Small Wars Journal

Disruptive Thinkers: Military Entrepreneurship, Terms and Concepts

Wed, 04/11/2012 - 6:30am

Editor's Note: You can find all of the disruptive thinkers essays here as they are published.

Business, military and political leaders claim to value innovation, and leaders of many organizations develop formal programs to foster innovation. Professionals have an obligation to develop and improve the profession’s processes and body of knowledge. Military organizations in particular struggle with innovation because they receive little feedback on how well they are doing until the next encounter with thinking interlocutors who conceal their own adaptations in the interim (See editor’s preface by Williamson Murray in the linked book). Organizations perpetually struggle with innovation and the discussion often devolves to cynicism, recriminations and stereotypes rather than thoughtful analysis of how organizations work together to adapt or create new opportunities. What is going on here?  How can leaders say they want to promote innovation, while their subordinates perceive a strong bias for the status quo?  Moreover, while would-be innovators chafe at perceived institutional inertia and bureaucracy, both military and business leaders have fallen prey to fads that failed to live up to their promises. This article will also seek to address some of the points raised in Benjamin Kohlmann’s article “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers” and many others like it.  The main purpose of this paper is to provide a deeper look at the causes of military innovation and provide practical advice to achieve it.

Successful innovation and institutional resistance against proposed innovations have causes we can identify and understand to guide our efforts.  Subscribing to stereotypes does not lead to meaningful results.  Stories of bright, ambitious young officers being shut down by tired, old, risk-averse bureaucrats protecting their careers in a dysfunctional, dystopian bureaucracy are a staple of military cliché.  Another cliché involves arrogant, often young new officers, lacking understanding and maturity, ruthlessly pushing their own agenda while dismissing the ideas and input of seasoned professionals.  It’s time to stop and reorient.  Kohlmann’s article included a description of group he formed called “Disruptive Thinkers,” and fittingly, there are sources that can provide good insights on how to accomplish just that.  We need to generate useful ideas, honed with critical thinking and experimentation, followed by the courage and hard work to implement them.  Governmental organizations, including the military provide even greater challenges to flexibility and adaptation under normal circumstances than private sector organizations because of the structure and rules of the existing system, including personnel policies.  But these challenges can be overcome.  Entrepreneurs normally don’t rely on formal titles, authority or resources they directly control to accomplish their goals, they use other people’s resources.  Successful organizations must also balance delivering results on the mission at hand while discovering better ways to achieve them.

First, let’s look at some relevant terms from a helpful source, The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that will Change the Way You Do Business by Clayton Christensen.  Innovation is not merely coming up with ideas; you need to get the ideas out there, they must be implemented and they must provide value. Innovation comes in two flavors: sustaining and disruptive, and understanding the difference can increase the innovator’s chances for success (p. xviii).  Sustaining innovations perform better on existing metrics with the current organization’s resources, processes and values.  These are usually much easier to implement because you can use existing measurements and data to prove the new procedure or tool will do a superior job.  Disruptive innovations serve a new purpose, or simplify serving tasks over-served by existing solutions. You measure the value of disruptive innovations on different metrics than sustaining innovations, and it will usually be difficult to find data to prove a need for it.  Small unmanned aerial vehicles providing dedicated aerial reconnaissance to small units is an example of disruptive innovation.  Those units typically could not obtain support from expensive traditional aerial assets, and were grossly over-served by most of their capabilities when they could.

While sustaining innovations fit within the existing organization, disruptive innovation often requires forming a separate organization, either within the parent organization, or spinning out a wholly new entity to realize their potential (pp. 196-207).  I submit the US Army Special Forces branch, and subsequently Special Operations Command are examples of disruptive innovations.  The new organization is free to acquire appropriate resources and develop its own processes and values aligned with the new innovation (See Chapter 8 of the book).  It can define success accordingly with metrics aligned with performance attributes relevant to the new mission in a way it could not under the parent organization.  An existing organization often has made large investments in resources aligned with its mission that make it hard to change to a new concept quickly, particularly without evidence to justify the loss of sunk expenses and investment in new assets.  An existing organization’s processes and values become optimized for its current mission and are intentionally difficult to change. Meanwhile, it must usually continue to support the existing mission.  In the business world, this would mean supporting existing customers who continue to provide the revenue and shareholders who demand performance on their investment. In the military, this means fulfilling existing missions and responsibilities or justifying large expenses to political leaders.  Leaders and staff officers throughout an organization would be rightly skeptical of any ideas that detract from or present significant opportunity costs to their core mission.  An established organization attempting to implement a disruptive innovation tends to pull resources and focus away from the disruptive project, and place a higher priority on its existing mission.  Ongoing requirements and investments in existing resources make it particularly difficult for military and government organizations to change rapidly without clear, compelling evidence for the need to change and advantages it provides. Sometimes this only occurs when they reach a crisis point where failure is clear and imminent. This evidence is usually difficult or impossible to produce for disruptive innovations.  Many competent, well run organizations have failed due mishandling disruptive innovations.  But sometimes needed organizational or resource changes occur for them to succeed, as in the Special Forces example.  Informal task organization changes are easier for military organizations to make and occur more often.  Approaching the problem with the correct framework is the key to putting an entrepreneur on the right path to implement the idea.

Entrepreneurs are people willing to launch a new venture and accept responsibility for the outcome. Entrepreneurs are not limited to new organizations; they develop and connect ideas in novel ways in established organizations as well. Entrepreneurs often have broad knowledge of their industry and related fields. The most successful ones usually have a network that provides them with access to a diverse range of knowledge and resources.  Access to a diverse range of knowledge and perspectives allows them to combine ideas in novel ways and test them to see if they are feasible.  Entrepreneurs excel at using resources outside their immediate control.  In other words, an essential part of getting ideas implemented means taking responsibility for them, while also getting wide participation and buy-in.  This cannot be done if necessary people throughout the organization feel excluded or marginalized during the formative process or that the valuable ideas can only emerge from a clique.  Consider how the proposed changes will affect the organization, which entities likely to support or resist it, why they hold these views, and the validity of their concerns. Entrepreneurs need to approach the problem from the correct framework to align their innovation with agents with a stake in its success.  Since established organizations usually fail when trying to implement a truly disruptive innovation, the entrepreneur should consider ways to establish an organization that can use the idea.  A sustaining innovation thrives best with an organization with requisite resources and can be incorporated within the established organization, so the entrepreneur should gather evidence to demonstrate its potential for superior performance.

The vast majority of innovations come from cognitively diverse groups working together over time, not the work of a lone genius. Kohlmann’s article correctly complains about the insular nature of most professional military education programs. Networks dominated by people within the same industry and similar skills do not expand the domain of professional knowledge. Cognitively diverse groups can connect ideas in new and novel ways, with many models, perspectives and methods of generating and testing new ideas.  They can also exapt ideas from other fields or ideas originally conceived for another purpose because they have a broader range of perspectives, experience and knowledge to draw upon.  Organizations and people can set favorable conditions for developing good new ideas.  Good ideas that get implemented tend to be in the “adjacent possible.”  Some great ideas throughout history were never implemented because they lacked complimentary assets required for them to succeed.  Ideas that are feasible in the near term, with all the required conditions right are most likely to succeed. Many really great ideas occur through serendipity or learning from what appears to be an error.  The best new ideas develop over a period of time.  While many ideas appear to be spontaneous, and many good quality decisions can be made instinctively, putting together concepts often requires time. (This book provides extensive research on instinctive and deliberate thinking and decision making, including evidence demonstrating when a mode provides superior results, or is prone to systematic errors and biases.)  Military planning and decision-making processes do allow for slow, deliberate thinking depending on the problem and time available.  Revisit ideas with people when possible to give them an opportunity to share how their thoughts have evolved over time.  Foster discovery driven skills in the organization.  These include associating (making novel new connections across areas of knowledge), questioning (probe for causes, ask “why” or “why not”), observing, networking (a diverse network), experimenting (active thinking to test ideas and generate new ones). 

Critical thinking and implementing ideas is as important as having them.  Critical thinking and experimentation help prevent the adoption of flawed ideas and provide evidence to support good ones.  Continuous professional reflection and critical thinking are required to prevent cultural myths, stereotypes, tribal wisdom and folklore from perpetuating or infiltrating the professional body of knowledge.  Examples include biological and mechanical models used by annihilation theorists, such as Douhet, Basil Liddell-Hart and J.F.C. Fuller to proscribe “shots to the brain” to quickly win wars (Elkus, Adam, Resiliency and Counter-Resiliency in the Information Age: An Evolution in Military Affairs, paper presented at the International Studies Association conference,  San Diego, CA, April 1-4, 2012). Many faulty business fads have been adopted by the military over the years, and continued to live on long after they fell out of favor in the business world.  Reflection and critical thinking skills supplemented by active experimentation hone ideas and check their validity.  The U.S. Army Command and General Staff College uses the Kolb experiential learning model in professional military education to incorporate new knowledge into the profession.  The article “The Reflective Military Practitioner: How Military Professionals Think in Action” also describes other techniques that work in concert with the Kolb learning model to incorporate knowledge into the professional body of knowledge.  Other means to get ideas into practice include formal avenues, such as the Joint Operational Planning Process, or informal methods such as discussing ideas with other professionals, developing a consensus and experimenting.  (Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers, by Geoffrey A. Moore and Regis McKenna describes a great technology adoption model with advice on getting innovations implemented.)   Formal authority, titles or resources should not constrain implementation of a good idea that fits an organization.  Entrepreneurship is all about connecting the ideas together, finding resources, and creating an environment where the idea can succeed.  Entrepreneurs in the civilian world often leave large enterprises to start their venture because it cannot succeed within the existing organization, and then need to convince venture capitalists to share the risks of bringing the idea to market.  While government entrepreneurs will have a harder time starting a new organization, they do not have the same risks when they succeed in creating one.

Professionals have an obligation to develop and improve their profession.  Innovative leaders look beyond delivering on existing commitments and seek and make the most of the creativity and knowledge they can access.  They develop and encourage their people to contribute to the mission in every way possible, including drawing upon their range of ideas, insights, and experiences.  While brand new officers and junior enlisted members may not have a fully developed understanding of the military or an organization’s mission, they do have varied insights, perspectives, knowledge and experience that could be combined in new ways. Innovative leaders ask questions designed to refine critical thinking skills and develop a shared understanding of the problem and how it’s framed. When possible, engage in active experimentation to test ideas to reveal potential benefits and areas requiring further thinking.  Warfare involves continuous cycles of adaptation against a thinking opponent. Developing an organization’s ability to rapidly adapt to changes, and learn to proactively improve provides decisive advantages on the battlefield. Innovation requires developing a skillset, and understanding the environment and organization to succeed.  

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Jeckell is a plans and operations officer at the Army Sustainment Command at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois.  He attended the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College and School of Advanced Military Studies, and completed the University of Illinois Strategic Technology Management program for entrepreneurship and innovation.  You can follow him on Twitter under the handle @jon_jeckell .


As a guy who spent most of his life in medium/small startups I think this article distills the facts very well.

Jon, I agree with you on the Lisa as a learning event and moving on. But as an informational note / opinion I am going to disagree on the severity of the NeXT failure. I previewed the first NexT product release with Steve Jobs at a trade show (the Federal Computer show?). I was an imaging guy at the time and we had a chance to talk. He definitely expected the product to make a big impact in the graphics/animation market. I believe the idea was for NeXT to be a sort of a Pixar on the desktop. Of course after the failure, being the consummate salesman the strategy story morphed repeatedly. He got back into Apple and was able to purchase his own failure and bury it as a success. This was no arms length deal.

Bottom line; the marketing wiz misjudged the market in big ways twice in a row; Lisa, then NeXT. I'm not saying anyone else could have done better, I'm saying its a tough road even for the best of them.

Again, great article Jon.


Fri, 04/13/2012 - 9:06am

In reply to by mo-joe

You are correct about MBA programs. A lot of entrepreneurs think MBAs are just as bureaucratic as Kohlmann portrays our senior leaders. That's starting to change now, with some MBA programs focusing more on innovation and entrepreneurship.

Your #4 cuts right to one of the main points of my article. In fact, Xerox was one of the case studies in "The Innovator's Dilemma" by Clayton Christensen, the primary source for this article. Xerox blew it with graphical user interfaces because it was a disruptive innovation. It was dismissed and ignored by management because it did not fit in with their established performance metrics. It required a new entrant to exploit this innovation.

As for #5 and 6, NeXT wasn't so bad a failure, since Apple bought the company, and in both cases, Apple learned and moved on. Lots of lessons from both of those examples about learning from your mistakes rather than letting them end you. Which fits in with your final point about the high failure rate of startups. They are worth the high failure rate because we learn from each one, and the ones that succeed blow the doors off.

This article and its comments are very good. It looks like the golden MBA theory has been put to rest. But if I may I would like to pump a few more bullets into the corpse.

1. The A in MBA stands for Administration, not Innovation.

2. Thomas Edison all agree was one of the greatest innovators of all time. But Edison absolutely refused to accept the innovative ideas from Westinghouse and Tesla concerning the superiority of AC over DC. AC allows the use of transformers to easily raise and lower voltages for transmission over great distances. Stubbornly Edison went so far as to built over 100 DC power plants that could transmit power only 2 miles which obviously did not work out very well. --So innovators can be very resistant to innovation.

3. The first spreadsheet software was developed by an MBA student at Harvard. Spreadsheet sales since (including Visicalc, Lotus 123, and Excel etc) have exceeded one billion dollars. However this guy sold his rights to the software for $50,000. So much for MBA foresight.

4. Xerox, a very innovative company, invented windows software and the PC mouse. Then it did nothing with them. Luckily Steve Jobs came along and stole their ideas and brought them to market at Apple.

5. Steve Jobs also had spectacular failures. Remember NEXT Corp.

6. Apple also had spectacular failures. Remember "Lisa", the follow on to the Mac back in 1985.

7. Microsoft also had spectacular failures. Remember OS/2. How about Vista. Some would argue their current products are all technical failures too but due to their air-tight contracts with PC vendors they continue to make money regardless of quality; they could put manure in those boxes and the P&L sheet would not change much. Microsoft has lots of MBAs.

8. Facebook started as kind of a joke. It originates with software written for college kids on campus to vote for which girl's pictures were better looking with "Who's hot and who's not" software. The founder was not "trying to solve a problem".

I am a huge free enterprise fan and veteran of small high tech startups. But I do not presume to say private business could do a better job than the U.S. Military. There is an endless list of business failures, 75% of which are the result of gross stupidity and the refusal to adapt to change. But the only business everybody wants to talk about is Google. Even the absolute cream of the crop, venture capital funded startups, experience a 75% to 90% failure rate. But VC companies are happy with that because the 1 in 10 that does succeed produces extraordinary profits. Can the military accept a 90% failure rate? At the next military innovation meeting lets talk about the top 100 business failures of the past decade.

At small startups we do not handle M16s and guided missiles. In business if we fail we lose some money and we walk away and find something else to do. It is not a life and death struggle played out on the world stage. In business we get to choose our battles; we pick a product and a market where we think we can win. The military obviously does not have this option.

The useful analogies between business and the military are far more limited than most people realize for a variety of reasons.


Thu, 04/12/2012 - 5:52pm

In reply to by JScott

Thank you very much. Good luck with the book!

I wrote something elsewhere on using crowdsourcing aka collective intelligence, and how to avoid its flipside, groupthink. You are correct that culture has a lot to do with groupthink. The way information is handled and a culture of conformity do indeed foster groupthink. I also think having leaders who are capable of independent action and thinking will be particularly critical in the near future if we face adversaries capable of degrading C2 links. Belay that, it's crucial now in distributed operations today.

I appreciate your thoughts on this.


This is a superb addition to the thought-thread introduced by Lt Kohlmann.

I am in the process of finishing my book, To Be or To Do, and in it, I offer than an innovative and sustainable culture will be one where (1) curiosity is encouraged and safe (2) independent action/thinking is expected and encouraged. Your points are spot-on, but unless the culture of the org embraces these two central ideas, groupthink will more than likely prevail.

Thanks again for a very good post!

J. Scott Shipman


Thu, 04/12/2012 - 6:04pm

In reply to by JasonT

Thanks for your comments. Yeah, I agree that the military is better at encouraging innovation than popularly believed. I also think that a lot of people perceive the grass as greener on the other side of the fence. I know a lot of friends that got out in the late 90's and 2000's who thought they were going to innovative, more dot-com environments and were sorely disappointed (not all of them). There are ways to innovate and good environments for doing it in the military, but within constraints. Like you said, it also depends a lot on the command and the environment. It was a LOT easier to innovate during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly when the established methods were found wanting. Young leaders were given a lot of latitude to find solutions in their areas. Anecdotally, I hear from many sources (GEN Dempsey for one) a lot of junior officers are worried about getting desk jobs, bureaucracy and PowerPoint after years of having to think on their feet.

On your last point about training against adaptive, non-military opponents, that's a good idea and being done to varying degrees. I'm not sure I understand your concept completely, but they have OPFOR that mimic insurgent tactics, have realistic civilians on the battlefield, etc.

A couple of points in response to this interesting paper.

1. From an insiders perspective it may not appear as if the US military encourages innovation. But as an outsider I think given the complexity and unprecendented responsiblity it has as an organisation domestically and internationally, the US military is far more open to new ideas than other establishments. It is an organisation pretty good at assembling cognitive diverse groups. Like any organisation often it is the personality type of the chief that sets the tone.

We could use the 'journey man's' metaphor to set out the three key characters required for an organisation to grow, develop and consolidate from new ideas: Prospectors, Pioneers and Settlers. The ability to do this faster, better, consistent (as Col. John Boyd told us) is critical in a combat situation - both tactically on the ground and in long term planning on future threats. Tension will exist between these individuals in a highly competitive environment. Even in the same AO but with a change in command, Ive seen a great approach go from hero to zero merely because those just below the dude in charge were neither prospectors, pioneers nor settlers but disruptors - disruptors dont have to necessarily do bad things they can also just do nothing which can be equally poor particularly in an asymmetric theatre.

The second point is how organisations tend to dismiss the simple for the complex. I like to constantly push groups to examine how they can do more with less. Its often the simple things that kill you or save you. We need to become better at fighting with very few resources and still be capable of a deep strategic presence with a light tactical and operational footprint; a military with a pioneering mindset.

We seek comfort in what is complex and yet we see intellectual weakness in the simple. How many corporate entities obtain reassurance through advice from consultants who present the most blindingly complete approaches. I guess if you pay the big bucks a simple solution by people who have studies at prestigious institutes would not be accepted. Oscar Wilde wrote to a friend saying “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” In fact being able to see the simple beyond the haze of complexity takes intellectual rigour and courage to make the case in a group and yet highly effective when executed.

One suggestions (an apologies if this is already being done), we need to have our military operations trained by being tested against opponents who are non-military, who will not follow a recognised process of engagement and who will employ psychological tactics that we may find abhorrent. Whether re-discovering our pioneering spirit or borrowing from our insurgent enemies the better we are at innovation through simplicity the less it will cost to defend our national interests in the long run.


Wed, 04/11/2012 - 10:53am

One of the links got mangled above. The reference for research on instinctive and deliberate thinking and decision making, including evidence demonstrating when a mode provides superior results, or is prone to systematic errors and biases should point to Daniel Kahnemann's "Thinking Fast & Slow". My apologies.


Fri, 04/13/2012 - 4:04pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Well, the pernicious thing this article tries to get at is the inertia sets in BECAUSE people have vision and are competent, patriotic Americans who are serious about their job. The companies used in the case studies in "The Innovator's Dilemma" were all the darlings of their industry, run by the very best leaders. They do that by getting very effective at filtering information and channeling it efficiently. That reduces chaos and a lot of wasted work, but it also makes you collectively blind to certain types of change. Often you have people somewhere in the organization who see the potential for the disruption, but it's collectively ruled out as irrelevant to the organization. It's very tough for an organization itself to recognize disruption, especially before it's too late. I think that's especially true with the military, because while businesses are "in contact" every day, someone could be disrupting us and we don't find out about it until we get beat up in the next engagement.

I'm going to back off on commenting on SOCOM specifically though, because I don't know what's specifically going on there. I certainly wish the organization the best, they have a lot of exceptional people, and they will continue to be in contact with the enemy even when the rest of us reset for the next mission. These forces act on all organizations though, and it will be tough to buck upstream against it.

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 04/13/2012 - 11:23am

In reply to by Jon.Jeckell


Don't think of what is happening as SOCOM getting "smaller," more accurately it is most likely going to get more "distributed" to put manpower where it can be most effective. Component staffs will feel the machete as deeply as SOCOM itself as bodies are freed up from supporting generals and placed where they can best support operators. Time will tell how this will all sort out as all bold visions find opposition from those comfortable in the inertia of the status quo, or from those lacking vision themselves.


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

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

Heartily agree with you on point 1, but am still a little concerned about point 2.

Yeah, ADM McRaven and the rest of the crew at SOCOM are the product of a system that encourages innovative thinking. But I've heard the mantra before about cutting staff sizes and trimming the fat before. It seems the cobwebs have a way of clinging and the roaches hide out until the lights go out again.

Also, I really don't think it's the SIZE or the span of the staff that matters. A large staff can be a good thing for some kinds of deliberate decision making, if they all have their head in the game and contribute. Imagine harnessing all that brainpower in effective collective problem solving! I think it probably has more to do with stovepiping, siloing, and compartmentalization that comes about from having a staff that builds filters and communications channels that stop them from seeing the wider picture and begin to ignore "irrelevant" information. The team in a startup is very tight knit and every one of them knows a little about what each of the other team members bring to the table. Even worse, SOCOM's compartmentalization and the cult-like adherence to secrecy (rightly so, most of the time) shuts down collaboration and awareness in the organization. Don't get me wrong, OPSEC is crucial, but its inimical to forming "liquid networks" that stumble upon a new solution to things.

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 04/11/2012 - 10:41am

In reply to by Jon.Jeckell


Two points. As you (and anyone else) read Boykin's paper, just imagine how effective their techniques might have been had Small Wars Journal and modern internet media existed. I think many of their techniques are still effective and can be made better with current (and potentially future) media technology. Regardless of the technology though it was still a battle of ideas requiring critical thinking and intellectual capital combined with the ability to effectively communicate those ideas in order to get things done and make a difference.

Second is that to slightly counter your comments on my beloved SOCOM. It has gotten very large and as your correctly generalize large organziations can become stagnant and lose their agility and ability to innovate. I have heard that ADM McRaven and a few trusted colonels/captains are going to take a machete to the HQ down there and trim it back to a good fighting weight. I do not know if that is true but I have heard that rumor. Organizations always need a good shake up and some disruption. We should recall that ADM McCraven as a young LCDR (O4) was a disruptive thinker who helped found the SO/LIC program out at NPS in Monterey back in the early 1990's. I doubt he has lost his disruptive thinking capabiltiiy despite having reached 4 stars.


Wed, 04/11/2012 - 10:26am

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

One thing I've been worried about for a long time about SOCOM, etc. is their ability to scale without ossifying into another bureaucracy. As an organization grows, it takes on more staff with defined roles to become more effective and efficient at what it does. This also makes it harder to change. It's tough to maintain flexibility and the ability to adapt AND be efficient at the same time. Another worrying sign is the increasing dependence on technology. Technology is essential, don't get me wrong, but it's also a resource and an investment that can take on a life of its own and become what the organization is all about if you aren't careful.

Thanks for the link on that paper! I will definitely be reading that.

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 04/11/2012 - 9:59am

For an interesting history on the evolution of USSOCOM and the "disruptive thinkers" that made it happen then-COL Boykin's (later LTG RET) Army war college paper is a good read. note how the congressional staffers drove the debate in Armed Forces Journal and other publications arguing both sides of the issues. Boykin's paper is a good study in bureacractic unconvetional warfare. It can be downloaded at this link. It is worth the time for the short read.


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

In reply to by Jon.Jeckell

I concur!

The Navy has Innovator's Dilemma on its reading list.

Army: I was very pleased to Boyd (Coram), Dereliction of Duty (McMaster), Supreme Command (Cohen), and Leading Change (Kotter).


Wed, 04/11/2012 - 9:35am

In reply to by TJ

That's a great point. Disruptive innovations often do use a simpler technology, and are about solving a problem differently, not about breakthrough technology. Back to the Special Forces example from the article...while the mainstream Army was enamored with complex weapon systems, Special Forces used (at the time) very simple old technology to specialize in under-served niches. It seems the techno-centric problem solving we've been using for decades is at odds with this kind of strategy.

May I add that a disruptive innovation often involves using a simpler technology in a new way? Landmine use is very old and has been increasing substantially for 100 years, yet enemies use of "IED" landmines in OIF/OEF was an example of disruptive technology. Integrated steel mills resisted mini-mill technology until they all went bankrupt. The Army wanted sustaining technology in Future Combat Systems (more complex) to sustain Fulda Gap warfare while neglecting 30-year-old MRAPs, the Marine Corps wanted a hyper-complex EFV while neglecting MRAPs. The Air Force insisted on having officers in airplanes when they could have been bold and attempted to blot out the sun with Predators etc., instead of waiting until forced to rapidly increase UAV production by Mr. Gates. Applying principles of rapid maneuver to the Pentagon Establishment, for the first time in a meaningful way, is disruptive to the old ways of doing business--counting innovation in decades.


Wed, 04/11/2012 - 9:46am

In reply to by Jason.T

I did use Special Forces Branch and the establishment of SOCOM as examples of organizations spun out as part of a disruptive innovation, but JSOC indeed has a reputation for raising the bar on the kind of collaboration we're talking about here. In business terms, they seem to be a move "up market" as the new organization starts to improve performance. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

I also agree with your points on PME and culture, but I submit I thought the opportunities were available at CGSC if one was willing to make the effort. The culture...I guess I'd have to say it's the luck of the draw with your organization and boss at this point. We'll see how the drawdown goes though. Historically that's led to circling the wagons.

AsI read your essay, one line that jumped out at me as directly relating to some of my military experience was that, "Entrepreneurs normally don’t rely on formal titles, authority or resources they directly control to accomplish their goals, they use other people’s resources." Your observation squares with the basic principles in place in the most innovative military organization with which I've been affiliated, Joint Special Operations Command. A few years ago, JSOC culture essentially encouraged the flattening of the rank structure and incorporating a lot of low-to-high feedback, incorporation of the interagency directly into the conduct of the mission where appropriate (using other's resources),and rapidly incorporating lessons learned ("learning organization"). Of these, I tend to think the first was the most important -- flattening the structure in order to create a rapid, open, exchange of ideas. We tend to cling tightly to military rank which, while rank and position were important in terms of accountability, did not as consistently serve to suppress thought and innovation as I've seen consistently throughout the rest of my military career (several respondents have noted the importance of reform of the promotion system so we can promote innovative thinkers...I would suggest we obviate it altogether and simply diminish the cultural importance of rank). Openness of thought, a diminished emphasis on traditional structure, permitted an environment where an emphasis on effective leveraging of networks of the 'right people.' (GEN McChrystal's monologue presented as a TED talk echoes similar observations. Frankly, before we address PME or grad school, I think we need to address a culture that prizes adherence to authority and incentivizes the accession to military rank.