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Wednesday, April 12th, 2006


William Lind, writing at DNI about dysfunctional Pentagon culture, has an essay “ The Fourth Plaguethat concisely explains how institutional scenarios can encourage or discourage creative thinking. Some excerpts and my commentary:

“The plague of senior officer contractors has effectively pushed those still in the military out of the thought process. Meeting after meeting on issues of doctrine or concepts are dominated by contractors. The officers in the room know that if they wave the BS flag at the contractors, they risk angering the serving senior officers who have given their “buddies” the contract. Junior officers, who have the most direct experience with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are completely excluded. They have no chance of being heard in meetings dominated by retired generals and colonels.”

This is a bad set-up on a whole number of levels as Lind correctly has observed. Experienced practitioners, regardless of the field- the military, medicine, law, education,whatever – are repositories of deep insights and lessons learned born out of painful experience. To be most useful as advisers, teachers or mentors to their juniors, they must remain in regular contact with their field’s emerging developments in order to make their lessons highly relevant. That means being “in the trenches” (in the case of the military, literally) periodically themselves or in direct contact with those who are. In the case of the U.S. military, that there would be an intentional disconnect of this kind between company and brigade commanders and senior advisers on doctrine is stunning. It is also a terrible signal to send in terms morale as well as ensuring that the OODA loop will be corrupted. Subordinates are not encouraged to tell the truth by this kind of set-up.

“The plague of contractors reinforces one of the military’s (and other bureaucracies’) worst habits, formalizing thinking. Concepts and doctrine are now developed through layer after layer of formal, structured meetings, invariably organized around PowerPoint briefings. Most attendees are there as representatives of one or another bureaucratic interest, and their job is to defend their turf. PowerPoint briefings not only disguise a lack of intellectual substance with glitzy gimmicks, they inherently work against the concept of Schwerpunkt. Slides usually present umpteen bulletized “points,” all co-equal in (lack of) importance. In the end, what is important is the briefing itself: the medium is the message.”

Here I will agree and disagree with Lind.

He’s absolutely correct about the “formalized” process being obstructive to clear thinking and negative toward new ideas that question comfortable assertions. The effect that would be derived here in such a hierarchical setting is the construction and continual affirmation of the official ” box” in which all thoughts must occur – exactly the opposite of the brainstorming, horizontal thinking, informed speculation and analytical challenges to sacred cow premises required for an insight-generating, creative, debate. The likely end-product from this kind of process would be group-think and increased isolation since the social incentives would be built-in to make potential options narrower ( “safer”), rather than broader (“risky”).

On the other hand, Lind is putting far too much emphasis on Powerpoint as a cause of the lack of innovative thinking. Powerpoint has its strengths and weaknesses like any other tool or format for the presentation of ideas. Plenty of mediocre, muddled, empty or damn fool ideas have been committed to paper or were presented orally and were nonetheless considered persuasive by virtue of their eloquence. Bad powerpoint briefs might still easily be translated into bad journal articles and we’d be no better off. The failure in either case stems from a failure to think effectively and an undue passivity on the part of the audience that should approach orthodox ideas of their institutional ” received culture” with as much skepticism as they do new ones.

What powerpoint does well is communicate deep ideas quickly and effectively by engaging the visual centers of the brain by offering representational models. It enhances cognitive “connection” to concepts. Anyone who has taken physics or geometry, certainly fields with as much depth as military theory knows the importance of the diagram in teaching concepts -although poorly explained visuals can also mislead (recall your elementary school diagram of an atom as a miniature solar system). Powerpoint slides can make poorly conceived ideas “look” better, no argument, but they cannot change the substance.

John Robb had some important comments on Lind’s essay today:

“Here’s how to break this: an open source movement within the junior ranks. Put the seeds of new doctrines in wikis and build a community to flesh it out. Build blogs to share ideas. Network them. Technology can be of service here to build a knowledge network that outpaces the formal network in quality, speed and flexibility by an order of magnitude or more. Route around the gridlock by making the efforts public. Get congressional sponsors. You could even get individual and corporate sponsors to pay for the platform development (under the condition that they leave it alone) — there are patriots out there that care.”

I agree. Along those lines, check out GroupIntel Blog and The Small Wars Council.

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