Dominate or Innovate: Nature Offers a Model for Both

Innovation Team

At a workshop this past week in Napa (rough, I know) with a group of high-performing CEOs, one of them asked me this question: “Tell us a little bit about the tension between the hierarchical leadership the military is known for and the need to be flexible and creative?  How do you balance the need for command-and-control with innovation?”

My first thought was: terrific question. And my second, a millisecond later, was that there is no tension in the military, not really. Maybe frustration on the part of some, but no real tension, because innovation, while some consider it an espoused value, is more of a trendy term that gets bandied about in commanders’ conference rooms; it’s a patina of modernity spread over a hard crust of regimentation and formalization. But innovation, real innovation, is far from being part of the military marrow.

The defense industry certainly produces innovations in weapons systems and other technologies. Indeed, it is this kind of innovation that people generally refer to when they talk about innovation in the military, but the military decidedly does not innovate when it comes to patterns of thinking (about the world), acting (in the world), and relating (to each other). That is to say, innovation isn’t a part of the culture. Sadly, at least in my mind, our patterns (or habits) of thinking, acting, and relating to each other in the military appeared at least as far back as the mid-17th century, during the reign of Frederick the Great. Frederick held that discipline was paramount (and I might agree, though I define the term differently). And while a student of The Enlightenment, he was also an adherent of the Newtonian worldview. Society, then, and its protectorate, the Army, was a machine one controlled by imposing—from the top, naturally—a few immutable laws. Food, clothing, and shelter were all that Frederick needed to keep his unruly and often illiterate troops in line.

Times have changed, weapons have changed, even certain variables—like the unruly and illiterate conscripts—have changed, but the system that governs people in the military remains largely unchanged, fixed in place (and time) by a rigid, and I dare say antiquated hierarchy. Hopefully, this comes as no surprise, then: hierarchies don’t foster innovation, they stifle it, just as they stifle change and evolution.

One of my first classes at Oxford was not about complexity, per se, but what leadership means in a complex environment and how one might go about leading in such an environment. The professor was Keith Grint. Keith is a well-known leadership scholar who has spent decades studying leadership and teams, to include elite military teams, and has lately turned his attention to the problems leaders solve, whether tame or wicked, and how in complex environments—the home of the wicked problem—a clumsy solution is sometimes the best we can hope for.

When I stepped into the lecture hall, he looked up from what he was reading and said matter-of-factly, “Are you David?” I looked over my shoulder to see if there was someone else in the room. Alas, we were alone—he was talking to me. When I looked back at him it was with a mix of suspicion and wonderment. How did he know who I was? Was this some sort of professorial prescience? Did my academic reputation, or complete and total lack thereof, precede me?

“Yes,” I said, “I’m Dave. How did you know that?”

He held up the piece of paper he’d been reading that had my picture on it in the top left corner. “You gave us your bio when you applied here,” he said. What he left unsaid—but the look on his face shouted—was, “Maybe we made a mistake in accepting you.”

I laughed. “Right,” I said, “why do you ask?”

He did not mince words. “Did you ever wonder why your small teams are so successful,” he said, “but your larger organization is a mess?”

I arched my eyebrows and nodded. “I’ve been wondering that for about 25 years,” I said.

Needless to say, I enjoyed my time with Professor Grint just as much as I’ve enjoyed reading much, if not most, of what he’s written over the years. His take on his question to me, in a nutshell, and at the risk of over-simplifying, is that the small, nimble, high-performing SEAL team has a different value system than the much larger U.S. Military. And I agree—to an extent.

Specifically, our small SEAL teams value egalitarianism, or equalitarianism as some say, while the larger military decidedly does not it (even though you might find individual leaders who do). In our small teams, we don’t recognize rank, and we call each other by the names our parents gave us or the nicknames our teammates saddled us with. And in the best of these teams—not in all of them but in the best of them—the most junior man is expected— indeed required—to speak his mind and help solve what Grint and others have termed wicked problems, particularly if he senses that the team, in classic groupthink fashion, is about to lemming it off the cliff.

In the larger military and even in the larger SEAL organization—the parent of those small teams—it’s not that way. Rather than egalitarianism, it’s rank that rules. “Respect the rank not the man,” we were told as young SEALs. It’s a ludicrous assertion, one I knew then and one I was reminded of until the day I retired, even during the now-famous bin Laden raid.

I say all this as a prelude to the answer I gave those CEOs. My experiences—in the SEAL teams, in academia, and in the business world these last six years—fundamentally shape and determine the way I see the world and how I interpret it. Those experiences shape the narrative that is Dave Cooper, just as surely as your experiences, the good, the bad, and the ugly, shape yours.

“If I put five people in a room and give them a task,” I said, “some interesting things will emerge. One is a culture—our shared and integrated set of beliefs, values, assumptions, behaviors, and artifacts, those man-made things, like narratives or t-shirts with company logos on them, that reveal something about their makers and hence the culture. The other thing that will emerge is a hierarchy.”

So, hierarchies are natural. That we must agree on, but just because it says “natural” on the label, doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Evolution doesn’t work that way, and many, if not all, of our natural psychological mechanisms evolved to solve certain problems, like problems of survival or reproduction, problems that might not be as prevalent today as they were 30, 60, or 100,000 years ago. Hierarchies, then, fall into this category of evolved psychological mechanisms. They help us solve problems.

Our hierarchies are generally of two types: prestige hierarchies and dominance hierarchies. In the former, expertise is valued; in the latter, it’s rank and status. Inside of a SEAL team (usually six to eight men) or troop (three teams) we operate predominantly from the former—the prestige hierarchy. Each operator possesses the basic skills of a SEAL but also possesses a specialty—lead jumpers, lead divers, lead climbers, and so on. These individual skills, and the influence that comes with those skills, come to the fore when needed and blend into the background when not. And while the team is flat and otherwise behaviorally integrated (a form of team-ness or wholeness), there’s always one guy in charge, a team leader, so designated because of his skill, experience, and tenure (the least important of the three attributes).

But outside of that SEAL team in the larger SEAL organization and in the U.S. Military in general, our tendency—that is to say our patterns of thinking, acting, and relating to one another—favors the dominance hierarchy. In such hierarchies, rank and status are paramount and, for some, count for more than even group performance. And the exercise of that rank (e.g. “Do as I say.”) elevates the perception of status and also provides the authoritarian brain with a nice shot of dopamine to both reward the behavior and ensure it continues. It’s aggression by other means, but that’s a much longer story.

For our purposes, hierarchies do one thing exceptionally well: they create distance—and distance crushes the kind of communication necessary for innovation, creativity, learning, and adaptation. First, vertical distance develops between the top of the hierarchy, the big boss, and the bottom of that hierarchy, and between the various departments in a hierarchical organization—the all-too-familiar stovepipes or what some refer to as a “communication wheel.” The hub can communicate with groups on the wheel via the spoke, the communication pathway, but those groups rarely communicate with each other to solve problems collectively.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, hierarchies create psychological distance between people in the organization based on, among other things, expectations and beliefs of how relationships based on rank and status work in a class system. Ultimately, communication—real dialogue and an honest and open exchange of conflicting views—founders or is held in its mediocre place by a vortex of formalization that spins out only conformity and a sometimes-pathological risk aversion. Communication suffers, dialogue suffers, and problem-solving (i.e. innovation) suffers or is non-existent.

Furthermore, the amount of information resident in an exchange between two people in a rigid hierarchy is what we call a low-entropy exchange, if only because those conversations are often one-way (i.e. top-down) and responses back up the chain are guarded, lest the messenger’s career be killed. And this low-entropy state acts as a negative feedback loop, tamping down aspects of organizational health, like psychological safety, mutual respect and care, the exchange of diverse—and conflicting—points of view, commitment and engagement, and responsibility, accountability, and ownership. In my lifetime, the regimentation and formalization of the military hierarchy have contributed significantly to our strategic losses in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Yet our elite teams are incredibly successful, as Professor Grint noted. Is it because there is no hierarchy? No, that hierarchy still exists, but what that successful SEAL team or troop does is not only flatten the hierarchy but change the nature of it. Again, there is little or no recognition of rank, the team is egalitarian, and they expect operators to speak up and help solve problems. Yet there are those times when the boss, the team leader, pulls rank and says the team is going one direction and not the other. And there is no telling that team leader when the right time is to pull out that rank card and slap it down. There’s no handbook of pure logic nor one of perfect knowledge. The best team leaders respect the input their teammates provide—a high-entropy state that, to the authoritarian, is messy and frustrating—and they recognize that the future is always, always provisional. Some team members may agree with the team leader and others may disagree, but they all commit.  And together they execute the mission and gather the feedback, from each other and from their environment, that suggests they are on the right trajectory or not. If they are, they exploit their position. If they are not, they make a change. At all times, they explore for new ways, or are open to new ways, of thinking and acting that might prove beneficial now and in the future. And those times when that team leader pulls rank will be few. He feels no elevation in status simply because he exercised his positional authority.

If you want to be successful and innovate, I told the group of CEOs, nature offers models that can help and hinder. The better answer, or model, in this case, should be self-evident if what one seeks is innovation (and its cousins learning and adaptation). And if it is, then perhaps we see the tension exists not between command-and-control and innovation, but between status-seeking and group performance, between a need to achieve for self-centered reasons versus a need to achieve for the sake of the group and for the sake of achieving great things.