Systems Thinking: An Imperative for Tomorrow’s Small Unit Leader


I was delighted to receive and read that the National Research Council’s (NRC) 2012 Report on Improving the Decision Making Abilities of Small Unit Leaders offered a good description of the enhanced company-level operations. In 2010, I was interviewed for this study as part of the Future Immersive Training Environment (FITE) evaluation of small unit decision making skills training.

The NRC research team pointed out the challenges faced by this generation’s leaders and why greater emphasis must be placed on metacognitive (how to think) skills. Their report also shed light on some promising training technologies which contribute to resilience and problem solving. In the years since their study was initiated, our understanding of challenges has matured and the focus of training has been appropriately placed on improving the cognitive dimension of infantry squad leader. A critical breakthrough in this approach was not a piece of instructional technology; instead, the breakthrough was a commitment to an adult learning philosophy where the small unit leader’s challenges included competing against enemy networks or his distributed operations.

Systems thinking is about perceiving the operational environment as a whole instead of as a collection of forces, functions and flows. Systems thinking is comprised of several elements: critical thinking, sensemaking, perspective taking, perception, and reasoning. These components of systems thinking are difficult to see and often defy objective measurement. Small Unit Leaders have become (and probably always were) critical catalysts for conducting hybrid forms of irregular warfare, which takes place in complex adaptive environments. These environments produce conditions where opposing networks or systems collide, careen or intersect with an immediate impact on the decision maker. Since networks operate in a non-linear manner, young leaders are often challenged when directing their squads and defeating opposing networks. Fortunately, small unit leaders who can rely on their perceptions and sensemaking skills instead of expecting digital systems to support every decision requirement possess an advantage when faced with naturalistic (real world) problems. However, when problem solving, decision making and sense making skills aren’t sharp, small unit leaders relinquish the initiative to the adversary. Their ability to benefit from initiative allows leaders to more reliably anticipate future trajectories of his and the opposing network(s). These experienced decision makers learn to decide and act faster that the adversary. We have seen evidence that the development and use of mental models of own capabilities; mission and intent; thinking adversary; a dynamic population; and the human and physical terrain make initiative achievable and give the small unit leader an advantage.

Training in the systems thinking is not far from reach for small unit leaders. Besides a system of thought for assessing networks, the training requires a re-orientation from the standard measures of performance to a next generation set of cognitive measures for assessing learning outcomes as well as a re-framing of the learning requirement. Effective systems thinking would require the small unit leader to visualize existing network nodes, links (functional, operational or thought) and flows that he must influence. Assessments of the small unit leader‘s abilities to decompose, recombine and synthesize his perceptions under realistic conditions along with feedback on this performance would be used to improve sensemaking and decision making. We should expect to see these and many other innovations that are designed to improve small unit leader decision skills training for both the USMC and US Army within the years ahead.

— William Ross, CEO and Principal Scientist at CPG

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Cognitive Performance Group, LLC is a woman-owned small business with offices in Orlando, Florida, and Cleveland, Ohio. It was founded by Dr. Karol G. Ross, Jennifer K. Phillips, and William A. Ross. The three CPG Principals developed the concept for a company to support cognitive performance improvement in industry and government. (more...)

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