Advocate for Innovation

By September 26, 2016September 3rd, 2018Army ALT Magazine, Career Development
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Ordered to attend the yearlong resident course at CGSC, an acquisition officer thought his career advancement was totally derailed. Instead, the course was life-altering, providing unexpected insight—and a determination to change the status quo in acquisition.

by Maj. Andrew Miller

My first reaction, when I saw that I’d been selected to attend the yearlong resident course of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC) in 2015-16, was that it made absolutely no sense to send me. I was one month into my first acquisition assignment and would have to leave my project office after a year. Additionally, I was living on Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and could have attended the four-month satellite course, remained in my position and saved the government the costs of moving me to and from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Acquisition officers access into (that is, assume duties in) Functional Area 51 as branch-qualified captains. As such, we have limited time to complete the professional requirements necessary to compete for command. For that reason, and in light of the operations tempo associated with the war on terrorism, acquisition officers traditionally have attended the four-month satellite CGSC course.

In 2014, the Acquisition Corps, in conjunction with the U.S. Army Human Resources Command (HRC) and the CGSC leadership, changed this policy and opened the yearlong resident course to its officers. This had a dramatic impact on my career plans and sparked concerns as to whether the benefits of the course were worth the significant investment of time.
I articulated my preference to defer to the satellite course to my chain of command and HRC’s Acquisition Management Branch. Attending the resident course robs us of a year in which to work toward Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act certifications and compresses our career development timeline. As such, the cost of resident CGSC is often the opportunity for the Advanced Civil Schooling or Training with Industry programs. But the most powerful argument against attending resident CGSC is that very little of the course content relates directly to the acquisition career field. Arguments aside, in June 2014 my commander denied my request to defer.


The author, center, works with fellow CGSC students—from left, U.S. Army Maj. Brent Adams, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. J.J. Murawski and Senior Capt. Rik Van Hoecke of the Belgian army—to identify conditions necessary for innovation. (Photo by Maj. Karen Daigle)

I entered CGSC with an open mind but low expectations. I assumed that the course was focused on operational issues, and I intended to complete it and get on with my career. I envisioned endless PowerPoints, rote memorization of doctrinal principles and toilsome planning exercises. Looking back on the course now after finishing in June, I see how wrong I was. In this one short year, I learned more about myself, my peers (and people in general) and my profession than I would have in five years assigned to a project office. Resident CGSC was invaluable to my career and personal growth and is unequivocally a worthwhile investment for the Acquisition Corps.

Through life experience and deliberate self-reflection, my self-awareness and critical thinking skills have grown steadily. CGSC accelerated this personal growth by providing a critical thinking laboratory that mixes students from all branches of the Army with officers from other services, government agencies and allied nations. Led by an equally diverse cadre of instructors, these groups addressed extremely complex, real-world issues that forced many students to re-evaluate their ways of thinking.

I tend to be a divergent thinker—one who attacks problems in a nonlinear fashion and from many different viewpoints. This allows me to appreciate the complexity of most situations but rarely facilitates an easy or timely decision. As such, I have come to envy decisive people, whose way of thinking spares them the agony of grappling with masses of seemingly small details. However, by digging to the root causes of complex issues, I have come to grasp the importance of the shades of gray that exist in almost any situation.

Additionally, through a year of discussions, I developed a deeper respect for how people’s personalities and thinking styles influence their approaches to problem-solving and the conclusions they eventually reach. In short, I am a more critical, deeper thinker than I was when I started CGSC.

The realization that CGSC would influence my thinking profoundly did not come quickly or deliberately. Instead, the seemingly unrelated pieces of knowledge that would enable me to make this connection accumulated gradually as I navigated the coursework. It all came together during the course’s final tactics planning exercise. As my small group discussed the scenario, someone suggested that we communicate with the population to help it accept the inevitably of its new reality. I agreed and added two points from previous blocks of instruction, noting that populations that identify and embrace the inevitable are more likely to innovate, and that to create lasting change in a population, you have to address its culture.


CGSC, at the Lewis and Clark Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, became the crucible in which the author’s new understanding of his career and goals was forged. (Photo courtesy of CGSC)

The discussion moved on—but I did not. The simple act of applying principles from other classes to the scenario at hand set off a chain reaction in my head. For the first time, I grasped the potential that these ideas held. By combining the principles of organizational change management, the mission command philosophy and historical context as it relates to innovation and culture, I changed my view of the Army’s acquisition system. Before attending CGSC, I saw the system as a rigid, uncaring behemoth whose complexity made it impervious to change. I now realize that although large and resistant to change, the Army’s acquisition system is dynamic, open to influence and a direct reflection of the people who contribute to it.

My former perspective on the system led me to define success by how well I could navigate my projects through its complex maze. I now see that project managers have a dual responsibility. In addition to ensuring project success, we have a responsibility to improve the system by seeking out and implementing efficiencies within our control and by providing honest feedback to address systemic issues outside our jurisdiction. We do not have to accept the system’s faults. Instead, we can involve ourselves in the process to confront roadblocks to innovation.

Of all the lessons that left an impact, the discussions on organizational change management (OCM) most directly challenged my views on the acquisition system. OCM is a discipline that examines the behavior of organizations and the individuals within them from an analytical framework to examine and affect the change process, and is a focus of CGSC. I had been exposed to OCM while studying for my MBA in 2012 but had an incomplete understanding of its application.

I initially saw OCM as a way for organizations to react to major changes in their environment or deliberately improve performance. In my view, OCM was a discrete process that you initiated when faced with a big change and terminated when the transition was complete.

CGSC validated the importance of OCM in managing big changes. However, it also showed me the impact that iterative OCM has on an organization. By conducting continual assessments of its environment, updating its vision and communicating clearly, an organization can address change incrementally and is more likely to innovate and succeed.

The successful output of OCM is almost always a modified culture. And in our business of problem-solving and innovation, we should strive to cultivate a culture of learning. CGSC characterizes “learning organizations” as those that “foster a culture of learning that solves problems and improves the organization through a supportive command climate [while] valuing member involvement.”

CGSC’s lessons on culture and learning organizations allowed me to develop a more accurate understanding of the relationship of organizational culture, critical thinking and productivity. Looking back on my 11 years in the Army, I recognize that I have been in both learning organizations and organizations that clung to the status quo. Although I did not realize why at the time, the learning organizations performed better and provided a more rewarding work environment by empowering team members to influence the organization’s direction.

Unfortunately, learning organizations do not form by accident and are not maintained without considerable effort. This is true because of an ongoing struggle between the change inherent in a learning organization and the predictability and comfort associated with the status quo. (See Figure 1.) Armed with this understanding of productive cultures and techniques for influencing them, I hope to participate more actively in shaping the culture of my future organizations.


One of the topics that CGSC students tackle in depth is organizational culture and change—for example, the inherent conflict in organizations between preserving a predictable, stable environment and the need to solve problems and achieve results. (SOURCE: CGSC Department of Command and Leadership)

During CGSC, I also came to appreciate and understand the principle of mission command. As defined in Army Doctrine Publication 6-0, mission command is “the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.” By far the clearest definition of mission command I’ve ever found comes from author and blogger David Hurst: “The idea of mission command [is] to set boundaries, to bracket the options and to create spaces where everyone from the highest general to the lowliest enlisted man [has] discretion to act in the interest of achieving the overall mission.”

Before CGSC, I had a basic understanding of mission command, but saw it more as a rebranding of command and control. Now, I not only grasp the effectiveness of mission command but am a strong advocate for it.

Unfortunately, I also see how ineffective the Army has been at implementing mission command, particularly where it involves prudent risk. This is especially true in the Acquisition Corps. We operate under federal regulations as well as DOD and Army policy that require centralized authority at the highest levels. Additionally, regulation and policy distribute the authority not held by senior officials to a multitude of organizations, often with conflicting interests. Over time, we have attempted to eliminate risk, but instead have allowed rules and policy to take the place of leadership and judgment. We have implemented a system in which numerous individuals have the incentive to say no, but very few have the authority to say yes.

In addition to grappling with issues of culture and mission command, we spent a significant portion of the resident course discussing innovation. We studied military innovation from the general staff of Frederick the Great to the American Army’s Cold War-era AirLand Battle doctrine. (Frederick II, king of Prussia from 1740 to 1786, made Prussia the major European military power of the era. His major contribution was the development of the general staff, whose existence and structure form the foundation of modern military staffs.)

We focused on the bold innovations that propelled insignificant actors to world power status and identified the common factors behind these transformations: a culture of learning, political support, a clear threat and passionate advocates. We then dissected the situations that caused the powers to move away from innovation, stagnate and eventually shrink in power and influence.

The period of peace between World War I and World War II clearly illustrates the dichotomy of the status quo versus innovation. Before World War II, Germany was a defeated power, stripped of the materiel and financial and political ability necessary to raise an army. Despite these constraints, it was also the only nation that combined the commonly available technologies of radio, radar and mechanization to revolutionize land warfare.

In the early interwar years, the learning culture of the German army drove its military innovation. It honestly and openly analyzed the factors that contributed to its defeat in World War I, conducted small-scale operations to test various doctrine and equipment, and empowered advocates to explore emerging opportunities. As World War II drew closer, the Germans’ earlier innovations coalesced with a clear threat and increased political support, resulting in a redefinition of land warfare.

Compared with Germany, the rest of the world’s interwar innovation fell short. France is the most direct contrast. A victor in World War I, France should have had all the pieces necessary for innovation. As World War II loomed, France had a clear enemy and political support. However, it distinctly lacked a learning culture and failed to acknowledge the changing environment. France suppressed criticism of its performance in World War I and built a strategy on fixed assumptions related to static defense. Additionally, it marginalized would-be advocates and, as such, became mired in the status quo. France’s obstinate refusal to adapt led to its resounding military defeat and subsequent occupation by Nazi forces.

Nazi Germany’s rise to power was short-lived, however. As much as innovation defined its conquest of Western Europe, adherence to the status quo contributed to its failure in Russia. The tactic of blitzkrieg, which worked so well in the West, failed to achieve the same effects against the Soviets. The vast distances of the Russian countryside negated the Germans’ advantage and denied them an early decisive battle. Unwilling to abandon their proven tactic, the Germans vainly attempted to outflank the displacing Soviets until their supply lines could no longer support extended operations. Had the Germans critically evaluated the continued use of blitzkrieg, they likely would have modified their tactics and potentially changed the course of the war.

I fear that, like many of history’s most formidable armies, the U.S. Army may have become too comfortable with its own status quo. We have an unchallenged advantage in the world, lack a clear threat and have critically low political support. (See Figure 2.) The zero-defect environment of personnel drawdowns discourages career Soldiers from questioning assumptions or campaigning for change outside of their organizations.


Dr. John P. Kotter, chairman of Kotter International, a management consulting firm, and an international leader in managing change, cautions that in any major change effort, “Never underestimate the magnitude of the forces that reinforce complacency and that help maintain the status quo.” (SOURCE: CGSC Department of Command and Leadership)

In the Acquisition Corps (and the greater materiel development community), the status quo translates to sequential development. A project manager with an approved acquisition program baseline has little incentive to collaborate with capability developers and users. Instead, it is in the project manager’s best interest to guard against changes, ignoring emerging requirements and changing environments. Even innovation-minded project managers have trouble breaking the sequential development cycle. The dilution of authority among the numerous organizations involved in the materiel development process almost guarantees a misalignment of interests and an inability to vigorously evaluate assumptions.

The Acquisition Corps further incentivizes the status quo by evaluating acquisition professionals based solely on cost, schedule and performance within their functional roles. This stifles innovation, offers no incentive for collaboration and makes the process more important than the product. Many of our industry partners address sequential development by building cultures that prize collaboration. Although their approaches vary, many companies have created product development teams assembled from across the organization. These teams define project goals and have the power to make decisions throughout the development process. (See Figure 3.)

Additionally, many organizations address the misaligned incentives created in evaluating project managers solely against their program baselines by conducting a more subjective performance assessment that balances overall project success and stakeholder collaboration with the more traditional cost, schedule and performance metrics.

Without realizing it, I spent the first nine months of CGSC building the vocabulary and passion to address issues that I had previously struggled to articulate. I do not pretend to have a comprehensive grasp of the issues we face, much less a solution to the Army’s innovation issues. Nor am I arrogant enough to think that any connections I have made are original thought. However, because of my experience in CGSC, I now see that I can add value to the Acquisition Corps, not just by working diligently on programs within my sphere of control, but also by advocating for innovation throughout my sphere of influence.


In changing organizational culture, unresolved problems often require leaders to impose new values and beliefs to modify a group’s norms and values. (SOURCE: CGSC Department of Command and Leadership)

For more information on opportunities for Army acquisition officers to attend CGSC, contact Maj. Isaac Torres, 51C proponency officer at the Army DACM Office of the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center, at or 703-805-1249; or go to the HR Command’s Acquisition Management Branch webpage at, or the Army DACM Office webpage at

For more on CGSC and its curricula, go to

MAJ. ANDREW MILLER, a graduate of the 2016 CGSC resident course, is now an assistant project manager assigned to the project manager for Soldier Warrior in the Program Executive Office for Soldier. He holds an MBA from Southeastern Louisiana University and a B.S. in marketing from Louisiana State University. He is Level II certified in program management and is a certified Project Management Professional.

This article was originally published in the July – September 2016 issue of Army AL&T magazine.

Subscribe to Army AL&T News, the premier online news source for the Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology (AL&T) Workforce.