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Asymmetric Thinking in the Military

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There are multitudes of subsets within each of these practice sets.  It’s not enough to recognize or even appreciate the virtue of these practices. Mastery, and being able to apply them in stressful and unpredictable circumstances requires training and on-the-job application.  Developing such skills at a high level is not a quick fix.  It comes from counter-intuitive and non-traditional education, and direct experience that changes not simply what a person understands, but how they view things. This, in turn, comes from a combination of new ideas and vocabulary, and on the job application over time.

Trainer Qualities

Teaching a significant number of people to become masters of Asymmetric Thinking in planning and stressful operational situations depends significantly on trainer commitment and ability to “walk the talk.”  These trainer qualities include:

Absolute commitment to the individual student’s success:   In every field in which there is mastery (art, music, sports), achievement and sustaining that achievement is always a result of a personal bond between mentor and student.  This can’t be an exercise conducted “in principle.”

Commitment to presenting repetitive, paradoxical challenges:  Students need to grapple with impossible situations in which any choice is both right and wrong.  For example, in the sentence, “This sentence is false,” is the sentence true or false? If it is true it is false and if it is false it is true.  Becoming comfortable with questions and situations that have no “right” answer enables Asymmetric Thinking and uncharacteristic action in the face of asymmetric threat.

Commitment to honoring the individual’s style and natural interests: New possibilities are not a function of appearance.  If it has to look a certain way, the purpose is defeated.

Commitment to surfacing and resolving unspoken disputes with students as individuals and in groups:  Often, the important conversation for new possibility is public, not private.  If anything important is unsaid, the process is easily undermined.

Commitment to persistence, always identifying the next practical piece of work in which Asymmetric Thinking applies: This includes management of mastery as to when they are ready to go to the next level.

A Culture of Asymmetric Thinking

Asymmetric thinking will expand if leaders use and encourage it in contexts they see it as important.  Without such encouragement, it can be seen as “rocking the boat” and being “out of line.”

In this regard, Asymmetric Thinking is more a matter of being part of a culture than an individual attitude and skill. For example, the general officers who led the logistics operation in Iraqi Freedom developed in an environment in which they were encouraged to take a mission or training requirement, consider new possibilities, and open a full range of options. Instead of having one answer available to them, they’d have two or three.

There is immense value in an organization that is allowed and enabled to think in a way that look at possibilities and how things might be done differently to accomplish a mission.

A critical value in a military organization is trust.   By encouraging people to think for possibilities, trust improves. When people have an opportunity to talk back and forth openly, they see that the men and women around them are not exactly what they imagined.., and that many have good ideas, and values similar to their own. Consequently, one powerful effect of such Asymmetric Thinking is increased unit cohesion.

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