Cyndi Thomas


Does DOD industry event signal a new paradigm?

I had both the luck and privilege of attending the Joint Staff Industry Conference held in Springfield, Va., on May 19. If you missed the announcement, you would not be alone.

A few of us attending discussed the uncharacteristically small crowd given the big names and topics on the agenda. In fact, it may have even been the first industry event I have attended where the number and rank of active duty members seemed to exceed that of the industry attendees.

The event was kicked off by Gen. Linda Urrutia-Varhall, director of operations at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. She was followed by a long list of some of our nation’s most senior military leadership, led by Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Characterized by Selva as the first industry conference held by the Joint Staff – at least to the best of anyone’s memory – it was one of the more unique industry conferences I have attended.

Each presenter, more than half of whom were flag/general officers, provided real insight into an area in which they, and the Joint Staff, believe could benefit from improved engagement with industry.

As I exited the auditorium, the last industry attendee to leave, I did so with a few impressions.

Insight, Access, Engagement

For the private sector, the real value in events like this are insight, access, and engagement. Only when we hear a genuine and honest, first-hand account of a situation and its challenges can we assemble our best teams and solutions. Similarly, we need access to the individuals who have decision making authority, who have insight, and who have understanding. And, of course, we need genuine engagement.

It’s safe to say that few industry days or conferences meet this test. Sadly, the norm for these events has become either repeated, generalized briefs (many of which we already heard at last month’s luncheon), or overly restrictive, limited presentations where the focus is on bathrooms and exits, acquisition policy, and the fact that we will not be allowed to ask any questions.

The Joint Staff conference broke this norm. The number of senior leaders in the room who provided valuable insight into some of the very complex challenges our military faces as a wholly functioning unit was itself impressive, as was the candid and genuine nature of the dialogue. But what impressed me most was how available and engaged all of the leaders were. In fact, Army Lt. Gen. Anthony Ierardi jumped up several times to provide additional information and to further engage directly with the audience. His staff was available during breaks, and even made a point to assign someone to every table during lunch. Moreover, there was a bidirectional discussion, an openness to considering new ideas, an honesty about shortcomings, and a willingness to listen.

One member of the Joint Staff even sought me out during a break to further discuss a question I had posed. 

The Future – A New “What” and “How”

Ierardi and his J8 staff did a great job of putting a meaningful event together, the session and the way it was conducted opened the potential to do something almost revolutionary, something big, something that could drive a paradigm shift within DoD by capitalizing on “what” government and industry (including both the traditional industrial base and new entries) engage on, and “how” that engagement is structured.

It is axiomatic that how we plan and how we fight is no longer compatible with the levels of complexity and speed of today’s environment.   How DoD plans and fights needs to change, and the success of that change will be dependent upon the government’s ability to genuinely change how it interacts with industry and how industry interacts with government.  

Beyond style and approach, the conference also served to confirm the need for a different way to think. I was struck by how many times the word “complex” or “complexity” was used in each brief. Many of us, inside and outside of government, are well aware of the very complex nature of today’s world and how each platform must account for these complexities to execute its mission. When you roll this up to the Joint level, you have a multitude of complexities – a complexus.

Operating within a complexus is hard enough; planning within a complexus can be nearly impossible given the linear nature of most processes – especially those of the federal government.

So, how might non-linear thinking be applied to strategic planning? What would happen if we were to apply chaos and complexity based principles into our planning process? What would be required of government, industry, and commercial as a result? These are all core questions that directly or indirectly emerged from the conference and bear much more discussion and attention.

Of course, complexity and chaos theory are not new terms or concepts to intelligence and defense organizations, but they are not widely utilized, and are certainly not typically applied to program or strategic planning. This is the “what” that we need to be engaging on.

Today’s threats justify a provocative departure from traditional views about what we do and how we do it. How government and industry interact today is not producing the results necessary to fight and win in today’s world. A new model for interaction is needed now. Many have argued for a long time that government needs to be more open, more flexible, and more collaborative. Similarly, the government needs industry to be more flexible, more collaborative, and less litigious to ensure success. Never before have those twin needs been more apparent.

The Joint Staff Industry Conference was a great first step towards driving a paradigm shift. To continue the momentum, we will need more frequent forums that are designed to enable insight, collaboration, and problem solving. It offered a model we need to replicate and act upon.


About the Author

Cyndi Thomas is the senior vice president of executive advisory services at Celero Strategies in Arlington, Va.

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