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When Military Theory Meets Design Thinking: Q&A with Robert Schmidle

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How expert problem-solving excels in any arena

Having a retired Lieutenant General of the U.S. Marine Corps as a member of the Freeman Leadership Design Council might seem like an unusual choice. However, Robert Schmidle brings with him decades of innovation, experimentation and logistical experience that transcend the military. This experience was acquired through years of operational experience culminating in his being first Deputy Commander of United States Cyber Command.

We recently caught up with Robert, where he discussed the marketing strategies of the U.S. Marine Corps, how design thinking can benefit any organization, and why his past life as a change maker in the military makes him a perfect fit for the Freeman Design Leadership Council.  

Q: You are a career Marine and a retired decorated member of our military. Now, you are part of the Freeman Design Leadership Council. What is your experience with design thinking and how did it play a role in your work for the Marine Corps?

RS: In the military, my main job was solving problems before they happened in an operation. I did this by viewing a future military mission from different perspectives. You might say it was the planning before the planning. I developed and followed a process whereby the problem addressed in planning was contextualized; in other words it was “set” in context before any attempt was made to “solve” the problem. I was also in charge of finding more than one solution to a potential problem by applying various degrees of logic and probability, and then creating usable theories the military could employ for other operations.

It’s about taking a thoughtful approach to connecting seemingly disparate things together and then translating this from one discipline to another.

Design thinking creates a mental imagery of what an operation should look like — again, even before actual planning. It’s that squishy area of the conjunction of visualization, projection, and all manner of creative thinking that most people in uniform are not comfortable discussing. It’s not easily quantifiable, you see, but every commander should have a mental imagery of what the operations should look like, as well as the skill to make that mental imagery into a plan. I believe that bridging that gap is critical to developing and executing coherent plans and operations.

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Q: What attracted you to join the Design Leadership Council?

RS: It all started with Bruce Mau. I met Bruce for the first time at a leadership summit in New York about four years ago. We engaged in a long conversation about design thinking. At the time, I was heading the standup of the United States Cyber Command and trying to wrap my head around how principles of design could potentially inform the development of architectures to enable the defense of the Department of Defense networks. I shared this with Bruce, and he offered his insights on design theory that I found very helpful.

Later on, Bruce sent me a copy of one of his books on design theory. I used sections of it to inform some of my ideas on how the military might create more effective and innovative operational plans. We kept in touch for years and, when he asked me to join the Design Council, I jumped at the opportunity, feeling very honored. 

Q: What do you hope to get out of being a member?

RS: I have no expectations except to maintain a continued sense of wonder at how the world operates. The Design Council is something in which I am both professionally and personally interested. I feel that diversity of thought is very important when it comes to finding solutions. One of the things that stagnates an organization is group think, even in the military. When you are in a room and everybody begins to agree with everybody else, it is usually the first warning sign that we should probably take a second look at the organizational dynamics. When we all have the same answer, we should be suspicious of the assumption we are using to reach that answer...

Q: How will your expertise influence brand experiences?

RS: I spent 40 years working for and with one of the strongest brands in the world: the U.S. Marine Corps. Great forethought was done in the way it branded itself, more so than many other military organizations. We even hired an ad agency to help translate our core beliefs into recruiting messages. One of the specific themes we focused on was the challenge of being a Marine. Not everyone can be a Marine because the training is so hard — but once you join, you became part of a lifelong team. All Marines become part of preserving and expanding the U.S. Marine Corps brand in everything they do. Because of my position on the Marine Corps my experience has led to an expertise in developing strategies that include how a brand can adapt to changing demographics and social attitudes, while keeping its core principles.

Q: In addition to serving as a decorated member of our military, you’ve pursued multiple degrees of higher education. What role has education played in your career?

RS: It’s probably made my staff miserable!

Seriously, my heroes have always been people who lived in the world but were also people of thought. Antoine Saint-Exupery was one of those who exemplified this tradition. It is an unfortunate trend toward specialization that it seems you either have to be a person of action or a person of thought. One can certainly be both and that is something to be celebrated, like a fighter pilot who was reading John Updike’s Rabbit, Run in an airplane at the end of the runway before being cleared for a combat mission. In the midst of my career in the Marine Corps I was able to find time to complete a Master’s degree at American University and a Doctorate at Georgetown University.

Education has benefited me immensely by developing different perspectives from which to view all facets of military planning. It’s also helpful during meetings at the Pentagon to be informed not just about the current issue under consideration but to be able to put the discussion in a historical and cultural context.

Q: It almost seems like you’re a disruptor.

Well, if that’s true then I’m in the right place with the Design Council. What Freeman is doing with the Design Council is very disruptive. Having been in organizations where I was a primary disruptor, I can appreciate what a brave thing Freeman is doing. Organizations don’t like disruption; they don’t like to question the assumptions that made them great to begin with but that may not sustain their success. So I have been very, very impressed. I think for Freeman, this is going to mean that they will be able to provide an even better product to their customers. The company is going to be able to understand what their customers view as a core competency of Freeman, its own vision, and the story it wants to tell about its products. I look forward to helping with all of this.

Q: Last question. How do you approach challenges?

I would agree with the quote commonly attributed to Albert Einstein. He reportedly said when asked what he would do if he had only an hour to save the world: he would spend the first 55 minutes trying to understand the problem and the last five trying to solve it. That’s what I think the Design Council will do: understand and solve problems.

Learn more about the Freeman Design Leadership Council.

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