Teaching "How to Think" not "What to Think"


I heard a great phrase, the Army liaison officer to the White House, Col. Chris Hughes, saying on cable news, “we teach our young soldiers and officers how to think, not what to think.” From a quick Google search, this seems to be a common buzzphrase in the Army these days.

How ironic, considering the military is often used as an example of a “command and control” environment where the “grunts” (another military term often used other places) aren't expected to think, just follow orders.

So many businesses and management systems are built around that idea (going back to Frederick Taylor). But it seems, more and more, the military doesn't operate that way. Anyone with a military background care to comment?

Lean and the Toyota Production System are often described as a way of thinking. The U.S. Army is working on learning and using Lean methods. Interesting parallels, don't you think?

Hughes is also the author of the book WAR ON TWO FRONTS: An Infantry Commander's War in Iraq and the Pentagon.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Coast Guard officer training stressed how to think, not simple obedience. However, they also taught that simple obedience to orders is a sometimes necessary tool for rare but urgent situations.

  2. I have 10 years in the Army. The idea of how to think and not what to think is actualy not a new idea in the military.

    Operations are planned with commanders intent then the orders. This is so if the situation changes the subordinates understand what was inteneded and they can adjust without orders.

    Back before the mauser rifle this would not work but now with machine guns and radios this is very improtant.

  3. Hey guys Col Chris Hughes here…the first gentleman is correct, this is not new to my generation of officer and soldier in the Army…we have trained hard since the late 80s to get this right. As a commander I issue intent and allow my subordinate maximum time and top cover to do the right thing. This luxury of command only comes from tough and realistic training and subordinates who are willing to take the hard right over the easy wrong. To the Army’s credit, we are now releasing our first doctrinal manual (FM 3-0) in quite sometime that captures this term and emphasizes innovation, adaptability, flexibility and teaches, as the Great Sun Tzu would say “The acme of skill in Combat is to win without a fight.” To win this war on terrorism or what ever you want to call it…we must find as many ways as possible to win without fighting…strong leaders, cultural awareness, and trust in those you lead or manage are a good start.


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