Small Wars Journal

disruptive thinkers

Constructive Disruption: The Defense Entrepreneur's Forum

Fri, 04/05/2013 - 6:47am

One year ago today, an oft repeated, maligned and admired phrase kicked off a broad dialogue, bringing together a growing, widespread, and once-disparate community of defense innovators.  Put simply, the idea of Disruptive Thinking was a call to question the status quo, to leverage existing innovative civilian institutions and to find crossover applications for use by the military.  In the year since, however, a necessary question has been asked many times:  What is Disruptive Thinking, really, and how do you put it into action?  How do we link creative, emerging military leaders with the senior decision makers that can actually put their ideas to use?

We believe a compelling answer is the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum.  Rank has no monopoly on innovative solutions, and DEF2013 will be the engine to match warfighters “in the arena” with senior mentors hungry for ideas generated by creative, emerging leaders.  This three day event, to be held at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business over Columbus Day Weekend 2013, will be a significant departure from conventional military conferences.

The Forum

DEF2013 is not associated with any traditional Defense entities, but instead produced of, by, and for emerging military leaders.  The only agenda is creating practical solutions to enable more flexibility for senior commanders, and to impart a sense of involvement and empowerment to warfighters brimming with valuable tactical and strategic contributions. It leverages the power of diverse, short presentations with the creative ideation of hack-a-thon weekend events.  These aspects are designed to tackle those issues most pressing to the current generation of military leaders and veterans. 

There are two main elements to the weekend:  The first consists of 20-30 minute talks by emerging military leaders, both officer and enlisted, with robust audience engagement.  The Saturday morning session will feature a variety of topics presented by a diverse crowd of Disruptive Thinkers.   Sunday’s morning session will showcase military entrepreneurs – both veteran and currently serving servicemembers – as they explore the connection between building an actual business and serving one’s country.

The meat of DEF2013, however, is in the hack-a-thon like afternoons.  Ideas, generated pre-conference by actual attendees, will be discussed at length, and solutions proposed in a collaborative, freeform way.  To support these breakouts, professors from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business will give two roundtables on marketing and sales, as well as be placed as mentors within the ideation groups.  At the end of the weekend, each of the self-assembled teams will have come up with a comprehensive, relevant solution to whatever military problem they set out to tackle.

Integral to this is the engagement of senior leaders.  Coming up with good ideas by emerging leaders is one thing – but guiding them through institutional inertia to reality, and providing mentorship to ensure they are implemented, is something uniquely suited to tested leadership.  We are recruiting current and recently retired senior mentors to come on board to hear out, and perhaps champion, the ideas generated from the deckplates.  Such great minds as LTG (ret) James Dubik and LTG Frederick “Ben” Hodges have already joined up, and we’re working to bring two to three more flag officers from each service. 

Finally, Monday morning will culminate with a venture capital-like panel of local, Chicago-based entrepreneurs and Flag Officers.  They will judge the best idea, solution and presentation, and in return for identifying the best solutions, engage on behalf of the winning team to get their project implemented.

The Reason

Why do we believe this is needed?  What value does this add to the already ongoing discussion?

More than ever, recent battle-tested leaders, both emerging and senior, have had to adapt under incredibly challenging and unforeseen circumstances.  Capturing their agile minds and putting them to use in solving current fiscal and strategic problems is necessary for the continued progression of our services.  Without a doubt, the current century will become more complex as technology evolves, unforeseen threats emerge, and fiscal constraints set in.  More importantly, we need to create a dialogue that elevates the professionalism and creative capabilities of our services as a whole.

Those of us writing today believe the next step in the evolution of Disruptive Thinking is not just through increased online interaction or relying upon status quo bureaucratic processes.  Rather, it will be accomplished by bringing the most agile and innovative minds from across the military together in one place for a lively exchange of ideas and solutions.  This is the heart of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum.

The Spark

While the original article on Disruptive Thinking was focused on leveraging education, we recognize that warfighting must always come first in any conversation about innovation and the military.  This is inimically tied to the fact that people, not tech, are our greatest assets

Immediately after the publication of the aforementioned article, members of what are now the DEF Board observed incredibly informative and coherent arguments related to military strategy and innovation over social media. Through many conversations via Twitter and Facebook, it became apparent that disparate networks of individuals, spanning all ranks and services, were effectively fleshing out the most pressing issues of the day in non-traditional ways. 

It also became apparent that innovators have inherent ways of finding each other.  As their distributed networks grow, cross-cultural (and cross-rank) engagement increases.   Though they never meet, some even become close friends.  There is a unique power in informal networks created by personal interactions, even if they begin in cyberspace. 

Yet something was missing in this process.  That element was the intangible benefit of seeing your intellectual sparring partner face to face.  The discussions on Twitter, Facebook and various national security forums for emerging military leaders needed to come out of the virtual world and into the physical one.

While discussing this power of networking and the need for an in-person forum to build the relationships required to effect change, the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum was born. 

Soon after inception, our personal networks pointed us towards the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, where they not only found a world class institution, but a strong veterans group.  Leveraging the military experience and entrepreneurial education of recent veterans who are still engaged in national defense dialogue was a perfect fit.

Subsequently, the Executive Board was recruited and, quite inadvertently, spanned the armed services.  Many were asked to join based on their disruptive writings – others because they were known practitioners of innovation. All are focused on creating a compelling experience that will unite, excite and build relational networks that will span careers.

The Call

And so, on Columbus Day weekend 2013, Saturday October 12th through Monday October 14th, we encourage the brightest and most creative emerging and senior military leaders to descend upon the Windy City.  While there, we will discuss ways to push forward innovative and disruptive ideas, while doing so alongside senior mentors willing to consider our proposals. 

We’ve lined up a great cast of speakers and professors to push this event forward.  What we still need is you – your intellectual capital and your time – to engage with fellow innovators.  We need both senior and emerging leaders to participate.

DEF2013 will be more than a conference to mingle and hand out business cards; it will be a unique opportunity to interact and connect with fellow military and veteran entrepreneurs to push your ideas forward.  Sign up today at, follow us on Facebook  and Twitter, and become a part of putting Disruptive Thinking into action.

Disruptive Thinking: The US Military Differs From Business

Sat, 01/12/2013 - 12:14pm

Earlier this week, US Air Force Captain Jeff Gilmore castigated the US military's social media strategy in a  Small Wars Journal op-ed contrasting the practices of Coca-Cola and the US Air Force's Air Mobility Command.  

No one doubts that social media is an important tool, and there's certainly much we can learn from the private sector.  However, goverment agencies are vastly different enterprises than corporations; they will undoubtedly have seperate social media strategies.    

Coca-Cola has a highly successful marketing strategy; it was rated as the Best Global Brand for the 13th consecutive year by Interbrand.  It is also the world's most recognizable brand name, with over 1.7 billion servings Coca-Cola beverages consumed every single day.  Coca-Cola products are sold in all but two countries in the world.  Aside from a brief period in the 1980s, its flagship product and its logo have remained virtually unchanged for over 100 years.  This helps create immense brand loyalty--witness the outrage over Coca-Cola's brief experiment with "New Coke".

Most importantly, Coca-Cola's $2.9 billion annual advertising project has one simple objective: to convince consumers to purchase Coke products.   Coca-Cola's marketing strategy has a simple measure of effectiveness--increased sales of Coke products.  Advertising and social media engagements are directly linked to Coca-Cola's success.

By contrast, the US military's communication strategy is more complex than that of a corporation.  In any democratic society, the military's communications goals must be subservient to those of the government--both Federal (Executive Branch and Legislative Branch) as well as State (in the case of the National Guard).  Not to mention, the US military must synchronize its messages with those of its international (e.g., NATO, ISAF), interagency (State Department), and inter-service partners.  This is no small feat.

The Department of Defense, an organization of over 3.2 million, is not a monolithic organization.  The uniformed services often disagree a variety of issues, including doctrine, manning, and procurement.  And each of the services themselves has various factions and organizations with their own agendas and objectives (e.g., the old rivalry between the US Air Force's Strategic and Tactical Air Commands).  Efforts to communicate must ensure that the services do not poke jabs at one another.    

To add to the complexity, the military's social media environment houses an ever-expanding cohort of military bloggers: some within the military, some recently separated, and even some who have never served.  Different agencies within the US military have varying views of "milbloggers", with the vast majority of senior military officials encourage blogging, though a small minority still espouse the absurd view that bloggers are an insurgent's best friend.  

The private sector and the military differ in even more important ways.  The nature of the US military--dealing with life-and-death matters--will require far more "damage control" than Coca-Cola.  The military is also bound to be far more truthful and honest in its media dealings than a private corporation.  We take it for granted that corporations like Coca-Cola will claim that its product will teach the world to sing, and that it can even make "Mean Joe" Green smile.  The US military, accountable to the American public, can not make similar claims in its engagement strategy.  (Well, with the notable exceptions of US Air Force transports which transform into robots, and US Marines smiting giant Balroqs)

Yet, despite the challenges, the US military actually fares relatively well in the realm of social media engagement.  For starters, it's unfair for Captain Gilmore to compare Air Mobility Command (AMC) with Coca-Cola itself.  First, because AMC simply will never have the international recognition that Coca-Cola has.  (It is claimed that "Coca-Cola" is the world's second-most recognizable word, after "okay")  Secondly, because Coca-Cola can not achieve its primary objective (sales) without advertising, whereas AMC can.

A more fair comparison might be made between the US Air Force itself and Coca-Cola.  Using scores from Klout, the standard for measuring online influence, the US Air Force fares relatively well, with a score of 82, compared to Coca-Cola's 91.  (Klout is a social media measuring tool which, much like Coca-Cola, uses a formula which few seem to understand)

One problem is that social media influence varies greatly throughout the US Armed Forces.  It's disappointing that Captain Gilmore's experience with AMC was poor.  It's worth noting, however, that other agencies leverage social media very well.  For instance, Admiral James Stavridis alone has over 10,000 Facebook likes--well more than AMC's 1,800.  And while Captain Gilmore decries the poor showing from AMC's social media accounts during the Haitian earthquake of 2010, it's worth noting that other organizations, such as the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division and the USNS Comfort had vigorous social media campaigns.  

It's important to make social media engagement a team effort--unit public affairs shops should feel free to solicit articles, pictures, and video from anyone within their command.

Finally, it's worth noting that social media engagement can have its limitations, not the least of which is a "selection bias".  Of the 51 million Facebook users who "like" Coca-Cola, how many of them were already dedicated consumers?  Do we know that Coca-Cola's social media strategy is persuading the undecided to purchase Coca-Cola?

As I will explore in a future article, social media has amazing potential.  And oddly enough, it's the US military which has moved to the forefront of this phenomenon.  For anyone in an organization without an effective strategy, I recommend working within your chain of command to "improve your foxhole".  

Military Culture and its Implication for the Future Force

Mon, 10/08/2012 - 7:54am

For an organization facing a period of significant transition, during a time of continued resource advantage and undefined threat, coming on the heels of the traumatic experiences of two ambiguous-to-unsuccessful wars, adjustments to culture will be critical to the success or failure of any reform efforts. Recent experiences have significantly skewed the organization’s culture, which must be re-grounded in order to move ahead rationally.  You can see my general thoughts on this issue in more detail at “Disruptive Thinkers: Defining the Problem.”

This is a time of significant transformation. 

-We are coming out of two complex and painful wars that have given the force ambiguous and hotly contested signals in the midst of a time of strategic upheaval and uncertainty. 

-There is a lack of consensus about the “lessons” to be learned from these wars and the threats to prepare for in the coming strategic environment.

-There is no clear threat to focus minds, nor are there true constraints on resources.  See Gladwell on innovation and the requirement for threat and constraint at this New Yorker article about Xerox’s PARC lab and Apple.

-Budgetary and political realities will place fiscal constraints on the force, while growing personnel costs will compete for operations, maintenance, and development resources.

-The force must adjust to changing strategic and budgetary environments in a rational manner to be successful, but neither the nature of the budgetary adjustment nor the culture of the force predisposes us to success in these efforts.

There are considerable structural and environmental factors that disadvantage the DoD in seeking rational and positive change.

-The Department of Defense has been “resource advantaged” and relatively unconstrained in the recent past.  This is a common problem plaguing big corporations and it is always difficult to reset and pare back to a competitive core. For example, see “Microsoft’s Lost Decade” and Richard Rumelt’s book “Good Strategy/Bad Strategy.”

-The DoD has a unique set of constraints and restraints that make it even harder to reset and rationalize the organization, including the lack of a payroll, profit statement, or other business metrics; the unique nature of the combat mission; the incentives to and purse-string control by Congress; and the nature of the military hierarchy and conservative culture.  See my article “The Case for Disruption and Dialogue in Defense Reform.”

-Goldwater-Nichols, by separating service and operational chains, has arguably not done as much as many think to reduce parochialism, especially in procurement and other Title 10 functions.  See for example “Real Acquisition Reform” from JFQ and the Beyond Goldwater-Nichols Phase I study by CSIS.

The military has emphasized themes of sacrifice and service so much that it has in some quarters transformed those into a culture of entitlement and superiority that hampers introspection and will cripple attempts to rationally reform the institution.

-We are used to Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) money and justifying far too many things as essential to the war effort or victory and become indignant when we can’t get what we want.  Must read this excellent and cutting parody from the Onion in which Gen Mattis purportedly asserts that we will never win the war in Afghanistan unless CENTCOM gets a pinball machine. Look around your spaces and count the number of plasma screen TVs, for example. Were they bought with OCO funds? Are they displaying a COP? If not, what channel is on? And who is paying for that?

-The military lives in a world where sacrifice and heroism are at one time both lionized and conferred on everyone, we live in a socialist military system (see this at FP), and yet we believe we are owed things due to our “sacrifice” and “service.”

-Due to lobbying (e.g., MOAA), increased costs of caring for personnel who have been at war for over a decade, and the political popularity of gestures toward the military, the personnel costs of the military are soaring, eating up greater portions of the budget.

-Additionally, the military is increasingly distanced from and disgruntled with the society and civilian government it serves. A sense of elitism is part of the esprit de corps of the military, especially the all-volunteer military, but at some point it goes to far. Consider the WWII military. Did they feel any distance from American society at large?

-Despite claims to the contrary, the military remains a fairly politically skewed population. A 2010 poll found a decreasing association with the Republican Party from 60 to 41 percent, but given that 32 percent were professed independents, there is still an overwhelming preference for the Republican Party or at least conservative values. Anecdotally, many of us who have served since 2000 can likely remember strong admonitions for anyone who criticized Commander in Chief George W. Bush (this tapered off as the Iraq war dragged on), while you would be hard pressed to go a day in unit spaces without hearing open criticism of Commander in Chief Barack Obama. A bias in values is to be expected in the AVF, but overt professional neutrality must be maintained.

-A politicized military distanced from society finds it easier to lay blame for shortcomings elsewhere. There is a degree of cognitive dissonance in these varied threads. For one provocative view of cognitive dissonance, read this blog series in multiple parts at These trends have very negative effects on both civil-military relations and the ability of the military to be introspective and self-critical.

-Consider cultures of victimization. Fault for shortcomings is transferred to others and attempts at self-reform are scuttled from inside as treacherous to the identity and righteousness of the victimized culture. A small population fighting and not winning over a decade of war and returning and resetting in an environment of austerity is certainly prone to a sense of victimization.

-This all plays into a sense of outrage over attempts to cut the military budget. Here, we should look at cuts as an opportunity to reform and rationalize the organization. Have we been good stewards of the national wealth? Are there redundancies, inefficiencies, wasteful practices, etc. that can be weeded out? We should do all we can to maximize our efficiencies.  If we find 5% of efficiencies to match 5% of cuts, nothing is truly lost. This means doing what matters with less, rather than doing more with less.

A sense of entitlement makes it difficult for the institution to police itself at the upper reaches. Any attempt at reform, whether to improve ethical or personal conduct or to heighten combat or budgetary efficiency, must take a hard look at the shortcomings of the upper ranks of the military. It all starts there, from increased efficiency to improved personal and ethical conduct all the way down the chain of command.

-While institutional leaders focus on tightening their standards on ethical and personal conduct of the force, they have failed to truly hold senior officer and enlisted leaders accountable for the shortcomings that trickle down to create significant problems—from ethical lapses to alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, and mental health and suicide epidemics.

-The institution focuses on procedural answers (such as breathalyzers) to problems that require an improved and more personal level of leadership and accountability.

-These procedural answers are driving the military toward an extreme nanny-state culture that transfers responsibility for all things into process and rules rather than the agency of leaders and managers.

-Consider instead the “stop doing approach” which was described by Matthew May in his book “In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing” and summarized in my blog. Researchers have found that by removing rules and restrictions (e.g., traffic rules), people pay more attention to their own actions and are prone to act more responsibly than when the responsibility for their actions is transferred to process and regulation.

-The institution, with few exceptions, only holds senior officers/SNCOs (BN command and above) truly accountable for their actions when it has no choice: black and white situations such as ship grounding, ship casualty/gross aviation mishap, DUI, public infidelity, or some other incident that forces an investigation. The institution cedes decisions on conduct to the black-and-white of regulations rather than judgments of value that would prevent starker failures.

-For “command climate” reliefs, these only come when complaints force an investigation. What is more, we only hear about those that end up in relief. Are we to believe leadership did not know about this toxic leadership beforehand?

-When officers/senior SNCOs are disciplined, the consequences are often far less than a junior would face.  A salient and much cited example is the Army colonel bigamist and fraudster, a convicted felon, who will be allowed to retire, faces no confinement, and drew only a $300,000 fine. This man should no longer wear the rank or uniform and is prejudicial to the good order and discipline of the force as a whole.

-If the institution is to crack down on lapses in ethics and conduct, they must focus on improving senior leadership, holding senior leaders accountable for lapses in conduct (including tactics and strategy), and intervening decisively when gray-area issues crop up rather than waiting for DUIs, CONGRINTs, videos, and Abu Ghraibs to force their hand.

-The Marine Corps instituted an ethics standdown meant to reduce the incidence of ethical lapses. The training, for me, drove home the point that seemingly good people will do bad things if placed into situations that blur the black-and-white moral lines society prepares us to respond to.  The presentation included videos documenting the famed Milgram Experiment (where Yale University researchers found that upstanding people could be induced to administer extremely painful or potentially lethal shocks on subjects answering questions incorrectly in the name of “teaching” them) and the Stanford Prison Experiment (in which subjects playing the role of guards heaped abhorrent abuse on students acting as prisoners).  These experiments demonstrated that normal people from good backgrounds could be quickly corrupted and would act outside of accepted ethical bounds if placed in a situation where they were given power over others and left without engaged, ethical leadership, such as was the case at Abu Ghraib. Fostering discussion about ethical conduct is one of the most important ways to inculcate values in an organization, however this alone is not enough, leaders must be at the forefront of driving ethical behavior through active intervention.

-My Lai is an often-cited case study. Instead of focusing on the actions of the lieutenant and NCOs, we should be focusing on the actions of institutional leadership during the incident and in the aftermath. How did the extent of such an atrocity go unexplored and covered-up for over a year? How did the lieutenant colonel task force commander flying overhead in a helicopter not know what was going on? How did leaders allow such a flawed culture to grow in the ranks that people thought that this was a legal operation? While we cannot absolve the individuals of responsibility for their actions in the village that day, the true failure was at the level of the battalion leadership and above.

-James Reason, the creator of the “Swiss cheese model” of mishap/incident prevention, differentiates between person-based and system-based models of error prevention. “The longstanding and widespread tradition of the person approach focuses on the unsafe acts—errors and procedural violations—of people at the sharp end... It views these unsafe acts as arising primarily from aberrant mental processes such as forgetfulness, inattention, poor motivation, carelessness, negligence, and recklessness. Naturally enough, the associated countermeasures are directed mainly at reducing unwanted variability in human behaviour. These methods include poster campaigns that appeal to people's sense of fear, writing another procedure (or adding to existing ones), disciplinary measures, threat of litigation, retraining, naming, blaming, and shaming. Followers of this approach tend to treat errors as moral issues, assuming that bad things happen to bad people—what psychologists have called the just world hypothesis.” In contrast, “The basic premise in the system approach is that humans are fallible and errors are to be expected, even in the best organisations. Errors are seen as consequences rather than causes, having their origins not so much in the perversity of human nature as in ‘upstream’ systemic factors.” Thus, the onus falls on institutional leadership to implement controls and to prevent the “normalization of deviance.” Implicit in this is that mistakes and bad eggs are unavoidable but leadership has a responsibility to create the conditions in which the organization polices itself, maintains a culture open to warning signs, and consistently communicates its values to members.

-In an article entitled “Explaining Enron,” Matthew Seeger and Robert Ulmer describe “communication-based responsibilities for leaders: (a) communicating appropriate values to create a moral climate, (b) maintaining adequate communication to be informed of organizational operations, and (c) maintaining openness to signs of problems.”  They note that at Enron, “with the loss of responsibility came a breakdown in accountability for actions.”  Further, they write, “crisis-prone organizations are those managed by individuals who fail to take responsibility.” Their findings should resonate with military leaders today. “Followers take cues from leaders based on what they communicate and pay attention to, how they respond to crisis, their behavior, how rewards are allocated, and how they hire and fire others.” “In general, however, most organizations find warnings difficult to process and disruptive to established beliefs about risk and threat.”

-Leaders should pay heed to growing discontent in their ranks with the conduct and standards of the leadership. As LtGen Neller wrote, leaders must pay attention to the criticisms of the “young turks.” “We would do well to heed and reflect on their ‘canary in the mineshaft’ thoughts, engage them head on in frank and candid discussion, look for ways to remediate those concerns that are legitimate, and explain our logic for those with which we don’t concur.”

-Seeger and Ulmer came to a similar conclusion about whistle-blowers both individually and in the aggregate. “Whistle-blowers… are often seen as disruptive to the status quo and a threat to the organization’s reputation. In many cases however, whistle-blowers are merely working to call attention to and rectify serious, crisis-inducing deficiencies. More generalized organizational dissent may also include warnings.”

-Neller also warned that if the “young turks’” concerns are not addressed, they may vote with their feet, a sentiment discussed in a series of “Dear Boss” letters throughout the years. This leaves more of the entitled underperformers around to populate the upper ranks.

Organizational culture is critical in providing moral and ethical guidance to members as noted above. It is also a critical element in determining how the organization interacts with its environment. Success in a changing environment requires an adaptive organizational culture. Attempts to change the organization’s culture must be deliberate and integrated. Organizational leaders follow counterproductive methods to attempt to force change.

-From NDU’s online resource “Strategic Leadership and Decision-Making” Part IV, Chapter 16: “Edgar Schein, an MIT Professor of Management and author of Organizational Culture and Leadership: A Dynamic View, suggests that an organization's culture develops to help it cope with its environment.” I would argue that corollaries to this assertion would be that organizations facing environmental change must change their organizational culture to cope with the new realities and that organizations with a strong status quo cultural bias will not do well in adapting to change.

-The summary continues, “Schein contends that many of the problems confronting leaders can be traced to their inability to analyze and evaluate organizational cultures. Many leaders, when trying to implement new strategies or a strategic plan leading to a new vision, will discover that their strategies will fail if they are inconsistent with the organization's culture. … Difficulties with organizational transformations arise from failures to analyze an organization's existing culture.”

-In a Forbes article on changing organizational culture, Steve Denning wrote, “Frequent mistakes in trying to change culture include: Overuse of the power tools of coercion and underuse of leadership tools.” In other words, people used coercion, fiat, and punishment instead of leading change. Instead, he argues that “the most fruitful success strategy is to begin with leadership tools, including a vision or story of the future, cement the change in place with management tools, such as role definitions, measurement and control systems, and use the pure power tools of coercion and punishments as a last resort, when all else fails.”  It is important to note that hiring, firing, and promotions can be used as management tools or power tools (depending on how they are used).

Our promotion, retention, and retirement system provides incentives for people to stay around, not to truly perform. Nor do these systems provide leaders an adaptable and responsive management tool to use for changing or maintaining a positive organizational culture. The system disadvantages bold leadership and fails to reward true talent. It also creates a culture in which promotion and the incremental increases in retirement pay it creates are seen as an entitlement rather than a privilege. Wholesale reform of the promotion system is not immediately forthcoming, but we can affect our cultural perception of it and how we use the tools we have. We must demand far more of our senior leaders, promote fewer, and be less forgiving of those who choose to accept increased rank and responsibility and fail to live up to stringent expectations. By affecting this, we will affect many of the problems laid out above.

-Our promotion system has colored our perception of the worth of experience and talent. The rigid lock-step promotion process is justified by a cultural belief that promotions are earned based on “experience.” This fails to acknowledge that what some people grasp in X years, others will grasp in X plus Y years, and still others will never understand.

-An example of this can be seen in an article in the Oct 2012 Marine Corps Gazette entitled "The Above-Zone Fallacy," in which Maj Bunting argues that once-passed officers are often better and more mature than the in-zone population due to one more year of experience and “maturity.” Following his logic, students who complete 12th grade twice should be in high demand by Ivy League academic recruiters because they have more experience than their peers who took only one try to graduate. 

- The most recent USMC LtCol board selected over 70% of in-zone majors.  This means that passed majors were deemed by the board to be in the bottom 30% of their peer group.  How does one year of experience elevate someone from being in the bottom third of his or her peer group to being worthy of a rank of significant importance and responsibility?  Admittedly, some officers are passed over due to special circumstances or were very close to the cut-off line and another year does make the difference.  But this is a small population—less than 3% in the last board—as one might imagine. 

- Instead of imagining that experience equals capability (some people will do something their entire life and never "get it") and arguing for more above zone promotions, we should be looking at how we can weed out another few percentage points of weak officers by bringing up the best and brightest of the below zone population.  There were no below zone selectees in the USMC last year.  Are we really to believe that the top handful of majors in the below zone are not better than the last few majors of the in-zone population?  If we are truly a type-A culture of excellence, we need to look at promotion of the most highly qualified individuals as a benefit to the service, not an entitlement to the individual.

 -We must come to view promotions and rank (and thereby the differential in retired pay and benefits) as the privileges they are for superior performance and significantly heightened responsibility and accountability, not the entitlements they have come to be seen as. We have to clean up our senior ranks. Additionally, we have to see accepting greater rank as an open commitment to higher standards of conduct and scrutiny and an acceptance of harsher consequences for failure.

-Senior leadership must acculturate their people to be far more discerning in judging talent, especially at the O-4 to O-5 cut. Some of this can only happen with a reform to the fitness reporting systems. In this, we must divorce ourselves from the notion that passed-over majors “deserve another chance” and that there is an unstated entitlement for an officer to retire as a lieutenant colonel, which leads reporting seniors to go to considerable lengths (top tier write-ups and wasting key billets on below average officers) to assist once-passed majors in getting promoted on the second look.

-Another fallacy perpetuated by our promotion system is that you have to be X rank to be taken seriously in a given billet. This again incentivizes rank and longevity over talent and competence. In the joint world, there is an additional incentive to each service to promote and source more senior officers for inter-service competition for resources. Instead, we should be making far fewer O-5s and above, reserving those for true performers and leaders. Others should remain the O-4 action officers that they are. If the Marine Corps promotes 70% of majors to lieutenant colonel, at least 2/7ths of that population were below average majors who now become LtCol action officers with very little propensity for action.

-There are a host of ways to improve the quality of leadership at the O-5 and O-6 ranks. One of these is to promote far fewer, making the O-4/O-5 transition the key one in the military. I would divide the population into 3: promote true talent to lieutenant colonel and consistently place in key billets of leadership, retain average staff officers as majors who keep their date of rank for seniority purposes and serve as key action officers, revert below average majors to the most junior date of rank (i.e., they become worker bees with no leadership responsibility) and board to determine separation or retention based on needs of the service. If we cannot make such determinations at 15 or so years of service, we are deluding ourselves. This delusion goes back to the entitlement versus privilege paradigms of promotion.

-For identified leaders, focus on more education on management, organizational culture, and organizational/change leadership. Many of our senior leaders do not know how to manage stasis or lead change (and have never been taught this) and would do well to take a lesson from the wide business literature on these topics.

-Those who bristle at the idea that the military could learn anything from the business world and throw out references to business failures and inferiority to the military are an embodiment of the superiority complexes described above. There are good and bad business cases to learn from, just as we learn from military successes and failures. For example, I used the lessons of Enron above to show how to avoid similar failings. Furthermore, while we cannot lean 6 sigma combat redundancies, etc, we can certainly be judicious and intelligent in our application of business practices and organizational management and leadership lessons to specific military contexts.  The misapplication of business lessons does not impugn business scholarship, it impugns the leaders and managers who have been allowed to rise to positions without an appropriate understanding of business literature and its relationship to their particular field.

In conclusion, I’ll restate my opening: For an organization facing a period of significant transition, during a time of continued resource advantage and undefined threat, coming on the heels of the traumatic experiences of two ambiguous-to-unsuccessful wars, adjustments to culture will be critical to the success or failure of any reform efforts. Recent experiences have significantly skewed the organization’s culture, which must be re-grounded in order to move ahead rationally.

The Case for Disruption and Dialogue in Defense Reform

Sat, 09/01/2012 - 9:49am

Case studies abound of businesses that have seen their success turn into bloat, hubris, and ultimately decline.  It should be no surprise then that the most powerful and unparalleled military in history is having a hard time coming to grips with the coming budget cuts.   The resources at the disposal of the military are as massive as the coming cuts are comparatively paltry (despite protestations to the contrary), yet the real challenge is more one of rationalizing the organization’s allocation of resources. 

The military is saddled with more restraints and armed with fewer incentives and metrics than any private sector organization. At the same time, the massive, conservative bureaucracy of the Department of Defense (DoD), replete with its four separate services and countless other fiefdoms, is notoriously resistant to change.  Attempts to rationalize, streamline, and flatten the organization will be staunchly resisted, while general officer leaders are unprepared, if not unwilling, to break this phalanx.  This all means that reforms will have to come at the hands of disruptive actors within and outside DoD, rather than a unified, top-down campaign.  While it is much in vogue to deny that the rules of the business world apply to the military, the time is ripe for more dialogue between the two worlds to both inform and learn from this unique case.

The staunch resistance of entrenched, status quo interests in any organization makes reform efforts difficult.  Corporate leadership, business units, employee groups, and shareholders can all be impediments to bold change.  All can value the comfort of short-term stability over the risk that faces nearly every effort to reform.  These challenges are all the more daunting in declining powerhouse corporations that have long enjoyed an advantaged position. As Richard Rumelt warned, “Success leads to laxity and bloat, and these lead to decline.  Few organizations avoid this tragic arc."  When businesses sense the imperative for change, they have a number of quantitative and qualitative tools at hand to rationalize their decision-making: industry models, market research, payroll costs, revenue, sales, and other statistics.  They can turn to consultants, researchers, fresh views brought in from other companies, or even experts from other sectors in order to blaze a new trail forward.

America’s military has few of the tools laid out above to use in its reform campaign.  First, it has no true strategic competition to focus minds.  Surely, the insurgencies of the past decade have forced tactical innovation and strategic minds give lip service to the rising threat of China.  There is no “threat and constraint,” no competitive pressure of the sort that forces hard, rational decisions about resource allocation. In DoD, parochial interests continue to dominate at multiple levels:  competition for resources by fiefdoms within each service, the increasingly bruising inter-service budget battles, and the powerful purse-string control of Congress which often prioritizes industry and district concerns over fiscal and military effectiveness.

Second, the military lacks the metrics that guide most reform efforts.  Its workforce is almost entirely salaried, leaving little data for optimization.  It has no revenue or sales figures.  Its unique warfighting functions have few, if any analogues in the private sector for comparison.  And even when it comes to fighting the Nation’s battles, metrics are notoriously misreported, misunderstood, and misused.  Furthermore, defenders of the status quo use the unique nature of the military to scoff at anyone who would try to introduce management and reform lessons from the private sector – often with a haughty reference to the failures of Wall Street and Enron (as if the conduct of our recent wars has been enlightened).   

When you add these two points to a maddening third – the massive bureaucracy’s conservative organizational culture and legendary ability for self-defense – we are presented with what seems like an intractable challenge.

It would seem that changing this Leviathan could only be driven from the top, but prospects for that are dim.  Institutional leadership is split between civilian political appointees (nominally in charge but ephemeral in office), general officers (long-socialized products of the organizational culture needing change), and career bureaucrats (even longer-socialized).  But even these leaders lack control over the Congressional mandates that often drive the most inefficient acquisitions and personnel policies.  In the face of this entrenched, status quo leadership, top-level reformers can only succeed by the de facto flattening effect of empowering “disruptive” juniors. 

Junior and mid-grade officers have recently made a small buzz by discussing a set of ideas loosely labeled “disruptive thinking.”  This concept has been criticized roundly by guardians of the status quo, and even some reformers.  Supporters of the term have been labeled as “young Turks” – revolutionaries or rabble-rousers – and told that we must avoid scaring the organization if we want it to change.  Yet, by definition, a closed system that is resistant to needed change must be disrupted.  Thankfully, for all its conservative faults, the military is more forgiving of open discourse about reform than many corporations.  The idea is out.  Now it needs the purchase that can only come through a collaboration of visionary high-level leadership and bottom-up, disruptive reformers.

Lacking traditional drivers and avenues of reform, as described above, the only way to change an organization is for executives to partner with the lower and middle management to identify broken processes, bloated business units, dysfunctional institutions and paradigms, and ineffective allocation of resources.  This partnership is surely disruptive.  It partially cuts out the entrenched, status quo upper-middle management of the organization, in essence acknowledging that this conservative layer is constitutionally incapable of decisive change.  Yet, without such a disruptive move, executives will never hear the ground truths about their organization, nor the bold options for change that fresh minds, not yet fully conditioned by the pedestrian interests of one stovepipe, have to offer.

This dialogue, if it continues, is worth watching by managers and students of management.  The uniqueness of the case does not negate its usefulness to a broader audience.  Furthermore, a more efficient, effective defense is in all citizens’ interests.