Exploiting the Wellspring: Professional Military Education and Grassroots Innovation
“PME has stagnated, focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity.”
-2018 National Defense Strategy
“[T]he creativity and talent of the Department is our deepest wellspring of strength, and one that warrants greater investment.”
-U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis
In early 2017, a Russian drone dropped a thermite grenade on an Eastern Ukrainian military base and caused a chain of explosions that destroyed a billion dollars’ worth of ammunition and infrastructure. In southern Afghanistan today, the Taliban have seemingly developed a home-grown version of “clear, hold, build” to kill security forces, block supplies, and expand their terrain by starving out local populations to occupy abandoned villages. In other words, an advanced military exploited something as rudimentary as dropping grenades from the sky, while an adversary that frequently dons flip-flops managed to integrate limited violence, attrition, and information operations to accumulate strategic gains against coalition forces.
As these examples illustrate, the future security environment is complicated by near-peer adversaries and violent non-state actors who will use information as a weapon, fight in the grye zone, and exploit technologies to undermine U.S. military warfighting advantages. How should the U.S. and allies respond to the machinations of potential adversaries?
To inspire future generations of innovative minds and stay ahead of adversaries, the joint force should explore how to optimize its learning institutions to establish a culture of innovation. We found through our research, and through founding the extracurricular professional network Ender’s Galley, that the professional military education system has many of the attributes needed to generate creative ideas and innovate: a diverse professional body, the ability to create intellectual “incubators,” and promotion pathways to accelerate the best ideas to key decision-makers.
At the same time, the military education system is also mined with bureaucratic red tape, as well as officials who guard against deviations from the standard curriculum and operational norms. We believe if the joint force wants its best and brightest to maneuver and innovate on front lines, the education system must also expand its intellectual maneuver space in academic environments. As the saying goes, you reap what you sow: Inspiring a culture of innovation is best initiated at the grassroots level through the professional military education system.
The Call for Innovation
From the Marine Corps Operating Concept to the National Defense Strategy, there is no shortage of soundbites from senior American leaders calling for increased innovation, creativity, evolution, and adaptation. The question is how, and to what end? Inspiring a culture of innovation requires more than service-designed laboratories like the Army Research Laboratory and Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory to experiment with technologies, or outsourcing requirements to think tanks. While these groups are immensely valuable, there is also a heap of latent potential and desire within the warfighters attending resident professional military education schools. They, too, are capable of experimenting, innovating, and advancing novel concepts.
Imagine if National Defense University adopted Mick Ryan’s recent suggestions by supercharging its schools with artificial intelligence applications to enhance learning for newly promoted flag officers. Or how about using artificial intelligence wargaming platforms such as Athena, as discussed in these pages by Benjamin Jensen, Scott Cuomo, and Chris Whyte, to inform tactical planners with data from hundreds of simulations? And, what if officer, enlisted, and international students formed collaborative teams with their instructors to examine how to defeat drone swarms with Marine Corps electronic warfare support teams? Oh, and imagine if the students received academic credit for their work!
The Not-So-Secret Sauce: Diversity, Incubators, and Promotion Pathways
The professional military education system is sitting on a gold mine of talent and intellectual prowess. Here, we identify three major factors that the military services can harness and enhance to develop a grassroots culture of innovation.
First, institutions should take advantage of student body diversity. The intellectual fuel for creative and novel solutions is inherent in resident professional military education institutions because they provide students a rare opportunity to intermingle with a variety of other military occupational specialties, nationalities, military services, and governmental agencies. Even in a basic service school such as the Marine Corps Sergeant’s School, marines are exposed to others from across the occupational spectrum. Furthermore, joint accredited intermediate- and senior-level courses are mandated by the Joint Staff to admit no more than 60 percent of their student body from the same host service. As such, nearly half of the resident student body comes from sister services, different countries, or civilian interagency.
The composition of professionals from a variety of cultures, services, and organizations introduces unique perspectives, challenging traditional cognitive biases. Recent studies indicate not only a positive correlation between diversity and innovation, but a statistically significant causative linkage. Currently, most schools do an adequate job balancing the composition of their student bodies. For example, the 2018 Marine Corps Command & Staff College class had less than 50 percent marines, according to internal data. Still, there is room for improvement. Diversity must also extend to the range of backgrounds and experience for civilian and military faculty. Some of the best professors have no prior military experience and are always quick to challenge the typical service member’s inclination to find lock-step methods to solve wicked problems.
These institutions should also make room for those who hold opposing viewpoints, challenge the status quo, and occasionally counter the institution. Those contrarian thoughts force all parties to explore their positions deeper, thus formulating improved lines of thinking.
Diversity stimulates the interplay of ideas necessary to inspire innovation. As the authors of Collective Genius note, “innovations most often arise…during the interactions of people with diverse expertise, experiences, or points of view. Flashes of insight may play a role, but most often they simply build on and contribute to the collaborative work of others.”
Second, resident professional military education institutions are ideal venues for ideas to incubate and evolve. In Forging the Sword, which studies how the U.S. Army conducts doctrinal change, Jensen describes incubators as “informal subunits established outside the hierarchy.” These incubators permit a safe space for professionals to visualize the future operating environment, conduct discovery learning, and consider radical approaches, free from traditional bureaucratic red tape and censorship. The removal of such barriers enables ideas within an incubator to be free-flowing, malleable, and able to collide with one another.
Incubators should be both embedded within curricula and supported in extracurricular capacities. For example, advanced studies programs such as the Gray Scholars at Marine Corps University or Blue Horizons at Air University give distinguished self-selecting students the opportunity to complement the traditional curriculum with focused studies to address complex service issues. These incubators already exist as part of some programs, but the military needs more. A powerful historical example of the potential of formal incubators embedded within professional military education is the Marine Corps Schools, Army Schools, and Naval War College research and testing of amphibious operations from 1926 to 1934, culminating in the publication of the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations.
In addition to incubators directly sponsored by institutions, there should also be room in the curriculum for student-organized incubators. Many students report to professional military education with extensive operational experience, inspired by their own personal challenges. Oftentimes, they find counterparts who share their passions; students simply need encouragement and institutional support to unite on their passion projects. Professionals with shared values, inspired by a common purpose, are ideal innovation hubs. Historical examples include the Chowder Society, which saved the Marine Corps from extinction after World War II, or the cadre at the Air Corps Tactical School responsible for refining the gospel of Billy Mitchell and strategic bombing during the 1920s and 30s. These informal incubators ultimately yielded service-defining visions. Whether formal or informal, professional military education institutions should make a concerted effort to foster more incubators to stimulate collaboration while safeguarding innovative minds and their nascent ideas.
While diversity and incubators enable the divergent thinking necessary for innovation, those efforts still require formalized pathways for leaders to consider their value. Stephen Peter Rosen describes promotion pathways as necessary avenues to connect innovations to senior ranking officers or advocacy networks. Jensen elaborates that they are “the pathways along which new ideas circulate,” and the means by which institutional leaders can identify the best innovations, advocate on their behalf, and accelerate them to more senior decision-makers.
Nascent ideas and radical concepts are especially susceptible to threats at their onset. Thankfully, resident professional military education institutions are led by accomplished senior officers with service credibility, the ideal advocates to shepherd innovative ideas in a system laced with bureaucratic antibodies and naysayers. Moreover, these leaders serve alongside a distinguished civilian faculty, and both enjoy extensive networks throughout the Defense Department, academia, and private industry. By utilizing these connections, innovative students have a better chance of accessing the right incentives, funding, expertise, and resources to prototype, test, develop, and implement. For instance, the Defense Department innovation accelerator MD5 recently initiated a variety of partnerships with self-organized innovators across the Pentagon such as Marine Makers and Hacking for Defense. These partnerships were realized because bold leaders protected budding ideas and connected them to critical resources through promotion pathways to spur acceleration.
Promotion pathways are not just one-way avenues for innovators to connect with senior officials; they can also connect the larger institution with relevant intellectual capital. One successful example is the Naval Postgraduate School’s semiannual Thesis Research Working Group, which attempts to connect the research interests of its graduate students to organizations studying similar problems. The students gain research sponsorship and the sponsoring agency gains relevant intellectual capital. This model can also extend to professional military education institutions, where services solicit their problem sets to interested students. In turn, the students’ research and ideas are fast-tracked to the right program office or operational unit, benefiting both the students and the institution in general.
Our Experience: Ender’s Galley and Barriers to Innovation
Our views are informed by our research and our experience studying at Marine Corps Command & Staff College from 2017-2018. As students, we co-founded Ender’s Galley – a group of professionals “focused on the Information Environment, dedicated to the art and science of war.” Through this endeavor, we realized the creative potential within professional military education systems. Along the way, we also learned of some bureaucratic challenges that impede innovation.
Ender’s Galley started by recruiting interested members, creating a staff, and securing our own workspaces. After countless whiteboard sessions and WhatsApp threads, we designed posters, enlisted mentors, published articles, competed in the Marine Corps’ Innovation Challenge, maintained a Twitter account, and created an online collaborative portal. In a little over six months, Ender’s Galley hosted 10 events for over 300+ attendees, with speakers ranging from the Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Information to a team from the Defense Department’s leading artificial intelligence initiative, Project Maven. Most importantly, we inspired ourselves, developed friendships with people we would have never otherwise encountered, and expanded our own understanding of an important topic. In other words, Ender’s Galley became an informal incubator fighting for promotional pathways.
After working closely with Marine Corps University faculty and staff, we fully recognize that adjusting a professional military education curriculum to support an incubator is not an easy task. Likewise, for students with individual interests and passions, riding along a conveyor belt of a rigid curriculum is not all that enjoyable either. In our experience, both parties have valid critiques and solid proposals. Here, we discuss the top three critiques we received when we proposed our ideas at the Marine Corps University Innovation Symposium.
You cannot force people to be innovative. Some students just want to get their certificate or degree and be left alone. First, we would argue the overwhelming majority of students at our resident programs are interested in challenging themselves while striving to solve the greater institutional problems – they wouldn’t be selected for these programs if they were not high achievers.
Still, the critique has merit: Innovation is voluntary. While institutions cannot force people to seek out these additional opportunities, they can foster an environment that brings people together, driving discourse and debate, to inspire more collaboration opportunities for those who do want to pursue these ideas.
There is no time in the curriculum. These institutions – all designed for the noble purpose of preparing future leaders for greater responsibilities – must balance service needs, joint qualification requirements, accreditation standards, and tight academic timelines. We believe many resident officer programs provide ample time (up to a year) for collaboration and incubators to mature. This is well beyond the typical planning horizons in the operating forces. That time is needed to satisfy a combination of important academic, joint, and service requirements. The not-so-well-kept secret of most professional military education programs is that there are short days and free days to permit ample time to read and research. There are also picnics, sporting events, outings, administration days, and a host of other extracurricular events. While all of these obligations are important for the overall experience, we believe there is also time for institutions to support student-led projects without undermining their core curriculum.
The first mission of professional military education is to promote operational literacy en masse, not to cater to the requests of individual students. We concede: There is a necessary balance. There is no denying that the core curriculum is important, even critical to achieve a baseline of operational literacy across the class. However, at the same time, institutions cannot be like factories mass-producing a single product. The future operating environment is too complex – the military needs diverse minds, opinions, and experience bases to inform a broader innovative culture. We believe operational literacy is achieved through the core curriculum but there remains ample elective space to pursue passion projects and individualized research.
The National Defense Strategy speaks of “empower[ing] the warfighter.” This will require doing things differently on the battlefield, off the battlefield, and especially in the classroom. The joint force expects service members to remain mentally flexible in uncertain environments and against uncertain adversaries. The U.S. military’s innovation discussion has skewed too much towards external startup partnerships and the acquisition system, and away from a focus on grassroots culture and the mind of individuals. The Defense Department frequently outsources innovation, and not without good reason. To complement the current approach, the joint force should actively foster a grassroots culture of innovation, centered on unlocking the latent potential inside resident professional military education institutions. This “insourcing” model will simultaneously address the National Defense Strategy’s concerns about stagnated education and broader innovation deficiencies in the U.S. military.
The principles outlined in this article are not all that novel. A Marine disruptor named General James Breckenridge wrote in 1929 that military schools should “not be so much a matter of teachers teaching students as a matter of teachers and students studying together,” experimenting and fostering a culture of innovation through supporting intellectual frameworks. A long-term strategy for innovation requires a culture that promotes risk-taking, creativity, and collaboration. It is time the U.S. military exploits this wellspring and makes professional military education a center of gravity for the joint force. The investment made in the classroom will permeate the operational forces when these students are reassigned, and these students will inspire others to push their intellectual limits as well.
We leave you with a challenge: If you are at a professional military education institution, look around. Are students and instructors partnering to write articles or experiment in collaborative wargames? Is your institution promoting the best ideas from its brightest students? Are leaders creating and protecting incubator spaces, and linking student ideas to appropriate defense institutions? If yes, then Bravo Zulu! If not, perhaps the professional military education system can do better at incubating, promoting, and enabling a culture of innovation at the grassroots level.
Austin Duncan (@AMDuncan0) is a Marine Intelligence Officer and Technical Information Operations Planner. He is the co-founder of Ender’s Galley, a community of interest focused on the information environment. Adam Yang (@AdamYang2005) is a Marine Communications Officer and Doctoral Fellow currently serving in the Commandant of the Marine Corps Strategist Program. He is also a co-founder of Ender’s Galley.The opinions expressed are those of the authors alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.