Maneuver Self Study Program

Why is the topic important for Maneuver Leaders?

Our Army of today, recognizing the uncertainty involved with future operational environment, seeks to develop adaptable leaders and units. The U.S. Army's capstone, calls for Operational Adaptability, for "a mindset based on flexibility of thought" and leaders who are comfortable "with collaborative planning and decentralized execution, a tolerance for ambiguity, and a willingness to make rapid adjustments according to the situation."

Learning Adaptation and Innovation

"There are no crystal balls that can predict the demands of future armed conflict. That is why I believe our ability to learn and adapt rapidly is an institutional imperative."

-- General Martin Dempsey[1]

Adaptation and innovation are particularly relevant to today's Army given the challenges faced in recent wars and the uncertainty of future armed conflict. Our ability to meet the operational demands posed by a variety of enemies and their capabilities, countermeasures, and adaptations will be part of our nation's tactical, operational, and strategic landscape. As we look forward to an uncertain future, we must adapt, innovate, and institutionalize both past experiences and future opportunities to better prepare us for the next war in whatever context that conflict will emerge. As Sir Michael Howard observed, "steer between the danger of repeating the errors of the past because he is ignorant that they have been made, and the danger of remaining bound by theories deduced from past history although changes in conditions have rendered these theories obsolete."[2]

In other words, war audits how well military institutions and states prepare during periods of relative peace, and how their force planning processes succeed in capturing emerging technologies and innovative new methods. Armed conflict also audits how responsive commanders and institutional leaders are to recognize opportunities or challenges that emerge from the violent interactions against a thinking opponent who demonstrates the capacity to generate surprise by employing unanticipated tactics or technology. As we look to recent conflicts and potential asymmetric adversaries, the need to create a force capable of both innovation and adaptation is imperative.

In his book, Military Adaptation in War, Williamson Murray notes that the difference between adaption and innovation is the environment in which they occur.[3] Adaptation occurs during conflict when "there is little time, but there is feedback of combat results, which can suggest necessary adaptations."[4] Adaptation is the act of adjusting one's actions, assumptions, or predictions about the operational environment in a way that alters interaction with that environment either in the immediate timeframe or in preparation for future interaction (assumedly to better achieve one's goals). Individuals and units constantly adapt, as a result of field problems as well as operational deployments. Innovation, on the other hand, occurs during periods of peace and is characterized by having "time available to think through problems."[5] . Innovation is the act of taking adaptations and institutionalizing them within an organization so that the next leader or unit will be able to succeed in a similar fashion. If your company improves its performance next week because of experiences it had this week, it has adapted. But, if the company that replaces you in an area of operation next year is able to incorporate the adaptations your company has learned because of its home-station training programs, that is innovation.

An Approach to the Study of this Topic:

When approaching the study of this topic, review portions of Army history during which the Army adapted in combat and innovated during the interwar periods. Examine how these adaptations and innovations came about: At what level did they occur? How long did it take for the unit to adapt? In what context did the adaption occur? What leadership roadblocks did they have to overcome? Also, examine adaptations and innovations that failed and review the causes. Finally, look at yourself and your unit and use the discussion and reflection questions to determine if you are creating an environment that fosters adaptation, flexibility of thought, and innovation.

of adaptation and innovation?

[1] "A Campaign of Learning to Achieve Institutional Adaptation," U.S. Department of the Army 2010, pp.34—35.

[2] Michael Howard, "The Use of Military History", in Michael Howard, ed., The Causes of War and Other Essays (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1983), p.195

[3] Military Adaptation in War: With Fear of Change. Williamson Murray, Cambridge University Press, 2011. P.2

[4] Ibid, 2

[5] Ibid, .2


  1. What obstacles prevent innovation and adaptation?
  2. What are the essential elements of adaptation and innovation?
  3. What role does an organizational institution or culture play in innovation and adaptation?
  4. How does a leader adapt? How does a unit adapt?
  5. How does a leader foster an adaptable mindset in his or her junior leaders?
  6. When and under what conditions does adaptation become innovation?
  7. What are the challenges, inhibitions, and dangers of adaptation and innovation? How do we balance the benefits and drawbacks?
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