Rethinking the Military’s Organizational Structure

by Cameron Schaefer on April 26, 2010

A recent review of David Kilcullen’s upcoming book, “Counterinsurgency” included a section in which the author claims, “Rank is nothing: talent is everything.”

This brings me to a question that I’ve been bouncing around in my head for the past couple years, “is the military’s organizational structure/rank system outdated?”

The answer is absolutely, yes! Valdis Krebs explains,

When change was slow, and the future was pretty much like the present, hierarchical organizations were perfect structures for business and government. The world is no longer predictable, nor are solutions obvious. Old structures are no longer sufficient for new complex challenges.

Businesses have noticed the changes and are adapting. From GE’s boundaryless organization to Toyota’s amazingly flexible supply web, agility and adaptability are the mantra. Unfortunately most governments are not as quick and creative. Instead of the out-of-the-box thinking found increasingly in the business world, governments are busy shuffling boxes on the organization chart.

John Robb channeling John Boyd makes the case the war is essentially a contest in decision-making. This means in the case of the U.S. military, an outdated organizational structure is bad…very, very bad,

Let’s start with an assumption: War is a contest of minds. Therefore, the process of using minds — decision-making — is the core process upon which all warfare is built. Weapons, tactics, methods, systems, organizations, strategies, etc. are all derivative of this fundamental framework. Therefore, a narrow view of warfare is that it is a race to make decisions that optimize these derivatives within the restrictions imposed by access to resources and the other side’s attempt to do the same (friction).

A more expansive view is that all decision making processes exist within the abstract mental models we use to understand the (complex, uncertain, and complex) environment we live in. Unfortunately, these models are at best flawed approximations that only get more flawed over time. So, we may conclude that warfare is in large part an ability to use decision making, in particular cycles of analysis/synthesis, to create new/revised mental models that are closer approximations of the environment’s true nature.

Is the current organizational structure of the U.S. military, one consisting of rigid hierarchy and ever-increasing layers of bureaucracy the one best suited for making decisions in a dynamic, complex, globalized world? Not even close Robb explains,

Even under the most ideal conditions, its dubious whether the US military’s decision making loop (the sum total of the intellectual product of the entire military bureaucracy) can even closely approximate the requirements of the rapidly evolving global environment we currently find ourselves in. In short, we are falling behind ever more every day.

In the amount of time it takes information to travel up through all the levels of the chain of command, then back down, the situation has already changed. Each level of hierarchy makes it more likely that the organization will fail to adapt in time.

What we need is to go back to the drawing boards and emphasize decentralization, a promotion system that cares more about the quality of ideas rather than length of service, bottom-up solutions and direct lines of communication between the lowest and highest ranking officials (cut out the execs, middle-men, large staffs that filter out certain pieces of upsetting information before it hits the ears of the commanders).

So smart ones, I realize it is 10x easier to point out the problem then it is to come up with viable solutions. How does the U.S. military begin moving towards a more effective, relevant organizational structure? Is it a lost cause, is the bureaucracy too far gone to reverse direction? Maybe so, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.

***Update to Post 4/30/2010***

Here’s a Harvard Business Review post on 21st century leadership

The hierarchical model simply doesn’t work anymore. The craftsman-apprentice model has been replaced by learning organizations, filled with knowledge workers people that don’t respond to “top down” leadership. Seeking opportunities to lead, young people are unwilling to spend ten years waiting in line. Most important, people are searching for genuine satisfaction and meaning from their work, not just money. For example, Medtronic’s 38,000 employees are motivated by the company’s mission of “restoring people to full life and health.”


The challenges businesses face these days are too complex to be solved by individuals or even single organizations. Collaboration — within the organization and with customers, suppliers, and even competitors — is required to achieve lasting solutions. Leaders must foster this collaborative spirit, eliminating internal politics and focusing on internal cooperation. After becoming CEO of IBM, Sam Palmisano transformed IBM’s long-standing bureaucracy into an “integrated global network,” shifting to “leading by values” and breaking down silos that kept people from collaborating.

The ultimate measure of effectiveness for leaders is the ability to sustain superior results over an extended period of time. Organizations filled with aligned, empowered and collaborative employees focused on serving customers will outperform hierarchical organizations every time. Top-down leaders may achieve near-term results, but only authentic leaders can galvanize the entire organization to sustain long-term performance.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Carl Rigney April 26, 2010 at 10:03 pm

Deleting Powerpoint from all US military computers would be a good start, although I don’t see that happening.

John Robb on corrupt internal dialogues in 2004 may not have been talking about the Pentagon, but it sounds very familiar:

“Grand strategy, according to Boyd, is a quest to isolate your enemy’s (a nation-state or a global terrorist network) thinking processes from connections to the external/reference environment. This process of isolation is essentially the imposition of insanity on a group. To wit: any organism that operates without reference to external stimuli (the real world), falls into a destructive cycle of false internal dialogues. These corrupt internal dialogues eventually cause dissolution and defeat.”

I think it’s too late for the US Military’s heirarchy to reform itself, or rather, it’s become too successful at shaping itself to pursue funding, so its incentives are all wrong to reshape itself to pursue winning 4GW conflicts. Sometimes I wonder about whether the Boyd advocates could use 4GW principles from within to advance their cause (at the moral and mental levels, not necessarily physical) but that seems an unthinkably bold and hazardous step.

I can see innovative disruption from below (ala Clayton Christensen) mixing with Open Source Warfare (ala John Robb) on one trendline, intersecting a declining empire that outsources more and more of its warfighting to corporations and non-state entities. What happens when you can rent drone strikes online the way you can rent botnets now? We’re likely to find out, whether we want to or not.

Ben Turner April 26, 2010 at 11:35 pm

It’s hard to talk about this in general terms, but I always found as a junior enlisted and sergeant that we were able to take initiative on many things, to “get the job done”. The problems usually came when different constituencies had conflicting incentives/goals. So if officers said they were looking for X, and analysts or people in the field found Y, that Y was often discarded. Or if Y made officers look bad, then someone would be reprimanded. When there would be joint missions, this is even more magnified because conflicts of interests become diplomatic SNAFUs. So I guess maybe one good way to look at it is matching on-the-ground goals with overarching strategic goals. Then when people “decentralize” at the bottom, it actually makes the top look good, and the top can put out general goals and put resources in the right places, allowing the bottom to use its ingenuity.

Cameron Schaefer April 27, 2010 at 5:55 am

@ Carl,

My fear too is that the status quo is too profitable for the people at top in both the military and civilian sides to allow for much of a shakeup. The military needs more John Boyd’s, unfortunately I think his type has been weeded out pretty effectively.

@ Ben,

Reading back through this post I realize I made it far too general to inspire a great conversation so thanks for playing along anyway :). I wonder how much is different or conflicting goals and how much is just poor goals all the way around. Our goals are often vague like, “increase stability” – how does one measure that? When do we know that we’ve “won”?

You’re right though about matching the strategic goals with those on the ground. Schwerpunkt is needed before we can decentralize effectively.

Beaux April 27, 2010 at 10:08 am

I, too, fear that the status quo is too firmly entrenched to allow for any sort of effective shake up. Regardless of what the military says with its mouthpiece, it wants yes men. If it didn’t want yes men in order to reaffirm what the out-of-touch brass already thought then it would provide incentive for free-thinkers to express themselves. There would be 360-degree feedback loops for performance reports, not just top-down.
Unfortunately, the only thing that will shake the centuries-old hierarchal structure of the military is something devastating and drastic.

Karl April 29, 2010 at 2:40 pm

I’ll have to think more about this, but my initial thoughts are that the strict hierarchy in the military has been around for as long as I’m aware. Certainly things have changed over time but the military structure has more or less remained constant because it’s based on order and execution. Start taking away “yes men” and you’ll end up splintered factions. Not necessarily an effective fighting force. On the other hand, I’m all for improving the promotion scheme. Promotions should favor those who demonstrate the ability to comprehend complex situations and think ahead, not those who have the most community service and volunteer hours on their performance reports.

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