5 Ways Rank-and-File Leathernecks Are Disrupting the Marine Corps

Members of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines patrol towards their objective during a training exercise in California. Two first lieutenants who attended the Marine Corps’ innovation symposium have an idea for restructuring an infantry battalion. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Justin A. Bopp)
Members of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines patrol towards their objective during a training exercise in California. Two first lieutenants who attended the Marine Corps’ innovation symposium have an idea for restructuring an infantry battalion. (U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Justin A. Bopp)

MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. -- Hundreds of Marines who gathered here last week were given a risky mission: to challenge their leaders when they're doing something that doesn't make sense.

That will be essential as the Marine Corps prepares to take on future adversaries, Commandant Gen. Robert Neller told attendees here at the third-annual Innovation Symposium.

"We've got to go faster; we've got to be more willing to take risks," he said. "The only thing we can't accept is not being willing to change. We've got to change."

Being innovative in an organization as steeped in tradition as the Marine Corps, which also lives by its rank structure, doesn't come easy. Leaders might not like what their junior Marines have to say, Neller warned, but the Corps needs people willing to challenge the status quo.

Marines here spent a week doing just that, presenting their ideas in civilian clothes and without much reference to their ranks. The vibe was more TED Talks than your typical military PowerPoint briefs, and the ideas were briefed up to a team of general officers.

Here are five ways some of those rank-and-file leathernecks think they can shake up the service.

1. Empowering the disrupters.

Sgt. Ryan Reeder says it's time for the Marine Corps to go through a culture shift. The infantry assaultman is getting ready to leave the service, and it's not because his military occupational specialty is being phased out.

"No one incentivizes innovators," said Reeder, an infantry assaultman who's been studying computer science and will leave the Marine Corps later this year. "... I can go get a six-figure job anywhere I want to. I want to stay in the Marine Corps, but innovation isn't recognized."

Reeder's been serving with the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory's noncommissioned officer fellowship program, which allows corporals and sergeants to test concepts and gear before they hit the fleet. NCOs who are willing to speak up offer some vital insight, he said, and leaders should want them to become the next staff NCOs.

"A lot of people don't like a sergeant coming up here and talking to a star or a colonel like I do," he said. "But ... it's all about the ideas, not the rank that you wear."

2. Crowdsourcing ideas.

Marines face plenty of problems throughout their careers, and it can be tough to know if a solution already exists. Chief Warrant Officer 4 Sean Flores, a utilities officer with III Marine Expeditionary Force, helped build Phase Zero, a platform where Marines can share their problems and solutions in real-time.

"Maybe you're trying to deal with countering [unmanned aerial vehicles]. Somebody else might've already solved that problem," Flores said. "So you source it out, and some subject-matter expert might chime in and say, 'This is how we dealt with it' or 'We're having the same problem, so let's work on it together and collaborate.' "

Phase Zero had its soft opening on the marines.mil website earlier this year. Now, Flores said, they're looking for Marines willing to help edit, code and moderate the site

3. "Flattening the battalion."

In order to prepare for the future, Neller said the Corps can't just take legacy gear and make it a little bit better. "We've got to change the force," he said.

Two officers with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines -- 1st Lts. Christopher Mershon and Walker Mills -- have ideas about what needs to change. They call it "flattening the battalion," and they say it will move infantry units from the 20th century into the 21st.

Infantry units are set up in a pyramid structure and built for efficiency, Mershon said. Flattening them out by eliminating non-combat command billets would instead optimize them for adaptability. By integrating logistics and intelligence officers and analysts at the company level and sharing information from across the battlespace, Mershon said, it'll allow commanders to make decisions faster.

"We're making the correct relationships in our battalion because those relationships with our friends close our decision-making cycle," he added.

Mills and Mershon also propose removing Marines performing administrative functions from the battalion, such as the headquarters and service or weapons platoon commanders. Those extra personnel could be moved into a training cadre, which Mills said would help relieve some of the strain on company commanders, and provide higher-quality training across the whole unit.

4. Improving training.

Over the next decade, the Marine Corps' maintenance depots will lose about 1,000 years of experience when officers and staff NCOs assigned to them retire. Those on their way out have come up with ways to get their replacements trained up quickly.

"Is the workforce we're going to hire going to adhere to paper manuals that stack four feet high?" asked Maj. Dan Whitt with the Marine Corps Logistics Command innovation cell. Instead, depot personnel pitched moving toward animated digital manuals that display on a pair of augmented-reality glasses.

"We have 400 pieces of equipment we work on," Whitt said. "How great would it be to speed up our training requirements?"

Now, other commands, including Training and Education Command, want to see what they can do with augmented-reality manuals. That's why it's important for Marines who have innovative ideas that could revolutionize the Corps to share them so they don't go unheard, Whitt said.

5. Finding the best approach.

When Staff Sgt. Alex Long was a lance corporal, he learned about those risks the commandant mentioned about challenging your leaders. When one of Long's NCOs asked his Marines what they thought about his plan, Long didn't hold back when he replied that it was stupid.

"That resulted in some quick and effective counseling," he said. When Long was asked by his sergeant during one of his counseling sessions to define "tact," he realized his mistake. His leaders weren't offended by his ideas, but by his approach. He decided to work on his delivery in order to make his voice heard.

"Data has no rank," said Long, who would go on to win the Marine Corps' 2016 Innovation Challenge for a lightweight wearable device that allows Marines to communicate and resupply quickly. "You just have to know how to present it."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ginaaharkins.

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