Saturday, 2 February 2013

Innovative thought - Theory and practice

One of the things I've gotten most out of writing this blog is enormous exposure to ideas which I wouldn't have had access to under normal circumstances. The Small Wars Journal is one of those resources. I've lost track of how I first came across SWJ but it's an amazing resource and underutilised in my opinion, selling itself short as a tool for anyone with an interest in strategic concepts and their implementation. To an extent Disruptive Thinkers (which I have been fortunate enough to write for) bridges some of that gap. It's not surprising that two of the articles below are written by the founder of DT.

There have been three pieces recently which stand out for me as a non military person as having a much wider utility. These are pieces which require the civilian reader to engage in a little lateral thought, replacing military terminology with business terminology. Below I've selected some choice quotes from the three pieces and my thoughts on them, emphasis is mine:

Intellectual Curiosity and the Military Officer by Benjamin Kohlmann

John Boyd got a degree in industrial engineering, with a detour into thermodynamic physics along the way, and revolutionized military strategic thought.  VADM James Stockdale went to Stanford and took a Masters in International Relations, but spent most of his time absorbing Stoic philosophy, laying the groundwork for his remarkable leadership in the hell of the Hanoi Hilton.  ADM James Stavridis earned a PhD in International Relations from Tufts, and is one of the most innovative flags to ever have served.  General James Mattis attended the National War College, and will forever be recognized as both a remarkable warrior and cunning diplomat.

You have to want to learn to learn.  If you are intellectually curious, you will go in search of answers – often finding them where you least expect them, growing wiser along the way.  Your curiosity will lead you to discover the world is more than either Mechanical Engineering or International Relations.  It is the complex interaction of both, and more. 
Reading, however, is just the beginning.  It, to paraphrase Peggy Noonan of Reagan speechwriting fame, is the sowing of intellectual capital.  It is the synthesis of all these ideas, and the vigorous interaction with others about these ideas, that create a mind able to tackle the biggest problems.
Read, but fail fast – namely, if something bores you, move on to something that doesn’t.  Learn things as they become relevant to the problems or interests in your given stage of life.  Read on a variety of topics, to include non-military fiction.   The human condition is better revealed in Hugo’s Les Miserables and Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo than nearly all psychology textbooks combined.
Ben summarises one of the deepest problems which exists in both business, politics and (I assume from my limited knowledge) the military. The diversity of thinking is extremely limited. People are not encouraged to read outside their subject area, or to seek qualifications which are outside their comfort zone. Synthetic thought, and to a large extent analytic thought are not useful skills, since disruption is challenging and often uncomfortable.

Failure is also not something which many of us are comfortable with. When it comes to reading I find there are two types of failure, failure to care, and failure to comprehend. It took me a long time to be comfortable with either type. Failure to care is the more frequent failing, I'll often pick up a book and realise within a couple of dozen pages that either I don't much care about the topic area, the writers style, or realise that the author has made his point early and the rest of the book is case studies to prove how smart they are (I'm looking at you Malcolm Gladwell). Failure to comprehend is the type which is more frustrating for obvious reasons, however it should provide a spur. It took me three attempts to read Osinga's Science, Strategy and War from cover to cover, and there is still plenty in it I don't fully "get".

Modern Warfare is a Thinking Officer’s Game: Why the U.S. Military Needs More Leaders with Technical Education by Jonathan A. Bodenhamer

Certainly a solid officer corps needs leaders with diverse educational backgrounds, but the fact is that international relations experts are not necessarily good at solving military problems.  Having just completed an assignment teaching Mechanical Engineering at West Point, I heard regularly the propaganda that Social Science and Leadership officers vigorously promoted, centered on the notion that on today’s battlefield, these are the skills an ambitious officer should focus on.  I could not disagree more with this.  My personal field is dedicated to the study of solving complex problems.  Yes, many of them are math based, but not all of them.  I argue that if an officer can break down and solve a complicated engineering problem, there is nothing preventing them from using the same analysis methodology to dissect and understand a complicated tribal/political problem in Iraq or Afghanistan just as successfully.
As we study Mission Command in the classroom now, I often see and comment on the fact that many of the basic premises of this “new” concept of leadership, from a problem solving perspective, are nearly identical to what I studied in Mechanical Engineering Design and later taught as an instructor.  The fact that six years of rigorous classroom engineering study has made me very comfortable with analyzing and solving complex problems I do not initially understand well makes taking on similar challenges in military operations somewhat familiar terrain from a mental perspective.  I absolutely benefit from a technical education nearly every day in the Army.

The well used quote by Greek philosopher Thucydides, “the nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools” perhaps applies now more than ever.  As we progress into a more and more technology driven Army, officers with strong technical educations are extremely valuable.  Just as engineers and scientists are actively recruited to lead the American business world, the Army should actively encourage its future officer leaders to pursue similarly rigorous courses of technical study.
Although this article may seem to be of less direct use to a civilian thinker this is to do it a disservice, since it speaks to the necessity of synthesis, a critical skill which is almost entirely lacking in traditional civilian agencies (particularly larger more established ones). Models of thought are based in large part on educational experience, and an engineer will have a radically different way of solving problems to a more traditionally trained graduate. Again this piece speaks to the simple fact that non-traditional thinkers may be as good, or indeed better, at solving traditional institutional problems (Whatever they may be in your particular institution) but contain a higher opportunity to solve problems in a novel fashion than a traditional thinker.

The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers by Benjamin Kohlmann

Yet, in reality, the very word entrepreneur is met with blank stares by career servicemembers– and in some cases, viewed as an anathema.  This is primarily because entrepreneurs see a need and without consulting higher authority, simply go ahead and try to solve it.  Their very nature inclines them to disrupt the status quo.  And of course, the one thing a vertically integrated organization like the military hates most is change.  Or at least, change that wasn’t decreed from on high.

Part of this stems from an antiquated, 1950s career model.   A large bureaucracy thrives best when it can promote the average individual in a one-size fits all ascension program.  This, however, necessitates sloughing off the highly talented instead of promoting them in accordance with their ability.  For example, a younger, Marine reservist friend of mine can be a Vice President of Goldman Sachs, overseeing their Hong Kong branch by the age of 31, but would barely be commanding a Marine rifle company at the same point.
The future lies with those individuals who can see connections across a myriad of professions and intellectual pursuits.  The mind that can see that a phone and entertainment device can be intertwined into something like, say, an iPhone.  Or, an intellect that recognizes how secondary and tertiary networks are often more valuable than first-order relationships, thus creating something like LinkedIn.  Or the strategist who understands that crowdsourced, horizontally structured non-state actors pose a greater threat to our security than Nation states.
The reason John Boyd was so successful was because he understood the world of thermodynamic physics and saw a connection with fighter aviation that his peers never could.  Steve Jobs built elegant and useful technology because he explored calligraphy in collegeIt was the fact that they investigated beyond their respective professions that gave them a truly brilliant edge. 
Orson Scott Card noted that “every officer learns how to function within the system that promoted him.”  So we get officers who think small, don’t understand the importance of broad understanding, and miss the trends that are shaping our world.  We get procurement officials who buy $150 million strike fighters when the future may be in autonomous, cheap, swarming drones.

It’s time we get leadership that understands the present.  This necessarily requires understanding the context of our world.  That context is not merely in artillery shells and Tomahawk missiles, but rather crowdfunding, horizontal management, social media and broad interaction with people not like us.  Adaptable strategy requires the ability to consider everything, not merely one thing.  The beginning of such thought is a Disruptive Mind. 
I've been thinking a great deal about disruption and innovation of late, for a variety of reasons too dull to go into immediately. Too often innovation is actually veiled iterative change, a marginal increase on someone else's ideas which are dressed up to appear novel. Truly disruptive and original thought is extremely infrequent, and in business is almost always the province of entrepreneurs, who's ideas are all too often hijacked by larger businesses who are able to add iterative improvements without truly innovating beyond the source material.

Google is all too often a good example of everything good in business, however their 20% policy may have something to do with their success (despite vigorous debate). The point is that successful or not the policy encourages individuals to push their intellectual boundaries in a way which a more traditional organisation would not. Although the majority of employees may even be unproductive with this extra time there is something seductive about the idea that 20% of one's week should be dedicated to things which are not directly work related. This is something which can be done outside the workplace of course, although it relies on individual drive to achieve it, and a willingness to set aside time to read and learn new topics. Imagine what you could achieve if you put aside 20% of your spare time to "learning" or indeed any productive activity outside your normal routine.

I'll leave by re-quoting the most meaningful quote in all three of these articles, and leave it at that:
The future lies with those individuals who can see connections across a myriad of professions and intellectual pursuits.


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