Monday, 4 March 2013

Recommended Reading: More Disruptive Thinkers

I've covered the topic of disruptive thinkers previously, and it's a topic which contains to be a fascination of mine. Small Wars Journal and other outlets continue to focus on the topic in the context of the US Armed Forces, and it certainly seems to be something which generates an impressive amount of passion. Today I came across this excellent piece by Major (I'm pretty sure that's his rank) Mark Jacobsen entitled Finding Common Ground: Harnessing Disruption for the Good of the Service.

Mark has produced an excellent synthesis of some of the key points surrounding the disruptive thinker debate and some of them bear deeper evaluation in the wider context of their non military application.
When Navy LT Ben Kohlmann published his landmark essay The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers, he ignited a firestorm.  He certainly wasn’t the first junior officer to criticize the ossified bureaucracy towering above him, but his critique was one of the most provocative and resonant, and it found a receptive audience in the military blogosphere and Twitter community.  The label “disruptive thinker” was sharp and controversial, a perfect brand name under which frustrated junior officers could rally.

Essays by such officers now make regular appearances, usually striking the same notes: frustration at the military’s poor leadership, cumbersome bureaucracy, failure to reward talent and innovation, and lack of flexibility in matching talent to assignments.  Small Wars Journal has continued the Disruptive Thinkers series, and journalist Tom Ricks regularly gives space to junior officers on his blog The Best Defense.  Ricks’ new book The Generals—about the military’s failure to hold senior leaders accountable—has also been popular reading among the junior ranks.  Most recently, former Air Force officer Tim Kane released his book Bleeding Talent: How the US Military Mismanages Great Leaders and Why It’s Time for a Revolution.  These provocative pieces are so common now as to be cliché.

The response usually follows a wearisome cycle.  Debates erupt in online comment sections, and bleed over into Twitter, milblogs, and the workplace.  Half the audience (usually fellow junior officers, but not always) resonates; they rally around the author, forward the essay to their colleagues across the globe, and pile on with their own critiques of a broken institution led by mediocre, risk-averse leaders.  The other half, typically more senior, grumbles; they savage the author for his or her immaturity, inexperience, and unwillingness to play a more constructive role in solving the institution’s problems.  They make quips about “disruptive non-thinkers.”  They point out that the military is not a business, and warn that adopting best business practices will ruin the military ethos.  If the author writes anonymously, critics accuse him or her of moral cowardice.
The issue with any disruptive thinker is that they are, by their very existence, trying to change things that others have a vested interest in. Immediately that sets the stage for acrimony and angst, as is pointed out above. However, there is a great and growing need for organisations to recognise that even the most successful business in the world should be challenged. Disruptive thinkers are the instinctive red teamers, constantly asking "What if..." and "Why don't we...", sometimes they'll be tilting at windmills, but other times their unique perspective will wring out a change that can have a positive impact.

Mark's piece could stand on the points he makes here alone, but he goes further to create a list of best practice not only for disruptive thinkers themselves, but also for those who manage disruptive thinkers and perhaps are struggling with their constant questioning.

For the Junior Officer Disruptive Thinker (I want to stress that this list is not one which is solely applicable to military officers, it is universally applicable):
The goal is persuasion.  Are you just making a statement, or are you trying to create positive change?  If you’re making a statement, rant all you want.  You’ll feel better (maybe) and that will be the end of it (and of your credibility).  But if you’re actually trying to create real change, you must learn how to persuade.  You probably aren’t important enough to create change by yourself, so you must persuade those who are.  That principle should guide your efforts.

Understand the problem.  Before you spend your precious capital tackling a problem, research why that problem exists.  Is there a rationale behind the status quo?  Why hasn’t this been addressed already?  There is a good chance your bosses are aware of the problem but are constrained, perhaps by their own bosses or by regulation or even by Congress.  Some problems you might be powerless to change; it’s probably a good idea to move on.  In other cases, you can identify who is responsible for the constraints--and who you need to persuade.

Don’t whine.  Nothing will destroy your credibility faster.  Senior officers want subordinates who can propose solutions and do what it takes to implement them; all whiners do is sap energy and poison attitudes while leaving the hard work to others.

Take yourself out of it.  Stick to facts.  Strip away emotion.  Learn from others so you can reach beyond your own experience.  You can sparingly use personal vignettes, but show your seniors that this is about the organization and not about you.

Be respectful.  You won’t go far in persuading your seniors if you insult them.

Build a reputation for commitment and competence.  As much as you’d like to think that your ideas stand on their own merit, the messenger matters.  Senior leaders will listen to you if you have a proven track record.  If your reputation is poor, your ideas probably don’t stand a chance.

Learn to communicate.  To persuade your superiors, you must package your idea well.  Learn to write.  Learn to speak.  Arrange demonstrations.  If you must, use PowerPoint.  Do whatever it takes to communicate your ideas to those who can implement them.

Edit down.  Your superiors are busy, and your proposal is one of twenty things that will cross their desk that morning.  Be succinct.  Present your ideas clearly, up front.  Your boss will not read twenty rambling, unfocused pages; there are no exceptions.

Use official channels--at first.  Official channels sometimes don’t work; they can be clogged and unresponsive.  However, sometimes they do work, and they are in place for a reason.  You owe it to your bosses to try them.  If the system works, excellent.  If not, then you can consider other avenues to advance your idea.

Enlist allies.  Somebody out there--in your own unit or elsewhere--shares your passion and stands to benefit from your proposed changes.  Find those people.  Build on your shared interests.  Hash out ideas together.  Pool resources and attack the problem from every possible direction.

Don’t worry about credit.  It might be your idea, but it will probably pass through countless hands and layers of supervision before it sees the light of day.  Be okay with that.  Be generous in sharing credit, and be prepared for the possibility that you won’t get credit at all.
A personal leaning in the last few years has been that there is a time and a place to operate within the system and to recognise that just because you can see an issue doesn't mean that A) Anyone else can and B) It actually exists. If you can't bring people round it's time to take a step back and ask critical questions like "Why aren't they listening" and "Am I wrong". That's part of being respectful and will prevent whining. Disruptive thinkers tend toward the more passionate type and it's extremely easy to get emotionally involved precisely at the time when a dispassionate attitude would be more helpful. Nothing will shut a superior down faster than a noisy junior who is trying to change things (from their perspective) for no good reason. Of particular importance is seeking to fully understand the issue, sometimes things are done because no one ever took the time to consider doing it another way, but that's pretty rare, most times the system is there for a reason and although it could stand to be improved some other factor has held it back.

Honestly, I might print that list out and stick it on my partition at work.

But equally I might pin the following list to my boss's partition, the list for Senior Officers those who manage Disruptive Thinkers:
Recognize the value of disruptive junior officers.  They might take your time and energy, but they are one of your most precious resources.  They want to do good for you and for the organization.  Find ways to help them do it.  Everybody will win.

Get involved in the conversation.  Countless junior officers are talking about disruptive thinking, innovation, and reform of personnel systems; with a few notable exceptions, the absence of senior leaders from these conversations is striking.  That sends a message.  Get involved!  Your junior officers will gladly help you find an inroad.

Take the initiative.  So far, junior officers have been leading the debate and senior officers have been on the defensive.  Don’t settle for that.  Lead!  Think, write, and speak about how disruptive junior officers can constructively channel their energy.  Show them that you value what they can offer.

Bear with inexperience.  Your disruptive junior officers are still learning the difficult art of creating change in a vast bureaucracy.  Their communication skills will vary, and they are drawing on limited experience.  They will make mistakes.  They will propose bad ideas, and their tone will sometimes offend you.  Hold them accountable, but be patient.  Remember, there is talent and passion latent beneath that inexperience.  You want to draw it out and put it to work for you.

Mentor disruptive junior officers.  You are a leader; one of your most important duties is to help subordinates learn and grow.  Teach them how to communicate and how to create change.  Show them how they can channel all their frustrations into something positive.  Counsel them when they make mistakes.

Ensure your formal channels are open.  When ideas languish and die in formal channels, it reinforces the message that leaders don’t care.  Disruptive junior officers will be tempted to seek alternative means of advocating ideas, which can be dangerous for everybody.  If you want your junior officers to work within the system, ensure your system works.

Give feedback on every idea.  Your junior officers will often bring forward ideas that are impractical, unworkable, or just plain lousy.  They won’t understand the problem or constraints; they will be blind to second or third order effects; you will anticipate problems that they don’t.  Instead of killing the idea without explanation, take the time to discuss your reasoning.  Affirm their commitment to work for positive change.  If the idea can be improved or altered, give them direction.

Reward innovation at your level.  The military’s assignment and promotion systems are largely incapable of rewarding creativity, innovation, and unique skill sets.  There is little you can do to change that, because the policies are set way above your level.  Don’t let that stop you from rewarding innovation at your own level.  Be generous with verbal praise.  Highlight unique accomplishments.  Create in-unit awards, if appropriate.  Do whatever is within your power to show that you value creativity and innovation.

Take a chance.  Many of the ideas your junior officers bring forward really will be good ones.  Don’t reflexively shoot them down.  If an idea might work, try it.  Your organization will be better if it works.  If it doesn’t, you and your subordinate will learn something and you will have demonstrated trust in your people.  It is also possible that the experiment will lead to a better, revised idea.
What I like about these two lists is that Mark has in essence created the basis of a contract between interested parties which, if abided by, will draw out the best elements of the respective roles the two players have. In principle this should ensure that conflict is minimised (unlikely to do away with it entirely) while maximising the opportunity for mutually beneficial developments over time. It creates a shared understanding if both parties agree to the terms of the contract. I wonder whether there could even be value in both parties signing a version of these rules if they recognise the potential for conflict.

Ultimately there will continue to be those on both sides for whom is is impossible to reconcile. The tilters are windmills on one side, and the entrenched protector of the status quo on the other. But hopefully over time there can be more on both sides who can embrace some (or all) of the elements above to find equitable ways to make organisational change.
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