Monday, April 9, 2012

Disruptive Thinking: Needed or Nuisance?

There is an important debate going on at the Small Wars Journal.  Navy LT Benjamin Kohlmann (and instructor pilot at VMFAT-101) offered an essay the other day on why "The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers."  The interest and debate was overwhelming.  I followed up today with an essay entitled "Disruptive Thinkers: Defining the Problem."  There are more essays pending for what has become quite a hot-button topic.  Weigh in here or at SWJ.  The below excerpt is a snippet of the dialogue.
"The Department of Defense is exhibiting the classic symptoms of a “resource advantaged” corporation that has passed its prime, as I will describe in slightly more detail below. This is a common problem in the business world and, while we cannot run the military entirely like a business, we can certainly learn lessons from the business world about how to avoid decline into irrelevance and how to regain competitiveness. Sure, the U.S. military remains peerless, however we must acknowledge that it has lost some of its edge and surely has passed the point of diminishing budgetary returns. At the grand strategic level, we must recognize that a national security apparatus that insists that we must spend as much on defense as the next 19 nations combined, only two of which can be defined as potential adversaries, has lost sight of the big picture. We should be seeking to husband our fiscal resources and recreate the conditions for our hegemony by investing not only in military capabilities, but in the bases of our economic predominance. Thus, the problem we are trying to solve is as follows. America’s defense complex faces a period of strategic reset and retrenchment, during which disruptive thinking is required in order to challenge the status quo and effect a reorganization and reprioritization of the Department of Defense and its industrial and conceptual supporters. A detailed treatise on all the aspects of this challenge and the potential solutions lies far beyond the scope of this essay. My intent here is only to begin to outline the broadest aspects of the mission and to highlight some specific problem areas where disruptive thinking is needed and some solutions have already been suggested."


  1. Maj Munson,

    I read through Ben's article as well as your response and agree with where they are going. It is very difficult to explain to many in this business with any success how education in non-military subjects can improve the military mind. We seem to have weighted 'doctrine' and history lessons very heavily in our PME and there is less in the way of how to think and how to innovate. Understanding economics, markets, and process improvement is as just as much a lesson in understanding systems and second and third order effects as it is consumerism and finance. In my mind, there is much an officer can gain from grasping cause and effect of externalities; the military applications will be more apparent once that base of knowledge is established. On learning history - even though history repeats itself, the context that helped forge that history usually doesn't. I wouldn't put as many eggs in that basket if I were looking for a way to educate military officers.

  2. Mr. Adams,

    I don't disagree that going outside military subjects is a good way to enhance the mind of our US Troops. I strongly disagree with mitigating in any way our use of history as a teaching tool. In fact, I'd argue that we don't use history enough, and when we do use history, it isn't taught as effectively as it could be. If I may use the Harvard Business School as an example, an example LT Kohlmann also used in his initial essay. HBS utilizes case studies extensively, or so I'm told. In fact, read any book on entrepreneurship and you basically get a case study after a case study after a case study.

    When you teach history only as a matter of mere memorization, or only as a way to build esprit, and you don't examine it critically for the sake of forming your decision-making ability, and your concepts of leadership and command, then you're losing much of what history can teach you. What is that? Cause and effect. Pattern recognition. The ability to identify trends that lead to disaster, or success. The usefulness or detriment of different philosophies when it comes to command and control. How the operational level of war deeply affects the attainment of strategic goals, and how correct strategic goals are important in giving purpose and lasting effect to successful operations. I can keep going.

    My point is that many people claim "Insularity! Insularity! The DoD is filled with a bunch of isolationists," when what it really boils down to is professional laziness, and/or complacency.

    Most Marine Officers I know have a broad range of knowledge that they continue to maintain and develop. All officers? No, but I'd say the majority. Whether they were computer science geeks, philosophy majors (like myself), poli sci majors, classicists, or business majors. Most don't solely occupy their time with things martial, but rather things that interest them outside their job.

    So whose experience is the more accurate? Mine, where I meet officers all the time who branch out to improve themselves? Or yours, where you've seen this institutional failure to train officers and troops how to win/prepare for wars? If it is an issue primarily at the senior level, well, then things have already changed since our Generals went through the Academy or OCS, TBS (for Marines) and the various career level schools.

  3. Joseph, thanks for the interest in my comment and the response.

    Regarding history, I think there is a bit of middle ground here. You hit the nail on the head with "and when we do use history, it isn't taught as effectively as it could be". I don't necessarily mean I agree or disagree with our method of using history (I only said I wouldn't put as many eggs in the basket as some would), but to your point, a poor method of employment will always discredit the strategy itself. History can be great if used as a tool to set the stage for a specific learning objective, but equating military history to HBS case studies is a miss in my opinion, and a bit simplistic. I can't speak for Harvard's intent, but with a small amount of experience I can say a post graduate business program that uses case studies does not use them for their history lessons. The idea is that they build a frame of reference (given known externalities) from which groups can work. In a business case study, students in a work team teach each other the concepts through trial, error, and drawing from each other's experiences rather than most of the learning coming from a lecture. A lot of cases used in business schools are current so as to allow the students to use as much relevant context as they possibly can to arrive at a solution; likewise a lot of them are fictional(think TDG but with more context and more than 2 minutes to develop paragraphs 2,3,5, and the radio traffic). Nowhere in my comment did I advocate for divorcing ourselves from history in a firesale. The point is that by diversifying our education strategy we only make our officers stronger.

    I think you make my point by mentioning how Marine officers you know are staying sharp in other fields as a way to improve themselves. That tells me there is, on some level, an identification that our current education system can be improved, and individuals are taking matters in their own hands in the meantime. There is a difference between always looking for improvement and cynicicm. The inertia of your argument led to me being placed inside a box where I seem to have "seen this institutional failure to train officers and troops how to win/prepare for wars". Suggesting a diversified education system within the Marine Corps isn't so much looking for a point of failure, but looking for room to improve. Inviting different MOS's to a resident PME course is a good start, but not necessarily my idea of diversification.

    Just one solution? Adding more civilian post graduate programs as options in place of company grade B-billets. A step further - The Kelley School of Business at Indiana University offers tailored MBA programs for companies like John Deere and Cummins, and a few other MS programs for United Technologies (MS in Supply Chain MGMT being one). A partnership of this sort between the Marine Corps and some reputable university (in various programs and fields) would mitigate some of the arguments against formally integrating business education while tailoring some of the concepts to our needs.

  4. Rodney,

    Thanks for the reply.

    If I came across as equating military history to case studies, that was not my intent. I believe the Case method is a superior manner to convey the lessons of history when compared to rote memorization and most self-education, and should complement lessons on history meant to inspire esprit. I mentioned it as an answer to my statement that history "isn't taught as effectively as it could be."

    Furthermore, my point about Marines branching out onto their own personal pursuits was to illustrate that the Marine Corps doesn't need to make any sort of concerted effort to dedicate entire tours to Marines branching out. Obviously, I'm not talking about SEP/FLEP/Olmstead Scholarship/etc. Those all have paybacks dedicated to the use of the studied field.

    While homogeneity does stunt robust and forward thinking, and generally encourages yes-man and philistinism, I don't think the answer is to send Marine Officers off for MBAs. If a Marine wants an MBA, he can go to night school on his B Billet. If we really want to talk about worthwhile Degrees for the sake of broadening one's creativity, inventiveness, initiative, I'd argue for some pursuit in the liberal arts before Business.

    Do I have an answer? No, because I'm just about to leave my first tour of duty in the fleet and all I have to depend on are articles with reactionary commentary. My experience in the last 4 years has been a hodge-podge of good and bad. There have been fellow officers, and senior officers (who have come and gone from all positions in my battalion) who have encouraged creativity, there are others who seem to stymie it. I'm sure at the more senior levels this may be different, but I doubt it.

    What I do know, is that the next step to a more intelligent and professional officer and NCO corps is not sending Marines to business school, but lies with case studies, and incorporating them into fleet training. It would cost nothing to try to tailor your field exercises around historical examples, utilizing a case study the week before going to the field to re-emphasize not only the technical but also tactical and decision-making lessons you are trying to impart. And you can do this from the squad level to the Regimental level.

  5. Gentlemen,

    Great conversation. Active Duty Officers are great at what they do, but their experience is narrow, cloistered, Musclebound (to use an apt phrase from 1979). Wherever the breadth comes from, it is useful.