Fires | The Power of Disruptive Thinking

The Power of Disruptive Thinking

MAJ Jason Carter


Civil War legend tells the story of a group of North Carolina Soldiers that scolded their comrades for leaving the battlefield when things got tough. The Soldiers threatened to stick tar on the heels of the retreating Soldiers to help them stay in the battle. The book Grandfather Tales of North Carolina History quotes Confederate GEN Robert E. Lee as saying, “During the late unhappy War Between the States, [North Carolina] was sometimes called the Tar-heel State because tar was made in the state, and because in battle the Soldiers of North Carolina stuck to their bloody work as if they had tar on their heels.”

These descriptions of the genesis of the term ‘Tar Heel’ are somewhat pejorative because they imply that tar was required to have a Soldier stay the course. However, over time North Carolinians adopted the term in a positive light to describe an unwavering commitment to the task at hand.

Many Army leaders, myself included, become Tar Heels in our approaches to problem solving. We are essentially stuck in offering solutions that lack creativity and original thought. We revert back to our comfort zones of scanning a shared drive or continuity folder to find precedence. We ask our peers for a ‘template’ (which may look strikingly similar to our final proposal). Perhaps we stick with what is the first step for most of us, typing “How do I…” into our Google search engine. None of these are inherently wrong. I am not an advocate of reinventing the wheel or ignoring effective precedence. However, until we have been formally introduced to problem solving, we simply lack the necessary exposure and experience that allows us to apply anything but the ‘comfort’ techniques listed above.

Somewhat ironically, the Army is counting on the Tar Heels from the University of North Carolina to remove the tar that many of us have on our heels of decision-making and problem solving. Their Strategic Studies Fellowship Program (SSFP) was one of many broadening opportunities offered on the 2014 menu of strategic broadening seminars.

Army leaders are expected to exercise disciplined initiative in ambiguous situations during decentralized operations. This is inherent to the concept of mission command. The army’s renewed emphasis on mission command is illustrated by the 2012 codification of mission command as a warfighting function. The purpose of this writing is to communicate the tremendous benefits offered by the University of North Carolina’s Institute for Defense and Business Strategic Studies Fellowship Program (UNC-IDB SSFP) as it relates to the successful execution of mission command. I will first highlight a few key tenets of the Army Chief of Staff’s (CSA) mission command related guidance. Then, I will highlight some of the key structural components of the program and how it relates to mission command. Finally, I will propose three recommendations for making the program even better.

Nesting with the Mission Command Warfighting Function

The CSA’s June 2013 Army Mission Command Strategy (AMCS) states that leaders “need education…to apply the principles of mission command,” which is “fundamental to ensuring the Army stays ahead of, and adapts to, the rapidly changing future environment,” characterized by, “uncertainty, volatility, ambiguity, complexity, increasing technological change, convergence of land and cyberspace operations, and interaction with adaptive adversaries…making decisions in a decentralized manner.”

Our leaders are expected to execute within their commander’s intent with autonomy unparalleled by our allies and most certainly our adversaries. As opposed to most traditional professional military education (PME) through the rank of captain, this course teaches our Army leaders not what to think, but how to think in order to solve complex problems. Graduates return to their organization knowing how to think and how to anticipate, recognize, and mitigate the effects of change. Equally, and perhaps more important, graduates distinguish how objectives and their associated decisions nest with national policy. Cooks, mechanics, medics, or radio operators achieve a whole new level of meaning and purpose when their commander or first sergeant explains how his or her seemingly habitual duty nests with a U.S. National Interest.

Another facet of mission command is that of problem solving. Staffs enable mission command when they successfully achieve Strategic Ends 2 and 3 (SE-2, SE-3) of the AMCS, which define imperatives for executing the operations process, supporting the commander’s decision making, and collecting relevant information to support the commander’s understanding and visualization. Staffs best support the commander’s ability to make decisions when they can accurately describe the problem to the commander and offer potential trends-based scenarios against which to plan.

We have examined a few highlights of the CSA’s mission command guidance. Let us now explore the structural components of the SSFP to further demonstrate its significance to leader development as described in the CSA’s guidance. In doing so, the reader will gain an understanding of how the program’s structure aids in better executing mission command.

The SSFP Structure and its Relationship to Mission Command

The SSFP purpose is “to enhance critical and strategic thinking skills. It is designed to increase the knowledge base for U.S. military officers, non-commissioned officers (NCOs), and federal government personnel.” The University of North Carolina’s Institute for Defense and Business administers the SSFP in collaboration with the UNC Partnership for National Security, Indiana University (IU), Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security (TCTHS), and the Triangle Institute for Security Studies (TISS).

Below is only a small sample of the caliber of professors who were instrumental throughout the course:

I place stress on the quality faculty of the course because of their role in the ‘disruptive thinking’ of the student. These educators are not merely schooled in their profession, but seasoned experts with rare experience to which most students in my class, this author included, had never been privy. The idea of ‘disruptive thinking’ is not meant to take anything away from traditional PME environments. Leaders that attend this course and are willing to suspend disbelief with an open mind to dialogue that at times conflicts with their incoming beliefs cannot help but have their archetypal thinking mechanisms disrupted.

The program opened with broadly scoped classes, such as scenario planning, the Constitution (as the foundation of national decisions), and the use of hard/soft/smart power to influence. Central to the concept of scenario planning was a pervasive theme throughout the course. Dr. Hugh O’Neill frequently said, “As the environment changes, so too must the organization.” O’Neill illustrated a failure in recognizing a changing consumer goods environment with the dethroning of Montgomery Ward to a more aware Sears Roebuck which was then dethroned by a more aware Sam Walton. Although a business professor provided a business-related example, there is unquestionable applicability to our military profession as demonstrated during the course’s capstone event.

The capstone event was a Strategic Options Proposal to a panel of distinguished guests. The panel consisted of Dr. Mark Cramer, President of UNC-IDB, Mr. Robert McMullen, Deputy Division Chief, Office of the Deputy Chief, Staff for Operations, Strategic Leadership Division, Duke University Professor Tim Nichols, and COL Ronald Clark, Deputy Director of Strategy, Plans and Policy, HQDA G-3/5/7. I was assigned to a team that provided a Strategic Option for the following problem:

How should the U.S. define and implement a plan for advancing its security interests in North Africa in light of the Eyptian, Tunisian, and Libyan revolutions, the burgeoning activities of VEOs like AQIM and Boko Haram, and the impact of regional political, social, and economic turmoil on our European allies? What is the Army’s role in this strategy?

After considering the most critical uncertainties (we chose governance and security) related to our future environment, we developed trends-based scenarios associated with those uncertainties. A critical component in planning scenarios is to identify critical indicators that suggest a deviation from the current or projected environment to a different environment or scenario. This enables the planner to prepare for, recognize and adapt to a changing environment. Based on those scenarios and indicators, planners can then present options and make recommendations. Commanders and other leaders can recognize change before it occurs. This newfound approach to anticipating and mitigating the effects of change is absolutely applicable to mission command, particularly as it relates to bringing clarity to ambiguity. Most Army leaders are not introduced to this type of problem solving until their brief introduction to design during Intermediate Level Education. SSFP graduates return to their organization with broadened problem-solving apertures and will provide an immediate and lasting impact.

During remarks at the course graduation, Clark stated the program makes the Army better only if the student returns to his or her organization bearing fruit from the tree of institutional education. To do this, chains of command have to send the right student with longevity and then afford them the opportunity to ‘pay-it-forward’ upon their return.

Considerations Going Forward

As the Army continues to place increased emphasis not only on mission command, but also on broadening its future leaders, the selection of those students competing to attend becomes more important. As the CSA stated when visiting our course, this is a deliberate investment in the Army’s best leaders. The best students may be the most difficult to let go TDY for five weeks. However, the return on the command’s investment will undoubtedly be recognized. The curriculum is very challenging and intense, but immensely rewarding. Careful consideration should be taken as to who applies, particularly as related to rewarding performance and to their remaining time in service.

The inclusion of our NCOs, particularly sergeants first class, into the student body proved invaluable to the course due to their ability to relate with candor our topics of discussion to the Soldier on the ground. The Mission Command Training Strategy says, “Embedding mission command in the Army will only be successful with the knowledge and assistance of our non-commissioned officers.” NCOs as students in the UNC-IDB SSFP was unprecedented prior to the 2014 course. It was the first exposure to this type of thinking for most of the NCOs in our class. Also, as we continue to spread the professionalization of NCOs around the globe, participation in strategic-level courses will add credibility to our own NCO corps in the eyes of our Allies. We should continue to intersperse our NCOs into the student population, possibly increasing seats when practicable.

Additionally, we should explore the feasibility of allocating funds within the Army’s current foreign military exchange budget to allow foreign participation in the program. First, it would strengthen diplomatic and military-to-military relationships between the U.S. and the sending state. Second, it would provide immense insight for the U.S. participants studying a particular region of the globe. Much of the curriculum revolves around considering the positions of others around the globe. A multi-cultural seminar would be a once in a lifetime opportunity that would provide cultural awareness that would be hard to replicate by an American professor.

Lastly, we should consider providing limited seats in this program to our sister services. Many students have not worked in a joint environment at this point in their careers. Students would gain a tremendous awareness of joint capabilities as they develop their joint response during capstone presentations, particularly in preparation for Intermediate Level Education at the Command and General Staff College.

As the CSA echoed when he visited, strategic broadening seminars like UNC-IDP SSFP are the Army's investments in the education of leaders who will operate in an environment of unprecedented complexity. The professional benefits of being broadened by Ivy League educated professors in a reputable institution are inestimable and will likely surface for years to come. While this writing is based solely on my UNC-IDB SSFP experience, it is one of many broadening opportunities offered by the Army throughout each year.

As the programs continue to evolve, it is imperative that we send the right leaders that aren’t afraid to remove the tar from their heels in order to be broadened in their methods of identifying and solving complex problems.

These opportunities are not going away. These are the types of opportunities that will separate the mediocre from the ambitious. Broadening opportunities are growing, and someone will fill the seats – if we don’t send the best, who will go in their place?