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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.

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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.”