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Before Disruption….Thinking

“What you think, you become”

    – Buddha

“We are what we frequently do”

    – Aristotle

There has been a lively and still evolving debate in the milblogosphere regarding “disruptive thinkers”, starting with Benjamin Kohlman’s post at SWJ whose editor Peter J. Munson has done a fine job steering, collecting and commenting upon. A selection:

The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers by Benjamin Kohlman

Disruptive Thinking, Innovation, Whatever You Want to Call It is Needed for a Military in Crisis by Peter J. Munson 

The focus on disruptive thinkers coincided with a different but relevant debate over professional military education (PME) when a scathing blast was recently  leveled at the US Army War College by Major General Robert Scales (ret.) , himself the former commandant and a strong advocate of rigorous PME.  A few of the criticisms made by General Scales at a gathering at FPRI were mentioned in a post by Thomas Ricks who believes in shutting down the service academies and war colleges and maybe just sending everyone to Yale, Princeton and Harvard for MBAs. Or something.
What was interesting to me is that many authors and their points had less to do with a close examination of cultivating cognitive skills than related topics of changing organizational culture, the perils of groupthink, rehashing ideas from Frans Johanssen’s The Medici Effect and John Kao’s Innovation Nation, the superiority of entrepreneurshiphidebound military bureaucracy and other tangents to indirectly create an environment in which insightful or innovative behavior might happen.  Only Mike Mazarr zeroed in to the heart of the matter, writing:
….We need to improve, for example, in the detail and specificity of critical and creative thinking methodologies that we integrate into the curriculum.
There’s nothing wrong -in fact, much to the good – with the call of Kohlman and others like Joan Johnson-Freese to deliberately combine students and faculty of radically different professional backgrounds. Such a personnel mix is a good base for horizontal thinking to take place, where discussions can range across fields generating insights and analogies and accelerating learning.
However, just assembling a broad mix of talent and putting them together in a building is not enough because it is not any more goal oriented than a MENSA social. Good things might happen, sure, but just as easily not. This is why DARPA is a lot more productive of an organization on an annual basis than the Institute for Advanced Study. There needs to be a mixture of problem-solving and play, free inquiry or experimentation and unifying goals. Communities of interest have to first have a sense of community for the vibrantly sharing and inspiring “minds on fire” effect to take place.
If the military or more broadly, American society, wants a larger number of creative, innovative, “disruptive”, strategic or whatever kind of thinker, then the answer is to actively and purposefully teach students creative, critical, insight-generating and strategic thinking skills and to value intellectual curiosity, skepticism, imagination and empiricism over ideology and conformity. The other indirect, “better environment”, stuff certainly improves your chance of success, but systemic improvement will only come about by making such objectives the focus of instruction and learning rather than a haphazard byproduct.
At Best Defense, Ricks has provided a copy of his prepared remarks on PME as well as a link to the audiofile that I could not pull up the other day. Check out what he has to say.

16 Responses to “Before Disruption….Thinking”

  1. brad Says:

    Since military power does not exist in a vacuum but partners  with, if not at the beck and call of the political ruling class the question of optimal thinking is of parochial interest. Given the historical record how much optimal thinking is done at the political level?

  2. Lynn Wheeler Says:

    Boyd discussion on the disruptive thinkers thread:

    including various references that MBAs are part of the problem,
    another recommendation for MBA business style: Sayonara Sony: How
    Industrial, MBA-Style Leadership Killed a Once Great Company

    old favorite on systematic improvement (gone 404 but lives on at wayback machine)

  3. Erich G. Simmers Says:

    In fairness to Mr. Ricks who was also a panelist, his remarks at The Future of Professional Military Education symposium were very supportive of “good PME.”  He criticized the challenge and rigor of current programs, the strength of instructors as academics, and an overall product that results in too little critical thinking.  At the end of the day, his worry is that the “good” parts of PME will get axed with the “mediocre” in this budget crisis.  And that may be true.

    However, the whole symposium warrants a listen.  A lot was made of MG Scales remarks, but honestly I felt Dr. Johnson-Freese needs serious attention if you want to improve PME.  She argues that the people hiring professors for these programs are often not academics and rarely are able to evaluate academics in terms of being productive teachers and scholars.  If that is true, that is beyond scandalous.  If you care about teaching people critical thinking, you need more input from the professionals who do it every day–teachers.

  4. Erich G. Simmers Says:

    Also, here is a link to the audio of the symposium: http://www.fpri.org/multimedia/2012/20120418.symposium.militaryeducation.html

  5. zen Says:

    Hey Gents,
    Brad – IMHO, far less serious thought than even a generation ago. The talent bench in American politics today is disturbingly weak for a variety of reasons and to the worse, media and election cycles push “attractive” candidates to higher office before they are ready. Bush I. Reagan, Clinton, Nixon, Kennedy, Ike had years of seasoned experience before running for President. So did their top advisers.
    Erich G. Simmers,
    Thank you very much for the link – i will add it to the post shortly. I had heard that Ricks mellowed somewhat on PME since  the last few years but had nothing specific in that regard. Regarding hiring, great practitioners bring something invaluable and different to the table from great academics, which is important in professional education(of any kind) because success of major enterprises often hinges upon tacit knowledge that is invisible to outsiders (at least initially). That said, I would side with Ricks and Freese that there’s no excuse for hiring mediocre practitioners or those who can’t teach effectively. That drives talent away (both faculty and student)

  6. zen Says:

    The link is dead or is being reformatted – I will send an email to FPRI later and see if they have the audio up elsewhere that is linkable

  7. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    This disruptive thinking thing goes beyond the military. We’ve still got some folks around who don’t know the Cold War is over. And I think that maybe that’s part of what’s being discussed in this thread too.
    Thanks for the “disruptive thinking” meme.

  8. Lexington Green Says:

    If you encourage too much disruptive thinking, won’t just get a bunch of people giving the finger to established procedures, without any particularly valuable insight to add?  In other words, doesn’t there need to be a strong filter for disruptive thinkers?  Might such a filter be the implicit demand that the disruptive thinker be given credit only if he proceeds a great personal and professional cost?  John Boyd, for example?  Or St. Ignatius of Loyola?  It is easy to say “be creative.”  It is harder to try to run an organization where some plurality of people suddenly decide to be disruptive.  It is more fun and more cool to be disruptive.  But most people don’t have that much to add by being disruptive.  Just being a contrarian and all around jagoff here.

  9. zen Says:

     The Sony piece was fascinating – MBA ideology/frameworks are reinforced by managerial self-interest turning stewards who are part of an enterprise into an alien parasite cannibalizing a host. 
    You are right that Kissinger/Scowcroft are fundamentally shaped by a Kahnian Cold War legacy thinking. That said, I am not comfortable with the idea of nuclear zero as a policy goal ( I would give different reasons than K./S. – maybe K./S. feel the legacy framework makes their position more persuasive or comprehensible  – if so they might be correct) and think there should be a hedge or a sufficiency minimum ( I would guess the number would be 100-200 warheads) to deter in worst case scenarios.  I will put your post next to K/S in the next Rec Reading here.
    Hey Lex,
    “Disruptive” is the new buzzword du jour. It seems to encompass a range of activities more properly described as “action” or “education” or “culture”. Some of what they are ambiguously describing is good. Some of it, to my suspicious mind ( the lets send everyone to Harvard business school meme) comes across as a way to firmly assimilate military leaders (who have their own educational/professional track and come disproportionately from the South, West, rural and religious backgrounds)) into the mores/worldview of the new transnationalistic, oligarchic elite

    Your larger point is well taken. Crowdsourcing works but the fact is about 98% of the contributions are usually rubbish or half-formed fragments of good ideas (though they may very well be incidental catalysts for the other 2% who create breakthrough solutions, which is why free discussion is an invaluable social good, even with it’s costs).

  10. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    The goal Kissinger and Scowcroft are objecting to is 300 deployed warheads. I agree that we’re not to the point of talking about zero yet, but I don’t mind holding it as a long-range goal.
    On Lex’s point, I had a boss once who loved his own disruptive, without a filter, thinking. Very hard to get anything done.

  11. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    While I admire the thought/inclination of these officers, it is one thing to talk about disruptive thinking, but another thing altogether to “act.” Internal cultural pressures almost always tend towards consensus/compromise. It takes a harmonious (in the Boydian sense) understanding across the culture to accommodate creative actors. Consider Boyd’s use of harmony—a music metaphor. To get music, one must know how to play (conviction/knowledge/insight), but one must also “do” (initiative). “Harmony is the marriage of the contrary and the similar” recognizing and having the ability to adapt to this reality is the challenge to be met in a To Be or To Do culture. Just a thought.

  12. Scott Says:

    Lynn stole my thunder.  I went through an MBA program myself and critical thinking, innovation, and so on aren’t stressed, although to some extent problem solving is.  Mostly it’s about teaching business skills, and how to pursue profits.  Very little on developing your employees – they are looked at as a cost, not an asset.  The ultimate goal was to please the stockholders, although lip service was paid to shareholders.  That was my experience, anyway, and it was at a lower tier school, the University of Pittsburgh.  Then again, it was Harvard and Yale graduates that brought us the meltdown of 2008.  I’d say yes, the military and business schools have synergies that can be exploited, but both are badly in need of reform.

  13. Lynn Wheeler Says:

    Supposedly holy grail for vc people investing in silicon valley startups was somebody that had both a technical degree and an MBA … and did a 300pg business plan. however, supposedly a common characteristic of startups that had survived the first couple years was that they had completely changed their business plan at least once during the period (agile and adaptable). Basically on well traveled paths, the combination of technical degree and an MBA teaches what not to do … but going into the new & unknown, they may be of little use (and the MBA may be counter-productive, an analogy is commanders that have been super successful in past campaigns, may be the least able to adapt to changing conditions).

    Another common characteristic (startups), if new things that are being tried, there is a high percentage of failures (a characteristic of somebody that has never tried something new is somebody that has never had a failure). On the other hand, entities part of MICC and/or doing federal contracts … a common characteristic is the refrain to “never leave money on the table” … and knowingly continue down a path of failure until the current contract is run out (possibly only consider adapting with the followon contract … aka the pervasive “Success of Failure” culture).

  14. Kanani Says:

    But do they really want that?  Because if they did, they’d start early and discount all the AP courses, the IB classes, even the congressional appointments. And frankly, I doubt the service academies will ever do it.

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