General Dempsey’s recent White Papers on America’s Military – A Profession of Arms, Mission Command, and Joint Education skillfully describes the “hard” demand signals for officers who can think their way through ambiguity, provide the necessary leadership to navigate through uncertain territory, and to develop the reciprocal trust and confidence necessary between echelons to execute operations in a distributed or decentralized manner. Joint education must reflect the complexities of the operating environment and foster a life-long commitment to learning that the Profession of Arms demands. The recent Capstone Concept for Joint Operations: Joint Force 2020 identifies joint professional military education (JPME) as one method to instill the strategic thinking necessary to plan and conduct military operations in the 21st Century.
Whereas a core curriculum covering the range of military roles, capabilities, processes, and functions along with developing critical thinking skills is typically not in question, the crux for today’s military academic institutions is how to expand student thinking to encompass broader environmental perspectives and thinking concepts. Within this broader perspective, educators must integrate traditional concepts with the complexities resident in the strategic environment while developing a learning atmosphere that encourages creativity and is accepting of failure. Thinking conceptually provides the necessary agility within a framework to cross-cut multiple contexts as students try to address the broad range of issues they face in the operating environment.
Product-focused education, such as that which requires students to develop briefings, planning orders, or other such products minimizes critical and creative thinking. A product-focused curriculum unintentionally reorders lesson outcomes from the analysis and synthesis levels of learning found in higher education to those outcomes typically found in training courses or lower levels of education. As such, JPME institutions must reorient their educational objectives and outcomes to emphasize learning or understanding at the expense of the development of known products.
The integration of a broader range of thinking competencies has been a key component in an evolutionary educational migration taking place at the Joint and Combined Warfighting School (JCWS) and the results have been overwhelmingly positive. This approach maintains the core educational areas as defined in the Officer Professional Military Education Policy (OPMEP) that provides the framework and scaffolding for the contextual, collaborative, facilitated problem solving directed by the Chairman. This approach minimizes or eliminates the use of PowerPoint slides or templates and relies upon student discourse captured on whiteboards or other materials. This approach requires a faculty comfortable operating on intent and not fixated on a specific or preplanned outcome using a preordained process or method. This approach promotes understanding as the educational outcome in whatever form that entails. This unique approach represents one possible way to reorient joint professional military education to arm military members with the ability to confidently tackle the problems and issues of the 21st Century.
The following fictional student dialogue represents some of the techniques and procedures in use at JCWS and illustrates concepts that General Dempsey’s white papers identify that add depth and breadth to traditional military core thinking competencies.
“Nice throw!” Joe yelled to Mike as the runner was tagged out at third for the final out. Running to the infield, Joe “high fived” his teammates and congratulated the other seminar for a good game. “Lucky” Seminar 13 finished a highly successful regular season with two wins and two losses. Joe laughed to himself as he walked with his seminar mates over to the pub for the traditional post-game after-action discussion. “Two wins,” he thought, “not bad.” After the first practice if you had told Joe that the seminar would win one game, let alone two, he would have thought you were crazy.
The seminar, although not the most gifted athletically, had started to really gel as a group. The other 17 seminar members to whom he was “shackled” with for the 10-week course were phenomenal officers and people. “If they’re representative of their respective Services, then we’re in pretty good hands,” thought Joe. The seminar was full of seasoned professionals, some combat veterans from all Services, former commanders, current commanders and directors, former and future fellows, and the very best international officers from around the world. “I bet at least six of these ‘guys’ make flag, if not more,” Joe assessed as he looked around the table at the 15 men and two women who comprised the seminar. Leaning back in his chair and reflecting on the moment, Joe was enjoying the camaraderie with his classmates, as he always did.
What Joe was not expecting, however, was that he was also enjoying the course. When initially informed by his boss several months ago that he needed to attend JFSC to “get his JPME II ticket punched,” Joe thought of every excuse that he could to get himself out of it. “I’m too valuable here.” “My guys need me.” “I don’t need more training on how to plan.” “I’ve already been deployed for three of the past six years.”
Joe tried these excuses and others, but his boss was unsympathetic. “It’s the law,” General Smith said. “If you don’t go, you’ll be killing your career. Suck it up, grit your teeth, and make the best of it like I did. Who knows, maybe you’ll learn something.”
Thinking back to the general’s words, Joe smiled as he sucked down the rest of his beverage and accepted a refill from his classmate. Joe remembered going home from work that night, and after informing his wife of the impending TDY, stated that, “This will be a colossal waste of time and keep me from doing the really important stuff here.” In fact, he remembers filling out the pre-course questionnaire and confidently checking the “no value” box when queried about his expectations of the course. Much to Joe’s pleasant surprise, however, he had to admit that he was actually learning a number of useful concepts and techniques and that the course was turning out to be a wholly different experience than what he expected.
“Why is this experience different than the others?” thought Joe. This course was similar to his previous staff and war college experiences although this course was more truly ‘joint’ than the others—there were 18 officers of different Services making up the seminar, including a few international officers. On the surface, the subject matter appeared similar to the others, but was actually quite unique in that this course’s context is a purely Joint Force perspective. Seminar discussions centered upon the operational level of war although this course’s emphasis is on the mid- to high-range of the operational level as opposed to the component or tactical level. Joint functions, operational design, JOPES/APEX, the Interagency, and many other lessons were somewhat similar to previous courses. Check. Check. Check. Something was different, but Joe just couldn’t put it into words at that moment.
Slingshot, a naval aviator who doubled as the seminar’s social director, saw Joe staring into the depths of his beverage. “Are you training or educating that drink?” said the gregarious aviator. “What are you talking about?” said Joe snapping out of his reverie. “You know, just like they keep telling us in class. When training you do, when educating you think. At your present pace, that beverage will have a PhD by the end of the evening” explained Slingshot.
Joe laughed aloud as Slingshot headed over to grab some of the hot wings that just arrived at the table. “What a nut job” thought Joe, but then had a mini-revelation. Slingshot’s comment made him realize what was different about this course from the others and why he was enjoying the seminar experience. “This,” he said under his breath, “is education. We’re not training on a process to churn out some unintelligible slides that have little or no relevancy to anything.”
In fact, much to their chagrin, Joe and his classmates learned early on in the course that the instructors were adamant about not providing templates or slides. “Templates and slides are for those who can’t or won’t think,” they said. “If we give you a template, a slide, or any kind of an example, you’ll just fill it in and call it complete without any thinking whatsoever.” The instructors repeatedly emphasized the point that although we were still ‘doers’ it was different. Instead of physically doing the things that we were comfortable with and had done thousands of times before throughout our careers, such as flying, shooting, or driving something, we were now at a point where ‘doing’ meant something different. At the senior leader level, ‘doing’ meant thinking and it meant thinking critically, creatively, conceptually, and contextually (Figure 1).
Thinking back on his own experiences, Joe added his own C to the list: communication. “If I can’t communicate the ideas or concepts adequately or if I can’t effectively make my argument to the boss, then the best analysis in the world will fall on deaf ears,” Joe said to himself. He made a mental note to dig deeper into that idea at a later time. How can you get someone else to see something that you so clearly see? How can thoughts or intentions be effectively communicated to other command echelons? “Good questions,” he thought.
The ‘four Cs,’ as one instructor called them, provided the basis for the 10-week joint education that Joe and his seminar mates were currently experiencing. The four Cs initially frustrated many of the students as they were accustomed to linear thinking that was inevitably linked to producing something—typically a PowerPoint briefing or five-paragraph order. These types of media are fine for communicating thinking into action, but do not lend themselves to facilitating creative thinking. In this educational environment, learning was the product and it could take any form imaginable. “That makes my brain hurt,” said Joe as he took a slow sip of his beverage primarily to mollify Slingshot who kept looking his way to ensure he was having a good time. “It does make sense though,” he thought, “because ‘understanding the environment’ is one of the three frames in the design concept that the instructors are constantly talking about and it’s also one of three pillars of the Chairman’s mission command concept along with intent and trust.”
As one of his instructors was fond of saying, “You need to train your mind to think much the same way you train your body during a workout—it takes a lot of repetitions to make any progress.” Joe snorted aloud, “I need a lot more reps if any of this is going to start making any sense.” He grabbed one of the few remaining hot wings and started chewing as he thought about the four Cs and how they supported the seminar’s education model. The seminar’s educational model reflected the uncertainties, dynamicity, and complexities resident in the strategic environment. The model focused on fostering a breadth of understanding through the use of diverse resources and perspectives, along with critical analysis, abstract reasoning, and creative thinking as they related to problems composed of linear and non-linear components.
Grabbing the last hot wing a mere second ahead of one of his seminar mates, Joe tried to remember what his instructors said about critical thinking. “Critical thinking is reflective thinking,” such as what I’m now doing he said smiling to himself. “It’s focused on understanding what to do or what to believe.” He remembered his instructor writing four critical thinking processes on the board. “The first two processes are contextual awareness, and exploring and imagining alternatives,” he said to himself as he finished off the hot wing and looked around for something else to eat.
Finding nothing but empty bowls remaining on the table Joe caught Slingshot’s attention and made an eating motion to him. Slingshot nodded and bounded off towards the bar on a mission. While waiting for the unknown foodstuffs, Joe quickly remembered the last two remaining processes: recognizing assumptions and conducting analysis, and conducting reflective skepticism and deciding what to do. “Not bad for an old guy,” Joe said to himself as he leaned back to consume the chips and salsa Slingshot “borrowed” from somewhere. Joe was soon joined by CJ and Robert (“Don’t call me Bob”), both from his seminar and who were also looking for sustenance.
“We saw you over here talking to yourself like some babbling fool,” said CJ grabbing a handful of chips, “and thought we would sit next to you so you wouldn’t look too odd.” Joe grinned at the two officers—one was a short, skinny Army armor officer, the other a tall, heavy-set Air Force logistician. They both liked to golf and to talk about golf, preferably doing both at the same time.
“I know it’s the sign of a sick mind, but I was thinking that I was actually appreciating the course,” said Joe, “and thinking about the four Cs.” He quickly recapped his thoughts on critical thinking for his two seminar mates and then jumped head-first into a discussion of creativity—a concept that was often discussed at senior levels, but rarely expanded upon. Joe got on his soap box as he tended to do at times, “Creativity is the ability to challenge assumptions, recognize patterns, see in new ways, make connections, take risks, and seize upon chance.”
Glancing knowingly at Robert, CJ hurriedly jumped into the conversation so that they wouldn’t be caught on the wrong end of their classmate’s well-intentioned sermon. “I liked the bits about divergent and convergent thinking,” CJ said.
Robert jumped into the conversation quickly expanding on CJ’s initial thoughts. “Divergent thinking is needed to ‘cast a wide net’ and for creating new ways to represent problems, gain perspective, and develop new solutions. Convergent thinking plays the major role in developing common frames of reference and determining the optimal solution that best addresses the specific issue,” he said.
Robert and CJ were also enjoying the course despite that their instructors rarely, if ever, provided any definitive answers to their questions. Robert felt comfortable with the ambiguity and lack of resolution that most military operations encompass and that the instructors were trying to replicate in the seminar environment. As a liberal arts major, Robert enjoyed the philosophy-like journey through a never-ending endeavor of learning and relearning. Using a systems thinking approach, he felt comfortable cutting across multiple disciplines at a high-level not worried about the specific details of each discipline. Rather, he was more concerned about recognizing and identifying patterns within the environment, listening attentively to other points of view, reflecting on them, and then making up his own mind.
CJ, on the other hand, was less comfortable with ambiguity and was “hardwired” toward making things happen. He was, however, beginning to see the value in accepting ambiguity for a longer period so that additional clarity of the situation could be developed.
Starting to fill up on the chips and salsa, the three officers forged ahead linking critical and creative thinking to conceptual thinking. Joe, eager to get back into the conversation, stated, “I like the way the instructors use the whiteboard to emphasize conceptual thinking. That makes it easier to turn the abstract into the concrete or vice versa.”
Conceptual thinking is used to understand a situation or problem by identifying patterns or connections, and by addressing key underlying factors and integrating them into a conceptual framework. Conceptual thinking requires professional or technical training and experience, creativity, inductive reasoning, and intuitive processes that can identify potential solutions or alternatives that may not be obvious or readily identified.
The last of the four Cs, contextual thinking is the use of skilled judgment or observation by looking at the environment encompassing a fact or situation to achieve understanding, evaluate viewpoints, and solve problems. Contextual thinking develops the awareness of the requirements, capabilities, standards, and timelines needed to make a better decision. Contextual thinking is also the ability to sense what is right, set measurable controls, and allows one to respond with the right answer at the right time. Context is the framework that guides learning, and learning is the result of context and activity.
Glancing around the pub, Joe assessed the current context. “I can sense that if I don’t hit the rack soon that I’ll be useless in the morning,” Joe announced as he stood up to get ready to go back to his hooch. “Great discussion, but I need to read the stack of articles for tomorrow’s lesson; and if I don’t get at least five hours of sleep, I’ll be lucky if I can remember one of the Cs!”
Back in his hooch, Joe padded across the cold wooden floor in his fuzzy green slippers to his couch as he gathered his reading materials. He loved his slippers—they were gifts from his daughters—but glad that his roommates were asleep so he wouldn’t have to take the usual grief for wearing them. Joe quickly read through the material and then closed his eyes and thought about what he read. The four C’s helped to define the three design frames of environment, problem, and developing a solution or operational approach. Without critical thinking and contextual thinking, the environment could be misunderstood and the wrong problem identified. Without creative and conceptual thinking, developing an operational approach, different from the past actions that created the undesirable conditions, would be difficult at best.
Joe thought about how one would link the current environment with a desired environment. “How does someone think from now into the future?” he said to himself. As he thought about the concept of thinking in time, he realized that he was missing an important component if he limited his thinking to the current and the future environment. “To get the whole picture, and to understand the trends and potentials of the current environment, I have to think in the past, too,” he reasoned. “To think in time, I need to use hindsight, insight, and foresight,” thought Joe. Hindsight, essentially one’s perception of an event after it has occurred, can be gleaned from personal experiences and from studying history. Hindsight is not intended to finger-point or cast judgment on anyone—after all, everyone is trying to do the best job they can—rather it illuminates the thought processes and decision-making that occurred. Joe thought about how past operations and missions colored the present and the future. His biggest concern was that after a decade plus of war that the Joint Force would use experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan as the primary templates for the future as opposed to understanding the lessons learned from all historical operations, both U.S. and foreign, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of current and future requirements.
Thinking in time also requires insight and foresight. Insight implies the ability to understand something previously hidden from view as a result of intense study. It usually comes in a “flash” while focused on something else and may be contrary to current pursuits. Insight is typically revealed through its relationship to the whole and is accompanied by increased awareness. A product of hindsight and insight, foresight is the ability to identify and comprehend the dynamics of the broader context and to discern the emerging environmental conditions. The key to foresight is the understanding the system’s self-organizing connections, internal and external relationships, and the continual pattern of interaction that results in constantly new initial conditions. “Hindsight, insight, and foresight must be thought of as a continuous whole moving through time,” Joe thought to himself.
One of the articles described this type of thinking as part of strategic thinking. Strategic thinking was the new “buzz phrase” at the Joint Staff before he left, but no one was quite sure what it meant. Joe’s interpretation of strategic thinking was that it precedes any strategy or planning development session. Strategic thinking begins with an exploration of the environment and leverages the critical, creative, contextual, and conceptual processes that result in the synthesis of the emerging themes, patterns, relationships, and opportunities. Strategic thinking requires the time to learn from the past and yet not be defined by recent experiences. Leveraging hindsight and insight, strategic thinking understands that the future is guaranteed to be uniquely different from anything in the past. As such, foresight is needed to complete the thinking framework (Figure 2).
As an action officer on the Joint Staff, Joe was more than familiar with the Chairman’s concept of mission command: understanding, intent, and trust. “If understanding is commander-centric within the staff,” thought Joe, “then strategic thinking, encompassing the four Cs plus the three ‘sights,’ is more than adequate for subordinates to understand the commander’s intent. With the commander and staff engaged in strategic thinking and a strategic discourse, then trust should be a natural outcome of this endeavor.”
Joe was ready to hit the rack. It was a long day and his body still ached from playing softball. Slowly padding his way up to his bedroom, Joe contemplated the sports program in the context of the Chairman’s mission command concept that he just reread for class tomorrow. “We may not be great softball players,” he thought, “but we have developed a great deal more trust among us.” As one of his instructors was fond of saying, you can’t surge trust and, in today’s dynamic environment when you have to operate at the speed of trust, you don’t have the time in an operational environment to get to know one another as needed. “As much as I hate to be away from my family and work, attending this program in-residence, away from the demands of work and family, significantly enhances the learning opportunities” mused Joe.
As he fell asleep, an extremely complex graphic popped into his mind that summed up the joint educational needs and why the four Cs, three “sights,” and strategic thinking are necessary for today’s Joint warriors. “If we have to prepare students for positions of strategic leadership then education must emphasize analysis, foster critical examination, encourage creativity, and provide a progressively broader educational experience to be comfortable with the breadth of knowledge required for Joint leaders. This joint educational experience, leveraging concepts associated with strategic thinking, provides the requisite opportunities for students to find the answers to their own questions. This seminar seeks opportunities for participants to learn from each others’ perspectives, successes, and mistakes and encourage a climate of trust. It involves a small group of people solving real problems, while at the same time focusing on what they are learning and how their learning can benefit each group member, the group itself, and the organization as a whole,” Joe thought.
“You gotta be kidding me,” Joe murmured as he rolled over to get more comfortable. “Now I’m thinking about this stuff in my sleep. I can’t wait to see what I’ll be like after the next four weeks!”
Joint professional military education must mirror the world within which we operate—a world in perpetual motion made up of nonlinear dynamical systems. The Joint and Combined Warfighting School is taking the lead in adapting traditional educational models to meet the unique demands of the strategic environment.
While the world may appear disorderly and chaotic, beneath the surface of this chaos there are discernable patterns or structures of self-organization. Developing an understanding of the connections, relationships, and patterns of interaction, even if the resulting outcome is inherently incomplete, is the first step to identifying the right problems. Using critical, creative, conceptual, and contextual thinking provides students with the ability to gain a better understanding of the environment or problem. Leveraging hindsight, insight, and foresight students develop a sense of the environmental variables through time further adding clarity to understanding. Providing a learning environment in which the “right” answer depends upon the experience and expertise within the room allows students to develop their own sense or “feel” for the environment and problem. Furthermore, removing “school solutions” or templates enable students to build and add to their own mental maps of the environment or problem which facilitates deeper and broader shared understanding for the group.
Shared understanding, between the commander and staff, frames intent and builds the trust necessary for distributed or decentralized operations around the world. Classrooms of the future must mirror the dynamic and uncertain nature of the strategic environment. Just as General Dempsey said in his Mission Command White Paper that, “Decentralization will occur beyond the comfort levels and habits of practice,” our educational methods must be equally discomforting for leaders and educators as we develop new habits of practice for the 21st Century. Meeting the rigorous demands set forth in the Chairman’s OPMEP, seminars at the Joint and Combined Warfighting School are leading the way.
Author’s Note: The characters in this essay are fictional and do not represent any individuals or group of individuals.