Wednesday, April 12, 2006

William Lind, writing at DNI about dysfunctional Pentagon culture, has an essay " The Fourth Plague" that 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.


Once again, thanks and a hat tip. Besides the PMC discussion, I hope the link to Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency by David Kilcullen will start some discussion/ debate on the board. Spot-on on what I call communities of interest fleshing out the issues...

Also, glad you found the graveyard amusing;-)
Hey Dave,

You're welcome ! SWC/SWJ are outstanding - the discussions are great and the links I find exceptionally useful - so much so that I often try to feature them here as well. Just wish I had more time to post !

I'll take a look at the 28 articles - something's wrong with my Adobe reader at home ( need to download again) so I'll print it out at work tomorrow - that nice, ultra-expensive laser copier in the department has its uses ;o)
Hi Mark,

I like the idea of using technology to open the floodgates of thought at the junior ranks, not only in military and foreign policy development, but in all fields.

As an aside, you know better than anyone how I feel about where our education system is headed with a test-only mentality. We are on the verge of creating an entire generation who will be trained to 'think inside the box.' This has potentially dangerous consequences across the board. We need a balance between vertical-horizontal thinking/knowledge-skills education in order to have large numbers of people in these fields (as well as in science and technology fields)in order to think outside the box and think more globally and in multidisciplinary ways.

You have some good discussions going, my friend!
hey Von,

well..I try....usually the most productive debates are where they have gone off in an unexpected direction.

Have an idea I'm going to run by you soon, probably via email, when I can snatch some extra time.

Give my best to K. !
Ya but, after drinking the Kool-aid, a PowerPoint must seem like a burning bush, you think?
This could seem trivial but bear with me please.

I have noticed this type of problem in the Navy with regards to our damage control/ shipboard firefighting protocols and training.

Junior sailors (and occasionally a junior engineering officer or two) who try to utilize new ideas and strategies for tackling shipboard flooding, fires and other hazards are always reprimanded via a number of ways (whether by criticism from above in the chain of command or on the damage control training teams, or even by the penalizing of their "fire teams/repair lockers" during training and testing evaluations").

It has gotten to the point where on several ships I've been onboard in 7th Fleet, especially my own, the same rehashed training scenarios are utilized over and over again, often in high-probablity zones for terrorist or foreign military attacks via missiles, suicide boats and mines.

Qualifications are increasingly earned by written tests, not oral examinations or on-scene evaluation. What's put on paper vs. what's in reality are two vastly different things, thus the constant need for CO's & XO's in charge of the ship's emergency response to tilt the testing, training and eval process itself towards a smaller realm of contingencies and scenarios that require less on-hand, practical knowledge of sailors and more memorization of written manuals and likely test questions.

Tanks for posting on this. And for the tip. I wrote some stuff about it on FX-based: http://fx-based.blogspot.com/2006/04/plague.html

Keep up the awesome work.

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