What Happens in White Space Should Not Stay in White Space: Fomenting Creativity in Professional Military Education

Innovation has found her fairy godmother, who has outfitted her in a stunning gown and even a reflective belt so she does not run into trouble on military bases, where her dance card is always full. But Creativity wastes away in her evil stepmother’s attic, longing for the day when she can energize professional military education students and instructors alike.[1] Perhaps that is because Innovation promises practical products that can be used on the battlefield, whereas Creativity seems to hang out with tormented artists and latte-sipping poets whiling away the hours in Parisian cafes. Creativity and Innovation are fraternal twins, and allowing Creativity out of the attic first best spurs Innovation.[2] Moreover, the ideas Creativity spurs can energize professional military education, providing students with essential “habits of mind” and “patterns of thought” that they can introduce back to the operational world upon graduation while better transitioning to thinking strategically.[3]

Numerous individuals have commented on how to improve professional military education. Some, for example, have considered rebalancing Socratic seminar learning with more real-world war games.[4] After all, who can forget the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s damning—and overwrought—pronouncement of professional military education as “stagnated, focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity.”[5] Since when did lethality become the primary goal of professional military education?

Creativity tends to receive a brief nod in these discussions, but the concept is only mentioned and almost never discussed, with no ideas for fostering it.[6] Likewise, commentators often pair creativity with critical thinking, again without providing any ideas of how to implement it.[7]

Yet, military education requires creativity to fulfill its mission. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff instructs that professional military education should educate by “foster[ing] breadth of view, diverse perspectives, critical and reflective analysis, abstract reasoning, comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty, and innovative thinking.”[8] In essence, professional military education should build joint-minded strategic thinkers. Again, creativity is omitted, but this ability is critical to enable professionals to step outside of understanding their own domains while continually asking the ultimate question of strategy, “Then what?”[9] Just as importantly, such a professional can break out of previous habits and patterns that have become ingrained in U.S. thinking over the last several decades.

White space refers to the time needed to process and ponder information, not just read the required material for the day.

Such a focus requires an emphasis on creativity far more than innovation, which is driven to pursue technology and thereby compliments the tactical level of war given its focus on means. While accepting the arguments of some that there should not be a one-size-fits-all solution to improving professional military education, this article seeks to define creativity and offer specific ideas about how to foster it, especially in regard to white space that could be implemented at any institution.[10] White space refers to the time needed to process and ponder information, not just read the required material for the day.

As such, this article does not call for sweeping curriculum changes. Indeed, reputed scholars have insisted that creativity cannot occur until one has “mastered the old ways of doing or thinking.”[11] What this means is that much of the focus of professional military education seminar discussions on history and international relations is sound. Understanding the foundational knowledge upon which those past decisions have been made is a prerequisite for assisting the services’ push forward to viable strategic solutions. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains, “One cannot be creative without learning what others know, but then one cannot be creative without becoming dissatisfied with that knowledge and rejecting it (or some of it) for a better way.”[12]

Instead, discussions of creativity must be evenly distributed throughout the curriculum to draw attention to the creative process itself. This mentality must be fostered by all at these institutions as 1) leadership draw attention to and reinforce creativity’s importance throughout the year, 2) instructors consider how to enliven seminars in ways that encourage creativity, and 3) students seek to practice it through a few mindful practices until these skills become ingrained.

Institutional encouragement is essential for fostering creativity. As Csikszentmihalyi has argued, creativity cannot occur in a vacuum. Professional military education institutions must shift their thinking to understand that creativity does not occur in isolation.[13] In other words, Renaissance Florence did not become a major center of arts by virtue of “some freak genetic mutation...or a drastic change in the education of Florentine children.”[14] Rather, Florence set the proper conditions for creativity to flourish. The institution and individuals must act in concert to produce creativity, which can be defined as that which changes how we look, see, or think about something in significant ways.

Applying Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas more specifically to military institutions, it is essential that organizations implement environmental changes that foster creativity in order to provide spaces for change at the “intersection of different cultures,” with creativity being sparked when people make connections across domains.[15] The choice of Austin, Texas—a city famous for its slogan “Keep Austin Weird”—for the Army’s Futures Command thus opens up a space for creativity.[16] So, too, does the decision to allow its officers to wear civilian clothing to work. These choices bring together the tendency of the military toward being traditional and conservative with Austin’s culture of being rebellious and iconoclastic, since paradoxically both are necessary for creation because one cannot change the domain unless one has internalized it.[17] After learning has occurred, creative thought can occur on a variety of occasions, most notably when a person is not thinking actively about a subject. Mundane activities such as taking a walk or a shower stimulate deep creative thought, in part because many distractions disappear.

The challenge, then, becomes how one fosters this white space, which supports active learning and then foments creativity. I recall hearing about this mythical concept of white space relatively early in my experience instructing at the Air Command and Staff College. I intuitively associated the term positively with a whiteboard and the way that it provides a blank slate, but the term has received more negative connotations in some literature, with the few who have written about it describing how military institutions of graduate education feels compelled to fill up any white space on the calendar.[18] One instructor testifying before Congress, for example, explained how he found the term to be “misleading and offensive. It implies emptiness, the absence of anything much less something of substance.”[19]

In contrast, I define white space as creating a more positive situation in which a student goes beyond reading or notetaking to wrestle actively with the material outside of the seminar. It begins with something as simple as asking, “What is the essence of what I just read, and how much do I agree with it?” This step begins the process of a student stepping into white space, equivalent to a kind of invisible white board where students begin making connections to other material, which is an essential part of the creative process. This kind of intellectual engagement provides a secondary benefit to institutions because it creates a deep sense of self worth through the rewarding process of discovery.[20] Simultaneously, creativity requires discipline, a trait already ingrained in military professionals. Yet working at cross purposes is the tendency to limit risk.[21] Because creative ideas often break with established, recognized patterns of thought, they require intellectual courage to articulate and share.

Creativity can be encouraged with a series of paradoxically practical steps that should be taken by students, instructors, and leadership that require an investment primarily in time, energy, and commitment:

Micro-Changes Professional Military Education Should Foster in Students

Simplify! Break officers of email addictions and the need to feel connected at all times.[22] It is impossible to multi-task in a seminar room. Institutions must take strident steps to break the tendency of modern life to be characterized by almost constant distraction.[23]

Command and staff colleges for majors and war colleges for colonels can be golf schools again...in part. The best thinking and creative development occurs when one is not intending to think about a particular problem. Students need to understand the worth of mental meandering and the advantage of engaging with a breadth of material, even if it may not relate directly to their next assignments.


Macro-Changes Professional Military Education Should Institute

Creative practices must be taught and reinforced so that students can understand how certain simple actions foster it. While true creativity cannot be institutionalized because it requires a certain knowledge base that must be acquired, it can be understood.

Creative approaches that resonate with students must be introduced and practiced in seminar in order to become habitual so that they will enter the squadrons and other organizations that students often command after graduation.

Students at the U.S. Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College participate in a group discussion during class. /Bennett Rock/U.S. Air Force Photo)

The seminar room provides the basic building block of officer instruction. At Air Command and Staff College, for example, students generally take two core courses each quarter along with one elective; instructors generally rely on the Socratic method of dialogue and debate in each class. These seminars require up to 150 pages of reading per session. As a result, students often take a pragmatic divide and conquer approach to note taking. Rather than take notes for the entire book, they often only read bits and pieces and then compile their notes together.

Unfortunately, this practice does not enable students to reflect upon the material at a deeper level. Megan J. Hennessey recently has suggested that institutions rethink the “rigor” they demand with such intensive reading loads, instead shifting more toward “inquiry-based learning.”[24] This idea has great merit, but another solution is to reduce the reading load while building expectations for active reflection in the form of very minimal amounts of informal writing.

This informal writing can be as simple as asking students to come into class having written out what they consider to be the two most compelling ideas from the reading. In essence, this process brings design thinking—the idea of putting the human at the center in order to solve problems—into the classroom to trigger creative though instead of in order to innovate technology, where it has received far greater attention.

This tactic also helps to derive the greatest benefits from the breadth of the classroom. At Air Command and Staff College, for example, a typical flight has a few pilots, two international officers, an Army officer, a Marine officer, and about six Air Force officers from a broad array of career fields. Air Force pilots tend to be the most familiar with airpower history, but this is not necessarily an advantage in an airpower history course. Because they are seen as the experts, they tend to shut down rather than foster discussion as non-aviators hope to learn the answers from them. Ideally, though, a seminar experience fosters outsiders to feel comfortable in asking questions, which can trigger new ways of thinking by getting everyone to think about the assumptions that institutions often take for granted.

This situation can be fostered through the easy step of distributing two sticky notes at the end of one class in preparation for the next, which allows students a low-risk opportunity to reflect more deeply and anonymously on a particular question or reading.[25] During class, the instructor collects the sticky notes and places them in a pile, asking students to then move someone else’s to a series of questions or thoughts written on a whiteboard or on large pieces of paper.

Any number of approaches can be used. Students might come up with a thesis and a counter-thesis or they might be asked not to seek an answer but to ask a bigger question. provides large white pieces of paper that ask big questions on three sheets of paper. Or they might make connections between the notes to come up with a headline.

The anonymity of the process encourages intellectual risk-taking without the fear of failure and embarrassment while getting everyone involved. It values what everyone has to say, which can often be a challenge in professional military education due to the mix of operators, support officers who sometimes wonder at the curriculum’s relevance for their careers, and international officers. Taken one step further, an instructor might ask students to communicate without talking, providing another means of challenging the type A personality who typically dominates the classroom. This easy process with multiple possible deviations encourages students to seek out intriguing ideas, and it is this “drive for exploration” that best enables creativity.[26]

Instructors must also consider how to reward intellectual risk because true creativity only results from thinking differently, and that requires courage.[27] As scholars of creativity have insisted, creativity is infectious and coming up with unconventional behavior in the classroom—within the bounds of general professionalism—will spark an environment where students learn more.[28] Such behavior does not sound typical of either military or civilian academia, where institutional culture fosters a serious attitude of introspection, but it should be the norm, not the exception.

To encourage further mastery, professional military education might consider developing elective clusters that help students gain expertise in a chosen area while providing the stimulation of outside domain connections through various professors. Such a process encourages the depth required to master a subject while triggering new ideas.

Students often struggle to understand the relevance of professional military education material, such as history. Instructors might begin historical  discussions by asking students to identify the problem that the military was trying to solve at that time. Instructors could also ask students to identify an analogous problem today.

It is important to note that this list is preliminary, and it is hoped that leadership, instructors, and students alike will engage in an active conversation about how to foster this process once a sounder understanding of the creative process is understood more generally. 

Admiral Nimitz, commander of Eastern Pacific, briefs President Roosevelt, Admiral Leahy, and General MacArthur, commander of the Western Pacific, on operations advancing toward Japan. (Wikimedia)


There are few things more rewarding in life than being creative. Inculcating creative tendencies in students will not only improve their professional military education experience but it will have positive strategic consequences. Innovation—focused as it is on means—tends to be a tactical thought process focused on answering the question of how. By contrast, creativity—with its focus on the question of why—helps to foster thinkers who can see their way out of current paradigms of military thinking, thereby escaping the patterns of military thinking that characterize the last several decades and are problematic considering that potential adversaries seek to avoid becoming directly involved with the United States. As an example, consider the difference between the development of HDTV and the invention of YouTube. HDTV provided innovators with a challenging engineering problem to solve, but it only improved the quality of one’s viewing experience rather than changing it fundamentally. By contrast, YouTube “radically altered the basic rules of the medium” because it “made watching video on the Web a mass phenomenon.”[29] In this light, multi-domain operations—which much of the military has adopted as a future war-fighting solution—is the equivalent of HDTV in that it improves joint operations but it does not offer a uniquely novel way of doing things.

The best news for implementing creativity is that none of these changes necessarily requires significantly altering curriculum or the passage of a budget. Importantly, creativity also does not  require starving artists to be struck by great ideas; paradoxically, creative people are disciplined and driven to master their fields, a quality often found in military professionals. As Stephen Johnson explains, “The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table.”[30] By contrast, peer adversaries often limit the number of pieces its population can access; in this way, creativity may offer the United States and its partners the most priceless strategic advantage.  

Heather Venable is an assistant professor of military and security studies at the U.S. Air Command and Staff College and teaches in the Department of Airpower. She has written a forthcoming book entitled How the Few Became the Proud: Crafting the Marine Corps Mystique, 1874-1918. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: “Reorganisation” by Carl Röchling (Wikimedia)


[1] Daniel M. Gerstein, The Military’s Search for Innovation, 13 Aug 2018, RAND, https://www.rand.org/blog/2018/08/the-militarys-search-for-innovation.html.

[2] I am extremely grateful to Lt Col Brandi Jeffries for this insight. Lt Col Jeffries began offering an elective class on creativity this academic year at Air Command and Staff College, and she has shared her course books and her thoughts with me.

[3] Dick Arends and Ann Kilcher, Teaching for Student Learning: Becoming an Accomplished Teacher (Routledge, 2010), 1st edition, quoted on p. 242.

[4] Maj. Nick Brunetti-Lihach, USMC, “Are We Seeing the End of History at the Army Command and General Staff College?,” 20 June 2018, Task and Purpose, https://taskandpurpose.com/end-history-army-cgsc.

[5] Department of Defense, Summary of National Defense Strategy, 2018, https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.

[6] Austin Duncan and Adam Yang, “Exploiting the Wellspring: Professional Military Education and Grassroots Innovation,” War on the Rocks, 29 July 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/07/exploiting-the-wellspring-professional-military-education-and-grassroots-innovation.

[7] Nicholas Murray, “More Dissent Needed: Critical Thinking and PME,” 29 July 2014, War on the Rocks,  https://warontherocks.com/2014/07/more-dissent-needed-critical-thinking-and-pme/.

[8] Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction, Officer Professional Military Education Policy, 29 May 2015, https://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Library/Instructions/1800_01a.pdf.

[9] For a slightly different take on this question, see Colin Gray, “Airpower Theory,” in John Andreas Olsen, ed., Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015), p. 171.

[10] Tammy S. Schultz, “The Road Less Traveled: Both Sides are Right about Professional Military Education,” 30 July 2018, War on the Rocks, https://warontherocks.com/2018/07/the-road-less-travelled-both-sides-are-right-about-professional-military-education/.

[11] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention (New York: Harper Perennial 2013), p. 155.

[12] Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity, p. 90.

[13] Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity, p. 31.

[14] Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity, p. 32.

[15] Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity, p. 1 and p. 9.

[16] Jen Judson, “Can Austin Make the Army Weird,” Defense News, 28 Aug 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/land/2018/08/28/can-austin-make-the-army-weird/.

[17] Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity, p. 71.

[18] Nicholas Murray, “The Role of Professional Military Education in Mission Command,” Joint Force Quarterly 72, 1 Jan 2014, https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Media/News/Article/577475/the-role-of-professional-military-education-in-mission-command/.

[19] Hearing Before the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, “Another Crossroads?: Professional Military Education Twenty Years after the Goldwater-Nichols Act and the Skelton Panel,” 20 May 2009, https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-111hhrg51661/html/CHRG-111hhrg51661.htm.

[20] Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity, p. 11.

[21] Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity, p. 11.

[22] I owe this observation to Lt Col Marci Walton, a fellow instructor at the Air Command and Staff College.

[23] Kathleen Davis, “Is Digital Minimalism the Answer to Our Distracted Lives?,” 13 Feb 2019, https://www.fastcompany.com/90305328/is-digital-minimalism-the-answer-to-our-distracted-lives?utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&fbclid=IwAR2C0DnTWsM3bdEJe6j_plg8lfRnk-l4WhiGOOxo0igl9RERFZGclfGmxRM.

[24] Megan J. Hennessey, “Reframing Rigor for Senior Service Colleges,” War on the Rocks, 26 March 2019, https://warontherocks.com/2019/03/reframing-rigor-for-senior-service-colleges/.

[25]Scott Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 99. Stanford University’s Design School uses this approach to incite creativity thought for innovating new products. For professional military education, the focus is more on triggering new ideas. See https://dschool.stanford.edu/resources.

[26] Kaufman and Gregoire, Wired to Create, p. 94.

[27] Kaufman and Gregoire, Wired to Create, p. 175.

[28] Kaufman and Gregoire, Wired to Create, p. 184.

[29] Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010), pp. 15-16.

[30] Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From, p. 42 and p. 243.