Until recently, Lt. Ben Kohlmann, USN, was an F/A-18 instructor pilot flying out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California. Now, he is newly transferred to Norfolk, Virginia, and serving in the Innovation and Concepts Department at the Naval Warfare Development Command part of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell. He is out to change the way people in the military think about how they do everything. “It’s hard to be a revolutionary and difficult to face immense headwinds of conventional wisdom, but a willingness to constructively challenge entrenched interests can have very valuable outcomes,” he explains. Its part of the the philosophy behind his new column for SIGNAL Magazine and behind the outside groups that he has helped organize to bring together military personnel and civilian entrepreneurs.
Lt. Kohlmann grew up in Minnesota, just outside of Minneapolis. The military runs in his family, with a brother who also is a Navy aviator and a sister who is married to a former Army intelligence officer. A 2004 graduate of Northwestern University, where he studied political science and social sciences, he became a naval aviator in 2008.
“From there, I joined the Black Aces of VFA-41 out of Lemoore, California, making two deployments, the last one in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, flying close air support missions in Afghanistan. In 2011, I transferred to VMFAT-101 based out of MCAS Miramar as an F/A-18 instructor pilot.”
The lieutenant says that one of the most formative parts of his education was an independent study project he did with his Navy ROTC commander. “We went through the works of John Boyd and James Stockdale, among others, looking at innovative ways of thinking about the military,” he explains.
That project, he says, caused him to rethink his assumptions and also gave him reason to challenge the status quo. That way of thinking has prompted him and a group of friends to form Disruptive Thinkers, a self-described “decentralized think tank composed of civilian entrepreneurs and young military leaders.” Lt. Kohlmann explains that Disruptive Thinkers “was formed over a conversation in a bar in August 2011. The initial intent was simply to get a bunch of junior officers together to chat about strategic military issues. We elected to get a few local entrepreneurs involved in order to get their perspective on innovation. It exploded soon after, and the concept of thinking strategically by integrating a variety of viewpoints and topics resonated with a large swath of both the military and civilian populations.” The group now has chapters in San Diego; Nashville, Tennessee; and Washington, D.C.
In addition to Disruptive Thinkers, Lt. Kohlmann has been involved in “Battlefields and Boardrooms,” which he describes as, “a joint venture between Disruptive Thinkers and a local executive organization, GenNext, which brings four military innovators together with four civilian executives in a year-long mutual mentorship.” In addition, he and several fellow junior officers have formed the Defense Entrepreneurs’ Forum at the University of Chicago, which he says will bring emerging military leaders together in one place for an exchange of ideas and innovations in October 2013.
A participant in the AFCEA Educational Foundation’s Leadership Forum program last year, Lt. Kohlmann says he appreciates the opportunity that AFCEA has given him to spread the word about military innovation.
Part of that innovation, he believes, has its roots in the concept of “thinking disruptively, which has become a national security buzzword for approaching problems from new perspectives, going beyond traditional solutions.”
Lt. Kohlmann notes that “when you take a huge professional risk by voicing an unpopular opinion in a constructive way, it can have incredible outcomes.”