Innovation at the Tactical Level: The Drink & Think
We discovered something truly great and it began with a simple question: "We've gathered together a group that meets once a month to drink beer and talk tactics. I think our thoughts are right up your alley. What do you think about coming over to join us next Tuesday night?" It was a question that friends and I had posed to peers, subordinates, and senior officers on Fort Irwin over the past 36 months. Over the past three years, we embarked upon an endeavor to join together and professionally develop ourselves and deepen our understanding of our profession, specifically combat operations at the tactical level. We called it the Irwin Drink & Think. It turned out to be one of the most intellectually and professionally rewarding decisions of our careers.
Communities of practice such as the Irwin Drink and Think are developing and growing across the not only the US Army, but the entire defense community. Indeed, we seized upon the idea after reading about a similar organization at the US Naval War College. Drink and Thinks, Agoras, and other similar groups represent a growing population within the defense community that recognize the power of communities of practice to facilitate collaborative learning and problem-solving.
The Irwin Drink and Think grew out a collective desire to reflect on our combined experiences as tactical leaders at the National Training Center. Despite our group's unique focus on tactics (and beer!) and little else, the experience that we gained in establishing the group and coming together for three years might prove valuable to anyone seeking to start any type of community of practice. In particular, three insights lead us to believe that the success that we enjoyed meets a currently existing demand, is easily replicable, and yields meaningful results - the very definition of innovation.
1. There is a demand across the military for Drink & Thinks, Agoras, and other communities of practice.
We were apprehensive about how the idea might be received among the professionals that we approached. Apprehension quickly transformed to relief and excitement as the group grew by leaps and bounds over the months. From an initial group of four close friends, the group grew to over twenty members from across all branches of the Army, from the rank of Specialist to Lieutenant Colonel. While modest compared to other similar organizations, the participation and activity exceeded our expectations. It became clear that people were as excited about the possibilities of such a group as us.
With active participation came passionate discussion and debate. The diversity of the group ensured multiple perspectives in a candid and open environment. Members left rank at the door and engaged each other on a first name basis. This allowed us to escape the echo chambers that sometimes exist in more formal professional development settings. We had what Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, calls 'learningful dialogue.' From the onset, we sought to provide a forum for tactical discussions that we wanted to have, but could not find on MilSuite, Facebook, or Twitter. Over the group's lifetime, members sent more than 10,200 messages back and forth and shared over 340 articles, papers, and books. Heated debate spilled over from our Slack app channels into meetings and vice versa. We engaged in meaningful discussion on decision point tactics, mission command, the British Army's operations process, the impact of space operations on tactical formations, and much more. We learned that professionals across the formation are eager to participate in professional discussions and debate. Communities of practice such as Drink & Thinks provide the opportunity to do so.
If one needed more evidence of demand for professional development opportunities, one need only look to the rise in the number of similar organizations across the formation and, indeed, the globe. Members from across the defense community are finding value in coming together to engage in collaborative learning and solve problems within their fields. The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF) and its growing network of defense leaders and innovators provides a powerful example. DEF currently supports approximately a dozen local Agoras across the continental United States as well as two international Agoras in the United Kingdom and Australia.. Clearly, demand, as well as support, exists for any enterprising individual seeking to establish community of practice.
2. Leading a community of practice requires time and energy, but less than one might think.
The Irwin Drink and Think met once a month to drink beer and talk tactics. We met in living rooms, on back porches, at restaurants. Preparation was minimal, as discussions often revolved around a member's idea pitch, a paper, article, or blog that sparked debate on Slack, or observations on a Brigade Combat Team's or the opposing force's performance during a recent rotation at the National Training Center. Often, more thought might be put into the theme for the meeting (Stout Night, Oktoberfest, etc.) than on the topic of discussion. Our group was informal, but given a highly committed and competent member base, we never lacked discussion and debate.
While Irwin Drink and Think members preferred a more informal structure, other communities of practice have experienced the value of devoting additional time and energy into their meetings. Leaders of the Fort Benning Agora and Colorado Springs Drink & Think (to name just two groups) have done a phenomenal job lining up guest speakers, reserving interesting venues, or engaging in collaborative projects. Regardless of the time and energy leaders are able to devote to the group, communities of practice provide value to their members.
3. The benefits of participating in a community of practice are immeasurable.
The Irwin Drink and Think proved a catalyst to its members' professional growth and development. Through a review of our past discussions, debates, and notes, we can chart the evolution of our thoughts on operations at the tactical level. Following reflection, analysis, and additional experience, I find myself amazed at the extent to which we have solidified, refined, and even abandoned ideas and concepts that we had previously defended vigorously.
We continue to learn from others in the group and our personal learning networks have greatly expanded. The competent, committed individuals that the group attracted are among the best in their field. While the Irwin Drink and Think had its final meeting in April, its former members continue to collaborate, debate, and discuss various aspects of our craft.
The Irwin Drink and Think followed a path similar to other Agoras and communities of practice; some have faded away in the past three years, while new ones form elsewhere. As other members and I transition to new assignments, we hope to find new Drink and Thinks, Agoras, or similar groups to call home. Ours began with a simple question. Based on our experience, I guarantee that if you ask one of us to join you for a beer and talk on tactics, you'll find good company and we'll all be better professionally for it.