right, you lose a lot of disruptive thinkers. That's OK. Leaders just need to understand the trade offs.

I would like to hammer home one other point to the young majors and captains out there (thinking somewhat along the lines of the Aesop fable of "The Frogs who Desired a King"

Leaders need to ask themselves how comfortable they would really be among the disruptive thinkers I knew. Could a military function with them? Would your unit? Would the military benefits exceed the human costs? END QUOTE


Wed, 04/11/2012 - 9:28am

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

My problem with the term "disruptive" is that it has a particular meaning to me quite apart from the connotations it can convey to some leaders of rocking the boat. Moreover, the latter usage can cause an innovator unnecessary pushback. You have a great idea? There are better ways to get it implemented than "IN YOUR FACE!"

Peter J. Munson

Tue, 04/10/2012 - 10:58pm

In reply to by Sebald

You didn't come across as too negative, I'm only trying to drive home the requirement to exceed our sensitivities.


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 10:43pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson


I hope that I didn't come across as too negative. I support your approach and fundamental position, and have hopes that it can make some impact down the road. Again, even small perturbations make an impact to the larger discourse, so every officer (and citizen for that matter) has some agency and responsibility in this project of national security. My initial response was a more general statement on the nature of institutional structures. Sometimes critical theory is so critical that it becomes almost pure nihilism. I am aware of this.


Wed, 04/11/2012 - 9:03am

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

Not so much 'making people feel safe so the system doesn't get rattled' as it is 'making those who are currently in control feel safe enough that they let me in the door to begin to make change.' It would be nice if organizational cultural change could, when needed, sweep across the plain like a tidal wave. Unfortunately, that rarely happens. That type of change requires that the entirety of the command structure be replaced with a group of people all on the same page. I agree, 'average' should not be a career death knell. So if I can get inside the current system and start making small changes and sewing seeds for larger ones - working that angle until there are enough people like me in the system doing the same so as to affect a larger change that includes the power structure - I'll take that.

Peter J. Munson

Tue, 04/10/2012 - 10:32pm

In reply to by JohnBertetto

I'm not so much kicking you in the balls as the institution. The dream of the friendly, staid steering of the ship of state is just that - a dream. It is only more so in an organization where feelings are so sensitive that "average" is considered to be adverse. You speak of people feeling safe. Change doesn't come when people feel safe. Safe ends up meaning that they bring you in, pet your head and march on. Safe means that no one really takes note that there is a problem. The problem needs to be acknowledged.


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 10:02pm

In reply to by Peter J. Munson

I'm not sure if the first half of your comments is shaking my hand, or kicking me in the balls. I can't comment on your institution, only mine. I can say, however, that from what I read here, as an organizational culture averse to change and challenge, fiercely territorial of personal fiefdoms, and dysfunctional as a result of a saucy mixture of incompetence and fear mongering, we're pretty much in the same boat. I can also say that, considering the power does not rest in my hands but in the hands of the people who display all the above mentioned traits, I'm going to do whatever I can to get the result I want within that system until a wider organizational change can be made. If the term "disruptive thinker" rankles enough to be dismissed by the power structure, but the term "design thinker" or "emergent strategies thinker" gets the nod then I'm rocking one of the latter. Same thing with "problem" v "innovation" or whatever term makes everyone feel safe.

I want to get that foot in the door to start pushing for change and having a hope to affect it. Yes, the system may be sick, but the system is sick and in charge. I'll change my terms to whatever I need to get in there. That's kind of a non-issue to me.

Peter J. Munson

Tue, 04/10/2012 - 8:56pm

Two thoughts. One, if people are disturbed by the terms "disruptive" and "problem" they have succeeded for too long inside a system in which "an average officer" is flagged as an adverse keyword when I write a fitness report/OER and in which we are - at best- "0, 1, and 1" as the major would have told Gunny Highway. Afghanistan, Iraq, F-22, F-35, AAAV, etc, etc, and we are hurt by "disruptive" and "problem"?? This is a sick institution. An entitled institution. Why are the "disruptive thinkers" so up in arms? Many of us are ashamed to be a part of an institution that has such an entitled but losing mentality. Yes, there are average officers. They're everywhere. If we can't name them, let alone the below average officers, how will we ever get better?! And if we can't say "average," then how will we ever say the dreaded "problem" or "disruptive"?

Second, I get, in detail, the issues at the political level that cripple our foreign policy. I've literally written a book that deals with this issue, at least in part. No matter what politics and Congress does, DoD can still clean up its own house to an extent.

I feel exhausted after thinking about all the "problems" to be dealt with through disruption by disruptive thinkers. Seriously though, while I enjoy this discussion, it seems to be a continuation of the discourse that has been building over the past decade, but is not new: the bureaucratic machine that rewards functionary-like officers and senior NCO's to the detriment of not only effective policy and strategy but original thinkers and dynamic officers who then "vote with their feet." There is nothing wrong with this discussion, and in fact I fully enjoy and support it.

What it seems to miss, and what others have alluded to and pointed out, is this: the problems are merely symptoms of a greater military-industrial-political-complex structure. A cynically-positioned social scientist, of the structuralist bent, might even go so far as to say that given a modern-capitalist geopolitical environment and more specifically the United States and its associated complex and foreign policy strategy, of course we should expect a military that organizes and rewards individuals in such a normalized way, and even further, *of course* there would be dissatisfied junior officers within the ranks of such an organization.

More clearly, a disruptive thinker will only be working at the margins unless he can impact at the higher levels of policy, But therein lies a paradox of power, as the system will only reward and promote those who serve the larger bureaucratic machine. And I don't mean to limit this to the DOD and one specific moment in time. The problems this posting and perhaps this blog refer to are more essentially problems to do with social organization and power, writ large. Good luck changing that.

On the other hand, even the smallest act of an agent has effect on the structure within which he/she operates, so keep up the discussion and good work--maybe some impact can be made.


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 5:19pm

I think in this discussion we continue to get hung up on two words: "disruptive" and "problem."

I know there is some fondness for the term "disruptive" because it gives the sense of a challenge to established doctrine. But the problem is that many of those on the receiving end of this challenge take it as a personal affront to their capabilities and a negative distraction from operations. It may be only a matter of semantics, but it's an important one if it throws up a wall.

There need not be any "problem" for disruptive thinking to have a real benefit. Emergent technologies, economic considerations, changes in political or social climate each or as a whole may allow us to do today what we never could have done even a few years ago. The doctrinal practices we use today are founded upon an operational environment that may no longer be valid. Rather than continue to modify an existing doctrine to bring it closer into alignment with today's capabilities, it may be beneficial to start fresh based upon the current state of the environment.


Wed, 04/11/2012 - 2:48pm

In reply to by Jon.Jeckell


Those are good points but I agree and disagree on some points.

1-SAC was disruptive from the standpoint that there designated mission was to PREVENT nuclear war. That mission was symbolized by the shoulder patch they wore, an armored fist clenching and bending lightning bolts, it meant to paralyze the idea of even thinking about starting a nuclear war.

2-NASA was disruptive from the standpoint that the US Government was formalizing the importance of Space exploration. That doesn't seem like a big deal today but believe me it was huge at the time.

3-The Army was not that interested in Rockets, what they were interested in and was a total game changer/disruptive idea was GUIDED MISSILES+REMOTE CONTROL+MOBILE LAUNCHERS. Drones are nothing but remotely controlled, guided missiles. The final realization of that disruptive idea.

4-Totally agree about Special Forces having gone through the one minute guerrila warfare course. The highest rank a Green Beret could achieve back then was Brigader General and there was only one of those. What I don't like is this idea that SF is only a high powered SWAT team. It dismisses alot of there original intent and capablilites, but this seems to be turning around thanks to some disruptive thinking.


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 2:55pm

In reply to by slapout9

SAC and NASA aren't really examples of disruptive innovation. Innovation, yes, but not disruptive. The long range bombardment mission was already well established in the Army Air Forces during WWII, and firmly a raison d'etre for the newly formed US Air Force. Add nuclear, and it was a sustaining innovation...doing the existing job better in a way everyone agreed was "better." Same for NASA, which consolidated the disparate military programs and added a lot of new stuff. Innovation? Yes. Just not disruptive. The Army and Navy were quite happy to pour money and resources into their missile programs. They understood the importance of rockets.

Special Forces, on the other hand, were an example where a disruptive innovation required its own spinout organization. They were treated as a side-show, and were not given the same priority as the nuclear battlefield, main combat tanks, etc. even at the height of the Vietnam War. Officers' careers were penalized for taking part in Special Forces until they had their own branch that measured and defined success differently than the rest of the Army. SAC was given the best and brightest and the lions share of resources by the Air Force. Boyd was a fighter guy, and they were not treated so well at the same timeframe...but still not disruptive really. Maybe if you argue from the tactical interdiction and close-air support vs. heavy bomber paradigm...

See my other post about disruptive thinkers surviving in an established organization...(Innovator's DNA)


Thu, 04/12/2012 - 11:19pm

In reply to by slapout9

I heard that. The only things that may surpass money are ego and fear: ego that will not allow one to consider a subordinate's ideas, and fear that offering anything other than the expected answer to your superior might get you the boot.

I've oft remarked that a good manager should not feel threatened by 'smarter' subordinates but should use it as validation of their superb management skill. "Look how great I am - I've searched out and assembled this team of brilliant minds about me!"


Wed, 04/11/2012 - 2:56pm

In reply to by JohnBertetto

Money has a lot to do with it. What is that famous quote "the love of money is the root of all evil." Love of money can be viewed as resistance to change, making waves often wrecks other people's boats. That is why people often have to leave or start another organization to realize their idea, at least that has been my experience.


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 5:22pm

In reply to by Jon.Jeckell

"I am really hung up on the use of the term disruptive."

You posted this at the same time I posted my own comments on this term.


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 5:14pm

In reply to by JohnBertetto

I am really hung up on the use of the term disruptive. I think that the team and the bosses I worked for were good at pulling ideas from people who were willing to test them, and didn't try to jam them into their preconceived notions.

I think that what we had could be called a working group like you describe, and it is institutionalized in Army (joint actually) planning doctrine. I really hesitate to claim that we were anything unique, since I don't have the basis to say (for one thing). I think the doctrine on this front is getting better, and I think execution in the field is too. Your mileage may vary. With the drawdown of resources though...I guess time will tell. Established orgs tend to draw inward during times like that.


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 4:52pm

In reply to by Jon.Jeckell

I believe you and I are making the same point here. The walk-out question next is "Were the leaders you worked for, who gave you operational space and demanded you come up with solutions based upon your own critical assessment of the problem while requiring those solutions to still meet a quality standard 'disruptive thinkers'?" And does the assembly of a team of guys with different backgrounds who each can bring different resources to bear on any problem constitute a kind of 'disruptive thinking working group'?

My experience has been that, zooming in from macro to micro it's easier to find the kind of operational 'independence' such as you are familiar. When you're out front, it's more important to get the job done and work the problem as it develops. I think it's imperative, however, that we do the opposite: zoom from micro to macro. The same type of critical assessments and situational needs that drive operations in the micro should be applied to the macro so that the organization itself remains agile. This is the main problem with larger bureaucratic organizations: a lack of organizational agility. An organization that continues to assess and innovate remains responsive to emerging needs.

Agility does not mean instability.


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 3:39pm

In reply to by JohnBertetto

I think the greater business community is just catching on to the notion you can do both and that it's not an either/or proposition. Even then, some companies do it better than others, and some were probably doing it unconsciously and couldn't describe how if you held a gun to their head.

I really don't think the military is lagging all that much in this regard, particularly if you zoom in from the macro to the micro. I've been VERY blessed with a couple of environments/leaders I've worked with (granted, the best was in combat, as Kohlmann said) that not only let me off the leash, but EXPECTED me to come with solutions, and to put some critical thought into them. They were ruthless about quality and following through, which frankly was awesome. You don't make things happen with PowerPoint. Interestingly, we were in a cross-functional team of guys with different backgrounds and specialties that could reach across the org and tap into the specialized departments for greater depth/details. Just like some of the innovative companies are doing with design work. (please note I am not bragging about what we accomplished...just that it was a great learning environment)


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 2:52pm

In reply to by Jon.Jeckell

Acknowledged. I've read similar in books like "The Design of Business" and "The Opposable Mind." My point was more along the line of "If they (business) can increasingly bridge this gap so they are not 'all innovation' v 'all exploitation' ventures, why cannot we?'


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 2:41pm

In reply to by JohnBertetto

"The Innovator's DNA" dealt with this extensively. Boards for startups typically fire the founder once the company gets going and experiences rapid growth. The belief is that a school trained MBA can establish the processes and procedures to provide the framework for organized, optimized growth.

"Innovator's DNA" breaks these skills down as "delivery skills" (making shit happen) and "discovery skills" (providing continuous new innovation). Until recently, these were thought to be mutually exclusive skillsets, but more organizations are proving to be exceptions to this (the book uses Apple, Amazon, and many other examples).


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 2:12pm

In reply to by slapout9

Agreed with you on on all points. This raises some questions. If we know that disruptive thinkers are passed over or ignored, but that when freed by either new operating units within their own organization or by creating or being transferred to wholly new organizations they often flourish or become successful, why do we not better organize our existing organizations to better accept them? How much growth could an organization enjoy if the disruptive thinkers were able to affect their changes within their current organization rather than creating a competitor from scratch?


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 1:03pm

Entropy is spot on! So as not to disappoint any of my regular readers (LOL) Colonel John Warden has been teaching this in his Prometheus class for over ten years now. Usually referred to in the class as Disruptive Technologies. And once a disruptive technology or idea is brought forward it will usually only come into effect when a NEW ORGANIZATION is developed to implement it. Example Von Braun didn't really take off until he went to the newly cerated NASA. SAC the Strategic Air Command was another example of how disruptive technologies require new organizations or they are likely to fail. Incidentally Colonel Warden will be teaching his next set of classes sometime in May. We really need to start listening to the guy or America is going to be up that creek without a disruptive idea.

PS. Entropy is also right about disruptive thinkers in general, they often get fired or passed over for promotion unless there is an entirley new organization (think critical mass) to go with the disruptive thinker(Boyd would be a prime example of this and Steve Jobs when he was fired from Apple).


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 2:32pm

In reply to by Entropy

I think we are more in synch than you think here. Organizations form departments and information filters to optimize their decision making and prioritize what's important to them. The "hide-bound" decision making is baked into the mix and is tough to avoid BECAUSE an organization is efficiently run. GM found it hard to change to the Toyota manufacturing model because it optimized on its model and Toyota was able to adopt it because Toyota developed it & adopted less of it from outside, and did so in order to gain competitive advantage it needed. GM in contrast was pretty comfortable that its way was working until ~mid 1980s.

Either way, I'm using the term "disruptive" specifically as defined as a type of innovation identified in Clayton Christensen's "Innovator's Dilemma." Like I said in the previous post, established organizations usually find a way to incorporate a sustaining innovation, and usually there is not a huge penalty for waiting. GM is still here and Toyota isn't really on track to putting them out of business anytime soon.

Established companies normally don't see disruptive innovations coming, and if they do, they dismiss them, and even if they don't, they almost always fail to implement them. The lead guy has a decisive advantage here too.

That's what's scary to me about the potential for leaving disruptive innovations (the real ones) on the floor in the military context. We don't file for bankruptcy and go try to get hired by another company. We don't get do-overs.


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 1:27pm

In reply to by Jon.Jeckell


I think we are talking past each other a bit. I'm not talking about business processes, but organizational structure and culture. Whatever the reality of how innovative NUMMI was, the GM establishment was against it because it was disruptive to the existing establishment and structure. If GM was incapable of implementing this particular improvement, what were the chances for something even more radical? The point for me is that GM failed because it was hide-bound by it's corporate structure and culture, and NUMMI is just one example of how that culture stifled innovation within the company.


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 12:16pm

In reply to by Entropy

GM originally opposed Toyota style lean manufacturing and quality processes because they didn't discover what Toyota learned--that it drives costs down due to less "redos." This is an example of "operational effectiveness," like lean six sigma, and things like that are necessary, but not sufficient to compete, partly because your competitors can copy it and fold your best practices into their procedures if they chose. In the end, it was still about making a better car along industry recognized metrics, even if those metrics varied between companies.

A disruptive innovation is something like the iPad. When tablets came out, the performance compared to a laptop was a joke. Nobody would replace their desktop or notebook with a tablet. Tablet users looked at and valued different attributes and the iPad (the first successful tablet) competed initially with...nothing. It competed in a new category unto itself, not against notebooks. Now they are becoming more capable and moving upmarket to eat the bottom end out from under the notebook market, the same way laptops began to eat away at desktops when their performance started getting good enough for mainstream desktop users.

Apple is actually kind of a unique case for disruptive innovation. The world economy is filled with the wreckage of companies who have failed to act, or acted but failed to deal effectively with a disruptive innovation. IBM is another (the jump from mainframe computers to desktop PCs). IBM did it by spinning off a wholly autonomous subsidiary that developed its own rules. Apple did it through intense focus and effort by Steve Jobs and some of his truly amazing people. These represent two ways to deal with disruptive change. Create a new organization that can create its own values and processes, with resources aligned to the new problem, or unblinking, unwavering, complete focus on the change from the top. Note the latter is REALLY tough to justify and do because it almost always means walking away from what's making you money now and for the foreseeable future, pissing off your investors, and leaving huge investments you've made on your current equipment go to waste. Most fall on their face trying to do that.


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 11:21am

In reply to by Jon.Jeckell


Well, I think those within GM who opposed NUMMI would disagree with you that NUMMI wasn't disruptive. It was certainly disruptive to the established methods of doing business and the bureaucracy that supported and received power and prestige from those metods.

I agree with your comment on "spinout" organizations with the caveat that those frequently fail as well. Apple is another model, an firm with culture of continuous innovation - but they are forced into that because their product line is always a year from obsolescence.

Agree the causes are systemic and naturally creative thinking is required but insufficient.


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 10:21am

In reply to by Entropy

There are many examples of disruptive change, both within the business world and within the military. This is an important distinction between being disruptive (behavior that goes beyond skepticism to getting you labeled as a counter-productive cynic) from disruptive innovation or disruptive change. The latter deals with the organization adapting or failing to adapt.

Usually, it takes a spinout organization to affect disruptive change. Normally an established organization cannot implement a disruptive innovation without at least creating a separate internal team.

The Toyota example you mentioned was not a disruptive change, by the way, it was a sustaining one, which improves performance on already established, agreed upon metrics, not creating new ones. That type of change can also more often be imitated by competitors than disruptive change (which happened with Toyota's lean production system).

The point is, these issues have systemic causes...and we need to get beyond the tribal wisdom to take advantage of those causes if we really want to innovate and win the next war. It also requires that we all think creatively, but test the fruits of our creativity with critical thinking.

Peter J. Munson

Tue, 04/10/2012 - 11:12am

In reply to by Entropy

Fair enough. I think you are right in many respects, sadly. There is a lot that could be done to make things better within DoD, but the overall institution will need the wider reforms you speak of.


Tue, 04/10/2012 - 11:06am

In reply to by Peter J. Munson


Some problems don't have solutions that we can effect. The solutions will have to be top-down. The scale and kind of reform needed in the DoD can't be accomplished by nibbling at the borders established by Congress. Significant Congressional action is necessary simply because changes will require altering statutes and how and where money is spent. Disruptive thinkers within the military and DoD are, therefore, presently confined to relatively narrow lanes and even in those lanes require significant command support to minimally succeed.

Just to give a few examples, the broken DoD procurement system can't be fixed except by Congress. Same with the personnel system. But we could go even further than those two problem areas. IMO we need something similar in scale and scope to the 1947 NSA. I think it was Ken White that once wrote something to the effect of, "put the whole thing in a bag and shake it vigorously." I don't know how to get from here to any of those points given the political pitfalls of trying to get Congress to do something.

So I don't think there's much we can do at present except raise awareness (and these threads succeeded on that score). Over the long term, "good" disruptive/innovated thinkers should be promoted to the GO ranks so they can provide the necessary advice to the civilian leadership and Congress. Altering the promotion system to accomplish that is, just by itself, a highly divisive and gargantuan task. There aren't any easy answers.

My prediction is that things will not fundamentally change much until there is a severe budget crisis that forces a reevaluation of the entire DoD.

Peter J. Munson

Tue, 04/10/2012 - 10:03am

In reply to by Entropy

So what do you propose?

I would like to see some evidence that "disruptive thinkers" can actually change institutional culture. I think you'll find that change rarely occurs except when the system is fundamentally shocked, which can open a window to change the culture and remake the organization.

As an example, I would compare the DoD to GM. GM began it's slow decline in the 1970's even though it still came up with a lot innovative ideas over the years. One notable "disruptive" innovation that GM implemented was to adopt the Toyota production system at a troubled plant way back in 1984. The effort was <a href="">called NUMMI</a>. It turned one of of GM's worst factories into its best factory. Despite this clear success and despite attempts by many to spread this reform throughout the company, the success at NUMMI was not replicated across the company. Too many rice bowls. Too many entrenched interests. Not a critical mass of buy-in by middle and upper management. Lack of coordination due to a balkanized corporate structure. The reasons are many. And so GM continued to make crappy cars for almost two decades despite knowing there was a better way.

The disruptive thinkers at GM who managed to create NUMMI got quashed by the inertia of the status quo in what was a large sclerotic, hierarchical, bureaucratic organization. And where is GM now? Where might it be if it had adopted the Toyota production system wholesale back in the 1980's?

In short, disruptive thinking is insufficient and it can't be relied on to change organizations. After all, disruptive thinkers exist in every organization yet the status quo almost always wins out. Even when success is incontrovertible the effort will be attacked and its proponents purged. Again, where is the evidence that "disruptive thinkers" can actually change such organizations?

I also believe that encouraging disruptive thinking can be counterproductive without other measures in place. If you encourage people to buck the system and then fail to protect them from the inevitable backlash, then all you've done is create a trail of broken careers and disillusion based on false promises. Those innovative thinkers who took risks are gone from the organization which only increases the power of the status quo.


In my view, innovative thinkers are regularly suppressed, transferred to the Edges of the Empire, incorrectly accused of mis-handling classified info, encouraged to speed up their retirement decision, and Senior Leadership does nothing about it. If you innovate you are more likely than not to get a kiss-of-death FITREP.

Mr. Gates told us repeatedly that he wanted leadership like by Col. John Boyd USAF, and yet when it came down to it he seemed uninterested in discovering the John Boyd's of his own tenure (they definitely existed). So the message is: I want you to be innovative, but I will put no structure in place to keep recalcitrant Pentagon Establishment from deliberately ending your career.

We've mentioned Colonels/Sgts Major, but we've not mentioned the permanent Establishment with a vested interest in the Status Quo: GS-14/GS-15. In MajGen Perry Smith's intro-to-the-Pentagon book, he says this crowd must police itself--but that population in DoD is a huge source of the problem.

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 04/09/2012 - 4:48pm

"The problem to be solved" is unique to every organization and different at every level. If any of those become too wed to any single approach or process it is likely to be "disruptive" if alternatives are suggested.

Perhaps most frustrating is when one realizes that what hinders them most at their particular level, or within their particular organization, are actions or inactions by those at much higher levels far beyond one's sphere of control, perhaps beyond one's sphere of influence, but hopefully never beyond one's sphere of concern.

I am reminded of the tale of the blind men and the elephant. Each understands the problem only to the extent of what they can touch. But even if my job is wholly related to the Elephant's tail, I must understand the elephant as a whole to do those duties to best effect. And while it may make those who are responsible for more important parts of the elephant uncomfortable to hear from the one holding the tail some keen insight that requires changes to their own approaches to their duties, there must be room to have such conversations. The military and government are naturally hierarchical in nature and structure, so one must work hard to nurture a culture where such insights are received as constructive, rather than disruptive, regardless of where they might come from.

The classics on war are classics for a reason. They stand the test of time. Clausewitz and Sun Tzu certainly fare well when held up to such scrutiny. The classics on insurgency, however, suffer from a common condition. Most are written from the perspective of some Western Governmental official based upon his experiences in dealing with an illegal and typically violent populace challenge to some third party national government deemed vital to the interests of that larger, more powerful, Western nation. This has led to a variety of biases that are not timeless, and therefore do not stand up so well to the test of time.

Certainly some insurgency is war, but is all insurgency war? Certainly some populace-based challenges to government are insurgency, but are all populace-based challenges insurgency regardless of purpose? Certainly insurgencies tend to be violent for the military to be called upon to assist, but does the presence or degree of violence make a problem insurgency, or is it some other aspect of the nature of the problem that defines it more accurately?

Once upon a time, suppression of such violence was "good enough," and as such was chalked up in the history books as a "win" for government. But what is "winning" in such situations? Is winning when the government prevails? Is winning when violence is suppressed for 5 years? 10 years? 20 years? Is winning when one organization from one segment of the populace employing one ideology is defeated; even if the same populace produces a new organization with new ideology, or if a different populace produces a different challenge elsewhere? Or, is winning more accurately when a greater percentage of the total populace under some system of governance comes to perceive that government as being reasonably dedicated to serving their interests in an acceptable manner?

Many find such questions to be "disruptive." Many find it even more disruptive is one goes the additional step and suggests possible answers or solutions to the same. So it has always been, so it will always be. Disruption for the sake of disruption is as irritating as dogmatism for the sake of dogma. But heaven help the individual, the organization or the country who think they have things so figured out that the only solution to poor results is to apply more effort. Sometimes a little thought can go a long ways as well.

It is easy to be dismissive of new thoughts that challenge our old ones; and also easy to offer pat brush-offs, such as "all insurgencies are unique" or "war is war." Yet are not all wars unique as well? Certainly, yet we still read our Clausewitz to find a baseline of understanding. And if indeed "war is war" does that not equally mean that "what is not war is not war"? Is it possible that Revolutionary insurgency is the "tomato of conflicts" (looks like a vegetable/war, but is in fact a fruit/civil emergency as judged by its nature?). I don't know, but I believe it is an important question to explore.

Good discussion everyone. The amount of interest (and intensity) these articles have attracted is a metric worth considering, regardless of where one's feelings and thoughts lie on the topic.

There are arguably many facets to the problem of how to change an institution for the better. The manner in which it incentivizes leadership advancement is a key indicator of that institution’s culture. Does the culture dictate innovation in thinking from its leaders or does it insist upon status quo? I submit the current culture in leadership development in our military develops status quo.

In order for "rank and file" ever to achieve the level where they can truly change the institution, they must "survive" long enough to be promoted to the appropriate leadership level. That is not likely to occur within today's performance evaluation system, which is a huge part of determining whether one advances in rank and position or not. The current system evaluates the individual on how much they act and think like their boss and their boss' boss (e.g. rater and senior rater/reporting senior and reviewing officer). Until the evaluation system is changed, we are institutionalizing cronyism. Shake things up and include a section in the performance evaluation where those that work for the person being evaluated also provide input. This is common practice in some of the world's best corporations, and I believe would invoke the right "disruptive thinking" into the performance evaluation system.

Until disruptive or heretical thinkers are incentivized to question the status quo, the institution will continue along its current course.


Mon, 04/09/2012 - 2:55pm

Every system was designed/created for a purpose and when that purpose is violated the system will begin to disintegrate. The American military appears to be doing just that. In other words and IMO the Real Big problem is a lack of defined purpose. The original purpose of the American Military was to protect Americans by the use of armed force,now their purpose and responsibilities are changing constantly at what appears to be an overwhelming rate. We are overloading the System.......that is a big problem and Systems eventually CRASH when you keep overloading them! So I would start by asking the question.....what is the purpose of the American Military?

Null Hypothesis

Mon, 04/09/2012 - 1:38pm

How do we know if we are solving the right problem?

I, like others, appreciate your thoughtful follow-up on LT Kohlmann’s post and continued efforts to tease out his thesis -- the article attracted attention as it speaks to a central frustration of so many military leaders attempting to personally and professionally deal with the question of "what next for myself, my service, and my country?" As far as the analysis, I wholeheartedly agree that there are problems, but continue to find myself a bit stymied to agree with the sources of that problem and several of the proposed solutions.

Two points of agreement , but with some nuance-- I can only second that we must break down the “protect the institution” mindset, but realistically doing so is really a matter of changing our collective frame of reference - after all we're dealing with good and bad versions of a "protect the institution" mindset. The fundamental “problem” has much to do with the protecting the smaller organization versus protecting and innovating to develop the effectiveness of the larger institution – the corporate endeavor of warfighting. The ‘frame of reference’ issue is an easy problem to identify, yet changing the culture will be quite difficult – and stems from how we promote personnel. We reward those who are perceived to benefit the smaller organization – whether that organization is a rifle company, a guided-missile destroyer, a supply depot, a “center of excellence,” or a major procurement program – rather than the larger mission and corporate endeavor. On its surface, promoting our personnel in this way seems appealing and pragmatic, as many of us would rather work with colleagues and leaders who want to see success in our daily work environment. Therein lies the rub: disruption and innovation are unlikely to be valued unless they answer the question of mission success and loyalty to the smaller organization. In other words, it's going to be very hard to cut personnel and funding at the "XYZ Center of Excellence" on the basis that its perpetuation is harmful to the full dedication of resources to II MEF or the 101st Airborne Division, however true the argument.

I also agree with an approach that champions a breadth of rigorous education and experience, combining technical mastery and exposure to outside ideas that encourage openness to innovation and multidisciplinary solutions. I think educational efforts can only enhance our culture. That said, to pick on the MBA theory a bit, have we seen any empirical study of the effectiveness of MBA programs within the military context? I agree with yours, and LT Kohlmann’s, points that they should have much to offer. That said, we have no shortage of O-6’s and GO/FO’s with MBAs, and there have been periods when the MBA was ticketed as the graduate degree of choice for future GO/FO’s. Personally, I’m not sold on that – or any other – graduate degree as leading to the major cultural changes needed in DoD or being a source of disruptive innovation. As the old saw goes, quite often necessity -- rather than rank/rate, graduate education, service or MOS affiliation – will be the immediate source of innovation. Those with a mind informed by a rigorous study of history and science, will and wisdom developed by experience will be best possessed to recognize the necessity and provide a solution.

As far as education and PME, I’ll take a cop out – the effectiveness of PME, correspondence or in residence, depends on the effectiveness of the student. I've seen successful graduates of both approaches (on a practical leave, correspondence PME may very well provide the opportunity in a 20-year career to pursue full-time civilian PME). I agree that there are varying perceptions of the value of graduate education yet can only disagree if the argument devolves into "we don't value it." There are too many indicators to the contrary. For instance, General Petraeus, General Mattis, and General Allen all seem to occupy a place of esteem in modern military lore in large part due to their educational accomplishment. Further, most of the services have full-time programs at elite universities that serve as a marker for selection and promotion. Yet, I would agree that there's a distrust, probably due to the fact that the results are mixed – not all graduates of elite institutions bring home the bacon and effect meaningful change or inspired leadership – so, I think many are leery of simply signing up to the theory that elite institutions will fix our problems. It’s, at best, a good partial answer – but I think it still points to the larger matter: culture remains at the crux of the problem we’re defining.

Finally, I’ll pick up where Ken White left off – the 800-lb gorilla (the one that ranges from 500 to a thousand pounds) – is the state of civil-military affairs. Civilian leadership – legislative and executive – has had a hand, perhaps ‘the’ hand, in shaping so many of the problems being discussed and our heritage of civ-mil relations shapes the culture in which we define and perceive our effectiveness. While uniformed leadership often defines goals, our strategic ends are developed by civilian policymakers, and resourced by civilian legislators. We have a heritage – probably an appropriate one – of toeing the civilian line. Our civilian leadership can be an origin – often healthy -- of disruption, but also of organizational incentives that inhibit disruption, as GO/FO’s are under the gun to deliver to a host of civilian masters without having much say in establishing the criteria for success. Civilian leadership, and the political interests to which they’re rightfully beholden, can be the source of a strategic disconnect which leads us to misdiagnose failures and find solutions in “innovation” and “disruptive thought” that really have to do with central civ-mil disconnects – such as establishing strategic endpoints that are simply not feasible. Pointing out the misalignment of resources to objectives takes something other than disruptive thinking – it takes candor, integrity, and courage. You may suggest that my assertions as neo-praetorian thinking, yet I would argue that there’s a huge qualitative difference between a knee-jerk praetorian wasteful culture, and a candid evaluation and informed dialogue of national ends/ways/means. The problem we’re trying to solve seems to be in the ‘praetorian wasteful culture’ realm, but overlaps inherently with the ‘national ends/ways/means’ realm which is closely tied to our civ-mil heritage. R/S