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Summer Essay Campaign #9: “Cultural Impediments to Negotiating Complex Challenges”

To Answer Question #7: “In what ways does strategic culture influence military operations?”

By Richard Maltz

Our efforts to negotiate complex challenges, to include the ability to establish and exercise a significant capability to operate, compete, and prevail in the Cognitive Domain, are principally constrained, as is everything else that we think, say, and do, by our own culture of productivity (human interaction with the goal of accomplishing shared objectives).  This constraint will be manifested in several ways, at multiple levels.  Salient among these are:

1.  Inertia.  In actively and consciously engaging complex challenges (notably campaigning in the Cognitive Domain), we are challenging our existing habits.  We are habituated to focus on the Physical and Information Domains.  We have staffed our ranks, built our organizations, structured our processes, and refined our culture to focus on these, and to largely ignore the complex, especially in the Cognitive Domain.  Reversing that approach will require defeating tremendous organizational inertia, and transformation of our manning, organizations, processes, and culture.  An undertaking on this scale will be daunting, and will be viewed my many (likely most) as more difficult than it’s worth.  The alternative however is to continue to institutionalize the tremendous waste and opportunity costs imbedded in and emblematic of our existing culture.

2.  Technophilia.  This refers to an excessive or unreasoning love of, or willing dependence upon technology (notably new technologies).  This phenomenon is closely related to techno- and materiel-centrism (as contrasted with “human-centrism”).  It is manifested in our culture as per-vasive reflexive (and generally erroneous) assumptions that materiel-technical solutions provide panaceas, permitting the substantial reduction of dependence upon human decision-makers and actors, and their personal cognition, initiative, and responsibility (avoidance of dependence on personal responsibility is a major dynamic in our military and civilian cultures).  This tendency has been pronounced in our military culture since late in the First World War (Emilio Douhet was an early and influential exponent); it was reinforced by the Second World War; and was exacerbated further by the Cold War, especially the aftermath of the Sputnik launch.

3.  Nature.  Actively and consciously engaging complex challenges and campaigning in the Cognitive Domain require peculiar insights and talents.  These are not common in our ranks, as they are currently constituted; and they may never be.  A great deal of abstraction is required to understand and deal effectively with something as intangible as complexity and cognition.  We do not now recruit for, cultivate, or promote these abilities.  Neither do we generally retain those who demonstrate possession of them.  Many (including this author) would argue that our person-nel policies, combined with our (largely resulting) ambient culture, actively identify, stigmatize, and purge people who demonstrate these abilities.  Until this practice is reversed, we should ex-pect great difficulty in achieving any traction in dealing with complex challenges, especially in conducting operations in the Cognitive Domain.

4.  Vision.  Principal among the skills needed for engaging complexity and campaigning in the Cognitive Domain is that of Vision.  Military arts and leadership are based, most fundamentally, on vision, which, residing in the mind, is both a complex and a cognitive function.  Very few people in general, or decision-makers in particular, are naturally visionary.  This circumstance is reinforced by the fact that decision-makers without vision are commonly appointed to positions of decision-making authority by the decisions of other decision-making authorities similarly without vision, in reflexive acts of self-replication buttressed by presumptively objective criteria in the form of formal credentials similarly awarded based on other objective criteria similarly generally selected in the absence of any vision.  This is a spiral of “the blind leading (and appointing) the blind”.  In an atmosphere of such blindness, the familiar (the Physical and Information Domains) is reassuring; and the unfamiliar (the Cognitive Domain) is generally deemed alien and threatening.  Additionally, existing military personnel and operational policies are intolerant of demonstrations of vision by those below flag officer rank; yet they expect them of flag officers.  The belief that elevated rank can, by itself, confer the power of vision may be described as a superstition.  In that sense, our personnel and operational policies regarding what may be reasonably expected of senior leadership may be said to be predicated on superstition.

5.  Parochialism.  This leads us directly to the subject of parochialism.  In the absence of vision, institutional parochialism (and careerism) is (are) natural and inevitable organizational (and individual) response(s).  It is (they are) natural, and absent vision, inevitable, human behavior(s).  This (these) destroy(s) synergy, and discourage(s) other important emergent behaviors (notably adaptability and opportunism), by sub-optimizing the performance of the whole in favor of the perceived performance (or requirements) of its parts.  In so doing, it creates tremendous institu-tional friction and waste, which explains why it usually requires so much to produce so little.  This is sometimes known as “bureaucratic inertia” or “red tape”.  This also partially explains our systemic predisposition to expend infinite resources without any assurance of achieving any desired outcomes.  In sum, it undermines the effectiveness of every initiative, especially those that are new, and do not yet have firm and sound institutional roots, as is the case here.

6.  Reductionism.  Reductionism is a legitimate technique for scientific analysis, and for organ-izational management.  It entails the division of a subject or challenge into component parts, and typically further division, ad infinitum, with individuals, teams, groups, etc. assigned to study or otherwise deal with each part.  It complements the “holistic” or “systemic” approach, which does the reverse.  Unfortunately, our culture tends to reflexively favor the reductive approach to the exclusion of the holistic approach; and we therefore tend to rapidly “lose the forest for the trees”.  The practical consequence of this is that we generate multiple desks, offices, and agencies that wrestle with parts of a problem, generally without having anyone with a “big picture” that can guide these developments or integrate them into a coherent whole.  The result promises to be a collection of parts, many of which might be quite brilliant; but all of which are often useless, because they do not work together toward any discernible shared goal.  Coherent and compelling vision is necessary to overcome this tendency, as are structures, processes, and cultures malleab-le enough to adapt as needed to challenges and opportunities.  All of these are seldom present.

7.  Personnel.  All behaviors flow primarily from culture; but culture in organizations is shaped by personnel policies more surely than by anything else.  All manner of initiatives may be direct-ed or introduced; but if they are incompatible with existing personnel policies, they must neces-sarily fail.  As discussed above, our existing military and government personnel policies are largely antithetical to the demands of complexity, or of a campaign in the Cognitive Domain.  This means that before any such initiative can be undertaken with any hope of success, it must be preceded by genuine transformation (reshaping, for those who do not like the word transforma-tion) of the personnel system (the best references regarding transformation of military personnel systems to enhance leadership and combat effectiveness are probably the works of Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, Retired)).  Naturally, such transformation is no small matter.  Here again, inertia dictates that we should not do so; and reason dictates that we should therefore not try to conduct operations involving complexity, especially in the Cognitive Domain.  The down side of this however, is that avoiding these is hugely, often prohibitively, costly in time, blood, and treasure, credibility, etc.; and this could ultimately cost us our national existence.

8.  Responsibiliphobia.

9.  Quantophilia.

10.  Credentialism.

11.  Egalitarianism.  This doctrine holds that all people should be treated as equals; and it is an important and influential part of our civil culture.  Its manifestations in our civil and military cul-tures of productivity align with Frederick Taylor’s “Principles of Scientific Management”.  It is deemed both unnecessary and improper to distinguish between people; who are viewed as essen-tially identical and interchangeable.  With proper training and instruction, it is believed that any-one can be taught to achieve any task, or fill any role.  An egalitarian system seeks “equal pay for equal work”; and egalitarianism is the opposite of elitism.  Operations in such important and emerging fields as Strategy, Design, Human Dimension, Human Terrain, the Cognitive Domain, etc., however, cannot be performed effectively by most people, irrespective of their training or education.  These require a high degree of abstract thought, and an affinity for these fields.  If we are to be functional, effective, and competitive in these fields, we will need to involve an “elite” that possesses the innate cognitive “gifts” to undertake their peculiar challenges.  Given the scarcity of such individuals, we will be obliged to offer special inducements to attract and retain them.  This will be correctly viewed as both anti-egalitarian and “unfair”; but the alternative is to cripple our capability to engage complexity, and to conduct operations in the Cognitive Domain.

12.  Solipsism.  This is a philosophical term referring to the theory that only the self exists, or can be proved to exist, or extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one’s feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption.  Certainly these describe very important and powerful elements of our culture that drive much of the foregoing.  It is the defining characteristic of the “Second Generation”, “Industrial-Age” organizational culture; under which we still labor.  It drives us to blindness to much of what is around us; to “mirror image” others as we see ourselves; and to systemically sacrifice considerations of the mission, the environment, and the adversary in favor of preserving existing structures, processes, and cultures, for their own sake.

Together, these hurdles virtually assure failure.  They describe a system where the familiar may be preserved and replicated; but where the innovative is systemically and reliably crushed.  It is worth noting that the above describes not just challenges for our military Services and the De-partment of Defense, but for the entire National Security Community, which is to say the entire structure of government in the United States, particularly at the federal level, and reaching well into academia and private industry.  In trying to promote new programs designed to deal with dynamic and complex challenges, traction can only be reliably and predictably achieved by tran-sforming the paradigm of productivity itself.  If we are serious about our future, we must do this.

Richard Maltz is a retired United States Army Officer with twenty-eight years commissioned service in military intelligence, counterterrorism, defense analysis, and leadership and organizational productivity enhancement.  He is also the founder (in 1995) of the “Military Quality Institute”, a non-profit educational establishment dedicated to the fusion and application of cutting-edge civilian and military organizational productivity theories, and (in 2003) of the “Cognitive Domain Cabal,” an informal global network of defense professionals dedicated to fostering a “Cultural Revolution in Military Affairs”, and the proposition that the “Cognitive Domain” is the dominant domain in engagement, conflict, and war.  He has worked for the past fifteen years as a Senior Policy and Doctrine Analyst, and Concept Developer, on various Service and Joint projects.  His writings frequently appear in U.S. and foreign professional military journals.  He may be reached at

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