Academic journal article Naval War College Review

SYSTEMS OF DENIAL: Strategic Resistance to Military Innovation

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

SYSTEMS OF DENIAL: Strategic Resistance to Military Innovation

Article excerpt

Successful organizations can be extraordinarily persistent and creative in denying the obvious, ignoring signals that suggest a need to challenge key strategic assumptions. The U.S. military has been the world's unrivaled force for twenty-five years, even lacking a peer competitor in some domains-naval operations, for example-since 1943. A danger of such sustained success is that the military might come to view these strategic assumptions not as ideas requiring continual reassessment but as enduring laws. The current and future strategic environments demand that the military innovate and question its strategic assumptions, not because we know that they are wrong, but because every theory of competition eventually succumbs to new facts.1 The military should be extremely sensitive to the risks of believing things that are no longer (or may never have been) true; yet it is particularly vulnerable to persistent denial, and the wartime consequences of such errors are dire.

These assertions are not ours. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) mandates that innovation within the Department of Defense (DoD) be a central line of effort. In his assessment of the QDR, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey states, "With our 'ends' fixed and our 'means' declining, it is therefore imperative that we innovate within the 'ways' we defend the Nation. Successful innovation, particularly for an organization as large and complex as the U.S. military, is difficult."2 DoD leaders are also concerned about the alignment of current military concepts and capabilities with a dynamic environment.

This article explores how successful organizations focus organizational energy and attention on refining their dominant theories of competition, often resulting in dysfunctional organizational responses, or systems of denial, to strategic anomalies-inconvenient information-that contradict assumptions. Our goal is twofold. First, we apply a novel theoretical approach in seeking to make leaders more aware of a persistent strategic vulnerability-that is, how organizations ignore or dismiss strategic anomalies (events, ideas, or technologies that contradict core strategic assumptions) through three systems of denial: "killing the messenger" by questioning the source of the anomaly; questioning the validity or relevance of the anomaly; and revising the competitive theory to make it more vague and less testable. Second, we describe six ways leaders can create conditions that increase recognition of anomalies, by creating opportunities to see things that are contrary to strategic expectations, as well as to protect anomalies from the organization's systems of denial. Organizations have a mixed record on both tasks, and dominant organizations, such as the U.S. military, are almost universally bad at the second. Developing appropriate and effective responses is a strategic leader responsibility and a fundamental requirement for leading change and innovation.


The U.S. military seeks a sustainable competitive advantage-it wants to win now and in the future. An organization sustains success when its strategy and resources align with the opportunities of the competitive environment. In a stable environment, dominant organizations (e.g., the U.S. military) succeed by becoming better at executing their existing strategies, focusing on increasing efficiencies and improving core capabilities. When the environment changes, however, organizations succeed through innovation-developing and experimenting with novel strategies, and shifting resources to new approaches. These two organizational competencies have been called exploitation and exploration.3 Yet this presents a paradox: organizations that are good at one tend not to be good at the other.

Dominant organizations have systems that focus organizational energy and attention on exploitation-that is, sustaining the status quo and continuing to improve what they already do. …

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