by Morgan G. Keay
“Start with the end in mind.” “Know your enemy.” “No plan survives first contact.” We’ve all heard the adages yet struggle to live by them when tackling problems as complex as global conflict and instability. I have engineers, so I’ll try to stabilize country X through infrastructure projects. I have XYZ resources and authorities, so that’s how I’ll tackle this mission. Once I know my commander’s guidance and the plan produced by MDMP, I must stay the course. All of these familiar soundbites run counter to the truisms above.
They start with tasks instead of purpose or ends. They focus on one’s own assets and agenda but ignore those of the harder-to-know adversary. And they resist the imperative to adapt. In matters of war and peace, such myopia, ignorance of the unknown, and intractability are more than inadequate…they are deadly. Yet the antidote to these pitfalls is not better intelligence, flashy analytic software, or a new and improved planning methodology as it sometimes called for. It is something deceptively simpler: a mindset shift.
In their bold manifesto Finding Ender: Exploring the Intersections of Creativity, Innovation, and Talent Management in the U.S. Armed Forces published by National Defense University (NDU) in May 2019, Motive expert and retired Army Strategist Dr. Susan Bryant and her co-author Andrew Harrison lay out a compelling and urgent case for prioritizing, and yes even routinizing, the mindset of creative thinking in the U.S. military (and arguably in any institution tackling complex, messy problems like human, national or global security.) Creativity, they argue, is not a frivolity or passing fad, but a critical requirement on which the U.S. military is falling short.
The authors start by confronting an uncomfortable paradox: that successful military careers are currently predicated on rule-following, while successful militaries are intended to address problems unbeholden to rules. Bryant and Harrison remind us of all the ways out-of-the-box and divergent thinking are eschewed at the individual officer level in favor of behaviors that reflect adherence to convention. The Obedient Soldier archetype is rewarded for conformity and discipline, not creativity and disruption.
Ender helps us consider the costs of this, along with the risks of not attracting, accommodating and advancing truly creative thinkers and creative thinking in the military. Lack of creativity means loss of competitive advantage and reduced ability to anticipate events before they become facts (after it’s too late). As the authors of the 9/11 Commission Report warned, without creative thinking, even the largest most disciplined governments are unable to anticipate profound new threats such as non-state enemies weaponizing commercial aircraft – which the Commission described as the “failure of imagination” that resulted in the 2001 attacks. Just as the 9/11 Commission cited an urgent need in 2004 for “as much creative thinking as possible” in the U.S. national security community, Bryant and Harrison offer a sharp diagnosis of the problem and precise treatment options for the Joint force of today.
Meticulously researched, Ender cites numerous empirical studies that reveal a lower proportion of people neurologically inclined towards creative thinking among military service members as compared to the general American population. Military officers tend to be cognitively inclined towards convergent, critical thinking instead of divergent, creative thinking. Critical thinkers possess a cognitive aptitude for ordering facts in a way that facilitates decision-making – an undeniably critical capability in the military – whereas creative thinkers tend to seek insights that help understand problems and generate ideas and options. Understanding problems and creating options (i.e. COA development), most would argue, is just as critical for platoon leaders as for grand strategists. Yet the officers with the mindset to do this best tend not to advance in their careers as quickly -- or choose to leave military service earlier -- compared to their critical thinking peers. The consequence is that as you rise in the ranks, there are fewer and fewer people naturally inclined towards a creative mindset.
A military (or any organization) dominated by any single mindset is problematic, Bryant and Harrison explain, because they lack the diversity of perspectives needed to anticipate and evaluate infinite unknowns (i.e. the moves of unpredictable adversaries or competitors), they experience lower levels of innovation, and they stifle the mental agility needed to adapt those pesky plans that never survive first contact. Bryant and Harrison point to countless structural and procedural factors that perpetuate this “cognitive homogeneity” in the officer corps, including promotion standards that reward conformity, and the too-little-too-late strategy of waiting until mid-career Professional Military Education (PME) to introduce the concepts of innovation, design and creativity to a cadre of officers who have advanced in spite of these qualities and are expected to suddenly integrate them into their leadership.
One might expect a poor prognosis at overcoming the crisis of creativity the U.S. military is suffering since Bryant and Harrison’s diagnosis makes clear the monumentality of changing the mindset of a 3 million-person institution. But just when Ender leaves us wondering how to overcome the structural deficit and bias against creativity, the authors lay out pragmatic recommendations across the DOTMLPF-P spectrum to do just that. They recommend the military embrace commercial and scalable tools to identify individual service members’ cognitive types (i.e. the ISPI tool) that can inform career assignments in a way that ‘bakes in’ mindset diversity at every organizational echelon. And they suggest new paradigms for recruitment and retention that cater specifically to creative thinkers. In so doing, Bryant and Harrison show us what a force of the future might look like and how to get there. A creator herself, Dr. Bryant isn’t leaving that future to chance…and neither is Motive.
Through her organization, Strategic Education International (SEI), Dr. Bryant launched an innovative two-week curriculum for the Army focusing on creativity and grand strategy, knowing first-hand the imperative of creative thinking in this career field as a former strategist herself. Natural partners with shared values and missions, Motive is proud to support SEI’s Strategy Essentials course with a 3-day segment from our popular Transforming Crisis Systems (TCS) course, which routinizes creative + critical thinking to enhance problem analysis, planning, targeting and assessments through a six-step methodology. Tested and proven in applications from countering violent extremism in the Sahel to addressing the Venezuelan migrant crisis in Colombia, TCS aligns creativity and doctrine through the principles of systems- and design-thinking and has wide operational utility for the Joint force.
Through training and education like Motive’s TCS, for whom Dr. Bryant serves as a distinguished instructor, and SEI’s Strategy Essentials course, our organizations are taking action on the recommendations put forth in Ender to introduce the concept of cognitive diversity and build aptitude in creative thought. Nearly 1,000 servicemembers and DOD civilians have completed TCS since 2017, including Special Forces teams, service HQ planners, and security cooperation program managers at CENTCOM, and the course is now accessible via the UEWTEP program to the entire Joint SOF community. Strategy Essentials, launched in 2018, has already reached military and civilian strategists assigned to every major Army and Joint HQ. Our growing community of practice is proud to be a part of the creativity movement Bryant and Harrison champion in their watershed Ender report, and we are honored to be affiliated with the Eunomia Journal.
About the Author
Morgan G. Keay is the Founder & CEO of Motive International, a Washington-based social enterprise focused on global conflict mitigation. She is a former U.S. diplomat who served in Afghanistan from 2011-12.