Building Bridges Instead of Breaking Glass: What Past Scientific Revolutions Suggest About Creating Collaborative Transformation

By: Peter Hickman
Approximate Reading Time: 15 minutes

The Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System is a transformative effort that could disrupt the DoD’s standard acquisition processes, yet its success is far from certain. Guardians of process and advocates of disruption are engaged in a struggle for the future of the DoD yet unexplored opportunities for collaboration exist. The DoD can learn from the history of scientific progress, which is full of periods of tension between revolutionary change and the status quo. The insights gained from past scientific revolutions have much to offer those who seek transformative change today.

Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) implemented through the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) is the centerpiece of the DoD’s broad vision of transformative change. Though there is widespread agreement that rapid technological development is critical to compete with near-peer threats, there remains considerable uncertainty that change “at the speed of relevance” can overcome the inertia of the status quo. An April 2020 GAO report is a shot across the bow of the Air Force-led effort with its alarm about a lack of analysis underpinning the ABMS approach. This report will be sure to enliven ABMS skeptics, both within the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Though the security environment in the Indo-Pacific becomes more concerning by the day, it remains far from clear whether the old guard or the vanguard is now ascendant, and whether the future of the military looks more like ABMS, or more like business as usual.

It turns out that the history of scientific progress is full of just these kinds of moments of tension between revolutionary change and the status quo, and there are lessons to be learned that hold great value today. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions presents a theory of scientific progress that offers valuable insight into ABMS acquisition efforts. Kuhn’s concept of “incommensurability” explains why the status quo seems so resistant to change, and how today’s advocates of innovation become tomorrow’s defenders of the status quo. Kuhn’s theory suggests how transformative acquisition efforts can work with the status quo, rather than against it, and can even build on its strength, rather than rail against its intransigence. Understanding the theory and history of scientific revolutions will not resolve all challenges. However, such an understanding can help reduce barriers, enable collaboration, and draw on the strengths of both existing and emerging methods to bring about transformative change.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, first published in 1962, is a tremendously influential work on the philosophy of science, and one of the most cited academic works of all time. Before then, most scientists viewed scientific progress as a continuous refinement of existing knowledge. Discoveries built upon and improved previous work in a linear process of improvement. Kuhn’s account presents a different view of scientific progress. Kuhn’s view of progress is a series of discontinuous periods of normal science interspersed with revolutionary breaks. During periods of normal science, paradigm-based assumptions form the foundation upon which scientific problem solving occurs. For example, Ptolemaic astronomy assumed that the Earth was the center of the universe and proceeded to try to solve the problems that arose from an earth-centered paradigm. Yet, trying to explain the observed motions of planets and stars from an earth-centered model reinforced the assumptions of the paradigm itself, thus entrenching the status quo even further.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, Multi-Domain OperationsFigure 1. Kuhn’s Non-Linear Model

Despite the best efforts of scientists, anomalies occasionally arise that both resist problem-solving efforts and undermine the ability to continue normal scientific work. When this happens, a crisis may occur that causes some to question fundamental assumptions of the paradigm. Some may explore new directions, as Copernicus did by asking whether the Earth is the center of the universe. Others attempt to resolve anomalies in a way that is supportive of the status quo. This helps explain why revolutionary transitions are often not smooth and continuous. As Kuhn writes, normal science “often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments.” However, if revolutionary approaches continue to gain converts, they may eventually replace the existing paradigm with a new paradigm. Alternatively, if they do not, the status quo remains dominant. This dynamic is useful in understanding the current tension between the status quo requirements process of JCIDS and the disruptive efforts of ABMS.

The Current Requirements Paradigm

Like periods of normal science discussed above, JCIDS has its own paradigm-based assumptions about funding scarcity and the role of analysis that enable day to day requirements problem solving. First, the JCIDS paradigm rests on the now-familiar assumption of funding scarcity. Despite other transaction authorities and seed funding initiatives, the JCIDS requirements process remains wedded to the Program Objective Memorandum (POM) cycle for primary funding. The POM cycle is notorious for being hostile to anything but critical current needs due to the enormous number of “hungry mouths to feed.” It is much harder to substantiate the crucial urgency of any given “initiative” over an existing shortfall in a fielded system.

Second, there is an assumption that the only way to achieve funding success is to build an irrefutable justification for any new initiative through extensive analysis. A new initiative may make the funding cutline amid the disconnects, but the odds are very long, and the bar is set very high for compelling arguments. Requirements managers must prove not only the criticality of a new initiative but also the impossibility of even a one-year delay. Without substantiated data demonstrating the importance and urgency of an initiative, a requirements manager risks walking into a review board without legs to stand on. No matter how promising, emerging technologies are rarely supported by substantial operationally-relevant data needed for further investment. Requirements managers, and the decision-makers they support, generally do not doubt the promise of technological breakthroughs. However, for any unproven bet on emerging technology, the odds appear long, and examples abound of past great ideas that ended in spectacular failure. Given this perspective, those who inhabit the requirements shops of headquarters tend to be bearish on any novel technology. Kuhn could just as well have been talking about modern requirements managers when he said that “scientists will seldom renounce the hard evidence of problem solving to follow what may easily prove and will be widely regarded as a will-o’-the-wisp.” The scarcity of funding and the need for extensive support for any proposal results in overwhelming bias towards solving “right now problems” while discounting “future problems.”

ABMS: A Revolutionary Paradigm?

Just like past scientific revolutions, dissatisfaction with the status quo has given rise to its own “revolutionary” movements. One of Congress’s most recent attempts to reform the acquisition system was the Section 809 Panel established by the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, which issued 98 “radical” and even “revolutionary” recommendations. The vision shared by the Section 809 Panel and senior DoD leaders is of rapid innovation through a process of experimentation rather than exhaustive analysis. ABMS poses a revolutionary challenge to the existing requirements paradigm by seeking “network-centric” rather than “platform-centric” capability development. The ABMS approach eschews many critical JCIDS elements while embracing ideas such as the DoD Enterprise DevSecOps Initiative, and other streamlined acquisition approaches.

ABMS challenges the assumption of POM-based funding barriers for new initiatives on its head. Instead of seeking funding for 80-90% solutions upfront, the ABMS approach is based on smaller “slices of capability” in the form of minimum viable products, which are assumed to be widely available at relatively low up-front costs. If successful, minimum viable products may go on to demonstrate enough value to warrant further investment down the road. As a result, initial outlays of funding will be significantly decreased, and funding barriers to entry are virtually eliminated. In other words, this approach assumes resource pressures come later in the development process as minimum viable products compete against other nascent products to avoid “failing fast.” Those that avoid failure may receive continued incremental investment through a Darwinian approach to capability development.

These smaller DOD initial investments replace the funding scarcity assumptions with new ones: low barriers to entry and low risk to DoD from more frequent failures. JCIDS’s faith in upfront analysis is replaced with confidence in a continuous user-developer feedback mechanism to deliver capability more quickly over time. Instead of requiring exhaustive analysis to determine which capabilities are needed, the new approach assumes that market forces will drive industry to innovate capabilities with military utility more quickly than the government can imagine them. Paraphrasing Steve Jobs, in many cases, the DOD doesn’t know what it wants until industry shows it what to want. Jobs argued that market research is not the path to truly innovative breakthroughs, and the Mac and the iPod are testaments to this vision of innovation. ABMS seeks to establish low barriers to entry and a field of candidate technologies in order to get ahead of the DOD’s ability to demand them, and to deliver the best capabilities in the shortest time. Instead of the implicit presentism of the JCIDS paradigm, this approach deploys a nearly boundless faith in the future, and the ability of market and competitive forces to deliver optimal capability development outcomes.

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The Incommensurability of Paradigms

These conflicting paradigms rely on different sets of assumptions that profoundly shape the perspectives of those who work within them. Kuhn referred to this lack of common assumptions between paradigms as “incommensurability,” and it radically undermines the ability of the status quo and revolutionary movements to agree and move forward. For example, those “who scoffed at Einstein’s general theory of relativity because space could not be ‘curved’ were not simply wrong or mistaken… What had previously been meant by space was necessarily flat, homogeneous, isotropic, and unaffected by the presence of matter.” Critics of Einstein’s theory could not accept the possibility of curved space because they assumed space was flat, and they could not question that assumption while keeping faith with a perspective that was predicated on it. Thus, the assumptions upon which a paradigm rests are by definition neither right or wrong; they are assumptions. They shape which problems are considered important, what solutions to those problems should look like, what methods are appropriate to solve them, and what kinds of proof may be required. Work that violates these assumptions and doesn’t speak the language of the dominant paradigm doesn’t just appear wrong; it is wrong – if one accepts the dominant paradigm’s underlying assumptions.

Neither paradigm’s underpinning assumptions are more “true” or “false” than the other’s. JCIDS insist on the need for managed expectations and robust analysis. ABMS advocates for unproven promises of emerging technologies with incremental investment. As Kuhn says, “the competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs.” A long list of failed acquisitions efforts will not convince an innovator of likely future failure. Neither will stacks of glossy brochures convince the requirements staffer of future success. Their underlying assumptions demand different kinds of proof to solve different types of problems. Those who insist on the process milestones of JCIDS seem “stubborn and pigheaded,” but those who count ABMS chickens before they hatch seem just as shortsighted. The same “hard-nosed” drive to solve capability development problems demonstrated by the seemingly backward defenders of the status quo is also employed by the vanguard of revolutionary movements, albeit based on different assumptions.

Avenues for Transformative Collaboration Across Paradigms

Paradigm incommensurability does not mean that all hope for change is lost. Instead, it suggests how transformation can most effectively limit paradigm-based trench warfare and encourage avenues for collaboration. In the case of capability development, the initial stages are where the biggest gulfs between the old guard and the vanguard arise. Newer ideas typically have less analysis and data to support their military utility. Requirements staffers try to separate the wheat from the chaff and determine which requirements are valid, high priority, and possible. They are well-practiced in reducing friction and crushing distractions. The byproduct is that, unless they bear fruit, disruptive efforts will almost always appear as friction within the system. As a result, staff will attempt to minimize exposure to them to focus on existing priorities.

This relative weakness of the current paradigm is the ability to demonstrate the value of novel approaches. New initiatives such as ABMS On-Ramps and AFWERX Spark Tank are great additions to more longer-standing hybrid approaches such as Joint Capability Technology Demonstrations (JCTD) that help identify and start new initiatives independent of the POM cycle. These approaches are well situated to bear fruit that the JCIDS paradigm can recognize. However, the existing requirements paradigm is not particularly adept at starting new initiatives, and the nontraditional approaches of ABMS have yet to demonstrate a track record of transitioning from a good idea to an established program. The recent GAO report on ABMS makes this point very clear: though ABMS has achieved some promising preliminary results, there is little evidence yet that this pathway will lead to the right capabilities, matured at the right time for the needs of warfighters. These results are but glimmers of hope that will surely die on the vine without attracting the management and sustainment might of the existing requirements infrastructure.

Fortunately, at the juncture between identifying new starts and managing existing programs, the JCIDS paradigm and the ABMS approach are already on two sides of the same coin. The advocates of innovative approaches most often use the phrase “fail fast,” but the implicit flip side of that coin is “succeed fast.” The difference between failing and not failing fast must be that successful initiatives manage to demonstrate value fast. Else, presumably, they would fail. One of the things that the existing requirements paradigm can be remarkably good at is assessing whether investments are meeting warfighter requirements. Requirements shops are well-practiced at interfacing with test and evaluation organizations to determine whether contractors have delivered on requirements. In short, assessing whether a given capability is measuring up is a problem that the existing paradigm can recognize. However, there remain differences. Under normal circumstances, the current paradigm measures performance against pre-established parameters rather than a more open-ended assessment of potential value. Though the recent GAO report expressed alarm along these lines, the report’s recommendations were not a wholesale return to the standard JCIDS process. This suggests that assessing the value of minimum viable products is a familiar problem that JCIDS is used to solving, and a promising avenue for adapting the existing paradigm to solving the problems that ABMS poses.

Current requirements managers may not eagerly sort through numerous candidate solutions looking for potential, nor seek funding for new starts. However, they are likely to be more willing to monitor initiatives in development and facilitate this kind of feedback and refinement of promising ideas. Gradual assimilation of new ideas through experience and first-hand recognition of promise is how Kuhn describes successful scientific revolutions: “something must make at least a few scientists feel that the new proposal is on the right track.” In advanced capability development, as in science, revolutions happen one convert at a time. Transformative approaches like ABMS will be well served by building bridges to the status quo rather than giving in to frustration and temptations to “break glass.” Properly built bridges will pay dividends as supporters of the status quo find it easier to cross them and lend additional support to transformative efforts. If built and traveled well enough, Capitol Hill may even follow.

Conclusion

Copernicus faced an uphill battle against the commonsense appeal of an Earth-centric model. It took almost one hundred years to sufficiently demonstrate the value of his heliocentric model and, in hindsight, declare it a revolution. To reach this point, “hardheaded arguments” were “produced and multiplied” that demonstrated a viable alternative to working within the existing paradigm. The question today for the DoD is how to present those working within the JCIDS paradigm with new problems to solve that are not distracting “will-o’-the-wisps,” but rather the hardheaded arguments upon which “stubborn” requirements work can thrive. To do this, ABMS and other flexible acquisitions approaches need to assess how their efforts can best integrate with the existing requirements paradigm in a way that builds upon the strengths of existing infrastructure while enabling it to solve novel problems that have been unreachable in the past. In short, the status quo must be co-opted rather than avoided, and not through brute force, but through inspiration.

Peter L. Hickman has a Ph.D. from Arizona State University in International Relations and an MMOAS from Air University in Joint Warfare. He is currently a Defense Legislative Fellow for a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Before this position, he worked as a Requirements Manager on Air Combat Command HQ staff. He can be reached at hickman1@asu.edu and Twitter @PeterLHickman1

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this paper represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Air Force.

Feature Image Source: Air Force Magazine

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