Shifting the Role of Leader and Led: Using Year Group Cohorts to Accelerate Marine Corps Force Design

Human Factors Week

By Travis Reese 

“The United States has a perfect record in modern times of predicting when and where future outbreaks of war will occur—it always gets it wrong.”–Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

During the first three years of the Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 effort, there has been a lively discussion over the intended goal of the transformation coupled with intense criticism over how the debate for change has been conducted. Critics have decried a lack of openness and transparency including a debate over the degree to which individuals feel empowered to contribute to the creation of the next iteration of the force. Force Design 2030 has been unique compared to prior design efforts in another regard; not only has there been the debate among serving Marines at every stratum of rank and experience, but there has been an intergenerational challenge from retired Marines who shaped the legacy organization of the Corps upon which these changes are being measured.

This intergenerational tension in force design, even within the active-duty force, can be improved by re-arranging the relationship between senior and subordinate and creating a process that receives input from multiple generations of Marines. This can be done by passing earlier responsibility for designing the next iteration of the Marine Corps on to successive generations of the Corps from early in a Marine’s career. The Marine Corps can achieve this change in force design methodology by establishing generational cohorts organized in 10-year increments, that are tasked with forecasting force design requirements 30 years out from the present.

These cohorts can interact and transition ideas via a process of inter-generational and cross-functional dialogue captured through an electronic learning platform and knowledge exchange portal. The concepts developed on the platform can be augmented by live conferences and standing committees led by senior Marine Corps leaders actively listening to, and coordinating with cohort members to manage recommendations for force design for further development among responsible Marine Corps agencies and commands. The role of seniors will be to guide, mentor, and resource the testing of ideas generated by successor generations in continuous campaigns of learning (plural not singular) and not simply initiate or direct change through specialized efforts in ad-hoc cycles that have an uneven track record of capability adoption and meeting timely demand. This cross-generational knowledge management will also serve as a means for talent management. A Marine’s involvement in the force design process could lead to future assignments based on demonstrated interest and relevant contributions to the force design process.

Most importantly, passing some of the responsibility for force design onto younger cohorts of Marines is a way for the Marine Corps to harvest the reservoir of ideas already in the service and turn them into actionable designs for concepts and testing solutions. This will enable the service to stay ahead of adversaries and prepare generations to lead fully resourced forces for each era with a knowledge of what will come next. These cohorts would be the basis for, and creators of, force development and design solutions impacting their generation via a “crowd sourced” but “leader-managed” methodology that would inform institutional choices and force design focus.

This methodology would overcome institutional capacity limits that force the Marine Corps to plan in a sequential era-by-era fashion that potentially misses innovative opportunities that would benefit from earlier investment under a clear conception of their potential. There is ample evidence that talented futurists reside within the ranks who can contribute to force design beyond the current effort.

The Case for an Internal Forum

The Corps prides itself on the inherited legacy of those who came before, but history shows that the challenges the Marine Corps has faced are decidedly generational. Each generation of the Marine Corps needs to develop tactics, techniques, and means that fit the circumstances of their time. How soon should that start in a generation of Marines? Marines are rarely afforded an officially sanctioned opportunity during their career to formally influence the design of the force they will eventually lead. Without a well-managed forum to harvest ideas on force design, the Marine Corps is missing out on the ability to gain and maintain momentum on future concepts and develop means conceived by steady study, debate, analysis, and investment. Thus, the service is effectively decelerating its preparation for future conflict by limiting the number of Marines who can contribute to address future problems and by not having a common platform to proactively consider timely solutions.

No forum within the service exists to place those ideas where they can be received, tracked, harvested, and tested for application at the time-horizon in which they will be likely suitable or useful. Instead, Marines have relied on participation in ad-hoc dialogue through informal professional societies to contribute ideas and in professional writing. As for professional writing, there is little correlation between contributing to a public discourse and impact on the direction of the service. Marines interested in force design but kept outside of the formal combat development process are forced to play a waiting game until they are senior enough to introduce their ideas as commanders or are otherwise touched by a campaign of learning effort to support experimentation. Simply put, young Marines do not have a way to contribute their ideas into the force design process. Rather their ideas merely float in the ether of abstract conversation and vigorous, but indifferent, debate. Additionally, the Marine Corps’ force design process is not optimized to incubate ideas over multiple time frames and for extended periods.

Unfortunately, future force planning in Department of Defense frequently falls into two habits that create static logic: first, fixation on the current security challenge which becomes an anchor to perceptions of the future. This results in the military using the current state of global affairs as the model for all future conditions or second, establishing a single point in the future and then using that point alone to design a future force with more or less a constant interpretation of the threat. The latter occurs due to the institutional inertia that builds up around an adversary model as agencies work to align their programs and efforts to an accepted framework. Each change in the model often generates a halting effect on force development or design as organizations take years or better to adjust to a new conception of the future or threat. Yet, knowing this pattern of thought and activity, the Marine Corps and Department of Defense have never really considered a method to make transitions between force design efforts more fluid. Rather, every new era of challenge is “jump started” by some national security directive with large institutional transitions surrounding the effort. The Marine Corps is currently caught in this trap as it has adopted the departmental focus on 2030 as a target date and has not begun to consider the next, but inevitable, planning horizon. This is despite the fact that a new Marine today may serve until the year 2055 and could possibly face the next design effort having to change a force conceived in 2019, realized in 2030, and sustained until 2045 or 2050.

Marine Corps lore is rife with stories of determined innovators or mavericks who forced their way in the system to “save the day” with the just in time solution that, by luck, gained the attention of a senior sponsor. Trying to cross the valley of ex-officio debate and gain the notice of senior leaders to influence change may involve uncertain, and possibly unnecessary, career-risking approaches. Personal favor, institutional connections and chance notice by a senior leader are not the ways to harvest ideas for the future of the Corps. The refrain of “send us your ideas” from senior leaders is insufficient if no one is sure who is listening and there is no place to “post the letter” for a willing leader to receive and consider.

What To Do About It? Setting Up Year Group Cohorts

The Marine Corps needs to improve the relationship between leadership and successor generations to proactively shape the inevitable transition from current to future. This can be done by dividing the force into 10-year cohorts that participate in a managed service-wide mass participation learning framework incremented into 10, 20, and 30-year horizons. Why 30 years? First, it often takes 30 years to conceive and design capabilities and doctrine and put them into practice. Most of that time is focused on building an institutionally agreed-upon problem frame and discovering potential solutions. Secondly, if one assumes that the career of most senior leaders (officer and enlisted) may be sustained out to 35 years it makes sense that cohorts should cover that outcome. Third, a 10-year cohort would include groups with diversity in rank and experience to prevent myopia in terms of outlook and experience but remain close enough that near-contemporary relationships facilitate ease of dialogue and frankness of critique. Lastly, taking a longer-range look provides institutional freedom of action to explore options and alternatives free from the constraints of contemporary pressures (although informed by them) and in a more risk accepting posture.

How would this work? At the beginning of his or her career an officer or SNCO (who is now on a career-focused path) is assigned to a cohort focused on a specific time frame. Each cohort will consider how their generation will be defined in terms of security challenges and solutions. A cohort will remain in its assigned year and transition to become the 20- or 10-year group as a new cohort is created behind them to deal with the next 30-year horizon. The oldest cohort becomes the “current” year and/or begins to retire and transition from service. Groupings would be developed based on recommendations from Manpower and Reserve Affairs (DC M&RA). Cohorts would be organized as a large learning entity under a supervised management collaboration with Training and Education Command (TECOM) and Capabilities Development and Integration (DC CD&I). TECOM would be responsible to furnish access to qualified educational mentors. Professionally qualified mentors will be hired to manage the inputs, encourage research, and stimulate dialogue among the respondents. Combat developers from CD&I would be able to observe and harvest the ideas produced by the cohorts. Management of cohort contributions would be enabled via a web-based platform residing on unclassified and classified networks developed by Deputy Commandant for Information (DC I). The platform will facilitate discovery, search, and visualization of the various ideas produced by the cohorts. Problems or issues for a specific year group would be sponsored by the Deputy Commandants.

Annually, a Force Design conference would be led, structured as an activity for a regular three or four-star executive offsite. Cohort managers and mentors would provide a report back to the Commandant and deputy commandant sponsors on a cohort’s responses to a design question or specific challenge. Further, cohort managers could introduce new initiatives or concepts spawned by the cohort for consideration by the senior leaders. Select cohort members could be called in to brief their recommendations or future operating environment insights to the senior leaders. From these recommendations, debate would ensue on proposed investments, experiments, research, manpower adjustments, or concept development activities to conduct in support of each time-frame’s force development or design requirements. Nothing about this effort would disrupt standing institutional processes of capability development, acquisition, or budget planning. If anything, it would generate a faster-paced, iterative, institutionally understood, and data-informed pedigree to many force design initiatives under a participant-led and leader-managed effort. 

The overall benefits of an institutionally integrated knowledge and professional exchange framework would be vast. Rather than random discoverability of talent or ideas spread across informal learning societies, intra- and intergenerational dialogue would exist across the Marine Corps with the express purpose of developing actionable ideas on future concepts directly. Participants, without disruption to necessary career progression, can engage in early strategic thinking about the future. This would have an impact on the quality of professional military education since instruction on strategy and strategic thinking would be amplifying to an embedded institutional activity. The knowledge portal would enable the service to discovery solutions to current and future challenges on a persistent basis rather than by exception through the ad-hoc use of events like challenge days or military “shark tanks” whose outcomes on capability development are uncertain and still require interest for adoption. Iterative doctrine development and deliberation would begin sooner rather than constrained to small writing venues or billet-specific offices. Force design as a process would shift to participant-driven and leader-managed generating large-scale buy-in and removing the variable of personality-focused initiatives. Lastly, every participant would have common appreciation of each 10-year framework guiding force development and design activities which they can articulate to external stakeholders in positions to support USMC discovery or resource solutions.

The Role of Mentors

Effective mentorship is essential to this proposal and would necessarily vary from cohort to cohort. Younger Marines focused on the 30-year horizon likely need very little encouragement to conceive of the next innovations that can be applied in the future. At this phase in their careers, they would likely need more guidance on how to research appropriately, create a sound argument, understand the implications of history and where to harvest those lessons. They need mentorship in the tools that make it possible to form a testable hypothesis for their intuitive vision. The 20-year horizon group is a mid-tier professional who needs insights regarding the institutional processes that will govern force design and development. They need mentors who will advise on institutional memory and help them navigate the gates of the system that will make it possible to shift from ideation to action.

The 10-year horizon group is in the nexus of decision between realizing their concepts that have been matured and challenged over 15-20 years and managing the acquisition risk of replacing the current force. They need executive-level mentorship in decision making and risk management at this stage of force design. The same mentors should not remain with a cohort as they are specialists in certain skills with biases and conceptions that should be minimized by exposure to other schools of thought.

Overall, it is important for the Marine Corps to not select mentors based on perceived authority bias or reputational history alone. Rather, cohorts may consist of iconoclasts and relative unknowns whose talents and skills are familiar to a small group but whose history of institutional challenge and change far exceeds their reputation.

Preventing Silos and Creating Institution-wide Cross-functional Dialogue

A risk of cohorts is that they can become silos of competition and become protective or adversarial against their counterpart cohorts. This can be prevented by incentivizing cross-functional exchange among the cohorts. A simple example: the 20-year cohort is depending on a particular technology to realize their proposed capabilities. It is discovered that the technology is viable, yet unachievable in that timeframe. Rather than abandon the investment, a decision is made for the 30-year cohort to inherit consideration of this option. Likewise, the 30-year group was considering a particular advancement and it is realized that the technology will be available in 10 years.

A decision could be made to transfer development to the 10-year cohort accelerating outcomes for them, potentially generating an unexpected overmatch for a range of adversaries, but also forcing a change to manpower requirements and doctrine development. To sustain this exchange, it would be necessary to conduct an annual conference, likely geared around the budget cycle, led by the Commandant. Cross-functional discussion of cohort discoveries sponsored by the Deputy Commandant for CD&I or a cohort manager can be led and investments in various force design options can be considered under unique scenarios for each year group. This process would help shape the transition of force design efforts to a participant-led and senior-leader managed process and enable the capacity to manage investments over a longer horizon with a better transition between current and future forces.


Members of the military live and work in two timeframes: present and future. The present is all about competency with current tools and techniques to be ready for today’s challenges. It is achieved through training, practiced in exercises, and measured in inspections and evaluations. The future is about preparedness for tomorrow’s challenges and requires the planning, preparation and imagination necessary to avoid strategic surprise. It is achieved through considering future scenarios, practiced in wargames, realized through investment in doctrine and technology, and measured in live and virtual experimentation.

If anything, the efforts of FD2030 should make the Marine Corps realize that current and future live in a symbiotic relationship and although everyone is required to master the threats of today, it is equally important to think about and prepare for tomorrow. Adversaries are always preparing to develop countermeasures to our well-developed structures and means.

Rather than simply leveraging industry or academia as sources of alternatives and solutions, the same level of alternative thinking (coupled with a greater sense of the implications) can occur inside of the Marine Corps. Modern technology and information exchange has made it possible to overcome the limits of happenstance discovery and the need for patronage of reformers and thinkers that formally infused the system.

Every Marine can become a force designer. The Marine Corps can harvest those ideas into action vice merely be observers/encouragers of the dialogue. Marines can level their interest in the future training, design, and development of the force into career-making choices supported by an institution that not only cares about what they think but acts on it.

The institutional conflict around FD2030 shows that the Marine Corps must improve how it leverages each generation of the Corps in preparing for future challenges. Those decisions must be informed by relevant institutional experience, but not be mired in the preferences and predilections of prior generations. The role of responsible generations to solve the problems they will face in the future must be given a commensurate opportunity and appropriate authority earlier if force design is to become a fluid, timely, inclusive, and less disruptive in the future.

Travis Reese retired from the Marine Corps as Lieutenant Colonel after nearly 21 years of service While on active duty he served as an artillery office and in a variety of billets inclusive of tours in capabilities development, future scenario design, and institutional strategy. Since his retirement in 2016 he was one of the co-developers of the Joint Force Operating Scenario process. Mr. Reese is now the Director of Wargaming and Net Assessment for Troika Solutions in Reston, VA.

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