Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Disruptive thinking and unnecessary modifying modifiers

I really don't get this disruptive thinking concept floating about the blogosphere recently. I certainly get the complaints of many of the pro-disruptive types, but I'm not sure I understand what's unique about the concept of applying entrepreneurial thinking to military thinking. This has been done in many ways over the past decades in the U.S. military. I get that a lot of disruptive thinking centers around young guys who think they have at least some of the answers to our biggest strategic problems and they want to be heard. Got it. I don't disagree. 

I think my problem with disruptive thinking as a concept is that the modifier "disruptive" isn't necessary. We'd all love for the military to listen to the great ideas of young lieutenants and sergeants if they're good ideas. But it's not disruptive. It's merely thinking. I would go so far as to suggest that adding "disruptive" unnecessarily to what you're suggesting you want to do may cause current leadership to dig their trenches a bit deeper and add overhead cover. 

I don't like the term and I don't think the concept is new. I'll continue to watch it, but I'm just not convinced it has merit as "disruptive." Maybe we should just push for more "thinking" in the military and that might solve a lot of our problems. I'll end this short post with some advice from Combined Arms Center's Doctrine Update (December 2011):
Doctrine authors are encouraged to avoid using the latest catch phrase as an adjective to modify simple nouns. In the past three years, "full spectrum" appeared - incorrectly - to modify almost anything. Modifying nouns with trendy adjectives, such as full spectrum, decisive, full dimension, distributed, agile, and dominant, rarely adds meaning and often shortens the shelf life of otherwise good doctrine. Authors should strive to use concise, direct, and straightforward language. They should call things by their simple names and avoid lengthy or soon-to-be obsolete catch phrases that do not enhance meaning. 
So say we all.


  1. Eh. It's branding. Enables people to describe some thing/place/idea without the overly verbose.

    "iPhone." instead of "voice transmitting, global information network accessing, electronic communication machine made by Apple incorporated."

  2. Not to beat a conversation we had via Twitter to death, but I thought I'd consolidate a few of the thoughts here.

    I think many people are using the term differently, including several articles in Wired magazine over the last few days. I am using the term as defined by Clayton Christensen in "The Innovator's Dilemma," where he codified two distinct types of innovation. The first is "sustaining innovation," which fits with the established organization's resources, processes and values they have in place, and are hence favored by the bureaucracy and technical experts. You can empirically prove the value of the innovation using existing metrics along performance attributes the organization values. Sometimes people confuse technological S-curves (a new tech that does basically the same thing much better) or radical technological breakthroughs with disruptive innovation, but both are most often sustaining innovations if they improve performance on existing criteria.

    Disruptive innovation is usually simpler, cheaper, more convenient, and serves a previously un-served need, or over-served by existing solutions. They have a subset of functionality required by the new "customer" and are valued by different attributes.

    I think that UAVs, such as Shadow and Raven are disruptive because they lack the performance available in F-15s and Apache gunships, but are available to small units who otherwise would not have air reconnaissance capabilities. Meanwhile, the USAF loathes the Global Hawk because they are implementing it as a sustaining innovation, where it falls short in direct competition with existing manned platforms, such as the U-2.

    It's important to understand the difference to better exploit opportunities and avoid wasting resources, or worse, allow adversaries to get a lead. It's often easier to catch up on sustaining innovations, but a lead in disruptive innovations can provide major advantages. Besides the ability to distinguish between the two types of innovation, it also requires commensurate institutional work. Disruptive innovations are normally smothered in the crib if they are implemented in the organization they "disrupt." For example, not one mainframe manufacturer successfully made the jump to minicomputers as they destroyed the former's market. Likewise, how would the Air Force have treated UAV development had they succeeded in controlling all DoD programs?

    Another example is the creation of Special Forces. While the Army was focused on Soviet tank forces in Europe, Special Forces tried to develop irregular & unconventional warfare competencies, but had to compete with the dominant theme. Similarly, IBM spun out a separate, autonomous organization to develop personal computers, and hence were the only mainframe manufacturer to jump to another computing platform. They were able to create a new organization focused on the new endeavor with its own resources, processes and values commensurate with the mission, without having the best people or resources taken away to compete in the traditional business (which was still making nearly all of their profits). Likewise, without forming a separate organization, the existing main mission will always trump it for resources.

    I understand the skepticism to applying business (or any other outside) models to this context, but I think there is some value in adapting this model.

  3. I'm engaging in full-spectrum, retro-joint, hybrid, 5GW, networked, grand tactical, Design-based, DIME- integrated, three-block organized, effects-based, coup d'oeil-ishly disruptive thinking!