DEF[x] Annapolis

The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum held their first locally organized event this past Saturday, called DEF[x] Annapolis (think TEDx vs TED). Organized by midshipmen at the Naval Academy, the goal was to bring together a group of people from around the region interested in furthering the discussion of innovation and disruption within the military.

This was the second DEF event, the inaugural conference having been held this past October in Chicago. Their format tries to emulate some of the lessons of TED, such as restricting speakers to a 20-30 minute window (including Q&A time) and bringing in people with a variety of experiences and perspectives. I was not at DEF in Chicago, so this was my first exposure to the DEF group.

There were a few major themes running throughout the speakers’ talks: how private industry can help the military innovate, that the military is resistant to change and innovation, and how military service can prepare you (or not) to be an entrepreneur. Most of the speakers were currently serving, or had at some point served, in the military and were in various stages of starting their own venture. They shared great lessons from their experiences both as military officers and as entrepreneurs. I’m not going to go into detail about what they said, because that’s not the focus of this post, and because (once the videos are online I’ll update this post with a link) you can hear them in their own words.

What struck me as largely absent from the conversation, and I’m not the only one who noticed this, was discussion about how to foster innovation from within the military – not just from the outside in via startups. Being a software developer and someone who appreciates the value of an outside disruptor to force change in an industry, I wasn’t terribly bothered by this absence. I noticed a lack of this type of discussion simply due to the nature of the event. BJ Armstrong rightfully raised the question though, both on Twitter and out loud during a session.

It’s a valid concern, and it got me thinking: why is there such a conspicuous lack of discussion, and (from where I’m sitting) a general lack of interest, about spurring innovation from the inside? Does it have to do with the type of person to whom this kind of thinking and iterating appeals? Is it a symptom of a culture of “shut up, do as you’re told, and don’t make waves” that persists inside the military? Perhaps it’s a combination of those factors?

I’m a lowly BM3, and a reservist at that, so my exposure to this type of thinking is far more limited than the members who are pushing this discussion further into the sunlight. My sense is that while the problem is probably a combination of the above factors, the scales tip further in the direction of a change-resistant culture. Perhaps more specifically, it’s the perception of the military at large being innovation-averse. The DEF[x] speakers are a perfect example: they saw something they felt was fundamentally wrong within the military, and they set out to correct it – by setting up their own company, not by working inside the system to push for change. Some of them may have been driven primarily by business opportunity, which is perfectly acceptable, but the sense I get is that most of them were genuinely interested in solving a problem for the betterment of the service.

My takeaway from DEF[x] was not that the answer to fixing the military’s problems lies in startups. What I took was that the biggest problem for innovation lies not with a lack of smart people with good ideas, but a lack of opportunity for those people to execute on those ideas. Innovation is alive and well in the minds of those who see a better way forward, but we need to encourage them to voice those thoughts and experiment. CRIC is a great idea, but it needs to go from one small group to a service-wide program that reaches down to the smallest unit level. Give the smart, creative thinkers the tools they need to improve the service they love, starting with a willingness to listen.

Posted by Christiaan Conover in Innovation
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  • robert_k

    I disagree that there is a lack of innovation from within the Department of Navy. There certainly are pockets of stale thinking but the problem is not a widespread as you conclude. For example, google ONR’s 2014 MANTECH Project Book. It outlines some very impressive innovations occurring in the DON’s manufacturing community. There are similar examples in the expeditionary energy field.

    It would be interesting to study the entire DON to see where innovation is occurring and where it is not, then identify enablers and barriers. I would suspect the “fleet” is lagging behind the support establishment – but why? Risk aversion? Onerous programatic processes? Military vs civilian leadership? Once you identify the root-causes of anti-innovation, you can eliminate them and work towards a more agile (it will never be as agile as private industry) organization.

    It seems like there is a lot energy being expended by frustrated operators and they are reaching out to private industry for solutions. I think this just creates more frustration. What you seem to be missing is to identify the “linchpins” – people on the inside that make things happen and actually achieve outcomes.

    • P.S. Wallace

      An ignorant reply from a washed-up has-been/never-was, but the fleet may not be “innovating” because there is more than enough to do in the day, and more than enough knowledge to learn. Wylie was able to write his book on military stategy (so the old foreword said) because his job as an attack transport skipper gave him time to do so, after years of thought leading up to it. When you are running around trying to cram all the knowledge you need just to get the quals you need, and you need higher quals, you might just be satisfied satisying the SFWSL/SFWSP guy, and may not try to innovate–because there is a mountain of inertia you have to overcome. Same thing with the engineering side of operational units I would suppose–to convince the TYCOMS and so forth is a job in of itself, when you already have one to do, and enough other stuff to do, and not enough time.

      My thoughts on the subject, from someone with a fairly mediocre “career” of no great and broad experience.

      • P.S. Wallace

        One additional thing–I have thought for the longest time there needs to be a journal for strictly “in-house” use–to *debate* shop ideas (including classified ones) within the service. Sort of an older pre-WWII view of Proceedings. But once again, I am now so far removed from deckplates, and having truncated myself before the DH tour, that I just throw it out there.

  • WildHorses

    DEF and DEF[x] are two of the most promising beacons of hope for innovation in the DoD. Young(ish) folks on fire for innovation, fanning each other’s flames is vital because being disruptive is a lonely job. Done mostly after your day job is done. Being repeatedly told “no,” “will never happen,” “no funding,” “no time,” “that’s not important,” can really bruise the ego but for innovation to prosper INSIDE the lifelines, the risk is great (but so is the reward). There ARE a few places – well-established and those just starting to gain traction that can offer some safe haven from the naysayers…Office of Naval Research TechSolutions “can engage the Department of the Navy’s science and technology community to develop technologies to solve your problems.” Navy Warfare Development Command’s Navy Brightwork is a collaborative idea harvesting tool to collect ideas from the deckplates and across the fleet. The CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) has a grass-roots sister organization called CRIC[x] that collaboratives to bring ideas to life inside the lifelines and seek out previously unexplored avenues for innovation within the DoN. There’s a LT at NWDC who can answer your questions but remember he’s on shore duty so be sure to catch him before Friday at noon.

  • Chuck

    I have a theory as a 1st time DOD contractor. I think the resistance to innovation is the other side of the coin to a core strength. Let me explain: When you hear we are a family from the private sector it is often marketing and PR/HR mantra when in fact the bottom line is quarterly profits, and to quote a movie: “greed is good.” When you hear DOD people say we are family you might see a photo from the 70’s where a small group of young people went through deployments, were deployed along-side leadership, went through divorces, and are in fact “family.” In respect to subject matter experts of how the system operates, these people were the best. And it is that success that inhibits their willingness to change.

    That go too person the real SME if you will who has the undocumented understanding of the genuine complexity of a system or process is perceived as non-elastic in respect to data governance, new processes, and candidly in many cases an often heard promise of improvement based on simple private sector process assumptions being applied to complicated systems.

    On the other side of the spectrum, private sector sees little ROI in respect to security as it doesn’t add to bottom line while stig processing seems tedious. But the assumption of someone (private sector) who hasn’t a clue that the proposition of just building a hull and then fill it with weapons: all a JAD-JIT-AGILE concepts however combined with the testing and security of inherently lethal stuff..

    It just seems that the strength is also the weakness, that it really is a different culture, and finally that the private sector seems less restrained in it’s activities (less regulated) due to the nature of it’s line of business.

    Finally when we look at areas where BOTH the military and private sector are having difficulty innovating: EMHR (electronic health records) where mortality and liability is on the line along with security, you might see the approximate same level of innovation?

    In closing the nature of the systems: the genuine difference in culture, and the stakes associated with change.. from AOA to fielded solution is more difficult in the DOD when you purely look at the code. The risk and implications to change when life is at risk causes reasonable caution and slower adoption. Yes pizza hut adopted big data with splunk, made a splash etc.. but nobody is at health risk during that implementation. Nuclear bazooka, pharmaceuticals, health stuff.. people are risk adverse and move slower and the family keeps harmony in that decision.