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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

How Can the U.S. Military Innovate? Ask Isaac Asimov

X-44 Manta
US Navy 6th generation fighter jet artist rendering. Image Credit: Boeing.

How do people conceive new ideas? And how can you deliberately stoke out-of-the-box thinking among individuals and groups of people?

Overlords of the armed forces, academe, and probably institutions in general commonly entreat their comrades to formulate innovative ideas, but they seldom seem to know how to kindle imaginative thought beyond pleading for it. Yet this is an elemental function of leadership. Creative ferment might help an institution score a breakthrough in some new area of endeavor; it might simply help the institution keep apace of change as the strategic and operational surroundings morph around it.

As they will. Being a laggard is dangerous for martial institutions in particular, considering the intensely competitive environment they inhabit. Everyone wants creative thought to keep up. The more the better.

Science fiction can help us identify a catalyst to set the creative process in motion. A friend recently circulated a short missive on this subject from sci-fi grandmaster Isaac Asimov, who’s probably best known as the author of the Foundation Trilogy. Asimov wrote the essay in 1959 as part of a flirtation with Allied Research Associates, a Boston firm affiliated with MIT that was researching options for ballistic-missile defense under contract with the U.S. government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. He never published the item (and ended up not actually taking part in the project), but MIT Technology Review ran it in 2014 after a friend discovered it in some dusty old files.

Asimov knew a thing or two about creativity, and his insights are actionable. Accordingly, they are well worth pondering. He opens by opining that the creative process is the same from discipline to discipline, and by lamenting that those who generate fresh ideas often have little sense of how they do so. He posits that creative people need range. Breadth of learning and experience helps them draw analogies in unforeseen aways or to see connections that escape others. “What is needed,” he says, “is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.”

Connecting seemingly unconnected phenomena also demands a sense of adventure. “The history of human thought,” he observes, reveals that “there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring.” New ideas often seem unreasonable, even wacky, to most observers. Only after the venturesome make a connection does an idea come to seem reasonable to others. So creativity demands a thick skin. After all, few relish looking like cranks in the eyes of their peers. Asimov writes that someone “willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance.”

Seeming eccentric is a dicey—but necessary—part of creativity. Creative folk display unconventional habits coupled with a willingness to court risk.

Asimov then moves on to ask whether creativity is more an individual or a group enterprise. He waffles on this point. He firet suggests that isolation is the locus of imagination. The mind of the creative person is “constantly working” at the process of discovery, sometimes even when “not conscious of it.” Having others around “can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing.” After all, there are “a hundred, ten thousand” foolish ideas for every gem. That’s the nature of trial and error. It’s best carried on away from the glare of public view.

Yet the author then pivots to conclude that small informal groups are helpful for sharing facts among participants, or for combining or recombining facts in ways not obvious to any one participant. He regards “cerebration sessions” as useful because they “educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and in vagrant thoughts.”

So, paradoxically, creativity involves bringing together individual iconoclasts in a collective venture. Asimov lists certain traits native to successful groups. “First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness” because “the world in general disapproves of creativity.” Removing that social impediment is critical. Individual participants must “have the feeling that the others won’t object” when they speculate about some madcap idea.

The physical setting for a session is likewise important because certain surroundings foster an atmosphere conducive to imagination. “Joviality, the use of first names, joking, relaxed kidding” are critical “not in themselves, but because they encourage a willingness to be involved in the folly of creativeness.” That being the case, “meeting in someone’s home or over a dinner table at some restaurant is perhaps more useful” than convening in a stilted conference room. 

In vino veritas!

Second, keeping bull sessions compact is helpful. Asimov broaches five members as a ballpark figure because small numbers afford each member plenty of opportunity to speak. (Anyone who oversees seminars will attest to the wisdom of keeping down the number of discussants.)

Third, Asimov worries that individual personalities could stunt a group’s creativity. The group would “freeze” if a single member were “unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on” at such a gathering. Even were such a character a “gold mine of information,” he would impose a net drag on the creative process. Asimov deems it crucial “that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.” He also frets that a big elephant—an individual boasting “a much greater reputation” than fellow members, or who is “more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality”—could take over the proceedings to stiflinh effect. To nurture a convivial small-group culture it might be advisable to exclude such a person.

The bottom line, it’s important to take account of demographics when designing and presiding over small groups.

Fourth, Asimov frets that “a feeling of responsibility” for generating novel ideas is “probably more inhibiting than anything else.” He postulates that “great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas,” but who conceived ideas “as side issues” while pursuing more conventional professions. If someone is paid to generate great ideas and doesn’t, he feels guilty that he hasn’t earned his salary. This is doubly true when working on taxpayer money. “To think of congressmen or the general public hearing about scientists fooling around, boondoggling, telling dirty jokes, perhaps, at government expense, is to break into a cold sweat.”

To fend off an unquiet conscience the author recommends requiring members to compose tangible deliverables such as short reports to justify the expense of a session. They should consider cerebration a side benefit of a worthy meeting—not its chief purpose.

And lastly, any small group needs a “session-arbiter,” or moderator, to “sit there, stirring up the animals, asking the shrewd question, making the necessary comment,” and keeping the discussions on point. Otherwise, free-range discussions tend to ramble. Beyond that, Asimov prophesies that “if thoroughly relaxed, free of responsibility, discussing something of interest, and being by nature unconventional,” participants will devise stratagems on their own to “stimulate discussion.”

So there you have it. A striking thing about Asimov’s counsel is that he’s less worried about the mechanics of dreaming up new ideas than about creating a collaborative culture among human beings, with all their virtues, vices, and frailties. Experts remain human beings even though they make some field or another their specialty. So the author is right; these methods represent a universal stimulant for innovative thought. Assemble a compact, mirthful fellowship of equals and you could accomplish a great deal.

Let a hundred flowers bloom.

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. GhostTomahawk

    October 31, 2022 at 1:37 am

    The US military and its civilian contractors are comprised of self serving echo chamber thinkers.

    Innovation needs to be free of politics and cronyism. If the military wants to innovate contracts need to go to other companies aside from the Lockheed Martin’s and General Dynamics of the world. Maybe these other companies can do it better, cheaper on time and under budget.

    • mcswell

      November 1, 2022 at 10:57 am

      @Ghost: like SpaceX

  2. Steven

    October 31, 2022 at 1:40 am

    I’m more of a Ben Bova fan myself.

  3. 403Forbidden

    October 31, 2022 at 6:59 am

    Innovate by stepping up to the next level.

    Not by stooping down to the navel gazing level and pummeling 3rd world nations.

    There’ve been many reports of warships, including aircraft carriers, as well as military jets & commercial airliners being stalked or whizzed by mysterious craft which sometimes light up on radar screens while sometimes seem totally invisible to radar detection.

    Haim Eshed has said aliens exist and they (a distinct type or distinct group) have actually signed some secret agreement with a top world government.

    Paranormal manifestations and glimpses of strange creatures or cryptids and also unusual lights have been associated with alleged presence of space aliens.

    It has been said that reagan era’s SDI program was influenced by the above. One striking event was the mysterious twinkling green fireballs that buzzed holloman air base in new mexico.

    But today, US military has failed to rise to the next level. Instead, leaders like biden want to perform a mike tyson bout against earthly rivals or earthly mortals.

  4. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    October 31, 2022 at 3:34 pm

    The nation that controls space – more specifically the ability to quickly blind satellites (from the ground) and disrupt/alter communications – will control the battlefield. The American ability to achieve these things is very advanced, but you’ll not hear of it.

  5. Jim

    October 31, 2022 at 5:15 pm

    Innovation, applying imagination to the necessity of the moment… also looking over the horizon at future scenarios.

  6. Omega 13

    October 31, 2022 at 5:16 pm

    I think I would have consulted Heinlein or Pournelle first.

  7. Eric-ji

    October 31, 2022 at 5:46 pm

    True innovation with respect to armaments comes when threatened on the battlefield.

  8. David J. Altman

    November 1, 2022 at 7:30 am

    With all due and actual respect for the commenters above, but also for the Ameri-Anglosphere’s servicemembers (including those serving in the bloc’s less obvious geostrategic axes in Israel, Japan, South Korea, the Nordic/Scandinavian countries, Poland, and the Philippines) whose eyes are affixed to “SPACE” . . . the real and tangible innovation and “churn” is not coming from Asimov or his “Hard Sci-Fi” brethren. If you want to know what is really shaping military futurism right now, its “Cyberpunk” and that genre’s author-visionaries: Cyberwarfare by and between Great Powers and Stateless Actors? Check. Crypto-currencies as instruments and targets? Check. Cyberware/cyber-prosthetics/-prostheses (eyes, ears, limbs) and genetic engineering? Check. 3D-printed guns and tools devoid of metallic parts and invisible to (airport) sensors? Check. Nearly untraceable bio-chemical warfare meant to degrade economic performance and trigger socio-economic tensions (instead of kill combatants)? Check. “Frozen” or “low intensity” conflicts between transnational blocs or socio-economic polities (e.g. Five Eyes, AUKUS, E.U., NATO, OBOR [One Belt One Road], EAEU [Russia’s EurAsian Economic Union], African Union)? Check. Titanic private conglomerates the size of nations (Apple reaches $1 Trillion Market Cap), some undertaking (!)private(!) space exploration and utilization (e.g. SpaceX, Blue Origin, Bigelow. Scientific and Technological Singularity threatening . . . everywhere (Artificial Intelligence [AI]/machine learning, robotics, nanotechnology, synthetic/non-organic biology, genetic engineering/genomics, space elevators, private satellites/”cube-sats”, “non-rocket spacelaunch”). I could go on . . .

  9. mcswell

    November 1, 2022 at 10:57 am

    “…there are “a hundred, ten thousand” foolish ideas for every gem…” In software, this is called a generate and test algorithm. Such an algorithm is useful when it’s difficult to come up with *the* right answer, but easy to come up with more or less good answers–and at the same time, easy to test answers.

  10. how_is_this_so_hard

    November 5, 2022 at 10:23 am

    I’m not sure why General Mattis deems the author “troublesome,” but I do wonder why someone with the author’s credentials and experience cannot spell-check his article before publishing.

  11. Corey Barcus

    November 22, 2022 at 4:18 pm

    To develop a strong practical imagination, it helps to have a grounding in the basic sciences and an interest in some of the hardest problems. The drama of history can provide plenty of motivation because it has a way of making clear just what is at stake. For instance, Ukraine has been an epicenter of catastrophe for centuries, and even though the present conflict is quite horrific, the scale of horror has probably been greatly reduced by the Western Alliance’s willingness to provide moral and material support.

    Many scholars have pondered the rise and fall of civilizations, and Asimov’s approach was expressed in his sci-fi Foundation series. Notably, he suggested a bilateral approach, one technological (the first Foundation which develops Encyclopedia Galactica), and another using social psychology (the Second Foundation). Both China and Russia, in their turn to autocracy, failed to understand the depth of their supply chains, and may still not appreciate the importance of fostering a broad collective effort to address the hardest problems facing humanity. This would appear to stem from the growth of myopia and delusion within decision-making institutions dominated by fear as fealty to a single ruler vanquishes all rivals. If these systems manage to find some success, then a vicious cycle can secure cultural stagnation for a time until an insurmountable crisis topples the regime.

    In a complex organism, cells may die catastrophically producing inflammation, and harming nearby tissues. But as cell death occurs regularly, a more benign pathway evolved which we term programmed cell death, and this process minimizes collateral damage. Nature is a wellspring of inspiration, but its gifts are not granted for free, and so the West devotes considerable resources pursuing problems which often do not seem to have any practical application. Such has been the foundation from which our modern world has evolved.

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