Climbing the Cellar Stairs or How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Status Quo

July 14, 2014

I spent the better part of the last decade trying to understand why our military bureaucracy was so dysfunctional. In a business where the stakes are so high, the illogic of the machine can become viscerally, obsessively personal. The 24/7 online feed of bad news, bad ideas, and even worse infighting draws some of us in—like an addiction. We badly want something to change. Deep down we know it won’t, but we can’t force ourselves to look away. We feed on the anger and hope for disruption.

A few years ago, Ben Kohlmann brought a rare, action-oriented, and quite positive idea to defense dialogue, advocating the need for “disruptive thinking.” This rallying cry motivated a wide audience. Hopes for improved talent management, better policies, and greater engagement were all wrapped up within a single buzzword, one that can be divisive. While the initiative produced start-up type of forums that were effective at addressing smaller ideas, when it comes to the problems that loom largest, there is no forum anywhere that can make the beast change. It took some time on the outside, a bit more understanding of innovation, and a TV show for me to come to terms with it.

Our national security network is so tightly bound up and so self-serving that no amount of reasoning, rationalizing, pleading, or intervention can bring even consideration of real change. This mass can only be disrupted and that disruption can only come from outside (please see the legendary iconoclast John Boyd on outside thinking, destruction, and creation). For there is no hive mind and no incentive that can convince the entire establishment to jump from the platform of status quo into the icy waters of change until the platform is clearly and undeniably on fire.

In the grand world of strategy and politics, disruptions occasionally do aggregate into epochal events, providing the means and motivations for others to set the platform of your status quo afire. Only that will produce change in our ponderous beast. My perspective is not much of a revelation, merely a way to help other addicts like me cope with the reality of the game. Think of it as a sharing session—one that is a good deal more verbose than that of my inspiration, Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins.

Disruptive innovation

Clay Christensen and Joseph Bower first coined the term “disruptive innovation” in the article “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave.” They found that industry leaders are good at producing innovations valuable to their current customers. These sustaining innovations are improvements in “the performance of established products along the dimensions of performance that mainstream customers in major markets have historically valued.”

In contrast, incumbents are rarely able to lead disruptive innovations, which “bring to market a very different value proposition” and “are typically cheaper, simpler, smaller, and, frequently, more convenient to use.” These offer a different value proposition to tap new markets. While this does not threaten the incumbent in the short term, rapid improvements and wider applications of the disruptive idea may soon compete for incumbents’ customers.

A disruptive innovation is not simply revolutionary in its magnitude or discontinuous in the leap of improvement it makes. Many revolutionary products have been the fruit of sustaining innovations made by incumbents. The critical distinction is that disruptive innovations create new value networks that ultimately remake markets. It is a wholly different sort of innovation, not simply a distinction of magnitude.

The “individual rational actor” may clearly see that society is likely to adopt a new application of technology that will remake markets in coming years. An incumbent organization, however, is constrained by a host of fetters. Not least of these are the wishes of existing customers, the most powerful of which have expensive tastes and requirements. Incumbents and their customers lock into a positive feedback loop that drives performance and price beyond what even the most sophisticated user really needs. Think of the Air Force’s “bigger, higher, faster, farther” imperative that  John Boyd fought so staunchly against. This drive toward ever-higher performance creates a gap of underserved needs for disruptive entrants to exploit, as illustrated in this graphic.

It is not just customers that shape incumbents’ worldviews and constrain their choices, but a broader value network: “The collection of upstream suppliers, downstream channels to market, and ancillary providers that support a common business model within an industry. When would-be disruptors enter into existing value networks, they must adapt their business models to conform to the value network and therefore fail that disruption because they become co-opted.”

Incumbents are surrounded by a status quo network sending strong signals against decisive change, signals only intensified by the organizational culture and incentive structures of successful incumbents. From the perspective of the incumbent, positioning to compete with the disruptor is completely irrational…until the disruptor sweeps the incumbent away.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Christensen’s work is not a revelation cut from whole cloth. The economist Joseph Schumpeter wrote in the 1940s of “creative destruction,” a “process of industrial mutation… that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.” This idea of a dialectical clash destroying the old and synthesizing the new draws directly from the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and the philosophy of Georg Hegel.

Destruction, or more appropriately, deconstruction of existing paradigms and networks is the critical step that enables something wholly new to be reassembled. It allows sets of dots to be connected in previously unimagined ways, to paraphrase Steve Jobs. To take from another thinker, the legendary John Boyd, it enables us to take apart a motorcycle, a tank, a sled, and skis to create a snowmobile.

Individual technological breakthroughs have been deconstructed and re-imagined to make new products and new methods of production, utilizing new value networks that underpin entire business sectors. Occasionally, these changes are aggregated into great, crashing waves that fundamentally remake entire economies—the grandest representation of creative destruction. Whole societal power structures are changed as centers of influence shift and incentives and needs change. This is no quick and painless transition. Peter Gourevitch observed in Politics in Hard Times that “patterns unravel, economic models come into conflict, and policy prescriptions diverge,” churning up great opportunity. He wrote:

The moments of greatest freedom are crisis points. … Choices are more constrained in stable times, but stability makes analysis easier by producing stable systems. In moments of flux, on the other hand, choices widen, but analysis becomes more complicated because relationships change.

These are moments of great opportunity and revolutionary danger.

The Social, Economic, and Political Bases of Military Revolutions

The term “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) is familiar to many readers, but Macgregor Knox and Williamson Murray argue that multiple RMAs stem from even larger, epochal military revolutions. Military revolutions have “normally resulted from massive social and political changes that … fundamentally altered the manner in which military organizations prepared for and conducted war. Such revolutions have been unpredictable and to a great extent uncontrollable.”

Knox and Murray’s work builds off of that of Clifford Rogers, who compares the series of revolutions produced by competition in Europe to the concept of “punctuated equilibrium” put forth by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge to explain evolutionary biology. “They argued that evolution proceeded by short bursts of rapid change interspersed with long periods of near stasis rather than constant, slow alteration.”

This fits with our discussion. The incumbents enjoy the fruits of their victories for a time, sustaining their advantage based on relatively static concepts and value networks until the equilibrium is punctuated by another short burst of rapid change, producing a new stasis of incumbency.

Annihilation is Disruptive

This punctuated equilibrium is reminiscent of Hegel’s dialectical clash of master and slave that some believe may one day fuse into a utopian synthesis that heralds the end of history.

Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace fed the idea of a dialectical teleology, but military practitioners might be more interested to know that that Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason had a great effect on the later work of one Carl von Clausewitz, his disciple Hans Delbruck, and the ideas they had about the dichotomy of warfare.

Clausewitz’s landmark On War uses a Kantian dialectical approach to contrast the messy strands of real experience against the theoretical pole of the unitary conceptual extreme.   “In the field of abstract thought the inquiring mind can never rest until it reaches the extreme.” For Clausewitz, the extreme case is a war in which “both parties to the conflict not only sought perfection but attained it.” This could only come to fruition if “(a) war were a wholly isolated act, occurring suddenly and not produced by previous events in the political world; (b) it consisted of a single decisive act or a set of simultaneous ones; (c) the decision achieved was complete and perfect in itself, uninfluenced by any previous estimate of the political situation it would bring about.”

After positing this theoretical extreme, Clausewitz sets about describing the many factors that influence and limit warfare in the real world. Most prominently, these are the political objective, the strengths of and balance between the elements of his famous trinity (the blind, natural force and primordial violence of the people, the play of chance in which the creativity of the commander has its role, and the subordination of the forces of war to policy, making it subject to reason), and the countervailing forces of friction and the moral element in battle.

War thus fluctuates between two poles, which the German military historian Hans Delbrück painstakingly detailed in his four-volume History of the Art of War. Delbrück’s niederwerfungsstrategie is that which most closely approaches Clausewitz’s absolute war “in which the purpose is the overthrow of the enemy.” At the other pole is ermattungsstrategie: more limited wars “in which one only intends to make a few conquests on the borders of the country.”

Ermattungsstrategie, commonly termed attrition, would more properly be translated as the “strategy of exhaustion.” Delbrück finds that the strategy of exhaustion “is one of the most complicated but most frequent phenomena of world history. In the normal course of events, the concept of war calls for one opponent to seek to come to grips with and subdue the other one in order to submit him to his will. All the forces are gathered for a great blow, a battle that is supposed to bring on a decision or which is followed by others until the decision is reached. … But here we have a war—and from now on we shall encounter this type time and again—that, for the most varied reasons eliminates the possibility of such a decision.”

The ham-handed efforts that we pejoratively term as “attrition warfare” are not cases of ermattungsstrategie. The brutal logic followed in World War I and Vietnam, commonly cited as two (very different) failed wars of attrition, refuted the concept of ermattungsstrategie: “war without decision.” Instead of adjusting their strategy, commanders bled their armies dry in the vain quest for total victory. Ermattungsstrategie acknowledges such a blow is not possible, adjusting ways, means, and ends to attrite the enemy’s will (but not necessarily the enemy’s forces) until a political solution becomes acceptable.

Niederwerfungsstrategie, literally the “strategy of defeat,” but more often translated as annihilation, offers a much more attractive prospect: the glorious and decisive defeat of the enemy. Though attractive, the opportunities for such stunning victories have been historically rare. During the long periods of stasis Rogers referred to, forces and capabilities were relatively balanced, making niederwerfungsstrategie impossible.

Bringing the threads of this discussion back together, accumulations of disruptive innovations periodically remake society and economy, demanding political adjustment. These infrequent, sharp discontinuities in world history are the periods where stasis gives way and niederwerfungsstrategie is ascendant. Disruptions explode in fractal form like the growth of a self-similar crystal. (Here, remember that history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes in fractal self-similarity.) Innovations remake not just value networks, but whole social constructs. Creative destruction precipitates the wildfire of economic crisis that lays economic and political structures low to set the stage for a new era of growth. Political crisis creates fleeting moments of great opportunity when the conditions are ripe for military revolution of the type described by Knox and Murray, giving the disruptive innovator the asymmetric advantage to set the world afire.

Delbrück reminds us that these disruptive bursts do not just happen of their own accord. It takes “the creative genius of a great personality to form the new phenomenon from the material at hand.”  More than just creativity, or even asymmetric advantage, one needs the great store of political capital that only revolutionary moments produce. Delbrück explained that Napoleon—like Alexander before him—was able to pursue an expansive niederwerfungsstrategie because “he was certain, or believed he was certain, that if in the end there was still something missing from the complete subjugation of the enemy, if he ran out of breath, so to speak, he would still be capable of making up that deficiency through politics.” In other words, the most disruptive entrants are vertically integrated, with complete control over their value network. The incumbents, beholden to their sclerotic and dysfunctional value network, do not know what hit them.

A New Measuring Stick

Disruptive innovators win by changing the game. The incumbents tend to dismiss the new game. One could imagine the grumbling that accompanied the transition from chivalrous knights to mercenary militaries. Likewise, Delbrück observed that when Napoleon put the nation under arms, “Among the old powers the new French combat method was considered as nothing more than a deterioration, and it was consciously rejected.” Instead of using professionals, Napoleon energized the rabble, swept it across the countryside living off the land, and then brought it back together as a mailed fist to destroy the armies of the ancien régime. It was only then that the old powers had no choice but to adopt new methods.

Perhaps the best example of the cognitive dissonance produced when old paradigms face new came at the end of the Vietnam War. During the peace negotiations, U.S. Army Colonel Harry Summers told a North Vietnamese counterpart, “You know you never beat us on the battlefield.” After a pause, the officer answered, “That may be true, but it is also irrelevant.”

It is more difficult for militaries to make sense of disruptive changes than for entities in business. While businesses are continuously tested through the workings of the market, militaries may go for long periods of time, and even through several wars, without coming up against a disruptive force that demands a reckoning. Militaries operate as monopolies within their market, even though they have outside competitors. Major defense companies, likewise, have only one core customer, and the government holds great sway over both the military and the defense industry. These three are tied up so tightly that what in other industries may be called a value network, in the defense sector is more of a value knot of incumbency.

More, even, than a value knot, the military is strangled by a distributional coalition – comprised of defense companies and government officials and legislators who can override the military’s purchase decisions – that draws off value and slows the “capacity to adopt new technologies and to reallocate resources in response to changing conditions.” Leading militaries thus tend to keep making incremental improvements until their ponderous, over-performing machinery is made obsolete by a game-changing entrant.

In the realm of tactical battlefield actions, the spirit of audacious decisiveness and innovative mission accomplishment is lauded. Yet what military innovators would we stack up against the likes of Henry Ford or Steve Jobs?

The Permanent Pariahs

Disruptors like William Sims, Billy Mitchell, Pete Ellis, and John Boyd all went to their graves at odds—to some degree—with the defense establishment. American military innovators have been unable to remake their institution in a proactive manner, a fact that befuddled me for years.

The HBO series The Wire centers on a group of Baltimore police trying to battle the city’s drug scourge. The more daunting foe turns out to be the police bureaucracy and the politics of city government, railed against by the flawed protagonist and  renegade cop Jimmy McNulty.

Like many such flawed protagonists, Jimmy slips up in his fight against the machine and is forced to resign. His colleagues lay him out as if dead on the felt of a pool table at Kavanaugh’s Bar, and eulogize him movingly. “He was the black sheep. A permanent pariah. … He brooked no authority. He did what he wanted to do and he said what he wanted to say… He was natural police.”

In such institutions, only a very few —the permanent pariahs, the black sheep who brook no authority—only those few try to fight the beast. And even though they are crusaders with a messianic bent, they cannot win. They may do some good, but they almost always leave a mess in their wake. And, as Bunk tells Jimmy one drunken night, they are “no good for people.”

The full wisdom of The Wire comes out in the last episode as we see the grinding cycle of “the game” turn over to a fresh crop of bodies. The good ones make a local difference while they can, but ultimately they move on, frustrated, to other fields. The politicians, even the ones with good intentions, find themselves compromising their impulse to do good now for the promise of greater power in the future. And the permanent pariahs who try to fight go mad raging against the machine, but barely make a dent.

In that last episode of The Wire, the hard-luck addict, Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins, is the only one to achieve a measure of redemption. Bubbs’ sponsor quotes Kafka:

You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have free permission to do so, and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.

While this quote may seem out of place, it does two things. First, it makes a Kafkan mockery of our attempts to make sense of our world. More importantly, it points vigorously to the secretes of the entire vehicle of the show. Czech novelist and critic Milan Kundera explained Kafka’s fascination with bureaucratic illogic.

In Kafka the institution is a mechanism that obeys its own laws; no one knows now who programmed those laws or when; they have nothing to do with human concerns and are thus unintelligible.

The riddle of the Kafkan institution cannot be solved. It can only be disrupted and that can only come from outside. This is why our military is the once and future “Army at dawn.”  Organizations cling to the status quo like an oil worker clings to the safety of his North Sea platform some hundred feet above the freezing waters. But when that oil worker wakes up in the dark of the night to the crump of explosion and the heat of flame, he will walk to the edge of the platform, look into the dark, and leap. It takes a “burning platform” to make most organizations embrace radical change.

This is because organizations create their own sense of reality. Kundera continued, “In the Kafkan world, the file takes on the role of a Platonic idea. It represents a true reality, whereas man’s physical existence is only a shadow cast on the screen of illusion.” The files, which should be mere shadows on the wall, dictate the work and lives of functionaries and subjects. Some people just cannot accept that.

Jimmy McNulty was one of those people. Though Mayor Tommy Carcetti won office on a promise to reduce crime, budget realities forced him to cut police funding to the bone, while his political handlers continued to demand falling crime statistics. So Jimmy manufactures a serial killer, doctoring the files to create a new reality and a new jolt of funding, and leaking salacious details to the press.

As the coverage picks up, the Mayor gets into the game, making the killer and the plight of the homeless the cornerstone of his gubernatorial bid. The Baltimore Sun sniffs an opportunity as well, goading Scott Templeton, an eager but unethical reporter, to start a human-interest series on the spectacle. Only the stubborn and wise editor, Gus Haynes, senses that Templeton is a fraud, on whom the managing editors are building a run at the Pulitzer. Haynes’ suspicions build until he heatedly confronts Templeton over the veracity of his coverage. Templeton angrily throws down his notebook, telling Haynes that all the details are there. Management sides with Templeton and runs with the story.

In the end, McNulty is forced to admit that he made it all up, but the files have created their own reality. The murders are pinned on a copycat. The Mayor rides the story into the governor’s mansion.  And Scott Templeton and the Baltimore Sun win a Pulitzer for their reporting. McNulty is forced to resign, but avoids prosecution. Only Gus Haynes and another reporter really end up worse for the wear. Haynes is demoted to the copy desk for calling Templeton a fraud. The other reporter is sent off to the Carroll Country bureau for pointing out that the notebook that Templeton said contained all the details of his reporting on the case was completely blank. What could be more Kafkan?

These bureaucracies, so wrapped up in layers of obfuscation, make their own realities. They blind themselves to the coming disruptions until reality is screaming down upon them. With luck, they will realize their platform is burning just in time to save themselves, make the leap, and survive as, once again, an army at dawn.

If there was one positive note in that Wire finale, it was Bubbles. The most vibrant scene of the entire series shows him at a Sunday morning farmers’ market. The colors are sharp. The sounds are lively and soothing. You can feel him coming alive again, as he reads the day’s Sun. His struggle is featured on the front page in a story entitled “The Road Home.” Perhaps it is only a coincidence, but the front-page banner advertises a feature called “Life During Wartime.”

In the end, a new cast of characters moves into the roles of those who passed on.  The roles are the roles. New people will keep filling them. You cannot change the game, as addicting as it is to rail against it. And they are all addicted: to the junk, the money, the power, the chase, the identity… to the game.

But, you can walk away. While Bubbles cleaned himself up, he lived in the dark cellar of his sister’s house, behind a bolted door. In Bubbs’ last scene, he is standing in the darkness, looking up into the light as his sister holds open the door. He climbs those cellar stairs into the sunlight and sits down to a meal with family. I have spent enough time in the cellar. It is time to shake off this fruitless addiction and head into the light of the living.


Peter J. Munson is responsible for preventive services and global crisis management for a private sector corporation, coming to this position after his retirement from the US Marine Corps in 2013. He is a Middle East specialist with professional proficiency in Arabic. Munson is the author of two books: War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History and Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy.

Image Credit: Adapted from sheldonschwartz, Flickr, CC