Scholar Warriors

Sub Title : The idea of ideation

Issues Details : Vol 14 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2021

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM & BAR (Retd)

Page No. : 70

Category : Regular Features

: January 25, 2021

Ideation is a process where ideas are  generated during informal sessions. The concept of Ideation is nothing new; it is an age old concept of consultation. However, it can be of immense use in the military, where dynamic and fluid situations warrant suggestions that are not based on templates. The armed forces are the perfect ground for ideation  due to the constant human engagement that occurs and the varied experience of its personnel

I was in Jerusalem in Oct 2006, on the international tour of the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS), when the call came to me from London on my mobile. It was the College Secretary informing that on return to London there would be a 48 hour break for all but I was being requested to proceed to Shrivenham for an Ideating Session on the War in Iraq.  I had no idea what an Ideating Session was but not wishing to express my deep ignorance I tried sounding very intelligent by inquiring who else was attending and who was chairing. The Secretary then opened up and said it was over drinks and dinner, very exclusive, chaired by the Director General (DG) UK Defence Academy and attended by just 12 persons; some from British corporates and civil society, academics from Oxford, a few military officers from different Arms, all with service in Iraq. I was picked out of 80 members of the RCDS because of extensive experience in counter insurgency.

On return to London I boarded a train for Shrivenham with the privilege of a First Class ticket and was received at Swindon to be driven to the Defence Academy which is a collection of different training institutions housed under one roof; the RCDS is a part of it but more informally and is located in Central London. At the given hour I was at what looked like a well-appointed Officers Mess to be received and introduced to the DG, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely; more people trickled in after me. The General then spoke softly and said the war in Iraq was more than three years old. After the early victory in the conventional battlefield stabilization had not been achieved and the situation had deteriorated to an urban insurgency cum terror. The British were holding the areas of the important Shia shrines at Karbala and Kufa and wished to progress the situation towards a resolution after more stabilization. He asked us to be absolutely free in expressing our views on how we thought more effectiveness could be achieved on ground. He said we would discuss for about 45 minutes over drinks and then move to the dining table where the conversation would continue. To bring greater focus he suggested we could discuss the military and political aspects over drinks and everything related to the social and ideological domains at dinner; clearly the latter was the more troublesome issue on which they wanted us to shed more light. The academics from Oxford were from the history and political science streams and for good reason. What I noticed was that there was a relatively senior Lt Col who sat unobtrusively and mixed around too but with a note book and pen. Initially we discussed in small groups of three to four and then came together after ten minutes with the DG giving the opening issues and us giving our responses. I did get at least two opportunities to speak at the pre-dinner session and offered some lessons from J&K and also Operation Pawan. Having studied J&K from a social and ideological example, being a follower of the Islamic faith and writing a full dissertation on Political Islam I had much to offer at the dining table where the conversation went around the table in turns in a most disciplined manner. We sat at dinner for over 90 minutes and then moved for post dinner drinks for about 30 minutes with the conversation then moving into the phase of our recommending specifics on the issues posed. The Lt Col took notes in a very poised and unobtrusive way. I spent the night at the Academy and returned to London quite impressed with the first ever ’Ideation Session’ I had attended in my life.

The lessons for me were not about the war in Iraq but the format that the British Army had adopted to carry out ideation. It stemmed from the basic principle that solutions arrived at through multiple inputs were more workable. Directions coming from a single mind could obviously not provide comprehensive experience based solutions or lines of thinking to act upon. Iraq too was a hybrid war and therefore people from different domains who had researched linked aspects or experienced them could contribute much towards solutions. It’s much like collaborative leadership where inputs are taken from a cross section of leaders at different levels. However, I found the difference here was the level of focus, no unnecessary cluttering of minds with any detail and of course the conduct between intellectual peers. One can’t expect at such a discussion someone who does not have the full qualification (research or experience based) to be there. The rapporteur’s job is most important and he or she must be equally proficient with jargon and more than just basics to make sense of what is spoken and then record it in appropriate words.

I tried ideation as a Division Commander in the operational environment. However, a slightly different twist was given to it. My idea was to get a better insight into tactical issues at the LoC and to obtain solutions from the ground. So I called in two brigade commanders, three COs and a couple of company commanders along with two staff officers for a meal at my house. We laid out our themes well before and kept a tight control over the discussion, allowing discussions in groups and coming together for a larger discussion. As GOC 15 Corps I tried using this method to resolve long standing problems such as the lack of cooperation between the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) units and the Special Forces (SF) elements which are placed in location with them for short periods of time. Ideally the SF has a high kill capability and poor intelligence due to the frequency of move to areas where the potential is high. No one can ever belittle RR units and their kill capability either. However, intelligence is their forte and if they can share this with SF for joint operations the achievements can always be multiplied manifold. The problem was the allocation of credit; none want to share it or be left out of it. This problem also existed in Operation Pawan where the experiment of locating elements of SF with Infantry units in high threat areas was always under trial. It created bad blood between these units and the SF and led to a lack of cooperation from the Infantry.

Within a fortnight of my taking over of command of the Chinar Corps we did an ideating session on the specific issue of RR-SF cooperation for effective operations. We had two SF COs along with a couple of their officers. The RR was represented by a sector commander, three COs and a few company commanders. The Col GS (IS) was the rapporteur. We sat for three hours and each had his chance to contribute multiple times. We only broke off after we had arrived at a recorded solution of the methodology of giving credit and reporting the conduct of operations duly recognized through the Corps situation report. The interaction with Kashmiri intellectuals and government officials was also conducted in a somewhat similar manner but in groups of four to five people to allow people to speak much more and for me to listen. The power of listening is a human quality which every senior commander must develop while he also curbs the inevitable habit of all senior officers, of butting in unnecessarily.

The concept of ideation takes place all over the corporate world in more ways than one. It is the concept more than the structure of the event which is important; it can be structured as per convenience, spirit and style of the organization and the commander. It can be adapted to problem solving, strategizing for an operation or even post event wash-ups and debriefing. The only principles should be the willingness to listen to other thoughts and ideas and not discarding anything without a full chance of discussing it.

I was very impressed with Lt Gen Raj Shukla, the current GOC-in-C ARTRAC, who recently conducted a webinar on Progressive Military Education (PME) by including a large number of veterans in the sessions. Veterans appropriately harnessed for their experience can be a great source of ideas. Many retired from appointments where they could not complete their full agenda of implementation of ideas due to shortage of time. A large number remain current due to their writing in media or professional journals. This is another form of ideation. It actually alludes to something I wrote in the Scholar Warrior column a few issues ago where I suggested that commanders in the field must remain in touch with at least four predecessors to obtain the full benefit of their experience of success and failure through ideas expressed by those predecessors. I found this of great value in every command appointment and always insisted this be done by all my subordinate commanders.