All posts by Disruptive Thinkers

Constructive Disruption: The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum

DEFOne year ago today, an oft repeated, maligned and admired phrase kicked off a broad dialogue, bringing together a growing, widespread, and once-disparate community of defense innovators. Put simply, the idea of Disruptive Thinking was a call to question the status quo, to leverage existing innovative civilian institutions and to find crossover applications for use by the military. In the year since, however, a necessary question has been asked many times: What is Disruptive Thinking, really, and how do you put it into action? How do we link creative, emerging military leaders with the senior decision makers that can actually put their ideas to use?

We believe a compelling answer is the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. Rank has no monopoly on innovative solutions, and DEF2013 will be the engine to match warfighters “in the arena” with senior mentors hungry for ideas generated by creative, emerging leaders. This three day event, to be held at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business over Columbus Day Weekend 2013, will be a significant departure from conventional military conferences.

The Forum

DEF2013 is not associated with any traditional Defense entities, but instead produced of, by, and for emerging military leaders. The only agenda is creating practical solutions to enable more flexibility for senior commanders, and to impart a sense of involvement and empowerment to warfighters brimming with valuable tactical and strategic contributions. It leverages the power of diverse, short presentations with the creative ideation of hack-a-thon weekend events. These aspects are designed to tackle those issues most pressing to the current generation of military leaders and veterans.

There are two main elements to the weekend: The first consists of 20-30 minute talks by emerging military leaders, both officer and enlisted, with robust audience engagement. The Saturday morning session will feature a variety of topics presented by a diverse crowd of Disruptive Thinkers. Sunday’s morning session will showcase military entrepreneurs – both veteran and currently serving servicemembers – as they explore the connection between building an actual business and serving one’s country.

The meat of DEF2013, however, is in the hack-a-thon like afternoons. Ideas, generated pre-conference by actual attendees, will be discussed at length, and solutions proposed in a collaborative, freeform way. To support these breakouts, professors from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business will give two roundtables on marketing and sales, as well as be placed as mentors within the ideation groups. At the end of the weekend, each of the self-assembled teams will have come up with a comprehensive, relevant solution to whatever military problem they set out to tackle.

Integral to this is the engagement of senior leaders. Coming up with good ideas by emerging leaders is one thing – but guiding them through institutional inertia to reality, and providing mentorship to ensure they are implemented, is something uniquely suited to tested leadership. We are recruiting current and recently retired senior mentors to come on board to hear out, and perhaps champion, the ideas generated from the deckplates. Such great minds as LTG (ret) James Dubik and LTG Frederick “Ben” Hodges have already joined up, and we’re working to bring two to three more flag officers from each service.

Finally, Monday morning will culminate with a venture capital-like panel of local, Chicago-based entrepreneurs and Flag Officers. They will judge the best idea, solution and presentation, and in return for identifying the best solutions, engage on behalf of the winning team to get their project implemented.

The Reason

Why do we believe this is needed? What value does this add to the already ongoing discussion?
More than ever, recent battle-tested leaders, both emerging and senior, have had to adapt under incredibly challenging and unforeseen circumstances. Capturing their agile minds and putting them to use in solving current fiscal and strategic problems is necessary for the continued progression of our services. Without a doubt, the current century will become more complex as technology evolves, unforeseen threats emerge, and fiscal constraints set in. More importantly, we need to create a dialogue that elevates the professionalism and creative capabilities of our services as a whole.

Those of us writing today believe the next step in the evolution of Disruptive Thinking is not just through increased online interaction or relying upon status quo bureaucratic processes. Rather, it will be accomplished by bringing the most agile and innovative minds from across the military together in one place for a lively exchange of ideas and solutions. This is the heart of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum.

The Spark

While the original article on Disruptive Thinking was focused on leveraging education, we recognize that warfighting must always come first in any conversation about innovation and the military. This is inimically tied to the fact that people, not tech, are our greatest assets.

Immediately after the publication of the aforementioned article, members of what are now the DEF Board observed incredibly informative and coherent arguments related to military strategy and innovation over social media. Through many conversations via Twitter and Facebook, it became apparent that disparate networks of individuals, spanning all ranks and services, were effectively fleshing out the most pressing issues of the day in non-traditional ways.

It also became apparent that innovators have inherent ways of finding each other. As their distributed networks grow, cross-cultural (and cross-rank) engagement increases. Though they never meet, some even become close friends. There is a unique power in informal networks created by personal interactions, even if they begin in cyberspace.

Yet something was missing in this process. That element was the intangible benefit of seeing your intellectual sparring partner face to face. The discussions on Twitter, Facebook and various national security forums for emerging military leaders needed to come out of the virtual world and into the physical one.

While discussing this power of networking and the need for an in-person forum to build the relationships required to effect change, the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum was born.
Soon after inception, our personal networks pointed us towards the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, where they not only found a world class institution, but a strong veterans group. Leveraging the military experience and entrepreneurial education of recent veterans who are still engaged in national defense dialogue was a perfect fit.

Subsequently, the Executive Board was recruited and, quite inadvertently, spanned the armed services. Many were asked to join based on their disruptive writings – others because they were known practitioners of innovation. All are focused on creating a compelling experience that will unite, excite and build relational networks that will span careers.

The Call

And so, on Columbus Day weekend 2013, Saturday October 12th through Monday October 14th, we encourage the brightest and most creative emerging and senior military leaders to descend upon the Windy City. While there, we will discuss ways to push forward innovative and disruptive ideas, while doing so alongside senior mentors willing to consider our proposals.

We’ve lined up a great cast of speakers and professors to push this event forward. What we still need is you – your intellectual capital and your time – to engage with fellow innovators. We need both senior and emerging leaders to participate.

DEF2013 will be more than a conference to mingle and hand out business cards; it will be a unique opportunity to interact and connect with fellow military and veteran entrepreneurs to push your ideas forward. Sign up today at, follow us on Facebook, and become a part of putting Disruptive Thinking into action.

Gen Y and the Barriers to Professional Blogging

Where is the one-stop shop for all things tactical in the United States Navy? Is it held within the hallowed halls of the Navy Warfare Development Command? NWDC aggregates lessons learned, fuses experience with doctrine, models and simulates how we fight (and how we can fight better), innovates to provide warfighters with the latest technical solutions, and is best positioned to influence the future of Navy warfighting. We would be remiss if we didn’t periodically ask the question: how do we better communicate with those frontline Sailors who are executing doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures such that we improve our ability to change doctrine when necessary? Be it the blog, the formal request, or feedback in the form of professional journal articles, NWDC should tap the innovative spark residing in every combat information center in the Fleet.

How do we share their lessons learned?
            How do we share their lessons learned?

In every organization that thinks, the old guard is wary of the perspectives of the new, but has a healthy appreciation for their views, energy, and willingness to discuss their experiences. That feedback loop has always existed in any organization willing to robustly challenge the status quo, but the desired feedback is not available at a macro level within the Navy for a variety of reasons–cultural, technological, and social. Imagine the differences between a junior and senior officer sharing perspectives of a generation ago (when they might have privately shared a bridge-wing discussion of a professional article published in Proceedings), juxtaposed with the immediacy and reach of the modern professional blog:

“Gosh…I am writing about something online, which I care enough about to expose my opinions and limited intellect to the great unknown–which could result in numerous fanboys championing my cause and lauding me as the next Mahan–or could result in numerous subject matter wonks illuminating my ignorance and lambasting my conclusions…all in full view of my superiors in the chain of command.”

The perceived risks and rewards of sharing ideas online have never been greater in an era where the center of gravity in naval warfighting thinking has shifted from the dusty Naval War College Review lying unread on the shelf in the empty wardroom, to the simulator and the blogosphere. Speaking of the latter, where is the sailorbob or cdrsalamader ‘site on the high side? Given the requirement to keep much of our tactical discussion away from prying eyes, how easy has the Navy made it for the average watchstander to find high-side sites where tactics are routinely and robustly discussed?

The generational difference above most keenly illustrates the loss of intimacy in professional feedback. Whereas every Commanding Officer wishes to create his or her own wardroom of “Preble’s Boys,” there isn’t a big-Navy “brand” that elicits a similar desire for fixing problems; rather, the average junior officer views the naval bureaucracy with the same degree of mistrust and fatalism most Americans feel about big government bureaucracy. Additionally, Gen Y expects feedback to generate change (or at least to generate transparent discussion)–not to sit in some fonctionnaire’s to-do queue for months as tired stakeholders and “antibodies” deliberate change.

Why is it so difficult to attract Gen-Y thinkers to post about naval warfighting? For a generation raised online, which Dov Zakheim, Art Fritzson, and Lloyd Howell discussed in the article Military of Millenials, one would think that information-sharing is second nature.

…deeply ingrained habits challenge established organizational values. To command-and-control organizations like the military (and many corporations), knowledge is power and, therefore, something to be protected – or even hoarded. To Gen Y, however, knowledge is something altogether different; it belongs to everyone and creates a basis for building new relationships and fostering dialogue. Baby boomers and Gen Xers have learned to use the Internet to share information with people whom they already know, but members of Gen Y use blogs, instant-messaging, e-mails, and wikis to share information with those whom they may never meet – and also with people across the hall or down the corridor. Their spirit of openness is accompanied by a casual attitude toward privacy and secrecy; they have grown up seeing the thoughts, reactions, and even indiscretions of their friends and peers posted on a permanent, universally accessible global record.”

Unfortunately, the article also sheds light on barriers which senior leaders need to be aware of, when it comes to sharing those innovative thoughts.

And there is a still more challenging issue: A Concours Group report on generational change proposed (in August 2004) that Gen Y’s comfort with online communications may mask the group’s inexperience in negotiating disagreements through direct conversation and a deficit in face-to-face social skills. Beyond the implications for this generation’s future management style, how might such a skill deficit affect the military’s ability to “win hearts and minds” in future conflicts? In recent years, the military has done extensive training to offset educational deficiencies. Indeed, the promise of such training has been among its greatest attractions for recruits. Should the military now begin to focus on developing new recruits’ interpersonal skills, neglected through years of staring into cyberspace?”

How does Navy leadership make Gen Y more comfortable with confrontation online, in a command-and-control environment, to engage in that robust discussion essential to the discovery of better ideas and processes? Recruit football players? Take boxing classes? Teach verbal judo? Train a generation of naval officers that a prerequisite for robust discussion is the ability to confront, even to the detriment of consensus? Or do we encourage anonymous blogging in such a way that an individual feels comfortable expressing his or her thoughts without fear of repercussion? A blogger should always expect to face contention. Most ideas works at a certain level, but become cannon fodder for memes on other levels. To mitigate as much ridicule as possible, one needs to consider additional perspectives to preempt the ridiculous assumptions of online “trolls.”


Yeah I'll get to that tactics discussion, I just need to grab something out of my zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz....
Yeah I’ll get to that tactics discussion, I just need to grab something out of my zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….

The greatest factor we are fighting, regarding the target audience of young leaders is quite simply TIME. The average sea duty workload is something close to 74 hours a week. That’s lowballing the estimate, for the very leaders we somehow expect to be having these discussions and sharing their vital experiences (beyond their internal training teams). I still expect that junior officers, mid-grade enlisted, Chief Petty Officers are all engaged in those midwatch conversations about the best way to accomplish a mission, to fix a process, to kill more efficiently…but are simply too busy to push those ideas out to yet another feedback loop outside the lifelines, to whom sailors owe no particular loyalty nor do they expect to see any returns for their hard work.

The more insidious factor being a silencing of innovation in warfighting thought because of the perception that sharing of views outside of one’s own chain of command is seen in a negative light. Jeff Gilmore’s excellent post titled “Where is Lt Zuckerburg“  illustrates the challenges the military has placed upon its own innovators, from the lack of a coherent social media policy to the impediments placed upon junior thinkers by senior staffs. When coupled with the perception of ideas flowing into a doctrinal “black hole” once they leave the unit (due to the length of the vetting process, or due to failing to find advocacy outside the lifelines), what motivation do junior leaders have to share their ideas?

Another factor (WAIT! Was that a picture of a chicken wearing a birthday hat?): Distraction in the workplace is yet another detractor to naval Warfighting cognition. Let’s face it: war at sea is cerebral. Our ability to forecast, plan ahead, and train for those “what-if” scenarios is fundamental to preparing for adversity.

The omnipresent distraction of email, administrivia, meetings, drills, texts, and social networking sites creates a pervasive environment of “ADHD management” rather than the silence (and admittedly, for better or for worse, boredom) of a sanctum. However, should we not consider that it is from this very boredom that some of our greatest innovations stem? Think tanks do not hold a monopoly on innovation; rather, we should be tapping the limitless potential of our young watchstanders, disaffected with processes and TTPs that simply don’t make sense. Without a meaningful (and easy to use) method to feed those innovative ideas back to the doctrine-makers, we will continue to belabor the proverbial “open” in the feedback loop.

So how should the Navy engender robust participation in the warfighting discussion? Here’s a few thoughts on improving our Fleet warfighting advocacy:

One: Utility

Make a Navy-wide SIPR repository of all things tactical. You need to find that TACMEMO? We’ve got it. You want to rant about why page 348 of the pub is misleading? Post about it. You want to engage in knock-down, drag-out “discussions” with your peers and your seniors on more effective ways to take an enemy apart? Get in the game.

Two: Network

Centers of Naval Strategy, like the Navy Warfare Development command staff, should directly engage the mid-grade strategic thinkers at the CSG, ESG, squadron, and individual unit levels–and ensure they have access and opportunity to post. Usually, this comes when there are slow times for the umpteenth under-instruction watchstander in combat, who was tasked with looking something up online.

Three: Improve Inertia

Provide timely feedback, especially in cases where a particular TTP conflicts with AOR practices–essentially acting as the tactics referee for the Navy, ready to feed back to Fleet commanders when something doesn’t work as intended.

We can overcome the lack of organizational inertia that bureaucracy forces upon warfighting; but doing so requires us to train our young leaders to use a healthy dose of critical thinking, some self-righteous zeal, and a bulldozer when necessary.

Jason is a Surface Warfare Officer currently serving in the Innovations and Concepts Department within the Navy Warfare Development Command.

This article was cross-posted by permission from the Disruptive Thinkers Blog.