For the past year, I’ve been quietly observing the discussions among young officers in our Navy on “disruptive thinking.” I reached a tipping point when I heard a few young (and some not-so-young) officers considering the addition of “disruptive thinker” to their next fitness report.
I’m a huge fan of the younger generation of military officers. I am acutely aware that their energy is required to pull our Navy and the nation into the next strategic age—whatever that may be.
But what does it mean to be a “disruptive thinker”? For as much as the term has been used, I have been unable to find a clear, universally agreed upon, definition. We can certainly find the dictionary definitions of the subcomponents:
disruptive: to throw into confusion or disorder; to interrupt or impede; to break or rupture;
thinking: to use the powers of the mind, as in conceiving ideas, drawing inferences and making judgments.
When placed side-by-side, these two concepts appear to be diametrically opposed. Where we’ve gotten tangled up is that many would-be disruptive thinkers have placed their emphasis on disruptive, in the sense that “If I keep putting together a number of disruptive ideas—particularly if they raise eyebrows with senior leaders—then some of these will qualify as a new concept/strategy.”
This is backwards.
Thinking is the primary activity. If you spend a lot of time thinking, some of your thoughts will be disruptive, but many of them will not. Disruptive is a modifier that is only as useful as the thinking it describes.
Disruptive thinking is like surgery. A surgeon uses “disruptive” tools (i.e., a scalpel) to cut out parts of the body that are causing harm, or to implant devices that make the body work better. A surgeon studies the body for a long time—both the theory and the patient immediately before him—before he employs his disruptive tool. A surgeon is acutely aware of the fact that just because he has a scalpel doesn’t mean that he should cut everything, everywhere, and moreover, as a medical practitioner, that surgery is not always the preferred course of treatment.
Running down the street waving a scalpel does not make a surgeon; that’s a homicidal maniac. An officer sitting at his desk in a vacuum hammering out “disruptive for disruptions’ sake” emails and concepts is much the same, or as Shakespeare put it so eloquently, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
The practice of medicine, however, does qualify one as a surgeon. This requires a nuanced understanding of the body, symptoms, and possible treatments. The surgeon does not look at the body with disgust muttering “what idiot designed this?” but rather seeks to understand how it all works together. He knows that improving one part of the body may have a serious negative impact on the rest.
Our “thinkers who might be disruptive” need to be sure to understand the history of the institutions they are seeking to change. The people who built those institutions were/are people not too unlike themselves. Breaking an institution is justifiable only if it is necessary and only if the good in doing so exceeds the harm.
If surgery is to be performed, the scalpel needs to be sharp. You sharpen a physical scalpel by grinding it against a stone. Our intellectual scalpels are sharpened by putting them at the mercy of peer review and editorial boards such as, but not limited to, this forum. The scalpel is also sharpened by rejection and failure, both in generous portions.
Our system isn’t naturally accepting of new ideas, but that doesn’t mean it’s broken. The institutional inertia of the Navy makes some ideas move in too slowly, but prevents half-cooked ones from moving in too fast.
To my knowledge, there is only one sure-fire way to get new ideas adopted: Be so good, so well thought out, and so articulate that they simply cannot be ignored. Do your homework and understand why we are where we are, and how to move forward.
In this spirit, I recommend shifting our focus to a different word:
constructive: seeking to improve or advance.
While not nearly as catchy a term, “constructive thinking”* is a better fit for solving the problems that face us both today and in the future.
* Many thanks to Professor Wayne Hughes for recommending this.