Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Art of Wargaming: Creating Interactive, Social and Immersive Platforms

Wargames have always been a part of military training.  With new technologies come new techniques on appropriate integration of these tools.  Our guest author, Benjamin Wintersteen, is an anthropologist specializing in gaming, gamers, and the military.  He currently performs research with the Training and Doctrine Command Analysis Center (TRAC) out of White Sands, New Mexico. His current project involves tactical level human-in-the-loop representations of complex environments.


Flashes of light betray movement behind the crumbling mud brick walls of the village. Sparks fly from electrical wires struggling to remain attached to pock-marked poles looming above the homes of “innocent” civilians. Another flash of light beams, this one yellow instead of static blue.  Then the stone next to your head explodes in a shower of tan and brown clay. You turn as quickly as you can, adjusting your goggles to account for the second flare of your weapon. A second too late, more flashes of yellow light appear and you find yourself unable to move, a red mist covering your field of vision. Frustrated, you tear off your headset and virtual reality mask, grumbling under your breath “Who designed this piece of crap?”  The illusion has been shattered; it will be a long haul to get it back...

Always start RISK in Australia.  Or so the adage goes. Much of what the public understands about warfare comes from interactive games of strategy.  With the rise of gaming consoles, millions of American's have chosen to experience the chaos of infantry combat -- from the comfort of their own homes.  But far from being merely outlets of entertainment, Gaming provides a valuable assessment and teaching tool.  The military would do well to understand the tenants of good gaming if they desire useful wargaming outcomes.  These principles apply from small, platoon level simulations to fleet-wide scenarios involving all four services. 

Games can best be seen as models designed to present a set of problems, a limited set of tools to solve those problems, and a desired outcome to provide the player with motivation. The key to that motivation is how much the player cares about the game they are playing. In social science circles, we call this ‘immersion’, though other concepts such as suspension of disbelief, transformation, or the synthetic experience are also referenced.  

Ultimately, a “Good Game” draws the player in.  A player will internalize the goals of the role they inhabit, understand the tools they are expected to use, and desire to reach the “victory conditions” set for them. Wargaming, due to its very nature, should focus on this aspect of the environment and player first.  It should be central to the design, purpose, execution, and conclusions of the game. If the player does not care about clicking the button, moving the little tank, or flipping the card, anything we try to do with the game is irrelevant.

All games have three things in common. 

Now this is Immersive...
First, they are interactive. The player does something and then something changes based on those choices.

Second, they are social. You may think Solitaire isn’t, but ask yourself how much you must learn from others just to play it.

Third, they seek to be immersive. Immersion into virtual worlds is a lot easier when accompanied by high-tech neuro-interface equipment and reactive controls. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the fast-twitch vehicle available, so we refer to more imaginative, and less declarative, means of creating alternate realities within which people function.

Some additional foundation is required before we go into deeper detail.  

Games all deal with some level of abstraction. It is rarely possible to represent everything in reality to the finest detail. Monopoly doesn’t include the choice to build a resort or a Gold’s Gym: you can either build houses or hotels. It is assumed you have to destroy houses to place a hotel where they once stood. There is no recourse for those poor, nameless families to address the planning board or protest your petty grab for capital.

Next, we find a corollary of the first: games are never complete. Elements deemed less relevant or too difficult to simulate are always left out. Just like Star Trek, Dungeons and Dragons only mentions bathrooms where it is pertinent to the plot. No one really cares about the fact that a fully armored orc in World of Warcraft would sink like the Lusitania in deep water. In fact, drowning sucks, and wouldn’t add a whole lot to the game.
Finally, it is a game, not reality. Games require mechanics. Sometimes these mechanics are nothing like real life, and they have to be that way. In the CCG Magic: The Gathering, you start with twenty “life points,” just like your opponents. As you go through the game, lightning may strike you and take three life points, or a dragon may skirt your defenses and “attack” you in some unspecified manner for five points instead. This is just a mechanic. Would lightning really do three-fifths the damage of a full-force dragon? Who knows? To be honest, who cares? What matters is that the dragon does something, and that something must be predictable and reasonable to the player.

Thus we arrive at the concept of immersion. If you take these considerations in mind, immersion describes how “into” the game the player feels. In real life, we have a complex system of biological, cognitive, and social processes that convince us that what we are experiencing is real. Adrenaline pumps, our life flashes before our eyes and we look for nearby allies -- and this is just when we visit the in-laws.

Besides the SIMS, the vast majority of games don’t replicate such banal problems as explaining to your mother-in-law why you got her daughter pregnant after only five years of marriage. Games are about conflict, and most games are about the most intense conflict we can imagine: war.

Historically, war gaming has had two meanings.  First, it means any game that involves combat, the threat of combat, or the concept of combat.  Examples of each include Gears of War, Diplomacy, and Epidemic, respectively.  Most war games follow this definition, especially those marketed to the general public. These games are meant to take the aspects of war and bring them home in a digestible, exciting, and ultimately disposable way.

The second definition, however, is the one applicable to real world scenarios.  This applies to scenario-based situational decision-making in a structured environment without using live troops.   The intent is to train, educate, or perform research using human beings as key elements of within decision-making and strategic thinking. To put it in another way, it’s presenting players with situations to either show them what to do, or see what they do and analyze it. 

Understanding this second definition is where the military derives the greatest benefit. A player fully immersed in a simulation begins to think differently than one being asked questions about their job or sitting in a classroom. They perceive other players differently as well, and will take actions based on a personal, individual investment in the outcome.

This is accomplished through multiple, interrelated ways.  A player must feel that all reasonable options are either available in the game, or excluded for obvious reasons. For instance, Chess does not include mobile towers or air support for the lowly pawns sent charging into battle with knights. That isn’t the point of chess. There are versions of chess that include more complexity, but even those provide a finite set of additions to the basic game, and very few players question those choices.

Additionally, a player must feel that the options provided actually deliver as promised. This includes consistency of rules, predictability, and the general promise to the player that an action taken will have some impact on the game. If you can jump ten meters in Prince of Persia, then you better be able to jump from rooftop to rooftop as long as they are no more than ten meters apart. If the player goes to jump and finds himself falling into an alley, broken and bloody on the sandy ground, he is not going to know that the programmers never finished with the rooftop he was heading to; he is just going to think the jump function is broken.

Will Play for Hay...
Most importantly, the player has to care about the actions, outcomes, and rewards inherent to the system. This is easier than you think. Farmville rewards players for planting new crops by allowing them to purchase bigger buildings, better equipment, and more variety. They also encourage players to spend real world money to expedite this process. Angry Birds rewards players with only momentary feelings of satisfaction, such as a screaming green pig head. Yet both these mechanisms have created many fanatical fans. 

Military war gaming sometimes overlooks this last point, with disastrous results.  Organizers task players to fill roles, and then tell them it is “just a game”.  Players have no input into the next version, and organizers write off any complaints as “whining.” A game of any sort, but especially complex games that replicate irregular warfare, should get the players involved on a personal level.

This is where the training and research applications of war games currently fail. When players do not care about their performance, they will be disengaged and often times hostile to the creators and administrators of the program. How many check-the-box trainings have servicemembers sat through where the person explaining whatever task or process assumed that everyone in class cares because they were told to care? How can a game train people to react in a certain way or to consider certain things, like population response, when there is no intrinsic motivation for clicking on that mouse or moving that peg across the board?

The same goes for research and analysis on war games. If you want to study people playing a game, there are many cheaper ways to do it.  People are always people, and there are many ways to study what they do and why. Unfortunately, if the game does not immerse players, you will end up studying “people who have to cope with a broken game” and not “people in a battle for the hearts and minds of the population.”

Currently, war games simulate a wide range of situations. These range from international diplomatic relation, to tactical-level tasks, kinetic and non-kinetic, executed by a variety of stakeholders in an irregular warfare environment. Without attention to player motivation, development, immersion, and social psychology, we are ignoring the vast field of research and market-tested principles that focus on providing an immersive mindset in players, one exploitable to researchers.

And that last advantage may sum up the entire point. Training and analysis both seek to exploit the players’ perceptions and knowledge to test a strategy, perform an experiment, teach a new skill, or understand decision-making in a complex environment. If we want to extract the data we need, and impart the ideas we wish to impart, we first need to prepare the subject in such a way that they are ready, and more importantly, willing to be open enough to give and take as war gaming requires. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Disruptive Strategic Questioning

I've always been one to question authority.  Not in the rebellious teenage, angst-ridden way mind you, but literally Question the Authorities.  In high school, I gave a five minute speech excoriating the school board (in front of them...) for poor decision making -- which garnered a standing ovation from the packed audience.  I got a reputation at Northwestern for challenging big name guest speakers with off-the-wall, difficult questions.  Not because I wanted to be "that guy," but simply because I wanted to know what the answer was.

This has continued in my time with the Navy.  Conferences, ready rooms, wherever, I ask tough questions, particularly of flag officers.  I even had the Chief of Naval Operations walk out of a Q and A session aboard ship after a question I asked about aviation procurement startled him.  The one good thing about this was that in that awkward moment when the big wig asked if anyone had any questions, my peers always knew someone did...and they wouldn't be voluntold to offer something up. 

Anyway, as I mentioned in the last post, I came across a black book with leadership lessons,  strategic observations, and questions on warfare I had written back in 2008.  I'd like to share a few of those observation and questions to see if there are any insights from the audience.  Again, all of these were written in the isolation of a deployed carrier, by a searching soul, based on direct observation.  These are in no particular order:

1.  An immutable principle of War is that it cannot be fought "nicely."  Overwhelming death and destruction are necessary to make an enemy truly conform to your will.  It cannot be fought on the cheap.  There are always unintended consequences.

2.  Technology has been the primary motivating factor for the evolution of tactics.  It is, however, only effective when applied adaptively, and its course is nearly impossible to predict.

3.  When the U.S. military trains, we always assume success and put limitations on the enemy.  This is disconcerting. 

A Disruptive Thinker -- In Captivity
4.  Why and how does the most heinous and destructive of all human activities occasionally produce men of revered honor, integrity and character?

5.  In the case of the U.S., and more broadly, democracies, how important is, and what impact does, a formal declaration of war by the Legislature have on the country's societal involvement and long term success?

6.  How does a country and its associated leadership create an armed forces that can seamlessly fight both asymmetric and conventional conflicts?  Is this even possible?

7.  Why is warfare not taught in the context of politics, economics, sociology and psychology when its effective execution is dependent on all of these fields?

8.  In Washington, it seems to take an institution behind an individual to bring change.  Is this really true? -- Yes, but I dont want to believe it.  (Later)  Individuals, however, run institutions.  So, how can you work within a given institution, retain your individualism, and then one day shape an institution through your unique viewpoint?

9.  Millennium Challenge 2002 and General Van Ripper.  Red Leader quits when game is changed midstream and Blue forces "Re-gen" because tactics employed weren't "fair."

10.  If you want to look at why a decision was made, don't necessarily look at its causal merits.  Look at what interests advocate for it. 

11.  What if a political candidate really did run an unconventional, non-politically based campaign?  Is this even possible?

12.  Markets in the real world are imperfect and inefficient.  So are "price discovery mechanisms."

13.  The Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex is alive and well.  Reference Raytheon, Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, L3 and the Tailhook Convention.

14.  Why are the inefficiencies of industry dirty little secrets within the military? Is it because many officers want cushy jobs with contractors after they retire?

Fooled You...
15.  The civilian defense industry, even if innocently and unavoidable, has financial incentives to eventually have weapons systems outclassed by our adversaries.

16.  A propensity to lie betrays the trait of selfishness.  Conversely, a selfless person will tell the truth.

17.  The thing we need to fear most in a war with an Eastern Power (China) is not its Army, nor the numerical quantity of its forces, but the Eastern psychology and way of thinking.  The use of deception and non-Western thinking will do more to disrupt our strategies and advances than overwhelming force.
  • Look at their strategic heritage (Sun-Tzu, The I-Ching, Samuri Codes, Book of the Five Rings, etc)
  • Imperialism as not something overt, but veiled (African resource stockpiling...)
  • The long view vs. short Western attention span
  • Integration of Western methods with an Eastern flare
  • Direct confrontations (Western) vs. Feints and "retreats", exploiting ambiguity on the battlefield
  • Money and technology vs. intellect and psychology
In rereading this list, I'm pretty sure I still have the same questions and musings as I did 4 years ago.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Leadership Lessons from a Carrier Based Fighter Squadron

In February 2008, three days after graduating initial F/A-18 Super Hornet training in Lemoore, CA, I was sent overseas to join my new squadron, the VFA-41 Black Aces, in Sasebo, Japan.  After spending one day in port, I boarded the USS Nimitz and spent the next four months at sea.

Trim, Nasty, Chaser and the Shoe Admiral...Larger than Life
To say it was a culture shock would be an understatement.  As a "Nugget," the term applied to first deployment naval aviators, I was wide-eyed and uncertain.  I wrote about many of my adventures in long emails home.  Some were harrowing and unforgettable, some humbling and thought provoking.  I was surrounded by giants of our profession, namely our Carrier Air Wing Commander, "Trim" Downing, and the Captain of the Nimitz, "Nasty" Manazir

The best piece of advice I got upon arriving was "keep your mouth shut for the first six months."  Being a quiet person by nature, this was easy.  But it also helped me focus on the first part of John Boyd's OODA Loop - Observe and Orient.

During those months of hardship, I kept a little black book of leadership lessons and questions about Grand Strategy that I would return to nightly.  I forgot about them until recently; I found the book and started reading through them.  Many of my observations are not new, and in fact, aphorisms pounded into us from the beginning of training.  I've even violated them at times myself, unfortunately.  But they were all learned through things I observed first hand. 

Leaders would be wise to know their underlines are ALWAYS watching.  Here are some of the lessons I wrote down, from both good, and especially, bad, leaders:

1.  There is always a person responsible for and behind the decisions of a "faceless" organization.  Don't blame the esoteric "Big Navy." 

2.  Always own up to and take responsibility for your mistakes -- especially if you are a squadron commander.

3.  Keep your people well informed, and ALWAYS give them the unvarnished truth, good or bad.  They can handle it.

4.  Volunteer for the hard assignments and do them well.

5.  Foster camaraderie and a healthy competitiveness in your charges.

6.  Lead from the front.

7.  Don't be afraid to challenge tradition, but have evidence to support your new course of action. 

8.  Only speak of things you know and are well informed about.

9.  Observe and take stock of your people to know their strengths and weaknesses.  Know which people need direction, and which need to discover things on their own.  The latter may take longer to develop, but will be more useful and adaptable in the long run.

10.  People are the most important thing.  "All technology eventually becomes obsolete, but high quality personnel never do."  Victor Krulak

11. Leadership cannot be taught in a classroom.  The best lessons are those experienced, especially those that end in failure.

12.  If you are taking questions from your subordinates, and don't know an answer, be honest and admit you don't know.  Then tell them you will find out, promptly do so, and given them the answer.

At least I didn't catch the Ace...this time.
13.  Have confidence in your subordinates and put them in challenging situations.  The only way they will grow is through situations that push them beyond what they think they are capable of.

14.  Never do anything in the presence of subordinates that you wouldn't allow them to do also.  Like, say, light a cigarette in the middle of the Ready Room...

15.  Competition among different departments breeds innovation.

16.  Be conspicuous when distributing praise.  Make sure their peers seem them get the award.

17.  Support subordinates who challenge entrenched ideology.  Develop methods to ensure their ideas are considered, and then implemented if superior to the prevailing status quo.

18.  It is in the nature of innovative, high achievers to challenge one another.  Let them do so. 

19.  Don't discount or distrust the value of advocates outside your organization. 

20.  "Never tell people how to do things.  Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." Gen George Patton

21.  A personalized, hand written note to a subordinate is one of the most powerful tools at a Leader's disposal.  This requires knowing your people well -- but they will move mountains in the most challenging circumstances if they know you care. 

More are in the book.  Perhaps fodder for another post. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Disrupting the Bureaucracy: Aim High!

Robert Kozloski is back with another idea for shaking up the DoD.  Since the author works for the Department of the Navy, this piece may appear as mere Service Parochialism.  However, the author has equally disruptive pieces pending publication on Navy/Marine Corps issues in the United States Naval Institute's Proceedings and in the Naval War College Review

Disruptive Thinkers aims to be a proving ground and central forum for innovative military thought (off the wall is okay...).  This can be on anything from Grand Strategy to tactical solutions to solving minor military irritants.  If you have a suggestion for improvement within the Department of Defense, we will be happy to post it.
This past week the Center For Strategic and International Studies released its 2012 Global Forecast. Specifically, the report addressed the military’s global force posture under the threat of sequestration. Of the two dozen national security experts that CSIS polled, not one disagreed that the Defense budget could be cut further while maintaining essential military capabilities. Despite statements by current DOD leadership to the contrary, this is unquestionably true. However, bounding the tradespace is essential to understand the problem – given flat or declining defense dollars, DoD accepts excessive overhead and inefficiency at the peril of operational capabilities.

In a recent Washington Post article, veteran defense correspondent Walter Pincus argued that forthcoming budget reduction efforts should target the highest levels of  Department of Defense bureaucracy.  I could not agree with him more.  Reductions in operational military capabilities should only be considered after all efforts to reduce unnecessary overhead have been exhausted. We are far from reaching that point.

Preserving as much military operational capacity as possible, while not contributing excessively to the national debt, will require bold ideas from civilian and military leaders in the DoD and in Congress. We must move beyond trimming the fat from the current structure to setting our sights high and eliminate overhead. However, the level of bold concepts DoD must consider are beyond its control, and cooperation between the Hill and Pentagon is imperative.

One such bold idea that warrants serious consideration is to reverse the portion of the National Defense Act of 1947 that created the US Air Force as a separate military department.  This action was appropriate at the time in order to create the US Air Force as a distinct Service that was no longer part of the US Army. However, reversing this legislation today would reduce overhead as well as create two similar military departments – both executing Title X authority over two independent Services.

There Goes Lockheed's Funding...
Some outsiders may view the Department of the Navy (DoN), with its two independent Services, as one happy family.  Let me assure you there is no shortage of tension (sometimes healthy) between the naval Services, with contentious issues being arbitrated at the DoN Secretariat level. This results in a single naval position on issues rising to the SECDEF level. This relationship also enables integration across the Services. For example, the Director of Expeditionary Programs on the OPNAV Staff is normally a Marine Major General.

Not only could savings be achieved at the Department level, this merger would provide additional opportunities for integration. For example, the Naval Air Systems Command manages fixed wing, rotary wing, unmanned aviation programs, aviation weapons and avionics, as well as standardizes tactics and airfield operations, for both naval Services. A similar organization model could be adopted for the Army and Air Force aviation programs.

Many defense experts warn against over-integration because a single point of view and group think reduces the healthy competition of ideas that normally spurs innovation and provides a variety of options to deal with uncertainty.  Having organizations working on similar issues in the Army and Navy Departments would still allow for this intellectual competition.

Recently, General Ron Fogelman, former Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, argued the best solution for an affordable national defense force is to return to our historical militia roots. Similarly, defense expert Dr. Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute recommended decreasing the current size of ground forces and increasing the size of the National Guard during his Senate testimony. These concepts would align well to the two Military Department model.

The Department of the Army, with its close association with the National Guard Bureau, comprised of Air Force and Army Guardsman, would focus on major contingency operations and homeland defense missions, while the Department of the Navy would be the Department aligned to the full range of expeditionary capabilities and forward presence missions.

It is difficult to accurately capture the cost savings that would occur from this proposal, but as a general rule of thumb, eliminating 1,000 positions saves $1B.  There would certainly be an up-front investment required for the transition.  Previous large-scale mergers within the DoD have not realized the anticipated savings.  This is largely because no control limits were put in place for the size of the merging staffs. As witnessed with the Joint Basing initiative, full staffs merged with little reduction in personnel or functions.

In order to achieve savings, a 10 to 20 percent growth limit for the expanded role of Department of the Army must be put in place. Many are concerned that drastic cuts in the federal work force would only exacerbate the national unemployment problem. However, if this merger were done in a phased approach over 3-5 years and personnel reductions were achieved through normal attrition, the effect could be minimized.

Not only does restructuring the Department of the Air Force make fiscal sense, it may improve military operations as well. As a 2007 RAND study highlighted, despite 25 years of joint reform brought on by Goldwater-Nichols, the Army and Air Force still had difficulty integrating operational capabilities during recent combat operations.  This new organizational model could serve as a catalyst for true air-ground integration.

Some may be concerned that this new Military Department alignment would create a bipolarity within the operational forces.  However, each Service Chief would still be part of the Joint Staff and therefore have equal representation in operational issues. Joint operations will remain unaffected by this realignment.

While creating a separate Department of the Air Force may have been appropriate in 1947, it is difficult to justify its existence today given the current fiscal crisis facing the nation and the much smaller size of the total force. Ideas that appear to be too difficult to implement are frequently dismissed.  Easier solutions, such as eliminating troops or enforcing double-sided printing, are often the ones considered for implementation.  Our national leaders must accept the challenge and take on the hard problems to preserve our military power and develop fiscally responsible national security solutions.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Envisioning Our World

One of the great things about the rise of computer graphics is the way innovative people can represent the world around us.  Mere explanation hardly does the conceptualization of an idea justice -- it often takes an image or a video, well presented, to truly leave an indelible mark.

I was first presented with this powerful way at looking at the world through Aaron Koblin's TED presentation (below).  His remarkable analysis covers everything from flight paths and cell phones, to the "Wilderness Downtown" and the Johnny Cash Project.  Highly recommended if you have 20 minutes free.  Otherwise keep reading for more cool visualizations.

Next we have a short video from, a crowdsourced micro-loan website.  It shows the flows of loans from across the world from lenders to recipients.  It is called "Intercontinental Ballistic Microfinance."

YOUrban posted a visualization of WiFi networks throughout our society.  In their words, "the film is a continuation of our explorations of intangible phenomena that have implications for design and effect how both products and cities are experienced."  See their website for a more interactive look at the phenomenon.

More mundane things have been investigated as well.  Below is a visualization of wind maps from the National Digital Forecast Database.  Last week, NPR interviewed the two designers of the program that makes it all happen -- for a great, real time representation of wind patterns throughout the U.S., visit their website.

Blown Away

The next few come from deriving Netflix rental data.  In 2010, the New York Times put together a remarkable interactive graphic entitled "A Peek into Netflix Queues."  The other image is one derived for the 2009 Netflix Prize.  It was one competitor's representation of how movies should be categorized.

Pictures in Motion

Connecting Our World

Finally, our last image comes from a member of Disruptive Thinkers, David Pearson.  He and a team of his submitted an idea called "Swarm Transit" to a competition soliciting ideas for a 21st century public transit system in the Big Apple.  The image below shows the 19th century grid model on the left, and a theoretical, dynamic, water-based 21st century concept on the right:

"Roads?  Where we're going, we don't need roads..."

Images, like ideas, are incredibly powerful.  They capture the imagination, and help us understand our world a little better so we can continue to adapt to constant change.  Feel free to share more interesting visualizations you've come across!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

General Board 2.0: Leveraging Disruptive Thinkers

Last week, Small Wars Journal published an essay by one of the authors of this blog.  It set off a firestorm of debate within the military and elsewhere. We've privately received many messages of support and offers to contribute to this blog.  Robert Kozloski, the author of the below contribution, is one of them.  

Mr. Kozloski is an Efficiency Analyst with the Department of the Navy.  He argues for the creation of a new Board of Innovative Officers to tackle our most challenging national security problems. 

If you are interested in contributing to this discussion, please do so. 

Given the fiscal realities facing the US military services and the rise of a new near-peer competitor, a great deal of attention has been given recently to reviving the culture of naval innovation. LT Ben Kohlmann has added a new aspect to the discourse by creating a fervor within the military blogging community with his writings on the need for disruptive thinkers in the military

The naval services have a rich history of innovative thinking. In the interwar period of 1920-1940 the General Board was formed to find innovative solutions to the problem of the day: given the restrictions placed on the US navy by international treaties, how could the navy best prepare for conflict with Japan? The General Board was successful and developed both innovative thinkers and effective solutions to operational problems.

Similarly, the Marine Corps faced new operational problems at the end of the Korean War.  Primarily, this challenge was in operating effectively on the new “atomic battlefield”. To identify solutions to these emerging problems, the Marine Corps created Marine Corps Test Unit-1. MCTU-1 successfully created many new operational concepts that were widely used in the Vietnam War and many are still in use today throughout the special operations community.

Not a Bad Start...
LT Kohlmann raises the issue of supplementing standard professional military education with the nation’s best graduate education programs, particularly MBA programs. While the US education system is often criticized and even considered a national security concern, our secondary schools remain the best in the world and the military must fully leverage this national asset. 

While the US military may not be willing to effectively use this critical asset, others are not so hesitant. In the year 2000, the Chinese People's Liberation Army had more students in America's graduate schools than the U.S. military.

Kohlmann is not the only one in government supporting this line of thinking.  In 2003, the Federal Bureau of Investigations established the Special Advisor Program to engage graduate students at the top ten MBA programs in the country.  This program continues to expand and the results have been used to effectively solve difficult organizational and operational problems within the FBI.

Given the growing problems with maintaining our current naval capacity and the emerging threats facing the military for the foreseeable future, the US Navy should reinstate the General Board and consider the following: 

The new General Board should be attached to the Naval Warfare Development Command in Norfolk, VA. NWDC is ideally suited because of its mission to develop new concepts for the navy and its proximity to the full spectrum of naval assets in the Hampton Roads area including: surface, subsurface, aviation, special warfare, cyber, intelligence and expeditionary operations.  This would put the group in close contact with the operational forces and would facilitate testing and experimenting. The General Board could also leverage support from US Fleet Forces Command, joint organizations and academic facilities in Hampton Roads.

To staff the new Board, a diverse set of 20-40 Officers at the 0-4/5 level should be selected to participate in this program as part of the normal PME process. However, rather than using an ineffective bureaucratic process for selection, the NWDC Commander should be given the opportunity to select the officers for the Board as well as the academic programs students attend.

The top civilian institutions as well as the Naval War College and Naval Post Graduate School should be included in the educational mix.  The selection criteria should be based on what operational problems the group will be attempting to solve during their tour on the Board.  Selectees should meet with the NWDC Commander prior to attending school to help shape academic activities while attending school to best prepare them for their follow-on work.

While this new concept may seem somewhat duplicative of other efforts currently in place, such as the CNO’s Strategic Study Group (SSG) at the Naval War College, the new General Board would focus on more near term issues.  Ideally, the efforts of the SSG, as well as inputs from other existing advisory panels, would feed into the problem set of the General Board.

The members of the General Board should be given full latitude and support to interact with other components of the naval research community as well as the operational forces. To the maximum extent possible, it should leverage various crowd sourcing and idea generation tools to harness the “wisdom of crowds” in the problem solving process.

Many senior leaders have recently said that the military has lost its ability to think because it has outsourced that responsibility to contracting firms and consultants.  While the effectiveness of this approach is questionable at best, it is certainly expensive - as are most solutions to the problems they solve. Given the fiscal realities facing the nation, the military will need to rely more on its internal thinking capacity. Reestablishing the General Board concept would not only develop and harness the great minds in uniform, it also offers a more affordable solution to the current expensive ways of doing business.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Disruptive Bookshelf

Bottom Line Up Front:  I'm starting a sister blog to this one.  Disruptive Book Quotes.  Short, pithy sayings once a day that have shaped my interest in disruptive thinking.  If nothing else, at least I'll have a compendium, in the Cloud, of my favorite works. 

About six weeks ago, I wrote about developing a disruptive mindset.  One of the core tenants of such an endeavor is to be well read, on a variety of topics, especially from those you disagree with.  And it is more than that.  It is remembering those statements that resonated, with the hope of using them to develop your life's philosophy.

Heaven.  Via Bookshelf Porn
One of the things I wish I had done much earlier in my life was to create a book of quotes from works that I had read.  I have a terrible memory, and troves of information are forever lost to me.  Writing these nuggets down is my solution.  This was even something I recommended to a 15 year-old cousin of mine as she entered high school and I gave her a list of suggested readings. 

This started in a little black book in 2008.  It was given to me by a friend to journal about my deployment experiences, but I found it more useful as a record of knowledge gleaned from authors much smarter than I. 

Soon after, I got a Kindle, and I was able to create a book of my own by highlighting favorite passages in everything from science fiction and economics to Michael Lewis and Christopher Hitchens.  In fact, these passages are a clear path in my intellectual development -- and nearly all have themes of innovation, discovery and courage. 

I find it useful to read through the entirety of this compilation occasionally and discover where I have been and where I am going.  And as one of the first offshoots of Disruptive Thinkers, I thought it appropriate to start "Disruptive Book Quotes."

These quick bites will explore things like politics, fiction, love, war, foreign policy, innovation, negotiation, athletics and humor.   They are diverse, useful, and sometimes out of context.  But fun nonetheless. 

I will be posting one quote each day from the hundreds I've collected.  This will be an on-going project -- and one that will be presented in chronological order from when I discovered it.  As I continue to read, the list will grow.  Work smarter, not harder -- especially when the work is done by someone else.  Easiest. Blog. Ever.

I will do my best to leave commentary to a minimum, and simply focus on the author and his or her words.  The beauty of this is you can then apply them as you see fit.  Taken together, hopefully some conceptual blending will occur and a picture of new insights will develop.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Breaking the Chains of Political Groupthink

Over the past century, nearly every part of our society has been fundamentally changed by technological and social evolutions.  Ground transportation, air travel, the way we communicate, the type of wars we fight, everything.

Everything, that is, except the two party political system.  It remains as entrenched as when our two modern parties were formed in the nineteenth century.  This is both remarkable and disturbing.  Remarkable because it showcases the power of the Establishment.  Disturbing because one would think the organizations driving our government would adapt to the societal imperatives around them.

The past two decades have seen a decentralization and democratization of ideas hardly fathomed during the Cold War era.  A culture of entrepreneurship and innovation has captured the imagination of many in my generation, and where once young people thought change could be wrought through political means, starting a company or social group is now seen as more effective.  Ad hoc partnerships between disparate industries are the norm -- why shouldn't our political solutions contain a hybrid of the best ideological solutions?

This isn't to say the parties themselves haven't adapted to changing mores.  They have.  The platform of the GOP or Democratic Party of the 1940s is very different from the ones today.  In some respects, the continued existence of both parties shows remarkable resilience in the face of unanticipated change. 

So Do Established Parties...
But there is increasing unrest and discontent with the political status quo.  And as dissension begins to mount, particularly in the form of defections, Establishmentarians declare the apostasy of anyone who dare think differently about the American political duopoly

The most recent example of this is Nathan Fletcher, a young, rising GOP star running for mayor of San Diego.  A week ago, he declared his break with partisan politics, and changed his registration from Republican to "declines to state."  Somewhat surprisingly for a rather small and sleepy market like San Diego, this defection got national exposure.

David Brooks, the moderate conservative New York Times columnist, explored Nathan's story.  Nathan appeared on CNN and MSNBC's Hardball to discuss his newfound independence.  And while these outlets have focused on the disruption to Republicans in California, they miss the fact that Nathan was leaving the entirety of partisan politics behind.  He wants to disrupt the very nature of how we look at solving problems through government.

There seems to be universal incredulity that a "rising star" who could one day "lead the state party" would give all that up.  As if politics was merely about the accumulation of power and self-aggrandizement.  Even the media can't fathom someone who advocates results, not politics.  The voters know better: Nathan ended up raising over $50,000 unsolicited dollars from more than 30 states in days - for a California mayoral race!

His six minute video never once mentions the Republican Party.  Instead, it focuses on finding solutions, not based in ideology, but based on pragmatism and ideas from everybody:

One of the primary criticisms that Nathan has faced from party chieftans is that he merely harbored sour grapes at not getting the GOP endorsement in March.  And while this is perhaps somewhat valid, it too, completely misses the point.

When revolutionaries can't work through established systems, their drive is no less intense.  They are not the types to give up.  Their belief in what they stand for is the very thing that makes them so driven.  To give up and simply walk home would be antithetical to their entire being.

How Could He leave the Party?
Was it sour grapes when the American colonists didn't get what they wanted from the British parliament in the 1770s?  Should they have just shrugged their shoulders and given up when they couldn't work through the establishment?  Was the Revolutionary War simply a temper tantrum because the colonists didn't get their way?  There were those in the Colonies who believed this, and went back to England.  200 years later, America took the mantle of global leadership from a decimated British Empire. 

What about Google?  After being rejected by a slew of venture capital firms, was it craven of them to go with an organization that finally believed in their cause?  Google now dominates internet search.

How about J.K. Rowling?  Was she simply leaving in a huff by signing with a little known publisher after the big firms rejected her first Harry Potter novel?  Her books are now worldwide bestsellers and encompass an empire worth billions of dollars. 

In all these cases, the establishment didn't understand the transformations taking place, and since they were secure in their citadels, felt no compulsion to entertain the ideas of disruptive upstarts.  They were all proven wrong by history.  Our culture extols their independence and bravery in stepping into the unknown.  Why not the same with political leaders who forge the same path?

California is also unique in the way it now conducts primary elections.  Instead of each party holding separate elections to determine a candidate for the general in November, the June election is a "Jungle primary."  This means that all candidates are mixed together, with the top two vote getters, regardless of party, moving on if no one gets an outright majority.  This is a system in which Independence may be a virtue rather than a hindrance.

Some have also claimed he is a flip flopper, not adhereing to a set of core principles.  Yet, not one issue has changed on his platform -- the only thing different about Nathan Fletcher's principles are that he calls himself an Independent rather than a Republican.  And this difference is truly the least relevant if what a voter wants is actual results, not blind party allegiance.

I can empathize with Nathan on this point.  A few months ago I officially left the GOP, a party I loved and worked for, to become an independent.  Of course, my defection hardly amounted to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but it was a big step for me.

Not one of my core beliefs changed.  But no longer was I constrained in supporting seemingly contradictory policies, and could instead advocate for what I truly believed in.  I didn't have to approach conversations with friends who assumed they knew all that I advocated simply because I said I was a Republican.  I was free to advocate for true immigration reform and less defense spending.  The freedom from the party straightjacket was energizing.

How do I make assumptions about you then?
And it also allowed me to fully embrace the fact that I have remarkable, talented and incredibly intelligent friends who were across the aisle from me.  I could freely integrate their brilliant ideas with my own, refining my own view of the world and making it more complete.  This is the crux of what Nathan's (and Ronald Reagan's...) message truly is:

"There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit."

Politics today is defined by who can claim credit, and who gets saddled with the blame.  It is ridiculous and petty to score points by pointing the finger instead of collectively coming up with solutions.

You can have your partisan bickering and trench warfare stalemate.  As for me and my house, I'm looking for innovative, creative and revolutionary solutions from all quarters.  The Nathan Fletcher types are the ones who change the world, even if they end up losing a race or two because they rowed to their own beat.