Quantico Tactical

Disruptive Thinkers – The Disruptive Poets Society

Army Special Forces officer Grant Martin wrote a piece for ‘Small Wars Journal’ on effective Disruptive Thinking. Very good article and well worth your time to go read it. Make sure you check out ‘Disruptive Thinkers: The Disruptive Poets Society.’

I was actually encouraged and cultivated to serve as a disruptive thinker during various parts of my career. Unfortunately, the institution I served, as unconventional as it was, wasn’t entirely made up of the open minded. The institution isn’t a monolith and that goes both ways. Conventional units will have freethinkers and SOF will have their dogmatic followers of the status quo. The military attracts joiners and you have to be aware of that. Some folks are more than happy to be cogs in the machine, as clunky as it might be. And, you will often work for someone who is really good at going with the flow and getting promoted. Generally, these types are staff officers or XOs and serve as door keepers. Be prepared for that. Instead of looking at you as an asset they will feel that you are upsetting the boat. When possible, wait them out or learn how to co-opt them.

I have interesting perspective having served in both the Army and Air Force, with most of that service in SOCOM organizations or other similar assignments. Over the years I learned a couple of things that initially didn’t make sense to me as a disruptive thinker. First off, it’s pretty hard to think outside the box if you don’t know where the edges of that box are. Learn doctrine cold. Then, take a look at how you actually do business. This is where disruptive thinking begins; in the seams between doctrine and reality.

Second, it’s ok that the institution resists change. Not every idea is a good one so it’s actually a good thing that the military doesn’t change how it does business willy nilly. Make sure the idea is worth it and be prepared to defend it in the context of doctrine.

Next, don’t make long-term changes based on one person. Once I had a boss ask me, short of cloning, how we could another me once I PCSed to my next assignment. They had created a duty position that was uniquely me, much like this website. I had a skillset that was outside of my careerfield and there was no way that they were going to get someone like me at my grade level with my experience. They had to reconsider what that duty position’s value was to the command once I left.

Real change isn’t made with fielding a new widget. Don’t confuse wanting to buy a piece of kit with disruptive thinking. In particular understand DOTMLPF. Real change is generally effected in other ways than kit and that shiny new piece of gear often requires changes in other areas well including organization, logistics and training.

Keep change simple. Like Albert Einstein said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

Finally, only try to fix one thing at a time. The institution isn’t prepared to make wholesale change. Often, to effect what you see as real change, you feel that a lot has to happen. Instead, analyze your concept and the institution. Look for that one item that will not only improve the institution but also make them open to more of your suggestions. Remember that door keeper I mentioned above? Look at your idea from his perspective – Red team yourself.

Chances are good, if you’re an SSD reader, you are constantly looking at how to do things better. Learn to harness those thoughts and look at things from different points of view in order to anticipate friction points. When you are ready to present them, know your audience and seek out buy in.

10 Responses to “Disruptive Thinkers – The Disruptive Poets Society”

  1. AttackBlue1 says:

    Great article. I can saw from experience, that this type of contribution is not appreciated when it comes from a 2LT.

  2. RJ says:

    Need to read SWJ more. I would venture to say that it would be a cold day in hell when “Harnessing Disruptive Thinking” makes it into the NCOES curriculum, but it needs to be. Very constructive if applied properly at your level (IMO) and VERY destructive when allowed to run rampant without guidance.

    • straps says:

      …which is precisely why there is such a crisis in confidence in the NCOES curriculum–especially at the SLC, 1SG(Not AC-relevant–let the Reserves conduct it. What? They’re killing it off too? WOW!) and SMC levels).

      But yeah, this post is in my Favorites, along with all the hot-linked content. Funny thing is that Disruptive Thinking faces the SAME obstacles in ANY ESTABLISHED organization with an authority structure. In the private sector, stockholders–and their lawyers–will get in the way and in the public sector members of the public, elected and appointed officials will stop change cold.

  3. jack says:

    Thank you GG for posting that article, especially the comments of yours. That’s exactly the type of Jedi guidance that I’d be looking for in my position.
    You need to write less about gear and more about how to make it happen… alright, scratch that first part, just write more! 😉
    Thanks again

  4. chris says:

    Ha! Totally happens in the civilian world too. I always like working with the bosses that aren’t hidebound.

  5. majrod says:

    GREAT article. Unfortunately MOST who consider themselves disruptive thinkers blow off your first point. “Know Doctrine Cold”

  6. John says:

    One of the most insightful posts I have read in a while. It is the seams between doctrine and reality that requirements are defined and requirement driven development works for the end user. Some of the SOF community embraces this end and is pursuing solutions earnestly. Thanks for the words. There are many like minded individuals in the fight.

  7. BradTFA308 says:

    we have wars occationally that help us move along. But there is still stupid resistance. Also lessons that some need to learn over and over again.

  8. Ed says:

    Check out MBA programs were they teach how to transform organizations based on constantly updating requirements. Unfortunately, just like generals wanting to refight the last war, organizational executives wish that the skills, strategy and tactics that got them to where they are to be still retained as relevant even when the situation has changed sufficiently to call for modified skills, strategies and tactics if not outright new ones. The wise manager understands that many times the best ideas bubble up, not trickle down.

    “In Los Angeles, he was asked at a press conference how he was able to get such outstanding competence and devoted loyalty from his staff, “I never tell people how to do things,” replied Patton, I tell them what to do but not how. If you give people responsibility, they will surprise you with their ingenuity and reliability. Also I never indulge in the discreditable habit of naming the next superior as the source of adverse criticism while crediting myself with complimentary remarks, Loyalty operates both ways, down as well as up.”” – Colonel Robert A. Allen, General Patton’s Chief of Combat Intelligence.

    At the last Third Army staff meeting on VE Day, General Patton had this to say to his staff:
    “This will be our last operational briefing in Europe. I hope and pray it will be our privilege to resume these briefings in another theater that still is unfinished business in this war. I know you are as eager to go there as I am. One thing I can promise you. If I go, you will go.”

    “I say that because the unsurpassed record of this headquarters is your work. It has been a magnificent and historic job from start to finish. You made history in a manner that is an imperishable glory to you and to our country. There probably is no army commander who did less work than I did. You did it all, and the illustrious record of Third Army is due largely to your unstinting and outstanding efforts. I thank you from the depths of my heart for all you have done.” General Patton got it.