By Ciro Lopez
In 2015, innovation initiatives took center stage at the Department of Defense (DOD). The U.S. Navy, for example, stood up its Task Force Innovation, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) created Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), an innovation nexus in Silicon Valley. These efforts signal innovation’s place in reversing the erosion of DOD’s technological edge.
However, with all eyes on defense innovation, there is an increased danger that it will succumb to buzzword fatigue—a condition brought about when a word has been so exhaustively used that no one knows its original intent or ultimate purpose. DOD is rife with examples: net-centric warfare, transformation in military affairs, and effects-based operations. To the cynic, innovation is just another buzzword that will come and go.
For those of us who believe in defense innovation, we want to move past the buzzword hype and make innovation a normal part of doing business. So how is this done? There are, of course, things that should be done at the staff level, which I discussed in my previous article, but shaping a climate of innovation rests with the DOD leadership.
Here are four actions that defense leaders can take to shape such a climate:
Define the purpose. An old proverb says that, “without vision a people perish.” A similar proverb can be applied to innovation—“without purpose, innovation flounders.”
The Innovation Cell at U.S. Forces Naval Southern Command, where I was a member, got direct tasking from the Commander, who clearly communicated our purpose: find creative, low-cost ways to support the Southern Command counter-narcotic mission. This purpose defined our boundaries and allowed us to use our creativity efficiently. Leadership provides clarity of purpose so that innovation is not for innovation’s sake.
Secure a perimeter. In 1981, Admiral Hyman Rickover, an innovative and controversial figure, gave a speech at Columbia University’s School of Engineering titled “Doing a Job.” He talked about management and the organizational environment that achieves results. What he described was, in effect, securing a perimeter for innovation to thrive. Rickover addressed the role that leaders play in creating and protecting a space where staff work to their maximum ability. Leaders actively guard employees in this environment from the fear of failure and risk-taking. This protected space allows employees freedom to collaborate, and encourages healthy confrontation and disagreement because the goal is progress, not conformity. This environment invigorates a workforce and drives people toward finding ways to say “yes” instead of the reflexive “no” that is too common at DOD these days.
Develop processes, but focus on people. Too many leaders focus solely on organizational processes to achieve innovation. The thinking goes that if it were for the right process, we could institutionalize innovation. This will never work. In their 1995 report to Mr. Andrew Marshall, the director of the Office of Net Assessment, authors Williamson Murray and Barry Watts detailed military innovation during the interwar period (1918-1939). Their findings showed that the marriage of organizational processes with the right people leads to successful innovation. Leadership at the time chose innovators like William Sims and William Moffett to navigate the processes of their day. The result was the birth of carrier aviation. Innovation was the result of the talent, energy, personality, and tenacity of these individuals.
This is not to say that processes should be ignored. Innovation requires processes to guide and bound the flow of ideas in an organization. But, ultimately, the processes are there to achieve results. Even the most heralded process is one short step away from a burdensome bureaucracy if the wrong person is in a position of oversight. Processes are important and necessary, but leaders must realize that sometimes the answer to a problem is a person.
Require progress. In her book, The Creator’s Code, Amy Wilkinson documents her research from studying and interviewing leaders of many of today’s most innovative companies (e.g., In-Q-Tel, LinkedIn). Her findings show a common thread across innovative leaders—the insatiable desire for progress. As Wilkinson points out, successful leaders maintain momentum by analyzing the data (i.e., where they’ve been and how it went) and changing their actions based on what they learn. That is, these leaders are always learning and always modifying. One leader characterized the process as “flexible persistence.”
DOD leaders should not be satisfied with answers from bullet points on PowerPoint slides. They should constantly ask questions that help them learn why things went wrong and why things went right. They must be comfortable modifying their approaches and programs based on what they learn; they must be quick to build on successes and to abandon failures. And when they’re done with that iteration, they must be ready to do it again—the process of flexible persistence. This continued drumbeat toward progress, not perfection, generates the organizational momentum that advances innovation.
The need for innovation will not go away when the buzzword frenzy has subsided. The global security landscape and proliferation of technology to potential adversaries will require DOD to be agile and forward-thinking. DOD has the resident talent within its workforce to meet these challenges, but the workforce will need leaders who can create and maintain an innovation climate. Leaders who can successfully cultivate that climate will ensure that innovation remains a normal part of doing business at DOD.