SMH 2018 and “Cross Functional” Officers

I’ve been distracted by the publication of Learning War and the warm welcome its received, so this follow-up post on the Society of Military History’s Annual Meeting (SMH 2018) is later than I intended. What strikes me as I review my notes from the meeting is how “cross-functional” U.S. naval officers of the early twentieth century were.

Cross-functionality is a common concept in software, but unusual in a military context. I’m using it here to refer to naval officers who developed experience and skill in many different specialties—surface ships, submarines, aviation, and politics—that together created an integrated fleet. Just as many development teams today encourage broad expertise across a variety of domains and technologies, the U.S. Navy of the early twentieth century encouraged officers to develop familiarity with different aspects of naval warfare.

This theme appeared in several papers. Scott Mobley used textual analysis of two different version of William Leahy’s diary (one recently discovered at the U.S. Naval Academy) to assess Leahy’s view of the American intervention in Nicaragua in 1912. Leahy was a Lieutenant Commander in the Pacific Fleet and served as chief of staff to the intervention’s commander, Rear Adm. William Southerland. Leahy also served as the military governor of Corinto, requiring him to employ both strategic acumen and political skill. Leahy was not the only U.S. officer with a political role in the early twentieth century. A talent for foreign relations—which I think of, with apologies to Clausewitz, as “war by other means”—was desirable. Even junior officers were encouraged to develop their political skill. It was essential when communication mechanisms were slow and small ships—like those in the Philippine archipelago—were the most visible local representation of the U.S. government. I believe it made officers better equipped to deal with the inherently political challenges of high command, which include not only collaboration with other nations, but the competing incentives of different services. “Jointness” is inherently political.

Ryan Wadle gave a valuable paper on “generalists vs. specialists” in the interwar (1919-1939) U.S. Navy, a fascinating topic with important ramifications for today. Wadle used Henry Yarnell as a vehicle for his analysis, charting the major developments of his career. He started as a surface warfare officer, became head of the Newport torpedo station, and then a staff officer. Later in his career, Yarnell was head of the Bureau of Engineering, commander of the battle force’s aircraft carriers, and commander of the Asiatic Fleet. Yarnell was a “triple threat” officer, with a rich experience commanding surface ships, submarines, and aircraft carriers. He and Ernest King—who went on to become the Navy’s commander-in-chief during World War II—are the most famous examples of this cross-functional skillset, but they are not the only ones. Our discussion afterwards focused on how culture was broadly cohesive across the Navy during this time and not divided into the factions (submarines, surface, and aviators) that we see today. We left wondering what specific mechanisms the Navy used to incentivize this broad familiarity and what it might take to create parallel incentives today. The current paradigm “channels” officers into specific specialties and inhibits them from developing experience in other arms of the service.

This is obviously undesirable, because without a broad understanding of how the various elements of the fleet can be used effectively together, it is difficult for teams of officers to self-organize to solve complex problems. Specialization—in military forces and in software teams—encourages the development of top-down control mechanisms that reduce the speed of decision-making and discourage individual initiative. This is true within a specific service, but also across them during “joint” operations. A century ago the Navy avoided this by encouraging officers to develop a richer set of skills. My time at SMH 2018 has me wondering how the Navy might address this challenge today as it attempts to encourage what the current Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, calls “high velocity learning.”

On the Scrum Master Toolbox Podcast

I’m excited to be on a recent episode of Vasco Duarte’s Scrum Master Toolbox Podcast along with Karl Scotland and Henrik Mårtesson. The three of us discussed strategy, doctrine, and decision-making in Agile and business contexts.

Karl has some wonderful tools and approaches for what he calls Strategy Deployment (conceptualizing and promulgating a plan throughout an organization). The X-Matrix is a way to visualize desired outcomes, strategic approaches, specific tactics, and processes. The format of the matrix allows them all to be related together. Along with his Backbriefing and Experimenting A3s, the X-Matrix forms a three-level hierarchy for synergistic planning. Karl waked me through this approach during a workshop at Lean Agile Scotland last year. He emphasized that while the tools are useful, the real value comes from the conversations they trigger.

I would agree with that assessment, which is why I stress the importance of the Naval War College’s “conference method” when I bring up the U.S. Navy’s historical tool for strategic decision-making, the Estimate of the Situation. The Estimate of the Situation was a well-defined process that—like Karl’s X-Matrix—walked participants through exploring options and formulating strategies. Unlike Karl’s three-level hierarchy, it was fractal, so any level of the organizational structure could use the Estimate. What made it really powerful was the conversations it triggered (hence the importance of conferences).

I’d never met Henrik before, but it was a pleasure to talk with him. He describes himself as a systems thinker who focuses on making companies more resilient and more fun. That really came though in our conversation and I was pleased to learn more about his perspective.

Check out the podcast to hear more about our discussion and the different themes we explored like John Boyd’s OODA Loop, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Skin in the Game, and Steven Bungay’s The Art of Action.

Thoughts from SMH 2018

I attended the Society of Military History’s annual conference in Louisville, KY last week and it was a wonderful time. I enjoyed catching up with old friends, making new ones, and sitting in on some very thought-provoking panels.

IMG_1364Learning Across Peace and War

The conference’s theme was “Landscapes of War and Peace” so I put together a panel on learning in the U.S. Navy of the early 20th century, before, during, and after World War I. My paper was about the early development of U.S. Navy doctrine and I attempted to illustrate the importance of certain methods developed at the Naval War College—the conference method, the estimate of the situation, and the concept of “doctrine”—and how these ideas influenced the development of tactical doctrine within the fleet (there’s more on that in my book).

I thought it was an excellent panel. There was a nice synergy between my paper and the others. K.J. Delamer discussed the importance of Mahan’s thought for the campaign in the Pacific in World War II. Larry Burke presented on the early development of American naval aviation; his paper reminded me how much emphasis there was on making “every ship” an airplane carrier from the earliest days, something I had noticed in my own research, but have never stressed the way Larry did. Randy Papadopoulos was our commentator and said something that I felt was particularly important. “Doctrine” as we understand it today seems to have originated with Dudley Knox and his work at the Naval War College; that was a major element of my paper, but it merits further study.

Race, Progressivism, and Holy War

One theme that emerged from several of the panels I attended was the idea of race. “Was the First Crusade an Offensive or Defensive War?” was a panel discussion in which attendees wrestled with changing definitions of “offensive” and “defensive” war over very long timescales. It was quickly apparent that the justifications used in the eleventh century to “defend” Christendom would not be considered “defensive” today, but the discussion was still quite valuable. One question surfaced the importance of race as a means of distancing Christians from Muslims and justifying a “holy war.”

That idea was in my mind when I attended “Bayonets & Bolos: The Sharp End of Military Culture in the U.S. and the Philippines.” Garrett Gatzemeyer gave a particularly interesting paper on the relationship between bayonet training in the U.S. Army during World War I and the role of progressive reformers. Their emphasis on the importance of “manpower and manhood” to win the war reflected Social Darwinist assumptions about relationships between races and the superiority of white Americans. Justin C. Pergolizzi’s paper on the Dominican Constabulary established by the U.S. Marine Corps in 1917 touched on very similar themes, drawing attention to the paternalistic racism of American interventions in Central America and the Caribbean.

Race was a central theme of the keynote, “Southern Cross, North Star – The Politics of Irreconciliation and Civil War Memory in the American Middle Border” by Christopher Phillips. He went through the themes explored in his award-winning book, The Rivers Ran Backward which explores the influence of the Civil War on the Midwestern states. The talk was a fascinating look at the troubled time in that region immediately following the Civil War and how regional differences and discrete “northern” and “southern” myth-making influenced racial attitudes. Phillips pointed out how rural counties embraced white nationalism while industrial modernization overtook the cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a development that influences American politics to this day.

Early Sunday morning, I heard Matthew S. Muehlbauer discuss his paper, “Defending the City on the Hill: Holy War and Just War in Early New England, 1630-55” which built on his 2017 award-winning article on holy war and just war in New England during the same time period. He referenced Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages and described differing attitudes between the settlers in Massachusetts Bay and along the Connecticut River. Where the former seemed to be predisposed to use just war approaches to legitimize fighting Native Americans, the latter quickly framed the conflict in holy war terms. The Native Americans were “others” and it was, therefore, justifiable to slaughter them (as at Mystic in May 1637) using the terminology of holy war. Muehlbauer closed with a hypothesis that fear plays an important role in how race is used to justify conflict; the Connecticut River colonists were much more fearful—because of the surprise attacks on them—than those in Massachusetts Bay.

Naval History?

Few panels addressed naval history directly, aside from mine and another scheduled at the same time, but there was one from the Naval Institute and another with Ryan Wadle. I’m excited for his forthcomingbook on Harry Yarnell. I’ll write about observations from those sessions in a future post.