Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Response to the Critics of Disruptive Thinking

The following is adapted from a response I wrote to the Alidade Forum, after a month's worth of intense back and forth between their members.  I received many comments via email and other means, both in support of and critical of my contention in Small Wars Journal that The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers.  This is a catch-all response, and a further fleshing out of my initial contention. 

"It's Above Your Paygrade"

One of my favorite, yet disturbing, stories is from a very close friend who recently got his commission as a Naval Officer.  Previously, he served in the White House, then as an Aide to the Deputy Secretary of Defense and finally at Southern Command running some pretty innovative projects.  He even started his own Strategic Consulting firm.  In the DoD job, as a 25 year old, he frequently briefed Admirals and Generals in the Pentagon for his boss.  They listened, and accepted his suggestions.  He wore a suit.  When he pinned on his butter bars 5 years later, had he been in the same room, he would have been relegated to grabbing the coffee, at most.  Same guy, more experience, more education, and five years later, in uniform, he is disregarded because he is “merely” an Ensign.  Ludicrous, but indicative of how seniority nearly always trumps merit in the military.    

Jonah Lehrer, in Imagine: How Creativity Works, says the following about young innovators:
 “Why are young physicists and poets more creative?  One possibility is that time steals ingenuity, that the imagination starts to wither in middle age.  But that’s not the case-we are not biologically destined to get less creative.  Simonton argues that youth benefits from their outsider status –they’re innocent and ignorant, which makes them more willing to embrace radical new ideas.  Because they haven’t become encultured, or weighted down with too much conventional wisdom, they’re more likely to rebel against the status quo.  After a few years in the academy, Simonton says, the ‘creators start to repeat themselves, so that it becomes more of the same-old, same-old.’ They have become insiders…The young know less, which is why they often invent more.”
Jon Favreau, the head speechwriter for President Obama, was 27 when appointed.  Aaron Schock, a Congressman from Illinois, is 30.  Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook when he was still an undergrad at Harvard.  Tom Brady won multiple Super Bowls in his twenties.  This is a remarkable list, with some household names.  Yet, I must ask, where are our young strategic military geniuses in uniform?  

Why are we one of the only professions without young people that have risen to positions of significant authority and leadership?  Is it that they don’t exist?  Or does our military culture systematically repress rapidly rising leaders and subject them to decades of institutionalization before they are deemed worthy of Great Responsibility? 

From personal experience I can say the latter.

One of my most innovative friends in uniform has submitted many ideas to his Commanding Officer and USMC HQ via their hierarchical innovation and recommendation channels.  He has received zero response from the latter, and non-interest from the former.  These include creating a Twitter-like service for the military, alternative energy projects for MCAS Yuma, and a proposal to use a LegalZoom type product to streamline basic services like wills and powers of attorney.  They were fully developed and ready for integration, or easily could have been.  No one listened.  He finally said enough, built his own app, marketed it independently and is disrupting an entrenched military publishing market with a 21st Century solution.  An action oriented guy like him will be picked up in an instant on the outside – what are we doing to convince him to stay?  Sadly, very little.

Another friend of mine is running for mayor of San Diego, America’s eighth largest city.  He is in his mid-30s, and was formerly a Marine Sergeant.  During his exit interview with the Corps, his commanding officer asked what it would take for him to stay in.  Nathan replied, “Make me a General.”  His CO laughed.  Three years later, he is one of the front runners to lead over 1.3 million San Diegans.  Nothing more need be said.     

The world is changing.  A friend of mine recently deployed to Qatar.  Our squadron needed to speak with him for a military board.  Trying SIPR, NIPR and DSN all failed.  I sent him a Facebook message, and within 5 minutes, got a response. I’ve received many notes about my Small Wars Journal article from up and down the Department of Defense  -- and with the exception of one, all were sent via Facebook, Twitter, Gmail or LinkedIn.

Another was supposed to be sent via my US Navy email account.  But since I am now at a Marine Command, I have a USMC account.  The email forwarding service from my Navy account didn’t work.  NMCI (Navy-Marine Corps Internet), ironically, does not talk between the Navy and Marine sides.  After a year of calling I finally got it straightened out – but my “Common” Access Card will still only work on USMC machines because the security files are different from those on Navy machines.  That aforementioned guy used Facebook to contact me when the NMCI email got kicked back.  I responded immediately.

Furthermore, why do we still use Naval Message Format in ALL CAPS?  Teletype went out of style long ago.  140 character Tweets are how I get my news – and more of it.  Why are we using outdated Internet Explorer webbrowsers that won’t allow many of the websites my peers use on a daily basis to appear properly?  Why do six, 8mm tape players from the 1990s cost my squadron $15,000 to procure?  Will these things lose wars?  No, but they are indicative of a culture that hasn’t fully adapted to the 21st Century, and a culture resistant to the things shaping the rest of the world. 

Here, however, are the things that will lose wars: 

First, procurement failures.  I once wrote a paper comparing the Joint Strike Fighter and F-22 procurement processes.  The latter was a debacle, and at the time I extolled the former.  Boy was I wrong.  In 2004, the JSF was promised to be delivered in 2010 at $60 million a copy.  Now in 2012, we will be lucky to get it in 2018 for $161 million per airframe.  Meanwhile, I’m flying jets nearly as old as I am, with literally thousands of more hours than their initial life was planned for.  

20 year procurement timelines with hundreds of billions of dollars in increased lifetime costs (most recent estimate, $1.47 trillion) is no way to go through life when the world changes in mere months and years.  Sure, it’s useful (maybe…) against China, but would you Marines in the crowd rather have A-10s and AC-130 gunships or a pristine JSF with maybe a couple weapons providing CAS?  What types of conflicts are we more likely to get into over the next few decades?

Lets also consider the Air Force tanker project that has been beset by corruption, delaying a much needed improvement in the field for nearly a decade.  This is indicative of a larger problem in the revolving door between newly-retired Flag Officers and the industries that keep them employed post-military.  While that particular case was especially egregious, there is a palpable perception among the junior officers that senior leaders use their final years to pave the way to defense contracting gigs.   This does not foster confidence.
It's time the Defense Department think outside the box about procurement.  Where is the military for procurement, or how can we adapt a similar crowdsourced solutions-portal to our system? How do we match up requirements in the field with innovative companies using off-the-shelf solutions that take weeks rather than decades to deliver?  Could we leverage crowdfunding techniques?  Maybe Congress would say no…but has anybody asked?  Why not? Where’s the military LinkedIn?  Why do I have to contact my detailer to find out who has my dream job in Italy instead of working it directly myself through a dedicated professional, ad hoc social network? 

Strategically, we are no better.  After ten years of fighting two prolonged insurgencies, what do our strategists come up with?  Air-SeaBattle – a sop to the defense firms that have helped fuel our national debt and reversion to a concept of warfare that harkens to the end of the Cold War.  This is a Grand Strategy?  One that leaves out two of the services?  Or merely a strategy that wants to emphasize what we do well?  Where is the overall integration of non-governmental organizations, grassroots movements, integration of social networks, political evolutions within states of interest?  Where is the integration of new tactics for drones, like massed, autonomous swarming?  How does it leverage non-military means to accomplish strategic goals?  

While it recognizes that adversaries won’t fight on our terms – they adapt to subtle, deceptive strategy that neutralizes our penchant for maneuver, technology heavy tactics -- our grand strategists' solution is more of the same:  Heavy, expensive hardware! 

All of this is indeed above my paygrade.  And it goes higher than just the military – much of it lies in politics, which the military is Constitutionally obligated to keep away from.   

However, if my peers don’t start thinking about these things now, how will we be able to analyze the unique strategic problems we will face when we do take command?  If we don’t understand the connections between economic interests, political decisions and military strategy, how can we give sound advice to our civilian leaders?  How can those of us that leave to pursue civilian leadership truly grasp the dynamic, all-encompassing nature of the world around us unless we’ve immersed ourselves in the myriad of trends shaping our world? 

Addressing the Critics

One of the things about learning is to become better from our failures – indeed, they are our greatest teachers.  Before I go any further, let me address the two biggest perceived problems with my Disruptive Thinkers piece:

No civilians in the War College.  I was wrong, flat out.  However, there is a caveat.  What I should have said was no “non-government” civilians .

In fact, pointing out this clear incorrect statement goes to the heart of the problem I addressed:  when we think that people from various government agencies represent a diversity of viewpoints, it highlights the broader theme of my argument.  Military professionals are convinced that solutions within the government are the only way forward.  Whether you are a Congressional staffer, FBI investigator or State Department diplomat, all are experts at managing government bureaucracies, and thus will bring that institutional bias into their thinking.  There is a sort of diversity among various government agencies, but only of the most minor type when you consider the world’s professions as a whole.

Where are the pure entrepreneurs, those with no affiliation, who have a passion for strategy? Where is the private high school history teacher?  As my Mom pointed out, if she wanted to apply to the Naval War College with no government affiliation, she couldn’t.  Why not?  Military members can apply to The University of Texas Law School, or Fletcher’s Tufts.   The goal is to think outside bureaucratic paradigms.  My ignorance was unquestionably unprofessional, and I expect better of myself in the future.  However, the dissection of this point, and claim of diversity through other government (even foreign government...) employees, only proves my point.

Secondly, the Harvard Business School/Naval War College joint program.  This was merely a suggestion of a joint venture, not the be all and end all of what Needs to Be Done.  There are hundreds of other possibilities.  For instance, Disruptive Thinkers in San Diego is teaming up with a local organization of very successful entrepreneurs to create a mutual mentorship program.  We pair one innovative junior officer up with an executive and see what happens.  They share each others worlds for a year with a very open script.  The officer gets valuable insight into a successful innovator, and the entrepreneur sees solutions to leadership and organizational problems from effective operators.  Maybe it will work.  Maybe it won’t.  But we’re going to try it.

I recognize that many from HBS and Stanford go to work for Big Business, which is equally as resistant to change as the military at large.  Still, when I wrote the piece, I had just gotten an email announcing a game-changing entrepreneurial venture from a buddy of mine at HBS, who is also a veteran.  Entrepreneurship is increasingly valued at these places.  They aren't all counting their hundred dollar bills while the economy collapses.  

When servicemembers rightly castigate HBS I-bankers who helped bring on the Financial Meltdown, but also neglect to mention the appalling strategic procurement and military failures of the past ten years, we cease to be credible.  Both organizations have people that brought catastrophe.  We should want to learn from those that think differently, as well as from the mistakes of people outside our normal viewpoints.  HBS, Kaufmann entrepreneurial foundation, U of Chicago Behavioral Economics Department, whatever.  Open our eyes to something new. 

What Disruption Really Means

I don’t know everything – I know very little.  I know I know very little. But I want to know more.  And I’m going to ask the stupid questions and get things wrong (as many of you are referencing now…).  All the while I’m learning, connecting and figuring out a better way. 

This is the genesis of Disruptive Thinking.  It is not an “us vs them” paradigm, pitting one generation against another.  It is understanding the importance of “conceptual blending” and that military personnel may not have the best or only solutions to military problems.  It’s understanding that our civilian peers, not in the government, have been shaping our world in ways we hardly even understand.  How many of us have truly been affected by the economic downturn of the past four years? We’ve had unprecedented increases in resources, so how could we?  We can learn from non-government civilians, as they can from us.  It’s taking that entrepreneurial mindset and applying it within a rigid hierarchy to come up with innovative solutions and real institutional change. 

Entrepreneurship at its very finest exemplifies collaboration.  It captures the best aspects of many intelligences and diverse creativity to come up with a Mastermind that can tackle complex problems.  It is not merely a lone wolf that goes home when he doesn’t get his way.  Instead, he learns from failure, accepts criticism, and still contributes.  He adapts to new concepts and creates connections he never before imagined.  He creates a mindset that is resilient, constantly challenged, and always on the lookout for new ideas. 

Battlefield entrepreneurship has been going on for centuries.  The Thatch Weave.  The Left hook into Iraq.  The Psychological Deception of Shock and Awe.  Entrepreneurship isn’t simply a business term – it’s a broad theme devoted to overcoming challenges with new techniques.

One of my favorite parts of our in-person monthly Disruptive Thinkers seminars is the Member Spotlight.  We give two people 5 minutes to talk about their innovative ventures.  We’ve heard from a guy who created a Jury Selection App, a man that is importing sustainable coffee from South America to make a community self-sustaining, another that created a very innovative (if impractical) “Swarm Transit” crowdsourced solution for New York City.  Will any of these things lead directly to military tactical or strategic solutions?  I have no idea – but being exposed to them gives me, and many others in our organization, a bigger toolkit, and better ability to connect unanticipated dots.

Again, Lehrer:
"The secret [to InnoCentive’s success] was outside thinking: the problem solvers on InnoCentive were most effective when working at the margins of their fields.  In other words, chemists didn’t solve chemistry problems, they solved molecular biology problems, just as molecular biologists solved chemistry problems.  While these people were close enough to understand the challenges, they weren’t so close that their knowledge held them back and caused them to run into the same stumbling blocks as the corporate scientists."
A Bright Future

The best part about the SWJ article is seeing that innovation is alive, if somewhat hidden, in the military. Many of the responses I’ve received have been from junior officers and enlisted personnel with good ideas, yet thwarted by frustratingly conventional superiors. I simply said what nearly all my peers were thinking.  

The only conceptual blowback I’ve received has been from men steeped in the system of the last thirty years.  Yet, many of an older generation get it.  Flag Officers and the director of an Naval Postgraduate School program showed me some of their ideas aimed at fostering Junior Leader Innovation – it was encouraging to see that the language they used was the same my innovative peers frequently use.  Fleet Forces Command and The Naval Warfare Development Center have been at the heart of this movement.

I look at the development of iPad integration into Close Air Support platforms as welcome disruption.  Ask for forgiveness rather than permission, and save lives on the ground.  I hear and see a culture of innovation at TOPGUN, a place truly run by junior officers.  They experiment, change tactics when called for, and are given the authority to do so. The submarine community recently released their TANG program to elicit ideas from the deck plates, and the SEALs continue to innovate on the battlefield, unconsciously adapting lean startup principles to special missions.
Disruptive Thinking is not a monolithic idea, nor is it merely a Think Tank created by a young, na├»ve junior officer. It is a way of going through life.  Curious to its possibilities.  Open to new avenues of approach.  Accepting failure when no life is at risk, and then truly absorbing the lessons.  Trusting subordinates.  Engaging networks you’ve never met with before.  Challenging closely held assumptions, and most importantly, digesting criticism to refine your understanding of the world.  "We need to be willing to risk embarrassment, ask silly questions, surround ourselves with people who don’t know what we’re talking about.  We need to leave behind the safety of our expertise."

We young servicemembers also need mentors. We need wizened men and women who have years of experience, and have instituted needed change in the bureaucracy.  In all the comments I've read, too few have emailed me or my peers offering guidance, professional wisdom, or perhaps, a bit of a reality check.  Help us understand the system we are in better, let us learn from years of accumulated experience, while also integrating our own expertise in a changing world.  

My own Disruptive Journey began with my mentor in college, a now retired Navy Captain.  He took time out of his busy schedule to meet with me and a friend for a few hours each week to discuss the works of John Boyd and other innovative military personnel in depth.  It was THE formative intellectual experience of my life, and the starting point of a path that yearned for knowledge.

I love the military, and I want to win wars.  We haven’t exactly done that in the past 10 years.  My peers and I want to know why, and ensure we’re better the next time we’re called to defend America.  This takes collaboration, understanding, and above all, Disruptive Thinking.


  1. Hey Ben,

    I've been following the series of posts - keep fighting the good fight and know there are others like you...voices shouting in the wilderness.


  2. Ben -

    Another JMO echoing the sentiment above - I read the post on SWJ and subsequently came to the site via Wings Over Iraq. I've enjoyed following the conversation thus far and appreciate you taking the time to share your perspective.

    Looking forward to commenting more in the discussions (I hope) this blog will generate in the future.

  3. You bring up a lot of great points, which I will discuss in greater depth tomorrow, but I want to briefly touch upon one of the core issues. I think perception that this was about junior innovators vs. senior bureaucrats distracted quite a lot from the core points. I've seen a lot of senior leaders try to implement an innovation only to walk away frustrated, or at best succeed after an exhausting and harrowing ordeal. Lots of senior leaders retain the ability and creativity to innovate and support innovators. I think the core issue is how well run organizations filter out information they deem irrelevant to their current mission. The more efficient and effective they are, the more they ruthlessly discard extraneous information. This also makes them inflexible, although they can adopt certain types of innovation that improve their performance in ways they expect. On the other hand, they don't know how to handle what Clayton Christensen dubbed disruptive innovation. The whole organization resists or ignores these innovations because they don't fit their model. This sounds a lot like what your friend experienced. I think the key is understanding the difference between these types of innovation and handling them accordingly. At this time of night I don't have any easy answers about how to handle a disruptive innovation in the military. Bolster your credibility with your leadership so they trust you and observe your thinking and judgement. Identify people who could recognize and help implement your innovation and make a cogent argument to them. Brett Friedmann used several examples where a senior leader ran top cover for someone with a valuable idea. I know this probably sounds trite, but if people like you who care don't keep trying, the system stagnates.

  4. LT Kurt Albaugh has a good post over at CIMSEC's NextWar blog on Navy efforts, particularly within Fleet Forces Command, to develop ways to bring new ideas from the junior ranks to the fore:

  5. I get the impression that another tacit assumption has been running through the whole disruptive thinkers debate; that the ideas will be incorporated enterprise wide. While I'm sure that many good ideas will compete and the best will become standardized and propagate throughout an organization, the important thing is maintaining the ability to innovate when conditions change suddenly. Rather than wait for orders or someone at the top to provide a solution, young sergeants and officers will get on with it and achieve. This is an important quality we need to preserve against the drawdown, interwar & austerity era impulse to circle the wagons and crack down on standards. Keep adaptation alive.

  6. Ben,

    Great. Keep up the thinking and writing. Your energy is excellent.

    I've been critical of management theories and practices having gone thru the formal schooling (GWU) you are exactly right, diverse experience from industry greatly informs the often enough top-down mandates/echo chamber w/in DoD, a lot of study of the history of "science" in all its guises and the rationalizing/systematizing impulse that is strong in the US, and from a bit of time in the cockpit (USMC) and a bit more time in the ever troubled acquistions system (I'm on NMCI right now). But you are absolutely right - the business, econ, and social science schools and programs do some good work and pump out some clever and innovative grads. The B schools are far from all bad, I'm just gun-shy about their promotion given all that's gone off the rails in management/business thought and method as applied to DoD over, approximately, a century.

    S/F/Dave Foster

  7. Jeez, that doesn't make much sense w/o punctuation:

    I've been critical of management theories and practices having gone thru the formal schooling ((GWU) you are exactly right, diverse experience from industry greatly informs the often enough top-down mandates/echo chamber w/in DoD), a lot of study of the history of "science" in all its guises and the rationalizing/systematizing impulse that is strong in the US, and from a bit of time in the cockpit (USMC) and a bit more time in the ever troubled acquistions system (I'm on NMCI right now). But you are absolutely right - the business, econ, and social science schools and programs do some good work and pump out some clever and innovative grads. The B schools are far from all bad, I'm just gun-shy about their promotion given all that's gone off the rails in management/business thought and method as applied to DoD over, approximately, a century.

  8. Ben,

    I'm an Army Officer in Australia and I was very impressed with your small wars journal article and the replies that supported your point of view. Your articles have been referenced in our Senior Officers Professional Digest and, with the permission of the SWJ, will be reproduced in the Australian Army Journal along with some articles discussing our military education in the Australian Army. I'll keep in touch and let you know how they go.