Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Navy and a Sanctioned Class Divide

Thanksgiving Day 2009 was the most professionally embarrassed I have ever been as a naval officer.  At the time, my squadron was deployed aboard the USS Nimitz in support of combat operations in Afghanistan.

The day itself was remarkable for other, better, reasons.  In the early afternoon, my section of Super Hornets had rushed up to a troops-in-contact situation in the far northeast corner of Afghanistan.  A SEAL Team was being attacked by a group of insurgents, and we employed against the enemy mortar position.  We arrived back on board ship to find General David Petraeus making the rounds and shaking hands.

Following our debrief, my crew and I happily, if a bit wearily, made our way down to the officer's wardroom for our Thanksgiving meal.  Stuffing, turkey, everything.  It was about 30 minutes until the wardroom was to close, and there was barely anybody in it.

I needed some time to decompress following the meal, so I wondered up to the hangar deck to get some fresh air and be alone.  When I arrived, I saw a snaking line of hundreds of sailors weaving through the cavernous space.  I saw a few of my squadron's sailors, and asked them what was going on.  They told me it was the line to get their Thanksgiving meal.  There were rumors that despite the hundreds of people still waiting, because it was closing time, they were going to cut off serving the meal.  "Mission First, People Always."  Right.

I was stunned.  Twenty year old kids, ten thousand miles from home, pulling twelve hour shifts for weeks straight to turn wrenches so we could fly, and it seemed likely they wouldn't even get a Thanksgiving meal.  Meanwhile, the officer's wardroom was still empty.

Without telling them why, I told the seven sailors I recognized to follow me.  I led them down the ladderwells to the empty officers wardroom, and told them to fill a bunch of to-go plates with food.  They eagerly did.

While they did so, I tried to find the Supply Commander who ran the officers mess, and see if he would be willing to open up the wardroom to help alleviate the crush of enlisted folks that were about to miss Thanksgiving.  He told me he wasn't allowed to do that.  I stormed off, and told my sailors to fill their plates as full as they possibly could before leading them back upstairs.

Our Nimitz officer corps utterly failed our sailors that day.  Yet, on a smaller scale, we fail them everyday aboard embarked ships.

The Navy is one of the only places left in America where a clear, enforced and openly accepted class structure still exists.  If you are an enlisted sailor, you cannot walk in the blue tiled "officer's country" unless on offical business -- an even then you'd do best to avoid it.

On board a carrier, sailors line up for every meal and make their way through long cafeteria style lines to get chow.  Officers head to the wardroom, and are served meals while enlisted sailors in snazzy outfits act as our waitstaff.  Behind us, in cabinets covered in glass, tens of thousands of dollars worth of Tiffany's silver used to serve VIP's glistens.  Mood lighting and jazz plays during Sunday brunch.  It embarrassed me the first time I had an E-3 clear my plate, and it still embarrasses me.  

The thing that always impressed me most about the few days I spent in the field with Marines was that their officers nearly always let their subordinates eat before they did.  And then they ate amidst their Marines.

It is high time the Navy ended the archaic practice of segregating the officer corps from their enlisted subordinates during shipboard meals.   It is an antiquated practice rooted in tradition that is no longer relevant for an information age, socially collaborative society.  A truly Disruptive Carrier Commanding Officer would take this step of his own volition and see the transformative and unifying effects a less hierarchical meal structure would have.

Similarly, a Disruptive Division Officer would forgo the wardroom and make a commitment to spending time each day breaking bread with his charges.  This is something I never had the foresight to undertake.

One of the reasons tech company's provide meals for their employees is to foster free flowing, unscripted conversation between people that wouldn't normally interact.   Every employee, from the company janitor to the CEO, has access to the same space.  It gets the conversants thinking about ideas within the company they hadn't considered.  It also brings lower level employees in more informal contact with their superiors. Ideas are generated.  Conversations are developed.  And innovations are born. 

As our military enters an age where innovative thought and creativity will be the hallmark of successful strategy, we must embrace the conditions that make such things possible.

Deliberate Design Matters
Jonah Lehrer, in Imagine, describes the success of Pixar:  "[They] realized that its creativity emerged from its culture of collaboration, its ability to get talented people from diverse backgrounds to work together." Later, he quotes Brad Bird, the director of The Incredibles as saying, "Steve [Jobs] realized that when people run into each other, when they make eye contact, things happen.  So he made it impossible for you not to run into the rest of the company."

Furthermore, on a ship, the mess decks are classic "third places:" Interactive environments that are neither home (berthings) nor the office (workcenters).   Sociologist Ray Oldenberg notes:
These shared areas have played an outsize role in the history of new ideas, from the coffeehouses of eighteenth-century England where citizens gathered to discuss chemistry and radical politics, to the Left Bank bars of modernist Paris frequented by Picasso and Gertrude Stein.  The virtue of these third places is that they bring together a diversity of talent, allowing people to freely interact.
Leadership, in many ways, is simply about being present.  It's about usefully interacting with your subordinates.  It is taking an interest in their complaints and taking action on their valid suggestions for improvement.  Good order and discipline can be maintained while still informally engaging during unscripted social gatherings.  

Our most successful and recognized Naval organizations already encourage a more horizontal communication chain, and blurred lines between officer and enlisted.  Both the Blue Angels and Naval Special Warfare units require close bonds between leaders and led, and as such there are very few distinctions in social standing.  Let's emulate the best of our services, and help foster more collaboration.

Traditions are valuable, as long as they don't persist merely because they are traditions.  New realities require adaptation.  We have a highly disciplined and educated military.  There is no need to still engage in a class-cleaving system that replicates the most foul excesses of the nineteenth century gilded age.   End opulent differences in officer and enlisted embarked meals.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Agape: No Greater Love

Memorial Day is for those who have gone before us.  I've been fortunate this year to have lost no friends in active service -- although there were a few close calls.  Many others have.  I wrote this two years ago after the loss of a fellow aviator.


Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
– John 15:13 (KJV)

There are very few instances in life where a person is truly presented with the philosopher’s favorite hypothetical: when faced with preserving your own life or those of others, whom do you choose?

For some though, in a matter of moments, this sophistic exercise becomes reality.

Returning home from a mission, mere miles away from the aircraft carrier, an engine indicates an oil problem. The aircrew executes their procedures and shuts the engine down, leaving them with one engine remaining. However, rather than the now static propeller feathering into the wind, minimizing drag and allowing for a much practiced single-engine approach, the prop inexplicably and unexpectedly locks in place. Instead of eight aerodynamic blades cleanly slicing through the air, the locked position becomes the airborne equivalent of a circular brick wall pushing full against the airstream.

The plane yaws uncontrollably into the failed starboard engine, and only through the herculean effort of the pilot-in-command, putting his whole strength against the opposite rudder pedal, is controlled flight precariously maintained. Momentarily. The aircraft cannot maintain its altitude. It is only a matter of time before it impacts the water. A choice must be made.

Before every flight, the pilot-in-command of a naval aircraft signs his name on a slip of paper kept within the aircraft maintenance log. It is the last of three signatures required before a plane is taken airborne. The first two are from the maintainers certifying that the plane is safe for flight. The last transfers responsibility for the aircraft to the pilot, meaning he is now accountable for the machine and aircrew within its confines. A mere formality on most days, especially when done in haste and hundreds of times previously, it nonetheless is something not soon forgotten.

We live in a society where occasionally those we are meant to admire abridge their obligations to accountability. Candidates for office falsely claiming membership in the combat ranks, elected officials blaming past leaders for events occurring on their watch, business tycoons refusing to acknowledge their complicity in financial collapse or environmental disaster. Such nonsense has no place in a stricken aircraft.

The pilot-in-command that day (March 31, 2010) was LT Steven “Abrek” Zilberman, a veteran Naval Aviator on his second combat cruise in as many years. His parents emigrated from Ukraine when he was in sixth grade, in part to escape the bigotry they feared he would face as a Jewish conscript in the Russian military. Much to their surprise, he chose to enlist in the US Navy, eventually winning his commission and Wings of Gold. As is the tradition in this brotherhood, Abrek was his bequeathed callsign, in reference to the first space monkey sent into space by the Russians prior to Yuri Garagin. Ironically, and probably unknown to the American aviators at the time, it also means “valiant man” in Russian.

At some point, he made the decision to stay in the cockpit, fighting with all his strength to keep the aircraft relatively stable so his three fellow crewmates could bail out. This meant almost certain death – when it came time for him to bail out, the autopilot would be unable to account for the drag-induced uncontrollable yaw, and his only hope for survival would be an incredibly risky ditch into the sea. For a few days, he was listed as missing. The search came up empty handed. For his gallantry, Abrek was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross alongside the folded flag given to his wife at the funeral.

To paraphrase Sebastian Junger, author of WAR, warriors know they may face death. When they pledge their oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, they face that fact. This conscious, voluntary effort is their greatest act of courage, already accomplished. All subsequent acts in the line of duty stem from this. Some, however, are more conspicuous than others.

Perhaps the reason we humans view such heroes so reverently is that they did not intend to seek out recognition. They do not wake up in the morning hoping to die, save others and get glory. Instead, Fate, Providence, luck, whatever you want to call it, is the initiating force behind many acts of courage. That split second decision to take action, sometimes a reaction honed from years of subtle practice and thoughts, is where the individual takes the yolk from fate and forcibly alters the outcome. Yet inimical to this heroism is the tragedy associated with any sacrifice. It is a cost not readily borne, but on occasion selflessly accepted.

The paradox of the horrors of war and the character of the men and women who fight them is stunning. Within the depravity, death and destruction of combat exists the characteristics of awe-inspiring traits most humans struggle to emulate in more peaceful moments. These acts, demonstrated both consciously and unconsciously, are often removed from the greater political stratagems and goals of the fought-for country, and instead are directed towards preserving others. On the fields of Shiloh, men braving volleys of bullets to drag a wounded compatriot to safety. Amidst the Sands of Iwo Jima, Marines storming heavily fortified machine gun nests to ensure their buddies in subsequent waves would be safer. In the prisons of Hanoi, aviators forming a self-contained society dedicated to resisting the propaganda, torture and special favors of their captors – while being isolated and beaten for years on end as their countrymen ignored their plight.

In the face of the greatest hardships, we find the hardiest souls and amidst the arrows of stinging hatred, the greatest love. Again, Junger: “The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire…What the Army sociologists slowly came to understand was that courage was love. In war, neither could exist without the other and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same thing.”

Today, while remembering the heroic tragedy that surrounded this sacrifice, there is the legacy that remains alongside the countless others that are spread throughout our military traditions. The reminder is in more than the places of honor we bury our military dead – it is around us every day. The strangers and friends descended from ancestors saved through selfless sacrifice generations ago. The men and women still fighting abroad against those who would do our country harm. But most significantly, the very society and country we find ourselves blessed to be counted citizen among.

The likes of Abrek and his fallen brethren gave their lives for their immediate friends and compatriots, but their collective acts are the reason for the joy we feel on a warm summer afternoon, surrounded by majestic hills, dedicated friends and the freedom to live our lives as we see fit. “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”

Our future, full of hope and possibility, is the lasting gift we Americans continue to receive from those destined never to see it.

Happy Memorial Day, and God Bless.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Grand Strategy, Procurement Failures and Rejecting Mediocrity

There are three overarching elements preventing our military and national security apparatus from fully executing the goals of our country.  The first is the most important: Creating, Communicating and Understanding a Grand National Strategy.  Under this theme are elements specific to the military itself:  a wildly out of control procurement system and an antiquated personnel management system.

Until we solve these three elements, the United States will have a difficult time fully adapting to the global leadership requirements of the Twenty-First Century.  A culmination of exposure to all three in the past day have made a profound impact on me. 

Grand Strategy

Military members often mistake Grand Strategy as being something wholly within the purview of armed force.  Those that write about it make the same mistake:
"Historical judgement of war is subject to an inflexible law, either very imperfectly understood or very constantly lost sight of.  Military writers love to fight over the campaigns of history exclusively by the rules of the professional chess board, always subordinating, often totally ignoring, the element of politics.  This is a radical error.  Every war is begun, dominated, and ended by political considerations.  Without a nation, without a government, without money or credit, without popular enthusiasm which furnishes volunteers, or public support which endures conscription, there could be no Army and no war...War and politics, campaign and statecraft, are Siamese Twins, inseparable and interdependent; and to talk of military operations without the direction and interference of an administration is as absurd as to plan a campaign without recruits, pay or rations."
For instance, the "strategy" of the moment happens to be Air/Sea Battle.  Much discussed, much maligned, it is merely a sweeping military method for dealing with a very specific set of circumstances.  It is also publicly vague; the antithesis of a clear, unifying national vision.  Fundamentally, it fails to address the most important question: What is America's current and purpose in the world at large?

Grand Strategy must necessarily encompass all elements of the national effort.  Economic development, education, innovation, statecraft, diplomacy, and finally, military engagement all must be considered.  An excellent historical primer on this is found in Edward Luttwak's "The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire." 

All of these elements must be crafted within the mission statement of what America is, and where we want her to be in the coming decades.  This alone is what should be driving our global policies.  Without a clear end state in mind, it's difficult to know where to prioritize both people and treasure. 

Right now, we lack that coherent message -- and as many have noted, America's purpose has been unclear since the existential Soviet threat was vanquished.  The problem runs much deeper than not knowing where we are headed, however.  As Capt Porter in the video below notes about our government as a whole:
"Somehow we've developed institutional autism...many times autistic individuals, they suffer from an inability to understand the consequences of their actions outside their cognitive realm.  They have difficulty communicating.  They are unwilling to accept change.  They do repetitive and compulsive behaviors.  And they are incapable of recognizing or dealing with uncertainty.  Does that sound familiar to anyone here? (laughter) And you know why?  Its because we've disconnected the left and right hemispheres of our brain.  We've disconnected institutionally, our creative, the right side of our brain, our non-linear creative side, from our left side, the technological and linguistic processing side.  Weve separated those two and we are not allowing innovation to drive the nation forward where we need to go in this century."
This video is some of the best 20 minutes I've spent intellectually, and while laying out the challenge, makes me optimistic that some of those at the higher levels do, in fact, recognize the crossroads we as a country are at.

Yet, even by the end of the talk, they had not articulated what our Grand Strategy should be.  They talked about how to get there in a very useful way.  But I am still left wondering, what are our ultimate aims?  Who is taking the responsibility to articulate them?

Perhaps something as simple as an offering from Andrew Bacevich would suffice: "If America has a mission, that mission is to model freedom rather than to impose it."


Within a Grand Strategy, although not supreme, the military will necessarily play a large role.  An adaptable strategy requires flexible, rapid procurement systems able to deliver technology when needed.  It also requires the ability for on the ground commanders to purchase off the shelf kit, modify it, and utilize innovative non-traditional industrial firms with unique solutions.

Unfortunately, we are nowhere near this reality, and seem to be getting further from it with every passing day.  Case in point is the continuing F-35 procurement saga.  On AOL Defense, Republican Congressman and House Armed Services Committee Seapower Subcommittee Chairman asked Why Doesn't the F-35 Program Follow the Rules?
After twenty years in development, it is time the DoD and Lockheed Martin gave the American people some firm idea of when they could see a return on their $400 billion investment in the F-35 program... Sadly, after lobbying by those in opposition [eds. note: Lockheed Martin lobbyists swarmed the HASC when word about the Akin amendment leaked], members of the Armed Services Committee decided my amendment went too far and instead required the DoD to establish an [initial operational capability] date, but without any consequences if they fail to do so; something they have done on multiple occasions in the past.
This is indicative of a system dominated by established defense firms, with no accountability to taxpayers or the warfighters they are providing equipment to.  Whether it be shipbuilding, Army kit, aviation assets or cybersecurity, our procurement system is as broken as politics in Washington.   Our system consistently fails to deliver the correct kit to the correct place at the correct time.  

Constitutionally, Congress controls the purse strings.  They have been poor stewards.  Even the threat of sequestration has had no effect on the trough actually being closed.  Requiring budget discipline forces hard, but necessary decisions to be made with creative solutions.  It culls the good ideas from the bad.  Instead, there is almost bi-partisan agreement that waste in the name of defense is no vice, while restraint in the name of budgetary reality no virtue.

Finding, Retaining, and Promoting Talent

Strategic coherence and disciplined spending alone will be insufficient without men and women able to execute the mission effectively.  An Industrial Age career model is woefully insufficient for the information age.  The military promotes too few people early enough, and too many people too far.

Don't Promote Mediocrity by BGen Mark C Arnold is the most compelling way forward I have ever read.  A reservist with extensive experience in the private sector, his ability to conceptually blend elements from one professional field to another is a perfect example of applied Disruptive Thinking.

Some highlights:
Largely unchanged since 1947, military human resources policies reward compliance, not performance or innovation. The HR bureaucracies are quantity-driven, not talent-focused. They are narrowly focused on assigning officers to jobs that align with their branch or specialty, with little consideration given to individual inclinations for assignments and almost none to past performance for O-2s through O-4s.
Indeed, a 2010 study by the Army Research Institute found that the main reason talented people leave is not the lure of a lucrative civilian career, but because mediocre people stay in and get promoted. 
Year-group systems promote high talent at nearly the same pace as mediocre and below-average officers during their first 20 years of service. For instance, the active-duty Army promoted 99 percent of lieutenants to captain and 95 percent of captains to major during its 2011 boards. In 2010, selection rates for Army O-5s were 94 percent and above 85 percent in all other services. This is unheard of in the private sector. It rings loudly of institutionalizing mediocrity at best, and poisoning the pool of future senior leaders at worst.
Finally, my favorite part:
High talent demands flexibility. However, the active-duty military manages its human capital like the priesthood: Once you leave, with rare exceptions, you cannot return. The reserve components offer “drilling” assignments where officers can continue to serve: Flex to a few years of geographic stability for their family in locations other than backwater military towns, learn new skills at civilian employment, then return to active duty. Officers’ performance can be tracked during those years while in a reserve-component unit, and high talent, by definition, will be ready to serve as O-5 or O-6 commanders. Four years in those environments will not degrade a high-caliber officer’s skills any more than assignments at the Pentagon or a foreign embassy.
So, it seems the themes from these most pressing of issues center around the need to innovate and blend the best of practices from outside the military silo.   All require ways of thinking in a dynamic environment that shake up existing orthodoxy.

Awareness is growing, we just need leaders with the courage and willingness to act.  Because if we don't, somebody else in the world surely will.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Crowdsourced Wargaming

The Naval Postgraduate School is out with its latest MMOWGLI, in coordination with the Office of Naval Research's Department of Innovation.   If you have an interest in experimenting with alternative energy solutions for national security, now is your chance.

MMOWGLI is the cool sounding name for a typical bureaucratic acronym:  Massively Multiplayer Online Wargame Leveraging the Internet.  An Online Wargame that Leverages the Internet?  I never would have imagined the possiblity!

Pirates of Somalia
Before I get too snarky, I actually think this is a really cool concept.  I've been intrigued by the NPS efforts in wargaming since they came out with their first one looking for solutions to ongoing piracy issues.

The current effort is described below:
The new game is Energy MMOWGLI which brings together players to consider how to reduce the heavy reliance by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps on a finite, expensive and unreliable supply of fossil fuels. This dependency degrades our strategic position and the tactical performance of our forces. The global supply of oil is finite, it is increasingly difficult to find, and [its] cost continues to rise. We need to improve our energy security, increase our energy independence, and help lead the nation towards a clean energy economy. Among other themes, we plan to examine the Navy Energy Security Strategy and consider Energy Efficient Acquisition, Sail the "Great Green Fleet," Reduce Non-Tactical Petroleum Use, Increase Alternative Energy Ashore, and Increase Alternative Energy Use DON-Wide.
This green initiative has been the pet-project of current Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.  In recent years, biofuels have been used to fly Super Hornets, and shortly, to power the Great Green Fleet.  I'll leave that debate for another post.

In harnessing the wisdom of the crowd, especially for military problems, we're exposing our strategists to the widest possible audience.   A game that sends messages back and forth seems a bit clunky for the HTML 2.0 world we live in, but it's a good start.

A similar project, called Fold-it, was unveiled a few years back to help protein researchers.  The complexity involved was such that computers could not accurately do what was needed, so someone had the idea of making a game out of it.  They opened it up to a worldwide human audience, and had a massive response.  The best players often have no knowledge of DNA proteins, yet are helping solve difficult problems.  They compete not for money, but rather to help science and get the best scores.

The expansion of crowdsourced military wargaming could yield similar unanticipated, but highly valuable, results.  Millions already play first person shooter and strategic video games.  These games could be utilized by military strategists to put crazy tactics out for trial in the Cloud.

Imagine a game with a set amount of money, and a myriad of options for building a fleet -- big supercarriers, all the way down to cigarette boats.  Have $10 billion?  1 carrier or 1,000 small missile boats.  Who wins?  Now, change the scenario and try again.

The key is getting civilian gamers immersed and interested to come up with the most interesting solutions.  Have them play both sides of the equation.  Are Chinese hordes repelled by lots of small craft or a few strategically placed assets?  Do the North Koreans ever win?  What if Iran did something completely unpredictable?

We debate these things all the time in our military communities.  But we can also take the thousands of iterations developed by thinking, unorthodox civilians, and compile the data.  Strategists can cull lessons from both brilliant and laughable strategies -- all at minimal real world cost.   L3 or the like and their supporting Congressional delegation will probably throw a fit when they lose a multi-billion contract for scripted wargames, but such is life in a dynamic, ever changing world. 

In fact, Malcolm Gladwell, in How Underdogs Can Win, described something exactly like this concept, only from a 1980's iteration.  A computer programmer with no experience in military strategy defeated the best military minds.  Quite simply, he thought completely outside the box in terms of his fleet composition and tactical deployment.  It was a shocking strategy -- agile, cheap boats swarming an opponent and leaving damaged compatriots to flounder -- but it worked.

Captain America for the 21st Century
To be sure, strategies that abandon fellow soldiers to their fate are not what we want to be pushing as a military.  But it is good to look at the lessons from unconventional solutions.  Things can always be culled.   Instead of merely changing the rules, as Gladwell's organizers did, why didn't the Gamemasters consider these swarming tactics and their effectiveness?  It certainly would have helped twenty years later when General Van Ripper used the same tactic during the Millennium Challenge 2002 -- and virtually sunk an entire US Fleet.  Until the rules were changed...and the good General resigned in protest. 

All this is to say efforts like MMOWGLI are valuable in harnessing the power of crowdsourced solutions for military and strategic ends.  People don't even have to know what they are supporting to be sucked into a game.  And the lessons learned from failed, as well as unconventionally successful, strategies will be a boon to those thinking about and composing Doctrine.

NPS and ONR both have at least started to think along these lines.  So much more could be done at little cost, with existing technology and a volunteer workforce of videogamers ready to jump in.  It may upend our conventions about how wars will be fought, but I can almost guarantee that whatever foe we fight next will do so anyway.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Disruptive Thinking and How the iPad Changed Close Air Support in Afghanistan

In the essay below, Capt. Michael Christman describes how an innovative junior officer took matters into his own hands, and in defiance of a reluctant bureaucracy, created an efficient and comprehensive solution using off the shelf, modern technology.  It has helped transform tactical employment, and saved lives on the battlefield.  He explores why the project was ultimately successful, and how others can emulate it.   In many ways, it is an answer to the questions posed a few days ago by 1LT Atwell.

Dropping a bomb from 25,000 feet (or hovering just above the treetops) with an acceptable error of mere meters, only 500 feet away from friendly positions, is a challenge.  However, Close Air Support (CAS) is one of the finest examples of joint operational teamwork in the military.  It requires a high degree of coordination between airborne and ground based assets, many of whom have never met, and are from different services -- even different countries.  

Integral to this coordination are the use of Gridded Reference Graphics (GRG's) that airborne fixed wing and helicopter aircraft use when identifying friendly and enemy positions (see sketch below).  In the past, they were simply printed products, hard to keep organized, within a cockpit undergoing heavy G's and dynamic maneuvers. New products have changed the calculus.


Most Marine Corps aviators who have served in Afghanistan in a close air support role are familiar with the over 1,000 maps that make up the Helmand Valley.  These maps are made using high resolution imagery with every building identified by a unique number.  Such products enable aircrew to quickly correlate friendly and enemy locations, more effectively providing accurate and timely aviation fires for ground based units. This, in turn, saves the lives of young Americans and their allies. 

Paper or Plastic, Sir?
Until recently, aircrew carried all 1000 map sheets individually.  To find the right one required sorting through 30 lbs of paper to find the appropriate gridded reference graphic for a specific operational area.  In fact, there are so many maps, they won’t all physically fit inside the cockpit -- an operational liability if you are told to provide support in an unanticipated area.  Additionally, finding the right map could take several minutes -- precious time during a fire fight.

In order to solve this problem, an enterprising AH-1W Cobra attack helicopter pilot, Captain Jim “Hottie” Carlson, developed an application to electronically digitize and stitch these map sheets together so that a pilot could view them on an iPad.  With the iPad’s embedded GPS, the Cobra now has a portable moving map, something that the early 1990’s era helicopter lacks.  A single tablet also contains every conceivable map in an incredibly light and easily accessible touchscreen.  Updates to the local geography and existing products are made with a simple download. 

Of his own initiative and without official Marine Corps support, Captain Carlson provided his aging aircraft with a navigational system as advanced any available in the civilian world.  This leap in capability cost less than $1000 per aircraft.  Remarkably, an entire Marine Corps Cobra squadron can now be outfitted with iPads for less than the cost of fuel for one day of combat operations in Afghanistan.

While the technical details of the “Combat iPad” are best left for another discussion, the interesting story lies in exploring the key factors that allowed Captain Carlson, along with several other individuals, to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles they faced in bringing this program to operators.

First and foremost, Captain Carlson was the right person in the right place at the right time.  As one of the senior pilots on the deployment, Captain Carlson had the tactical expertise and credibility to both understand the problem and navigate the bureaucratic morass of the Marine Corps.  Integral to this was a technical background (a computer science major) that allowed him to view the problem from a different perspective and create a unique solution.  

Second, Captain Carlson had the support of key players both in the squadron and at the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW).  LtCol William “Hoss” Bufkin, a Cobra pilot who served on the Wing staff, was in the perfect position to help work through the bureaucratic red tape needed to bring these tablets to the battlefield.  LtCol Bufkin had previously served as an evaluation pilot with the AH-1Z upgrade program and was no stranger to the aviation procurement process.  With his experience, he was able to work through or around many of the top level challenges of procuring iPads and getting approval for their use in flight.  LtCol Bufkin knew that the bureaucracy would tell him “no” when it came to asking for this new technology, but had the will to effectively fight the system in order to get this critical piece of equipment to the fleet.

Not Just for Tourists...
Third, Captain Carlson had the entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic needed to solve this problem.   It is interesting to note that many (but not all) of those Marines involved in the original iPad solution, and those who have continued to improve on the program, had experience as civilians before joining the Marine Corps.  Did their experiences before entering military service help them in solving this unique problem?   It seems so. 

Indeed, because they began their professional careers in places where innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit were valued, these change agents were already comfortable working in environments where unique approaches to problem solving existed.  This is not to say that those who have worked in the civilian world are more likely to be Disruptive Thinkers than those without civilian experience.  Colonel John Boyd, inventor of the OODA loop and one of the most influential military thinkers of the 20th Century, began his military career by enlisting in the Army at age 17.  However, those professionally raised in the current military culture too often write off potential solutions because they do not fit into preconceived notions of acceptable doctrine.

The Marine Corps is going to need more of these combat innovators as we enter the next 10-15 years of fiscal austerity.  As is often quoted, “we’re out of money, its time to think”.  As Marines, especially at the Staff NCO and company grade officer level, we need to do better at taking responsibility for our own organization.

So how do we promote an entrepreneurial, problem solving spirit?  How do we do this in a large organization like the Marine Corps?

The following are some ideas of how Disruptive Thinkers can be more effective:
  1. Be a Disruptive Doer, not just a Disruptive Thinker.  Good ideas are a starting point, but actions speak louder than words.  Captain Carlson put in hundreds of hours of his own time, in addition to flying combat missions, in order to get the Combat iPad up and running.  If he and LtCol Bufkin had simply talked about their solution and hadn’t put in the work, we would still be sifting through 30 lbs of paper maps. 

  2. Be ready for a bureaucratic knife fight.  It often takes a strong personality who is willing to get his nose bloodied to alter the bureaucratic inertia of large organizations.  Choose your battles wisely and have your proverbial “stuff in one sock”.  You may only get one chance to convince someone that you have a better way.  Make it count.  Nixon summed it up best when he spoke about Admiral Rickover, the father of the modern nuclear Navy:
    "I don't mean to suggest ... that he is a man who is without controversy. He speaks his mind. Sometimes he has rivals who disagree with him; sometimes they are right, and he is the first to admit that sometimes he might be wrong. But the greatness of the American military service… is symbolized in this ceremony today, because this man, who is controversial, this man, who comes up with unorthodox ideas, did not become submerged by the bureaucracy, because once genius is submerged by bureaucracy, a nation is doomed to mediocrity."
  3. Don’t forget that the Marine Corps is a warfighting institution, not a think tank.  The Marine Corps isn’t an organization like Google that requires constant innovation out of its employees.  The Marine Corps is more like McDonalds.  The latter needs employees to uphold a standard, so that customers can get the same hamburger in both New York and Tokyo.  With the Marine Corps, you can expect that any given battalion will perform just as well as any other.  To provide this, both McDonalds and the Marine Corps have had to develop and enforce a single standard throughout their organizations.  While this process may seem at times anathema to innovation or Disruptive Thinking, it is, at its core, what makes us good.

  4. Sometimes you can do more good outside of the military.  There is a great tradition of American citizens leaving military service and going on and changing the world.  FBI director Robert Mueller and FedEx founder Fred Smith both earned Purple Hearts as Marine infantry officers in Vietnam.  While the Marine Corps is a great organization, there are other great organizations out there.  America, not just the military, needs innovative leaders.
Along with being more effective junior innovators, we need help from senior leaders.  We do a very poor job at leveraging our best minds and our most talented young leaders.  The Marine Corps leadership can change this in several different ways.

First, bring “centralized command, decentralized control” back to the Marine Corps.  Innovation is often a bottom up process, where those closest to the fight have the best solutions.  Giving subordinate commanders flexibility to make these decisions will allow the most creative junior leaders to develop innovative solutions to existing problems.

As General Patton said, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”  Avoiding micro-management is risky for the commander, and managing that risk is a difficult task, but giving someone “enough rope to hang himself” does two important things.  First, it provides a learning environment for that junior leader, and second, it helps to separate the mediocre from the exceptional.  Anyone can follow orders, but the best will excel in the absence of direction.

Finally, strive to keep the most innovative officers and enlisted leaders in the Marine Corps by offering them ownership in the organization -- embrace their creative solutions whenever possible.

Every organization from Apple to FedEx to the CIA deals with losing talent.  However, the military has a unique problem in that it is an “agricultural” organization, meaning that it can’t hire mid level leaders like other organizations.  Majors and colonels must be “grown” from the ground up.  If you want effective Colonels and Generals, you need to keep effective Lieutenants and Captains. As Colonel Paul Yingling (USA) said,  “It is unreasonable to expect that an officer who spends 25 years conforming to institutional expectations will emerge as an innovator in his late forties. “

The post-Iraq/Afghanistan Marine Corps will present unique challenges and opportunities for the next generation of our service.  Fewer resources and an undefined mission will pose challenges that most Marines have yet to experience.  However, this also offers an opportunity for innovative Disruptive Thinkers and Doers to reshape the Marine Corps into the organization that will fight our nation’s future enemies, whoever they may be.  Hopefully they stick around.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Getting the Right People to Listen: An Army JO With Solutions Wonders How

Sparked by the discussions on this blog and at Small Wars Journal, 1LT Kyle Atwell emailed me with a question about implementing innovation in the military.  Boiled down to it's most basic elements, it is one this blog has been trying to figure out for the past few months:  How does a Junior Leader influence change in an organization that is resistant to change and highly hierarchical in nature?  

If you are a senior leader with recommendations, or a Junior Leader who has influenced change, please weigh in and help the 1LT with an effective method to implement the tactical solution he outlines below.


I am an Army 1LT Heavy Weapons Platoon Leader. I served in Wardak Province, Afghanistan as a Rifle Platoon Leader with my current unit in Tangi Valley and then on Highway 1 from October 2010 to October 2011. I love serving in the Army Infantry, but have grown frustrated with what I perceive as a high level of risk aversion that impedes company and platoon level leaders from utilizing the full potential of their forces -- the very leaders who are actually on the ground in villages fighting the fight.

My question is best understood if I provide a little background:

In my twelve months in combat I came to believe that the use of ATVs [All Terrain Vehicle] in combat operations in the mountainous parts of Afghanistan will provide a decisive tactical advantage for coalition forces. The MATVs [MRAP All Terrain Vehicle] and MRAPs [Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected] currently used by the majority of ground forces are heavily armored and withstand IED blasts well, but have limited mobility in the mountainous terrain that dominates much of Afghanistan. Infantry units like the one I served in would greatly benefit from adding light weight, high mobility vehicles like ATVs to their fleet.

The Freedom of Mobility
The Special Forces unit that shared my outpost used them, and proved their value on every mission we conducted with them.  They were able to quickly move into dominant positions that my conventional infantry unit could not touch without giving ourselves away to the enemy or moving dismounted. The Special Forces team would use the ATVs to set up the isolation of a village before the enemy could flee, while my unit used our heavier vehicles to enter the village along roads and conduct our mission. As a Heavy Weapons Platoon Leader, one of my key doctrinal tasks is to set up isolation of objectives for Rifle Platoons; the use of ATVs in rough terrain like Afghanistan would provide the capability to do this in a way that MATVs and MRAPs can not.

There is a possibility my unit will return to Afghanistan in the future, and so I have begun to think of how we could improve our performance if we were to face similar terrain. I have presented my idea of using ATVs as the Special Forces unit did to my superiors and peers, only to hear that many have thought the same thing in the past, and while agreeing that it would provide an advantage, no approving authority will be willing to accept the tactical risk inherent in using minimally armored vehicles. "Nobody will want to have to explain why a Soldier was killed in a vehicle that had no armor" explained one superior.

My supervisor told me directly that he agreed the use of ATVs could be useful and he had brought up the use of ATVs in the past, but had been dismissed given their inherent risk. Battalion level leadership from my deployment to Afghanistan had pushed for the use of Toyota trucks as our Afghan partners were using, only to be turned down for over a year based on similar premises.

To be clear, the use of ATVs does add additional risk. However, myself and the men who would be taking the risk agree that the potential benefits are worth it. We as leaders are trained to develop risk mitigating measures, and could implement training and tactics to use the equipment appropriately and effectively.

The first thing my current Platoon Sergeant said when I asked him if he thought ATVs were smart to use in Afghanistan, was that they absolutely would have provided an advantage for certain missions, but only if we provided the appropriate safety and operational training to the Soldiers using them. His response is a testament to the capability and professionalism of Company level leaders, and an indication they can be trusted to make appropriate risk assessments in the use of ATVs if they are only given the opportunity to add them to their toolkit.

In this instance the Commanders and leaders on the ground (including the NCO and Junior Officer war-fighters I worked with) all agree the use of ATVs, with appropriate safety measures, would provide a significant tactical advantage, yet nobody who can make it happen wants to take the leap to do so given the added risk. Either that or the idea has never reached the people who can make it happen in the first place. I see this as a problem of battling a risk averse and set bureaucracy with an innovative and potentially game changing idea. I feel particularly frustrated because as a Junior Officer, I have very little ability to impact the decision making process on this particular issue, even though I have first hand experience with the dilemma.

Do you have any advice on how a Junior Officer in my position could go about influencing an issue such as this one that would affect the realms of doctrine, training and procurement... all realms that in this instance are well above my pay-grade?

I don't want to just be told that using a piece of equipment that could change the game for us (not just my unit, but all Infantry units in the mountainous parts of Afghanistan) in the next couple years is not going to happen, and because I am a young officer I should not pursue this idea. I have considered publishing articles (though I do not know the most effective way to go about doing that) and going straight to superior officers (though I do not want to break my chain of command).  How does a Junior Officer influence change in an Army that is resistant to change and highly hierarchical in nature?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Junior Military Leader Hackathon

Over the past few weeks, this blog and others have been asking a lot of questions pertaining to the relevance of our current military system, and the path forward.  We've started discussions, and occasionally raised the ire of more experienced warriors.  Questions are good, but more needs to be done by the questioners, myself included.  We need to be constructive and put forth actionable solutions.

Part of the problem is that many of us who want to see change, or have a good idea, are occupied with our daily jobs.  For those of us in the military, it is what we are paid to do, and hours spent daydreaming about new solutions can potentially take away from combat readiness. The latter should be the priority, especially in time of war, but there has to be some way to flesh out good ideas in detail without sacrificing the requirements of a competent operator.

A way to start would be considering the implementation of an idea used by companies such as 3M or Google.  Employees are allowed to use up to 20 percent of their work hours on individual projects not related to their job.  In doing so, they pursue those areas they are most passionate about, and usually create some pretty neat products.   When sharing them with other colleagues during random conversations, other sparks catch fire, and new innovations occur. 

Admittedly though, there is a vast difference in requirements between an engineer in a lab, and a company commander charged with the wellbeing of his troops.  Some other method, leveraging outside work free time, needs to be considered.

Collaborative Hacking
Fortunately, the private sector has an answer.  The past few years have seen the rise of weekend-long Hackathons and "Startup Weekends."  This is an opportunity to flesh out ideas in an unconstrained space that cannot be explored in the course of normal employment duties.

They are time intensive, but incredibly productive and swift.  It is a model Junior Military Leaders should embrace -- and the last part of this post will explain a formal proposal.  Indeed, this was first explained to me in a military context by a Marine innovator named Tony Hatala.  But first, let's look at the conceptual models further.

Hackathons are usually a gathering of programmers designed with a focused goal in mind:  Develop a specific app, create a new piece of software using a specific type of coding language, or even create a website for a certain cause.  They begin with a presentation about the goal at hand, and the formation of ad hoc teams of any size.  These teams develop their own internal hierarchy and divide up tasks.  Over the next 48 hours (usually on a weekend), each team creates a fully developed product that they present to the group at the end.  Some are sponsored within established companies, others are simply offered openly to the public. 

After the weekend, the projects are taken to full scale launch, or discarded.  But the ideas generated help inform future projects and strengthen the relational ties between people who wouldnt normally work together.  Ultimately, it is a way to rapidly get ideas and solutions generated in a concentrated, unconstrained way.

Startup Weekends are similar, except an entire business and its associated model are created.  Within each group, roles are assigned: CEO, CFO, Operational Strategist, Marketing, etc.  They create a pitch for potential investors, and at the end of the weekend, try to get funding from angel investors in the audience.  Many don't make it, but some do.  At the very least, it links entrepreneurs with like-minded people, creating networks where none previously existed.

Now to the proposal.

A Face of Things to Come
On Wednesday, June 6th, the Naval Warfare Development Center is hosting a Junior Leader Innovation Symposium entitled Engaging and Empowering Junior Leaders to Regain our Innovative Advantage.  A large part of this Symposium is a forum where Junior Military Leaders will be able to discuss problems and solutions, with the possibility of them being acted upon by Senior Leadership.  It is a superb example of innovative thought being incubated and supported by two and three-star leaders. 

One day in one space is a great start, but more can be done to develop whatever ideas are proposed.  Thus, Disruptive Thinkers will be hosting a cross-service Military Leaders Hackathon in San Diego on the weekend of June 9-10.  We want this to happen in other cities as well.  We encourage entrepreneurial military leaders of any rank to take part.

The session will begin with an explanation of the specific problem to be tackled.  Rank will be irrelevant, and first name exchanges will be highly encouraged.  We will then form teams of 8-10 people, and break off for two 8 hour sessions on Saturday and Sunday to come up with a comprehensive solution to the problem. Each team will create their own assignments, and determine the best way to move forward with solving the given issue. 

These problems will be culled from those assembled at the Innovation Symposium the Wednesday before, as well as bigger issues like Creating a 21st Century Career Model, Reforming Military Procurement, and Military Pension Reform.  By the end of the Sunday session, a fully referenced white paper with the proposals will be submitted and reviewed.  Even better, individual cells can propose more innovative ways like new websites or products that would be more accessible than the traditional document.  The best solutions will be posted on the DT blog and sent up for action to senior leaders.

We want max participation from junior officers and junior enlisted across the services.  Senior leaders are welcome to participate, with the understanding that it is a grassroots, non-military endorsed venture.  Civilians of all stripes are encouraged to take part, both the get a feel for the military culture, and add their valuable outside insights to the issues being tackled. 

Please email if you are interested in taking part or leading a Hackathon cell in your city.  Additionally, please pass this along to any and all of your networks -- lets leverage the networking tools our generation utilizes anyway for the good of the services we love.

I've been inundated by requests from junior personnel who want to make a difference.  This is our first shot at making it work, and we will learn from our failures and successes.  Many of us have discussed the same problems over and over -- now is our chance to truly push for change in a constructive, collaborative and meaningful way.  Perhaps none of our proposals will be accepted, but the act of taking part will be valuable, and get some new ideas into the increasingly open-sourced square of military thought.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Launch of the DC Cell

The Washington, DC Disruptive Thinkers Cell will be having their first meeting this evening (Thursday, May 3rd) at 6:30pm.  If you are in the DC area, and interested in what we're doing out here in San Diego, be sure to stop by Bullfeathers.  (401 1st St SE)  Michael Clauser is the point of contact for the event.  Email me directly if you want his information.

If you are interested in starting a chapter in your own city, please let me know.

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.