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By Mr M. Aslett

A recent informative presentation by the US CENTCOM Asymmetric Warfare Group (AWG), hosted by the NZDF Adaptive Warfighting Centre (AWC) gave details of the AWG structure and personnel composition. One presenter stated that “The group [AWG] is comprised of disruptive thinkers”. That comment made me think. What is disruptive thinking and where does it fit in with today’s military?  Is disruptive thinking the new buzz word for creative thinking? Whilst it is difficult to find a definitive definition of disruptive thinking, creative thinking has been is defined as being:

A way of looking at problems or situations from a fresh perspective that suggests unorthodox solutions. Creative thinking can be stimulated both by an unstructured process such as brainstorming, and by a structured process such as lateral thinking.[1]

While the creative thinker may be considered an innovator, in contrast, the disruptive thinker may be perceived as an attacker of the status quo. As such they may regarded by orthodox military thinkers as being argumentative, ill informed, inexperienced and threatening as they may possibly undermine unit mission and cohesion.

Military professionals like to view themselves as creative innovators who are able to ‘think outside the box’. However, the conservative military have traditionally struggled with those who display creative thinking and will almost certainly baulk at the notion of any form of disruptive thinking. Unyielding conservatism and conformism is constantly indoctrinated by the constant inculcation of service traditions, rituals and rigid rank structures. True innovation is stymied early within the military by using seemingly anachronistic selection boards that attract to the ranks men and women who will fit into a narrow mould and who are ‘cut from the same cloth’. Indeed, Service professional training ensures that this is continually maintained throughout career development. Experience has shown that many training courses contain instructors whose aim is to produce students in their own image and any deviation from the Directing Staff’s (DS) solution will ultimately result in failure. This results in successful students thinking the same way; the way they have been told to think. Those in tune with that culture will succeed and advance; those out of tune probably will not. Such persons have often been labelled as ‘rebels’ or ‘revolutionaries’ and have had their careers scuttled within the mostly antediluvian peacetime military establishments that are rooted in tradition and conventionality.

However, such ‘rebels’ have become legends: men such as David Stirling, who founded the SAS in the Western Desert; Orde Wingate, creator of the Chindits and who also formed several groups of irregular fighters in Palestine and East Africa; and the apotheosis of such men being T.E Lawrence of Arabia fame. Such men would unlikely prosper in today’s militaries. The scruffy and bumptious Wingate and Lawrence were both considered by many as ‘military mavericks’ and labelled with the sardonic monikers of ‘loose cannons’ or ‘lone wolfs’. Even their sanity was doubted. It is perhaps worth wondering how the modern military would respond to a youthful, dishevelled, scholarly, Arabist; who possessed limited military knowledge but had a gift of the Arabic language and culture, giving senior officers the benefit of his ideas and knowledge.

Orde Wingate: Disruptive thinker? Creative thinker? Or plain lunatic?

Orde Wingate: Disruptive thinker? Creative thinker? Or plain lunatic?

Until military leadership selection and training truly encourages creativity over conformity, and until that innovation is rightly accepted within the establishment, then armies will continue to advance conservative process thinkers that can be myopic and parochial in thought and possibly bereft of the perspicacity and creativity required for modern asymmetric warfare. Labelling these innovators as creative or disruptive thinkers is irrelevant, at least these are thinkers. It is opined by the author that elements within the military currently struggle with creative thinking and are certainly not ready for any form of disruptive thinking, which may affect the status quo of the establishment. These vacuous elements often hinder any attempt of change and refuse to imbibe creative ideas, viewing military conformism as the ‘sacred cow’ of the establishment. As a result, we have created a military promotion and educational system that often puts staff in positions where they do not thrive, simply because they are conformists, while talented juniors look on in disappointment and frustration knowing that they could do better.

In the meantime, progressive elements of the NZDF will continue their dolorous journey on the road to thinking, while the more conservative members of the military community, ensconced in the old school traditional military culture can continue their cavilling of any hint of change.  So, my question is two fold; how do we encourage disruptive thinking across the NZDF and how do we dislocate those who frustrate intellectual progression?