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Challenging Transformation's Clichés

Authored by Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria II. | December 2006

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Much of the dialogue concerning military transformation in the United States employs a number of popular, but hitherto unchallenged clichés. Clichés and catchwords are merely handy ways of capturing and conveying truths. Unsubstantiated clichés, however, can masquerade as truths and, unless exposed in time, ultimately prove costly and harmful to policy. This monograph examines five of the more popular clichés, or myths, found in transformation literature today. The fact that they continue to gain currency in the dialogue suggests that we need to examine our accepted truths more regularly.

The first cliché is that military transformation is about changing to be better prepared for the future, as if we could somehow separate the future from our current agendas, and as if we had only one future for which to prepare. In fact, transformation is more about the present than the future. Our views of the future are just as distorted by our biases and perspectives as are our views of the past or present. If forecasting the future is always affected by the present, the influences of the present are not always bad. Without biases, much of the information we receive would remain unintelligible. What we need, then, are the means and the willingness to recognize our biases, and to test them?to filter our filters.

The second cliché is that strategic uncertainty is greater today than it was during the Cold War. Unfortunately, this view overstates the amount of certainty that existed then and exaggerates the level of uncertainty in evidence today. We should not forget the amount of uncertainty that clouded conflicts in Korea, Indochina, the Middle East, and northern Africa, as well as the invasion of Hungary in 1956, the Cuban missile crisis of 1963, the Munich crisis of 1972, the Suez crisis of 1973, and the many tense moments that attended the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today?s uncertainty may be qualitatively different, but it is hardly greater than that which obtained during the Cold War. Moreover, we actually know a great deal about today?s threats, especially that of transnational terrorism; many recent works have added, and continue to add, to our wealth of knowledge about terrorism and specific terrorist groups. We know the demographics of these groups; their pathologies; the values they hold; their goals; the conditions they need for success; their sources of support; their methods, even though they continue to change; and in many cases, their structures and inner-workings, even though the experts themselves do not always agree.

The third cliché is that mental transformation is the most difficult part of any effort to change. Actually, the most difficult part of transformation is the complex task of managing the change itself. The ideas behind Gustavus Adolphus? reform of the Swedish military during the 17th century?which included mobile artillery and greater use of musketry?were not hard to grasp. Likewise, Napoleon?s tactical and operational innovations?which involved combining mass and firepower with self-sufficient army organizations called corps?were not difficult to understand. In fact, the truly hard part about change is managing the change. That requires backing up vague visions and lofty goals with concrete programs that can provide meaningful resources for new roles and functions, and offering incentives or compensation packages capable of appeasing institutional interests, especially the specific interests of those groups or communities most threatened by change. The fourth cliché is that imagination and creative thinking are critical for any successful transformation. While these qualities certainly are important, they are only vital when the effort is open-ended, or in its early stages. Once the transformation effort gains momentum, a new orthodoxy replaces the old one, and creative thinking, unless it remains ?in the box,? becomes inconvenient. To be sure, creative thinking can generate a wealth of potential solutions to the practical problems and the incidental friction that come with implementing change. However, the next step, the critical analysis of those solutions, is essential to moving forward. In short, the only truly essential key to transforming successfully is the capacity for critical analysis, which enables us to challenge clichés and assumptions, to expose vacuous theories and seductive jargon, and, in theory at least, to assess the results of war games and other exercises impartially.

Finally, the last cliché is that militaries tend to transform slowly, or not at all, because they like to ?refight the last war,? rather than preparing for the next one. While militaries tend to rely on historical models almost to a fault, organizations need to learn from their experiences. An organization that cannot, or will not, learn from its past is not likely to prepare itself very well for the future either, except by chance. Assessing what worked and what did not from historical data is integral to critical analysis. Learning from the past and preparing for the future require an ability to evaluate events as rigorously and objectively as possible.

Admittedly, readers easily can find more than five such catchwords or myths running through today?s transformation literature. However, the purpose here is not to address every particular cliché, but rather to point out the need to challenge accepted ?truths.?


Transforming any organization is always more about the present than the future. The future never exists but in the collective imagination of those in the present, and they hardly can lay claim to a consensus view. The future we imagine can never be any better than the filters through which it must pass. If we want to forecast better futures, we need to look to our filters. A process for filtering our filters ought to become routine.

Transformation also is, ultimately, political in nature. The future is contestable, and as such, it forms part of organizational power struggles that take place in the present. The success of transformative ideas depends to a large extent on the power?physical and psychological?of the personalities who promote them. The intrinsic ?soundness? of new ideas may not have more than secondary or tertiary importance. Militarily unsound ideas have been the basis for military transformations more than once in history.

Uncertainty is a given in any age. We will always know less than we want to know. Yet that should not induce us to overlook the quantity and quality of what we do know. Overplaying the uncertainty card can lead to indefensible policy decisions and an inability to prioritize strategy goals. Knowledge and the ability to do something with it are not indisputably linked. Knowing what we need to do to win the ?war of ideas? is different from having the ability to do it. Distinguishing what we know from what we want to know may help us spend transformation dollars more wisely.

Critical thinking is far more important to achieving a successful transformation than is creative or imaginative thinking. Consensus, or at least tacit consent, is the lubricant that moves transformation along. Creative thinking takes transformation on side tours, while critical thinking questions whether the road being traveled is the best one. Creative thinking is best done before the journey begins; critical thinking should occur at every mile marker. The political nature of transformation makes both inconvenient. The unpleasant reality is that funding decisions have to be made, and on time. It is probably best to accept that errors in judgment will be made. But we want to avoid compounding them by refusing to change course.

Learning from the past does not guarantee a better future, but it does improve our ability to learn. Trying to make the present?or the future?fit the past is bound to lead to failure and disappointment. The past is never exactly the same as the present, and it is never absolutely different, either. If and when the past is relevant depends on how we see the present. And that, in turn, depends on how frequently, and how well, we challenge the accepted ?truths? of our times.