Futurists Wanted: How to Develop Anticipatory Genius Among Strategists
Imagine you are a staff officer at a combatant command writing the next theater campaign plan. Or maybe you write concepts at the Army Capabilities Integration Center. Either way, you were ordered to develop a long-term strategy to ensure the Army or joint force is capable of defeating a near-peer adversary in the war after next. This is no small task, and your desk being in a basement with black mold or a cubicle farm with constant background noise complicates it.
This problem becomes more complex when examined on a macro scale, contextualized by a world where U.S. primacy is in decline. Although the U.S. has executed a grand strategy marked by global dominance, the National Intelligence Council report Global Trends: Paradox of Progress describes a future in which the U.S. is no longer the hegemon. With an uncertain future projected for the nation, the Army must purposefully explore the future operational environment.
The Army is in the futures business, but it does not do it well. Unfortunately, the Army lost its appreciation for preparing for the far-term future while conducting 15 years of counterinsurgency operations. Various op-ed pieces echo this point and note the lack of “strategic DNA” and “anticipatory genius” in today’s senior officers. To combat this shortfall, the Army must examine ways and means of improving development and employment of futurists. Specifically, the Army must identify and develop officers who can accurately and innovatively project requirements for the future as they translate national priorities into military strategies.
One way to address the Army’s need for futurists is to make improvements across the doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities (DOTMLPF) spectrum to formalize this requirement and encapsulate it within the corps of Army strategists.
Value of Futures Studies
Futures studies, also known as strategic foresight studies, was made famous by author H.G. Wells and later grew into an academic niche. Although futures studies is not easily defined, the number of institutions providing strategic foresight seminars, courses or degrees has exploded. This underscores the value of futures studies, which enable practitioners to break out of entrenched thinking patterns, examine the future and help their organizations adapt to uncertain futures. Futures studies is not about prediction. It is about exploring alternative outlooks that the future could conceivably become.
Many have been credited with saying “the best way to predict the future is to create it.” Futurists do not simply opine and passively offer predictions or speak fatalistically to the way things should be. Rather, they apply a methodology to assess a dynamic environment and frame problem sets so leaders can chart a path forward. Strategic foresight enables planners to anticipate and shape a future with nth order effects, and it is being applied worldwide.
The National Intelligence Council uses futures to inform policymakers. Through keystone reports like the National Intelligence Estimate and Global Trends, the council shapes how the national security enterprise frames the future’s problems. Similarly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Strategic Foresight Initiative looks to 2030 to drive strategy, resource planning and doctrine. Moreover, the United Nations has partnered with the World Futures Studies Federation to conduct research to influence decision-making. Even the commercial sector, to include organizations like Siemens Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp. and other Fortune 1000 companies, uses futures to remain innovative.
The proliferation of organizations practicing strategic foresight within the U.S. government, international community and private sector underscores the Army’s need to deliberately enhance this capability.
Functional Area 59s
The Army employs over 400 field grade officers known as Functional Area 59s (FA 59s), or Army strategists. Department of the Army Pamphlet (DA Pam) 600-3: Commissioned Officer Professional Development and Career Management defines FA 59s as soldiers who are experts at leading multidisciplinary groups to assess, develop and articulate policy, strategy and plans at the national and theater levels. The knowledge, skills and attributes required to cultivate an Army strategist take years to develop and are the result of experience, graduate-level education, self-study and mentorship. Over time, Army strategists gain proficiency in several competencies.
According to DA Pam 600-3, experiences gained enable a strategist to attain proficiency in five competencies: assessing the strategic environment, translating national priorities into plans, leading teams to develop strategies, integrating partner capabilities and facilitating strategic education.
The first of these competencies, assessing the strategic environment, is the most difficult to master. This is witnessed every year during Unified Quest, the Army’s Title 10 war game series, when soldiers, scholars and capability developers gather to explore the character of future warfare. Although knowledgeable of current doctrine and capabilities, many Unified Quest participants are mentally stuck in the present and have difficulty projecting into the deep future. Without trained and educated futurists to guide the working groups, the future Army will be ill-prepared to face new challenges.
Thinking in ‘Time Streams’
Assessing the strategic environment is the competency most reliant on futures-related skills. Projecting into the future to evaluate the political, military, economic, social and informational landscape, and to determine future requirements, demands a special type of strategist, one who can examine present issues while considering history and pondering the future. That is, a strategist who can see and think in “time streams,” as described by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May in Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers. These futurists must be imaginative, creative and conceptual. They must also be comfortable with ambiguity and well-grounded in doctrine and current capabilities across warfighting functions.
Today, Army strategists are employed in futurist roles across the joint force. For example, strategists explore the near-, mid- and far-term futures in roles at combatant commands, the Army Capabilities Integration Center, the Joint Staff J7 and the Army War College. While combatant commands typically address the near-term future in theater campaign plans, the Army Capabilities Integration Center and Joint Staff J7 examine the mid- and far-term futures, 18 to 20 years out, in concepts. The existence of such billets raises the question of how the Army identifies and prepares its strategists to serve in futurist roles.
It remains open for debate whether futurist talents are learned or innate. However, as retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales rightly stated in the November 2016 issue of ARMY magazine (“Are You a Strategic Genius? Not Likely, Given Army’s System for Selecting, Educating Leaders”), futurist skills among senior leaders are the most rare competency. Indeed, a contemporary literature survey indicates that few within the Army’s officer corps possess Scales’ “anticipatory genius.” The question then becomes: How can the Army develop and employ a cadre of futures-capable strategists?
Filling Capability Gap
There are many potential solutions to the futurist capability gap. Within the DOTMLPF architecture, measured changes to leadership, personnel, training and education, organization, and facilities can provide the base to develop futurists and ensure the biggest payoff. Minor changes in doctrine can follow to enable strategic-leader growth. These changes should be reassessed over time to yield the visionary acumen today’s Army requires to prepare for future wars.
- Leadership: The Army will never know whether a knack for futurism lies in nature or nurture. However, the probability of providing the Army with skilled futurists increases if the right people are recruited and developed in conducive environments. Additionally, the value of futurists will proliferate if a culture shift among senior leaders occurs. Through implementing this and the following changes, it is possible that Scales’ counterpart writing in 2040 may have many generals’ names at hand when he or she writes of anticipatory genius.
- Personnel: The Army must screen potential strategists to identify those best-suited for futures work using aptitude tests and writing samples. Additionally, FA 59 should focus recruitment efforts on tech-savvy officers with expansive knowledge of military history, master-level experience in tactics and operations and futures studies backgrounds. Studying the Army’s most notable futurists, like Gen. Donn Starry, Maj. Gen. David Fastabend and Brig. Gen. Huba Wass de Czege, can also help identify similar qualities in junior officers. With these adjustments, the Army will matriculate strategists who can prepare the force for future requirements.
- Training and education: Training futurists crosses three domains: educational, broadening and self-development. The Basic Strategic Art Program, the flagship FA 59 course, already prepares officers to be strategists. To build a greater futures-focused capability, the course curriculum could add a module on futures methodologies and applications. Select strategists could gain unique perspectives through strategic broadening seminars, advanced civil schooling or internships at organizations like the Walt Disney Co., the National Intelligence Council or the Institute for Global Futures. Guided self-development would then buttress these education and broadening opportunities.
- Organization: Current force structure is adequate for employing strategists as futurists, but adjustments in talent management can improve it. The Army Capabilities Integration Center employs 16 strategists in addition to Army civilians in Career Program 32, capability developers. Also, strategists at the Joint Staff J7, Department of the Army G-3/5/7 and the Army War College are well-placed to consider the future regardless of doctrine, budget and current capabilities. What is missing is the value of repetitive assignments at these organizations to flatten the futurist’s learning curve. Furthermore, these organizations should target futurist-skilled strategists as participants in their war games and experiments, like Unified Quest, to increase the events’ credibility.
- Facilities: The majority of Army workplaces are not conducive to creative thought. Most strategists spend their days in cubicle farms, in sensitive compartmented information facilities or in moldy basements of historic buildings. These facilities do not enable strategists to develop quality futures studies. It is easy to champion martial machismo about poor working conditions; it is the Army after all. However, it is also hard to ignore studies that demonstrate increased productivity, motivation, teamwork and ingenuity fostered in organizations like Google. By improving Army facilities to foster creativity, the quality of strategic foresight will increase.
- Materiel: There are no immediate materiel solutions required to correct the Army’s futurist deficiency. Eventually, virtual systems may enable strategists to project thoughts into the future but until then, it is best to rely upon the tools provided by existing futures studies programs.
- Doctrine: Although changes in doctrine are the easiest to make, they are best left until later, after reassessment of the above changes are made. The capstone document that would require revision is DA Pam 600-3. Specifically, it would need to readdress the accession, development and perhaps the competencies of Army strategists.
The Army is finally beginning to recover its institutional competency of futures studies. One way to enable this process is to recruit and develop futurists to retain the Army’s edge in warfighting and the most natural branch to employ these futurists is within the strategist corps. However, there are not enough strategists with training, experience and inherent abilities in futures studies to ensure the joint force gets answers to future problems right—or at least right enough.
Multiple avenues exist to address the futurist capability gap. The Army’s education system can be adjusted to polish futurists’ qualities; recruitment can target officers with futures studies degrees; doctrine and facilities can be enhanced to nurture futurists’ development. Indeed, changes across DOTMLPF are needed to ensure the Army and joint force are equipped with the specialists necessary to develop strategies, plans and concepts to enable the future force to achieve military objectives in pursuit of national goals.