Watching strategic blunders pile up has led me on a quest to answer some questions I deem vital: how do you design an organization where truth wins? How do you build institutions to ensure that the right people take leadership, and that the system allows only the best ideas to rise to the top? How do you break groupthink? How do you create an open intellectual climate where ideas are debated and refined, but with enough centralized authority to choose a strategy and implement it? In short, how do you build institutions that are better at strategy?
Traditionally, the US has entrusted foreign policy and national security to elite circles of what Andrew Bacevich calls "Wise Men." In The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism he writes, "... Wise Men view popular--or even congressional--intrusion into policy formulation as distinctly unhelpful, if not downright dangerous. The intricacies of national security are said to lie beyond the ken of the average citizen, who is all too likely to be swayed by short-term, emotional considerations rather than taking a sober, long-term view." The Wise Men are generally well-educated, live and breathe national security issues, and have powerful networks and think tanks standing behind them. The problem is that the Wise Men, both civilian and military, are frequently wrong. They are the chief architects of our most catastrophic strategic miscalculations. Bacevich's criticism is unsparing, and his book is only one of several dozen on the subject. It's not only liberal University professors who are leveling criticism. The most damning critique of senior military leadership came from within, with Lt Col Paul Yingling's article A Failure in Generalship.
So where do we turn? Can we "crowdsource" strategy? In an age when technology, new media, and new methods of collaboration have empowered individual citizens like never before, can citizens take more ownership of foreign policy and national security issues? Not fully. Adam Elkus asks exactly this question in his essay Can Strategy Be Crowdsourced? and his answer is no. He argues, "While network forms of organization are superior to hierarchies in many ways, their strength has been substantially exaggerated. Emergent intelligences cannot formulate strategy nor sustain momentum beyond the tactical level of conflict, networks are not as invincible as commonly portrayed, and hierarchies have certain advantages worth preserving."
Viable long-term strategies are often unpopular, especially in the short term, and the public is notoriously fickle. The word "populism" has negative connotations for a reason. Strong, visionary leadership by individuals who understand policy is vital. The Wise Men are probably right that the crowd will frequently advocate for bad policy. This is especially true in fields that are highly counterintuitive, like economics.
Another problem is the crisis of education, civic responsibility, and simple interest in foreign affairs among Americans today. Abu Muqawama and Arab Media Shack railed yesterday at how bad American TV news is, noting that Bristol Palin's baby drew more media coverage yesterday than the conflict in Gaza. The major networks are market-driven, so you can tell from their headlines a lot about what Americans want. Much of it is drivel. This morning's CNN webpage has headlines about Charles Barkley getting arrested on suspicion of DUI and an 88 year-old woman yanking a nude intruder's testicles. Is this the crowd we want to source national security to?
But the critiques of Wise Men and Crowds both go too far. On the side of the Wise Men, there are plenty of national security professionals who are saying the right things. Strategic failure in the Global War on Terror drove many of the worst policymakers out of power, and elevated a new, more thoughtful group of leaders. Many good policy suggestions abound. Part of the challenge now is building political momentum for the right ideas.
On the side of the Crowd, I still believe in the power of the intellectual marketplace to generate winning ideas. And despite the alarming disinterest in serious policy issues among many Americans, this trend is by no means universal. The US still has a very large population of intelligent, thoughtful, interested citizens who deserve to have a voice. Authoritarian governments always claim they can't trust their citizens with the responsibilities of power; countries like Egypt languish under their rule, while the empowered citizens of liberal democracies prove this logic wrong. The US needs to trust its citizens.
So is it Wise Men or the Crowd? I think it's both. Winning organizations today must be a hybrid of top-down hierarchies and bottom-up networks. Senior leaders must build organizations that encourage innovation and thoughtfulness. Knowledge and differing viewpoints should flow freely, and debate should be encouraged. When it comes time to make decisions, these same leaders should act confidently and decisively to implement the best ideas.
I learned this lesson in a microcosm of the Air Force's Squadron Officer School. I've picked on its weak academics, but as a leadership school, SOS excels. It was one of the most formative events of my career. Over the course of four weeks, the fourteen members of my flight transformed from a disorganized pack of individuals into a highly effective team. Among other things, the school forced us to tackle a series of complex problems to teach leadership and organizational management. These problems required teamwork and innovation. Our early mistake was operating solely as a crowd; everyone tossed around good ideas, but we had no executive authority to make decisions and implement a final strategy. We also learned that the quieter individuals--who often had the best ideas--would not speak up unless someone specifically solicited their input. We quickly adapted and developed a model that served us throughout the rest of the course. For each activity, we appointed a leader from the outset. During the brainstorming phase, the leader would facilitate an open discussion and solicit input. He or she would ensure that everyone participated, and would draw out the quiet team members. Towards the end of the brainstorming session, the leader would announce the final strategy. There would be some final tweaking, then a rehearsal. By the time we executed, we had a single, cohesive strategy that represented the best ideas of the team. It didn't necessarily matter who the leader was, because the process worked so well. We had created an excellent organization for meeting the challenges of the school, by combining hierarchical structure with openness. Wise Men and the crowd.