Idea: Catalyst Papers
** This post by LTC Max Ferguson explains how his battalion’s “Catalyst Paper” drive continuous transformation—and offer a starting point for professional writing. **
A catalyst is a substance provokes or speeds change. An accelerant that creates a chain reaction. It’s the spark that ignites kindling—to light a campfire—that keeps your team warm and dry through a cold wet night.
And Catalyst Papers spark professional discourse. They’re grassroots research papers written to help busy leaders think. They share lessons learned on new methods, techniques, adaptations. Experiments with equipment. What we’ve learned from other units, other nations, past conflicts. These papers aren’t meant to solve the entire problem, just a portion.
In one sense, there’s nothing original about Catalyst Papers. They’re White Papers, but with a distinct style and approach. They are overtly relaxed and casual in tone. They attack a plague that has long hampered Army writing: this idea that we must write at the ‘graduate level.’ Catalyst Papers are valued by the quality of their ideas, the candidness of their findings, and their ability to share experience and findings.
The concept of a Catalyst Paper came about out of necessity. Our unit was immersed in innovation both deployed and at home. Writing became the most efficient way to capture our lessons learned and disseminate information back and forth across the Atlantic.
As our Brigade experiments with new equipment while supporting Operation Inherent Resolve overseas, our rear-detachment is reinvigorating alpine operations. Forward, we learn lessons from combat. Back home, the rear detachment continues experimenting with equipment in the alpine and developing training plans for use when we redeploy. Between our deployed mission and our home station focus, we were immersed in continual transformation.
Writing became the most effective way to share the knowledge each entity of the Battalion was doing and preserve the information we were capturing.
But too many junior leaders hesitate to write. The reasons can be subtle and self-imposed. Trepidation, fear of rejection. Sometimes the reasons are simple: we’re too busy. Or we don’t know how to start. But no matter the reasons, they all accumulate towards a common result: people don’t write nearly as much as they should.
We often just need a nudge, a reason, external validation that our ideas are worth sharing. We overcomplicate the idea of writing: rigid memo formats, expectations about the quality of writing, active-voice hassles that supervisors might cut us up about…because “that’s how we write in the Army!” So many avoid these minefields entirely by just not writing. And some of those who do write regularly give off a slight selfish service vibe.
But writing is powerful. It’s the purest form of thought. The best briefing you never had to present because it’s all on the page for anyone to read at any time. Even years from now. When you publish a paper in something as nonthreatening as an Army branch journal, it’s preserved forever in the Library of Congress! And branch journals are looking for good content to share back to the force. And they’re not going to be stubborn about publishing your paper.
It starts with who we’re writing for. When we’re sharing ideas with our colleagues, we don’t need to write to some lofty academic crowd. Write as we talk. Keep it accessible, a fast read. Get to the point. Don’t bury your idea. Hit the reader with it and help them see what you’ve learned. Where you failed. What you discovered. The limits of what you know. Recommendations for further research, experimentation, possible adaptation. We don’t need our papers to cure cancer, just tell us what you learned – and pass the baton for the next group to pick up the concept where you left off.
I did not set out to introduce Catalyst Papers. The concept came about over time. We were experimenting, researching, learning - and writing about it. The only thing we needed was to bracket how to write so our junior leaders felt at ease sharing their ideas.
Learn more about Catalyst Papers in A Catalyst for Writing at Military Review and see the guidance I gave to my unit in the attachment.