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Intellectuals and Mechanics by Major Matthew Tweedy, USMC



Organizations thrive by harmonizing the efforts of policymakers, the architects of vision and wielders of authority, and implementers, the lunch pail workers who diligently carry out those policies amidst the unforgiving trials of the real world. The British Civil Service once used the terms “intellectuals” and “mechanics” to distinguish two groups of government employees with higher status afforded to intellectuals.[1] Here I apply the British framework to the U.S. Marine Corps.


It is important to note that these terms – intellectuals and mechanics – serve to emphasize the contrast between individuals primarily involved in policy development and strategic planning (intellectuals) and those primarily engaged in technical or implementation roles (mechanics) within the Marine Corps. Much like an architect depends on builders, the collaboration and balance between these groups are crucial for effective decision-making, policy development, and the efficient execution of military operations.


Be forewarned: What follows is a framework, a lens, or a mode of classification. The framework is not exhaustive and incomplete. I do not qualify the myriad exceptions known and unknown to me. I generalize and omit examples.


Intellectuals

Intellectuals within the Marine Corps refer to officers and government employees primarily engaged in policy development, operational and strategic planning, and analysis. They shape the organization's long-term plans, conduct policy research, and provide expert insights to inform senior leader decision-making. Examples of intellectuals include 0505 operational planners, futurists, academics, and strategy professionals who contribute to policy formulation and analysis.


Though a small percentage of the officer and government employee ranks, intellectuals are of high status within the Marine Corps and constitute a powerful constituency within the organization.[2]


Mechanics

Mechanics are officers, staff non-commissioned officers, and civilians in Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Forces, and major subordinate command billets. They focus on day-to-day operational tasks. In rare instances, mechanics possess specialized technical skills relevant to their roles. These may include Naval Postgraduate School graduates, technical Ph.D. holders, and data analysts, who contribute their expertise in areas such as operational research, logistics, modeling and simulation, and system analysis to support the efficient execution of tasks. Mechanics write the code and programs, design the processes to implement policy changes, and ensure organizational functions, but are valued less than intellectuals.


How Intellectuals and Mechanics Reason

Intellectuals are more likely to rely on a-priori reasoning and intuitive decision-making by virtue of position. A-priori reasoning is based on deductive principles or innate knowledge. Whether through expertise, familiarity with theories, or enthusiasm for emerging trends, intellectuals rely on quick judgments. An intellectual's status rewards boldness and conviction, regardless of whether an idea is novel, the old is re-packaged as new, or just a fad. However, this approach can disconnect intellectuals from operational realities and overlook practical considerations.


Mechanics engaged in day-to-day tasks tend to rely on a-posteriori reasoning, which involves empirical evidence and observation. Their technical knowledge provides advantages through consistency, allowing for informed decisions based on data, experience, and practical considerations. Though not a guarantor of the status quo, the mechanics' penchant for a-posteriori reasoning inhibits change. Popularly maligned as “the frozen middle” or “industrial,” mechanics may resist change to avoid risk or because they have seen what works and what does not. However, overemphasizing a-posteriori reasoning may limit their involvement in strategic decision-making and concept development.


A balanced organization recognizes and harnesses the strengths of mechanics and intellectuals. This allows for effective policy development, informed decision-making, and efficient implementation. A-priori reasoning provides theoretical insights. A-posteriori reasoning promotes grounded and practical solutions.


There are always exceptions to any rule, particularly when broad categorizations are applied to interdependent systems. The combination of individual propensity and the norms of an assigned billet impact intellectual vs. mechanic categorization. Captain Wayne Hughes, the late U.S. Navy strategist and operational researcher professor best known for his Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations, developed the salvo combat model to mathematically represent naval warfare. Similarly, former Marine colonel and Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work served in both intellectual and mechanical fields across multiple decades of service.


Through a dialectic framework, we can explore the pitfalls of organizations dominated by either mechanics or intellectuals. Though no organization can function without a mix, imbalance in either category brings disorders. The goal of this framework is to arrive at equilibrium.


Dialectic Framework


Antithesis 1: An organization dominated by mechanics

  • Lack of Strategic Thinking: Mechanics typically focus on day-to-day operational tasks and may have limited exposure to broader policy development or long-term planning. This can result in a lack of strategic thinking and innovative problem-solving approaches.

  • Risk of Bureaucracy: Mechanics' meticulous adherence to established procedures and protocols can lead to bureaucratic tendencies within the organization, hindering flexibility, adaptability, and quick responses to changing circumstances.

  • Potential Stagnation: Without input from intellectuals, the organization may struggle to adapt to evolving dynamics, falling behind in policy development, innovation, and addressing complex challenges.

Antithesis 2: An organization dominated by intellectuals

  • Idea Overload: Intellectuals may generate a multitude of ideas and recommendations without effective implementation strategies. This can overwhelm the organization and fragment focus.

  • Disconnect from Operational Realities: Intellectuals' inclination towards the theoretical can result in a gap between design and feasibility of implementation. This may lead to inefficient or unworkable policies detached from reality.

  • Potential for Overlooking Administrative Efficiency: With a strong emphasis on plans and strategy, an organization dominated by intellectuals may inadvertently overlook efficient administrative systems and disregard status quo stability. This can impact policy execution, resource management, and service delivery targets.

Synthesis: Striking a balance between intellectuals and mechanics

  • Collaboration and Integration: Fostering collaboration and integration between intellectuals and mechanics enables the organization to benefit from both strategic/creative thinking and practical expertise.

  • Strategic Alignment: Ensuring that operational tasks align with strategic objectives and long-term planning enhances the organization's ability to adapt to changing dynamics while maintaining efficiency.

  • Pragmatic Policy Development: Combining theoretical analysis with an understanding of practical realities leads to developing effective and feasible policies.

  • Holistic Approach: Recognizing the importance of administrative efficiency alongside policy and strategy enables the organization to execute policies effectively, manage resources efficiently, and meet service delivery targets.

By synthesizing the strengths of intellectuals and mechanics, organizations can overcome the limitations of each group and achieve a well-rounded approach that optimizes policy development, decision-making, and implementation. There is nothing novel in the synthesis offered above. It is easier said than done.


Author Bio: Major Tweedy is an infantry officer and manpower analyst at Combat Development and Integration, Marine Corps Combat Development Command.


[1] The 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan Report was a series of reforms to the British Civil Service reforms designed to increase efficiency, eliminate patronage, and establish a merit-based system for employment and promotion. The reforms aimed to attract the most talented young men to fill positions in accordance with their character and intellectual capacity. The reforms distinguished between “superior” and “inferior” government positions and agencies. Superior offices included the foreign and financial offices, where inferior positions can best be described as routine and clerical. Prerequisites for “superior office” positions were more stringent, and applicants had to be at least 19 years old, whereas “inferior” positions could attempt the entrance exam at age 17. Status, therefore, was predetermined by the reforms by office categorization and prerequisite rigor. See the House of Commons report for specifics.


[2] Graduates of Advanced Intermediate Level Schools (AILS), such as the School of Advanced Warfighting, School of Advanced Military Studies, School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, and Maritime Advanced Warfighting Schools, are 12.9 percentage points more likely to be selected for lieutenant colonel command.



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3 Comments


JMCD
JMCD
Jul 12, 2023

Matt,

Great article, if somewhat clinical and rooted in the now. If you haven't read a great summer book, I would offer "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." It might add some insights into your outlook.


As for the current day's seeming dependence on the intellectual class, I have strong opinions, but I'll just say that my career is about 70/30. I am currently at a Combatant Command, after having served at a tactical headquarters.


Without applying an opinion, I would offer the following facts, one which I recently learned while participating in an operational/strategic level exercise.


  1. The 1942-1945 War in the Pacific, inclusive of Naval Fleet and FMF actions, was planned and executed by about 100 personnel i…


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This framework for 'intellectual' and 'mechanic' strongly overlays with a pair of styles articulated in the competeing values framework - a curricular element in the USAF's innovation development program for teams. see e.g. http://kathla.people.si.umich.edu/Teaching_the_Competing_Values_Framework_(handout).pdf Getting to 'synthesis' is not easy, as one tribe of 'intellectuals' often doesn't trust the 'mechanics' and vice-versa. Creating participatory design teams that integrate these perspectives is a core principle of our practice. Would be interesting to see examples of these design principles at play in the Marines!


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Worth someone writing a follow-on article proposing how well (and poorly) the Marine Corps is able to synthesize these two preferences/talents to minimize their weaknesses and maximize their strengths. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this!

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