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Is the British military too fat to think?

Disruption, or the need to think and act differently, has become a hot topic across the British military.  Hot yes, but not a new topic.  In 1936, and referencing the Generals of the First World War, David Lloyd George argued that ‘the military mind regards thinking as a form of mutiny” along-side other, less flattering, descriptions of stubbornness.  More recent pieces have argued that ‘success tomorrow depends on disruption today’.  This debate about disruption is common to Western, and probably all, militaries.

The modern workforce is the most educated and qualified that the British Armed Forces have ever had access to.  Despite this, it’s not clear exactly why the Armed Forces have not progressed much further than discussing the issue for at least 100 years.  Increased education has not translated into an increased ability to think outside the box.

It is not the case that Britain’s military personnel are incapable of disruptive thought.  This article aims to answer the question why we, the British military, is structurally unable to exploit disruptive talent.  By using ‘we’ I accept from the beginning that I am also part of this problem and have responsibility to help solve it.  

This article argues that military structures are too fat and self-preserving to enable a truly disruptive culture.  There are three principal reasons why modern militaries are not structurally capable of exploiting disruptive thought: a lack of diversity in education; a risk (and loss) averse culture; and centralised management by consensus.  Summed up, perhaps, as a focus on processes and not outputs.

We’re educated, but are we diverse?

There is little doubt that the modern workforce is the most educated in Britain’s history.  This is enhanced by a military training education programme that ensures that all ranks receive some level of conceptual development.  Mention diversity and most will turn to race and gender as the key criteria.  Few will consider, or measure, a requirement for intellectual diversity.  The militaries inability to enable disruption is underpinned by a lack of intellectual diversity.

For example, in the Army, compulsory military education is focused around one or two security topics of interest.  Staff Colleges only enrol a small number of civilians and they are largely drawn from the civil service; the handful of international students is not sufficient to broaden the pool of intellect.  No matter how good we become at studying Defence’s chosen topics, they are simply not broad enough to give people fundamentally different viewpoints.  If you think this is wrong, then consider that the inspiration behind the Apple interface was based on calligraphy and not technology.  How many artists have attended the Advanced Command and Staff Course?

Are we too old?

In 2012 US Marine Officer Peter Muson made this point more bluntly.  Muson compared the average age of advanced US Marine Corp education programmes (mid-late 30s as OF4 upwards) to the Harvard Business School where the average age was just 27.  Muson concluded that business leaders are exposed to advanced education earlier in their careers than their military leaders.  An entrepreneur spirit was inculcated in civilian leaders from an early age meaning they were cognitively flexible and more open to change.   The military should create something similar to the Enactus scheme which gives young students advanced training and mentorship from an early age.

This alone does not mean that military structures are too fat to think.  There are some individually impressive military minds to aspire to.  However, the military has a structural inability to recognise, and exploit, talent. 

This problem is well recognised in the British Military.  At the 2017 RUSI LWC it was noted that if billionaire businessman and Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was in the British Armed Forces, he would only be a OF3

Lack of management skills

In the context of combat operations the historian John Keegan identified an ‘unlocalised force’ that stifles initiative and against which Service people cannot strike back.1 If you’re a soldier, sailor, or airwoman/man reading this now, you can probably recognise the same trend in barracks.  There is certainly lots of evidence pointing to these unlocalised forces.  What does it mean?  Military professionals simply aren’t very good at managing the business. 

Despite the forces military systems create, nothing that the military does in camp is complex.  Nothing.2  Defence hardly needs the Cynefin framework, which defines every problem by disorder, to manage everyday decisions.  The Forces struggle because of a lack the business skills and experience to manage simple projects and daily operations.

The military training and education model is focused around operational staff work and not routine business.  Worse, our current training pipeline is targeted at selected OF3 and OF4.  The majority of military personnel are below these ranks and do not benefit from the same experience.

Knowing what to keep

There are certainly things that the MOD can do to rectify this without breaking the bank; on a basic level providing all staff officers with advanced Excel training would save days of work per year.  Some training is available online, but this is no substitute.  Stemming from the stove-piped education, perhaps the Forces should also recognise non-traditional education?  There are existing models that could be followed to fix this.

That’s not to say that military culture doesn’t prepare its people for business.  Many military traits are valued in the civilian sector.  By arguing for reform, Defence must recognise that there are many good things to conserve.  Parts of our Armed Forces are actively looking to invest time and cash into innovation.  Part of being disruptive is recognising what to keep and knowing what to disrupt.  

All too often, however, the answer to problems is to create a bespoke team to solve an identified problem.  It’s not thinking for the sake of success.  This cracks Defence’s ability to think creatively.

Deep Cynicism & Yes Man

In a Wavell Room article Squadron Leader Rob Pitt introduced the concept of the “dementor layer”.  Pitt, drawing inspiration from Harry Potter, identifies that some individuals ‘hoover the soul and joy from unwilling victims’.  Quite!  The same trend can be seen in military academia.  The conceptual landscape is slowly moving but a focus remains on physical things meaning thinkers are often disregarded as boring.

To make this dementor layer worse, the military also suffers from a deep cynicism to new ideas and concepts. This blinds military professionals to many good and positive things that will enhance the profession.  New ideas are often rejected with answers similar to ‘we can’t do this because…’ and ‘work up from no’.  This hoovers the souls from those who think. 

A cultural reference demonstrates just how engrained this trait is.  In 2008 a Peyton Reed film, Yes Man, was released.  The lead character is a bank attendant called Carl Allen.  Allen meets all the negative stereotypes you would expect (a dementor perhaps), and ignores the attempts of his friends and family to make him more positive.  In the end he is isolated.  Allen’s mind is opened by attending a seminar and he vows to say yes to everything.  The experience changes his life.  It could change military culture.

The impact of risk adversion

This trait is best identified as loss aversion: the idea that it’s better not to lose £5 than to risk and gain £10.  In turn, this drives risk aversion and centralised management.  The military talks a good game about being able to fail ‘safely’, but military culture will never really enable it.  If military leaders feel threatened by change, say, to status or responsibility, that disruptive thinking may bring, then ideas will be rejected without consideration.  Why would a 1RO be motivated to support a disruptive subordinate if it wouldn’t, in turn, reflect well on them? 

Threat to their standing, to their habits, to their long held beliefs. I just don’t want to play the game. The competition between peers to progress in their careers have detrimental consequences on an organisation where teamwork and comradeship should be paramount.

A soldier discussing if they should leave the Army

Centralised Management by Committee

On the surface, military professionals speak of ‘mission command’.  A doctrine that tells people what to do, not how to do it.  In practice, military culture is more centralised and managed by consensus.  Recently contributions to the debate have lamented the ‘rise of the tactical minister’, underscoring just how adverse to decision making the modern military has become.

This resembles what organisation theorists have labelled the ‘espoused theory’ and the ‘theory in use’.  Our doctrine espouses mission command and decentralised risk taking.  Yet, all military professionals must, in reality, adhere to a more restrictive theory in use.

Following the ‘theory in use’ is critical if military professionals are to rise.  At the most basic level, this is because reporting officers will write yearly reports based on their subjective assessment of the behaviour they wish to see.  Reporting officers who, as argued have seen above, have promoted through the same, restrictive, conformist, and narrow intellectual pipelines.  They now bear the responsibility of selecting the next generation of leaders, unchallenged and unaware of wider disruption.  Consider how Generals select their assistants as more direct proof.

There is a paradox in this argument to consider.  The espoused doctrine enables commanders to make decisions and take risk.  The theory in use often requires wide consultation before making decisions.  This has driven a form of decision by committee.  Defence is becoming increasingly incapable of making decisions without first gaining the acceptance of those it might impact.  Taken to its extreme, this means that there is no choice at all; Defence will only ever settle for the most acceptable compromises.  Military personnel won’t risk to gain because the ‘theory in use’ means individuals will be punished or their efforts go unnoticed.

Is this a sign of weak leadership?  Perhaps.  I would argue no.  More likely, it is a sign that the military adheres to a ‘theory in use’ which is different to our ‘espoused doctrine’ of decentralised decision making and responsibility.  This can only be seen as a negative cultural trait.

Adherence to the ‘theory in use’ does nothing but frustrate talented people.  People who the Forces need to utilise to discover the next battle winning concept.  It runs contrary to written policy creating uncertainly.  If the MOD can’t trust its written policy then what purpose does it serve?

Are structures too fat?

These factors compound to create a culture in which the answer is always ‘more resource’ and ‘less innovation’.  The final point to consider is the structure of the Armed Forces.  Military structures are too fat.

David Banks outlines a tendency to create ‘cylinders of excellence’, not driven by resources available, but by military culture.  For Banks, this means that military personnel are encouraged to have relatively little knowledge of, or concern for, what is going on in the wider military system.  Wider research into military processes finds similar trends.  Jim Storr identified the creation of ‘staff eddies’ which stop good ideas from rising.  Disruptive thoughts stay in localised pools of discussion and will not flow to decision makers.  Even when our people identify creative solutions, rank beats talent.

By creating bespoke teams for writing doctrine, new operations, or anything, the military stovepipes knowledge and stops the cross-pollination of ideas.  New structures grow and new outputs defined, but ability stays the same.  The military simply doesn’t have a diverse or broad enough pool of brain power to enable disruption.

This is not to say that Defence does not benefit from defined responsibilities; The military works well when people do their jobs correctly.  Rather, the military must trim down its structures to truly delegate decision making and enable disruptive ideas to flourish.  Looking at the number of headquarters in the British military today, many of which aren’t deployable, it’s clear that Defence has created an elongated command network designed to mitigate any risk taking.  This is the opposite of how we wish to work on operations.  We’re too fat to think.

So… what do we do about it?

No policy change can bring about the culture we need.  This article has offered some practical suggestions.  However, it rests with us, military professionals at all ranks, to decide if we want to be disruptive or evolve slowly.

To offer three, big hand, things: firstly, military education and training must be broader and more diverse; secondly, we must look for organisational ways to say yes; and thirdly, a recognition that not all decisions can make all people happy. 

This should be coupled with a brutal honesty about what Defence needs, and, critically, what it  doesn’t.  By attempting to do everything, we become masters at nothing.  Only by prioritising our outputs can we reduce our addiction to process.

Our ‘espoused’ military doctrine is, for all we want to change it, actually really good.  Perhaps we should follow it?

Cover photo by William Moreland on Unsplash

Steve Maguire

Steve Maguire is a British Army Officer serving with The Royal Irish Regiment.  He has served at regimental duty, with an armoured infantry brigade, and with the Army Headquarters.  He is also the Wavell Room Senior Land Editor.


The views expressed in his writing are his and do not represent the views of the Ministry of Defence.


  1. For context the full quote is: “It is a function of the impersonality of modern war that the soldier is coerced, certainly at times by people whom he can identify, but more frequently, more continuously and more harshly by vast, unlocalized forces against which he may rail, but at which he cannot strike back and to which he must ultimately submit”
  2. Fight me!

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