Approximate Reading Time: ~15 Minutes
By Brian R. Price
“In wicked domains that lack automatic feedback, experience alone does not improve performance. Effective habits of mind are more important, and they can be developed”-David Epstein (Pg. 230)
Abstract: Discusses David Epstein’s analysis of cross-domain expertise, and breadth, raised in his recent book, extending the author’s observations and arguments and applying them to planning and professional military education (PME).
Popular authors like Malcom Gladwell and David Epstein do an important service, synthesizing research trends for broad audiences. The interested reader can then follow-up through the notes to look at the original research.
David Epstein’s new work, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, offers a cornucopia of useful observations applicable to the defense establishment’s quest to improve performance with wicked problems. His study is a cross-domain synthesis of research in individual and organizational psychology, business, the sport-sciences, and pedagogical explorations into effectiveness and creativity—including a number of studies conducted by the military services. Every chapter offers domain-transferrable insight—here, I’ll only be able to offer a few.
Epstein first divides potential problems into two; the kind and the wicked. He relates solving these problems to musical terms; kind problems are like classical music, where the goal is to be a re-creative artist, while wicked problems are like improvised jazz, which requires a different skill set—the creative artist (p. 76).
Facing kind problems, narrow specialization can be remarkably efficient. The problem is that we often expect the hyperspecialist, because of their expertise in a narrow area, to magically be able to extend their skill to wicked problems. The results can be disastrous (p. 213).
He explores “disaster” through the Challenger explosion, but throughout he synthesizes across many other domains. Wicked problem solutions, by definition, tend to elude domain experts. There seems little doubt that the myriad of security challenges facing the United States, our allies and the world community fall better into the “wicked” category.
The complexity of the modern security environment, beset by interwoven wicked problems, has been well noted in the 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS), the Joint Concept for Integrated Campaigning, and in the press for Globally Integrated Operations. Wicked problems baffle even subject-matter experts, or, as Epstein argues, perhaps especially subject-matter experts, because they tend to confine themselves within their specialized domain. They tend not to challenge assumptions accepted within their field. A caution here—domain expertise remains invaluable, and Epstein is careful to make the point repeatedly throughout RANGE, however, very often, solutions do exist already—but outside the domain under challenge.
Today’s professional military education (PME) and, Epstein argues, higher education favors specialization. As such, it builds in expectations that solutions proven (or believed to be proven) will work again in the future. There seems little doubt that military leaders and staffs gravitate towards comfortable solutions—notably major combat operations—where control and problem-bounding are easier to establish. PME tends to focus on these areas, especially with the return to “near-peer competition,” as the NSS directs.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) targeted PME, stating bluntly that “PME has stagnated, focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity,” a sentiment echoing General “Mad Dog” Mattis, who phrased it this way, “an approach that does not emphasize thinking and creativity is incomplete…My assessment is that our current doctrinal approach to fostering clear, careful thinking and creativity – particularly early in design and planning—is insufficient and ineffective.” Tom Ricks has long challenged PME along these lines. These are incendiary words indeed, but how to fixing the problem requires understanding it first, then formulating creative responses. This is where Epstein’s synthesis offers an important set of insights, as with the following quote by A. Ouderkirk, based on his 2013 study on the scientific process at 3M:
If you’re working on well-defined and well-understood problems, specialists work very, very well. As ambiguity and uncertainty increases, which is the norm with systems problems, breadth becomes increasingly important (p. 207).
Much of today’s PME excels at training, which works well or “well-defined and well-understood problems,” the sort Epstein terms ‘kind’ (kind doesn’t necessarily mean easy, rather, it refers to structured versus unstructured problems). The “breadth” that Ouderkirk intends has to do with cross-domain expertise, whether it be at the organizational level or the individual.
One of Epstein’s main themes—backed up by considerable research—is the solutions for wicked problems often come from outside a given domain. This seems useful even if we are using the current military use of the term domain; solutions to problems of access, maneuver, and effects can very likely be solved via an indirect approach outside the domain, as in the use of the Electromagnetic Spectrum or cyber to blind, fool, or otherwise disable an air defense radar.
This is not to say depth and specialization are unnecessary. Such “exquisite” knowledge is hugely valuable at the cutting edge of technology and capability—however, it usually provides incremental, evolutionary solutions. Some problems within the domain remain intractable, especially wicked ones, sometimes defined as those that divide domain experts as to their causes and potential solution sets.
Solutions to wicked problems frequently emerge or exist already, though such solutions probably lay outside of that particular domain. Epstein notes that lateral thinking, “a term coined in the 1960s for information in new contexts, including the drawing together of seemingly disparate concepts or domains that can give old ideas new uses” (p. 193). It is hard for domain experts to engage in lateral thinking so long as they are bound by domain assumptions, beliefs, and experiences.
Citing a study of more than eighteen million scientific papers by sociologist Brian Uzzi, “Atypical Combinations and Scientific Impact,” Science 342, (2013), 468-472, Uzzi’s team noted, tracking papers over time,
…papers with new knowledge combinations were more likely to be published in less prestigious journals, and also much more likely to be ignored upon publication. They got off to a slow start in the world, but after three years, the papers with new knowledge combos surpassed the conventional papers, and began accumulating more citations from other scientists. Fifteen years after publication, studies that made multiple new knowledge combinations were way more likely to be in the top 1 percent of most-cited papers. (p. 282)
The biggest breakthroughs, and the most impactful work, came when cross-domain knowledge infused the research. The same might be said for strategy and the process of operational design, where a superior ability to understanding the problem should lead to better decisions. Breadth tends to feed creativity, whereas depth tends to favor smaller innovative steps.
Breadth is not a replacement for domain expertise. What Epstein argues is that domain expertise can, with wicked problems, actually occlude possible solutions, because expertise brings habits of mind and approaches bounded by what’s expected and usual within the domain. Tools are developed around consensus assumptions, but tool structure can also hinder creativity.
Tools and frameworks such as DIME (Diplomacy, Information, Military, Economic), PMESII (Political, Military, Economic, Social, Information, Infrastructure), ASCOPE (Areas, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, People, Events), and COG (center of gravity) analysis underlie much of the current Joint Planning Process (JPP) process, and while valuable, Epstein’s book suggests that over-reliance on tools can cause the atrophy of creative, conceptual thought. In the context of military planning, Zach Morris echoed this point in 2019, where he strongly advocated a return to conceptual (vice detailed) planning, deeper thinking about the problem rather than following prescriptive steps,
Each [SAMS] graduate should solve complex problems by using history, doctrine, theory, experience, and other lenses to continuously frame the environment, problems, and solutions based on core principles of learning, appreciating differences, thinking holistically about the system….
Organizations have long recognized this, and cross-functional teams are a good way to start. It makes sense to get the key experts “in the room” leveraging their expertise to forge a cross-domain approach or design that defines the way ahead. This idea underpins our modern JPP, and the idea of staff organization, with key functional areas present as a group or broken out in mission- or task-oriented working groups. The Army’s Futures Command and the Air Forces AFWIC are both taking the approach, and it is a laudable one—one well-proven in Silicon Valley. Epstein refers to this as the Fantastic Four approach after the Marvel Comics crime-fighting team.
But Range holds a surprise. Summarizing an intriguing paper by A. Taylor and H. R. Greve, “Superman or the Fantastic Four,” Academy of Management Journal 49, no. 4 (2006), 723-40, Epstein writes, “when seeking innovation in knowledge-based industries, it is best to find one ‘super’ individual…“If no individual with the necessary combination of diverse knowledge is available, one should form a ‘fantastic’ team” (p. 210). By default, the planning community opts for the Fantastic Four approach, leveraging tools such as DIME, PMESII, and ASCOPE to define and understand the operating environment. Similarly, critical factor (COG) analysis is employed to isolate critical vulnerabilities of an enemy system.
The Department of Defense favors the Fantastic Four approach, represented in planning staffs, working groups and task forces. These are well-equipped with proven tools within the JPP. As good as this collection of tools and processes are (and we should definitely work with them, continuing to improve), Epstein offers a sensible caution, summed up by Aaron Toynbee as “no tool is omnicompetent” (p. 267) but speaking more broadly, Epstein quotes Andy Ouderkirk, one of the 3M study authors:
In kind environments, where the goal is to recreate prior performance with as little deviation as possible, teams of specialists work superbly…When the path is unclear, those same routines no longer suffice, [because] Some tools work fantastically in certain situations…and those tools are well known and practiced…Those same tools will also pull you away from a breakthrough innovation (210-211).
Unfortunately, in the wicked world the best solution is not the Fantastic Four: it’s Superman, an individual whose personal expertise is broad (or as a polymath, broad and deep in more than one domain). He does not quite say why this is true—though much research suggests that it is—but one might posit it has to do with the power of the human brain to see what he calls “deep structure,” similarities between the problem at hand, and others not apparent at the surface. One is reminded of Clausewitz’s conception of genius.
While superman or Clausewitz’s genius might be the ideal solution, he (or she) is not easily found, but the defense community should find ways to attract the polymaths and generalists who can rise to be supermen—and superwomen. If Epstein is right, that is the approach through which revolutionary breakthroughs are found, DoD should find ways to better attract and encourage such Supermen and Superwomen.
Fantastic Four staff and leaders at all levels will need certain abilities. Epstein makes it clear that cross-domain expertise, systems thinking, tolerance for ambiguity, technical knowledge from peripheral domains, repurposing what is already available, and the ability to connect disparate information together in new ways, are keys unlocking creativity and innovation. These abilities consistently produce superior results in wicked problem sets.
These skills are not the ones being emphasized in recruitment, in higher education, or in professional military education.
PME & Education
In wicked domains that lack automatic feedback, experience alone does not improve performance. Effective habits of mind are more important, and they can be developed (p. 230)
You have people walking around with all the knowledge of humanity on their phone, but they have no idea how to integrate it. We don’t train people on thinking or reasoning. (p. 277) –Casadevall
There is much in Epstein’s Range that applies equally to PME and to civilian higher education. While not everyone is capable of being Superman or Superwoman, “several studies have shown that a little training in broad thinking strategies…can go a long way, and can be applied across domains” (p. 52). “Students need to be taught to think before being taught what to think about” (p. 50) and “everyone needs habits of mind that allow them to dance across disciplines,” wrote Epstein, quoting interviews with psychologist James Flynn.
The cross-domain nature of “how to think” is essential to success. Historically, the discipline of philosophy filled this need, equipping students with the tools of logic and rhetoric needed to assess the expressions and arguments in other fields. Today, many see a crisis, even in the sciences, which is broadly reflected in the defense community reliant on higher education to inculcate critical thinking skills. Quoting Casadevall about the lack of quality control plaguing the sciences, Epstein writes
…young scientists are rushed to specialize before they learn how to think; they end up unable to produce good work themselves and unequipped to spot bad (or fraudulent) work by their colleagues. (p. 276)
One need not pursue the whole of the ancient Trivium in order to learn how to think, though that could be a radical step in the right direction. At the least, higher education should rigorously defend true general education from the constant encroachments by hungry programs eager to snatch enrollments in order to “focus” their students’ education exclusively on pre-major “related” studies. Doing so robs them of skills and precious breadth critical when the environment changes or when facing wicked problems.
It also robs them of “a critical benefit of college…[providing] knowledge about match quality” (130), in other words, suitability of a student for a given field. This is a big theme in Epstein’s work, unjustly summarized here in one sentence, however of profound importance in terms of resilience and quality for recruitment, flexibility in career assignment, and the service academies.
From PME’s perspective, this highlights the distinction between training and education. I argue training—usually in the form of specialized knowledge—prepares for the known. Education, by contrast, prepares for the unknown, giving the cross-domain knowledge and match-quality results in more resilient, mentally “ambidextrous” officer and non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps.
Under the current climate—in both PME and within higher education—humanities courses that teach key skills—philosophy, history, literature, languages—are pushed to the side in favor of content more relevant to the major. This trend reinforces educational narrowness, which yields a much smaller tool-kit both in terms of analytical tools and the ability to do synthesis, as well as reducing the scope of general knowledge, precisely the tools that enable cross-domain knowledge and understanding so key in approaching wicked complexity. PME must work to defend and expand education, even though it is under challenge from the outcomes-based movement that seeks to link every element in every course with tightly articulated learning objectives. Such a system, by its nature, tends towards training, comfortable territory for the military services, and thus a likely default. Epstein concludes that in higher education,
There is often no entrenched interest fighting on the side of range or of knowledge that must be slowly acquired. All forces align to incentivize a head-start and early, narrow specialization, even if that is a poor long-term strategy. (p. 119)
For those teaching in the classroom, RANGE offers a host of tips to encourage conceptual connections over the far more common (and much less effective, in the medium and long term), procedural approach. Interleaving and spacing techniques can help retain key information for recall when it is needed.
Even if PME can defend education alongside training, the kinds of degrees encouraged and the personal traits that assignment officers and Human Resource professionals should look for, rather than focusing in just on qualifications. Quoting Abbie Griffin, author of Serial Innovators, Epstein writes,
… look for wide-ranging interests. Look for multiple hobbies and avocations…. When the candidate describes his or her work, does he or she tend to focus on the boundaries and the interfaces with other systems? (p. 213)
This is something of a sea-change from the industrial-era focus on qualifications, and it is one that is very hard for large organizations to execute; therefore, if Epstein’s ideas are correct, PME will need the support of senior leadership to enable and encourage officers and NCOs to diversify their knowledge base.
In the emerging data-rich world, PME students will doubtlessly need better tools to handle data, more closely pair with Artificial Intelligence and machines, evaluating technical information as well as a more interwoven diplomatic, informational, and economic environment. In terms of evaluating technical solutions, domain depth will prove invaluable. But when it comes to understanding the context in which military operations might occur, domain breadth might be just as important, offering a variety of tools and approaches beyond those developed within the military domain.
David Epstein has usefully synthesized a mountain of useful research, however the book as a whole illuminates key changes that need to be made in order to succeed in our increasingly complex, ambiguous world. PME, higher education, and our defense leaders can profit by giving Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World a look. The book itself is a cross-domain synthesis of the sort Epstein champions, so the reader has in his or her own hands a real-world example of how cross-domain approaches work.
Dr. Brian R. Price is Associate Professor of Military and Strategic Studies at the Air Command & Staff College, teaching within the Joint All Domain Strategist concentration and the Department of Joint Warfighting. He has a B.A. in political science from UCLA and a doctorate in military history from the University of North Texas. He served as a DoD Civilian with two tours in Afghanistan, has taught for six years in Hawai’i Pacific University’s graduate Diplomatic & Military Studies program, and was a publisher and a Silicon Valley executive. On his off-time he teaches medieval swordsmanship. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Air Command and Staff College, Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.