Editor's Note: You can find all of the disruptive thinkers essays here as they are published.
Business, military and political leaders claim to value innovation, and leaders of many organizations develop formal programs to foster innovation. Professionals have an obligation to develop and improve the profession’s processes and body of knowledge. Military organizations in particular struggle with innovation because they receive little feedback on how well they are doing until the next encounter with thinking interlocutors who conceal their own adaptations in the interim (See editor’s preface by Williamson Murray in the linked book). Organizations perpetually struggle with innovation and the discussion often devolves to cynicism, recriminations and stereotypes rather than thoughtful analysis of how organizations work together to adapt or create new opportunities. What is going on here? How can leaders say they want to promote innovation, while their subordinates perceive a strong bias for the status quo? Moreover, while would-be innovators chafe at perceived institutional inertia and bureaucracy, both military and business leaders have fallen prey to fads that failed to live up to their promises. This article will also seek to address some of the points raised in Benjamin Kohlmann’s article “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers” and many others like it. The main purpose of this paper is to provide a deeper look at the causes of military innovation and provide practical advice to achieve it.
Successful innovation and institutional resistance against proposed innovations have causes we can identify and understand to guide our efforts. Subscribing to stereotypes does not lead to meaningful results. Stories of bright, ambitious young officers being shut down by tired, old, risk-averse bureaucrats protecting their careers in a dysfunctional, dystopian bureaucracy are a staple of military cliché. Another cliché involves arrogant, often young new officers, lacking understanding and maturity, ruthlessly pushing their own agenda while dismissing the ideas and input of seasoned professionals. It’s time to stop and reorient. Kohlmann’s article included a description of group he formed called “Disruptive Thinkers,” and fittingly, there are sources that can provide good insights on how to accomplish just that. We need to generate useful ideas, honed with critical thinking and experimentation, followed by the courage and hard work to implement them. Governmental organizations, including the military provide even greater challenges to flexibility and adaptation under normal circumstances than private sector organizations because of the structure and rules of the existing system, including personnel policies. But these challenges can be overcome. Entrepreneurs normally don’t rely on formal titles, authority or resources they directly control to accomplish their goals, they use other people’s resources. Successful organizations must also balance delivering results on the mission at hand while discovering better ways to achieve them.
First, let’s look at some relevant terms from a helpful source, The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that will Change the Way You Do Business by Clayton Christensen. Innovation is not merely coming up with ideas; you need to get the ideas out there, they must be implemented and they must provide value. Innovation comes in two flavors: sustaining and disruptive, and understanding the difference can increase the innovator’s chances for success (p. xviii). Sustaining innovations perform better on existing metrics with the current organization’s resources, processes and values. These are usually much easier to implement because you can use existing measurements and data to prove the new procedure or tool will do a superior job. Disruptive innovations serve a new purpose, or simplify serving tasks over-served by existing solutions. You measure the value of disruptive innovations on different metrics than sustaining innovations, and it will usually be difficult to find data to prove a need for it. Small unmanned aerial vehicles providing dedicated aerial reconnaissance to small units is an example of disruptive innovation. Those units typically could not obtain support from expensive traditional aerial assets, and were grossly over-served by most of their capabilities when they could.
While sustaining innovations fit within the existing organization, disruptive innovation often requires forming a separate organization, either within the parent organization, or spinning out a wholly new entity to realize their potential (pp. 196-207). I submit the US Army Special Forces branch, and subsequently Special Operations Command are examples of disruptive innovations. The new organization is free to acquire appropriate resources and develop its own processes and values aligned with the new innovation (See Chapter 8 of the book). It can define success accordingly with metrics aligned with performance attributes relevant to the new mission in a way it could not under the parent organization. An existing organization often has made large investments in resources aligned with its mission that make it hard to change to a new concept quickly, particularly without evidence to justify the loss of sunk expenses and investment in new assets. An existing organization’s processes and values become optimized for its current mission and are intentionally difficult to change. Meanwhile, it must usually continue to support the existing mission. In the business world, this would mean supporting existing customers who continue to provide the revenue and shareholders who demand performance on their investment. In the military, this means fulfilling existing missions and responsibilities or justifying large expenses to political leaders. Leaders and staff officers throughout an organization would be rightly skeptical of any ideas that detract from or present significant opportunity costs to their core mission. An established organization attempting to implement a disruptive innovation tends to pull resources and focus away from the disruptive project, and place a higher priority on its existing mission. Ongoing requirements and investments in existing resources make it particularly difficult for military and government organizations to change rapidly without clear, compelling evidence for the need to change and advantages it provides. Sometimes this only occurs when they reach a crisis point where failure is clear and imminent. This evidence is usually difficult or impossible to produce for disruptive innovations. Many competent, well run organizations have failed due mishandling disruptive innovations. But sometimes needed organizational or resource changes occur for them to succeed, as in the Special Forces example. Informal task organization changes are easier for military organizations to make and occur more often. Approaching the problem with the correct framework is the key to putting an entrepreneur on the right path to implement the idea.
Entrepreneurs are people willing to launch a new venture and accept responsibility for the outcome. Entrepreneurs are not limited to new organizations; they develop and connect ideas in novel ways in established organizations as well. Entrepreneurs often have broad knowledge of their industry and related fields. The most successful ones usually have a network that provides them with access to a diverse range of knowledge and resources. Access to a diverse range of knowledge and perspectives allows them to combine ideas in novel ways and test them to see if they are feasible. Entrepreneurs excel at using resources outside their immediate control. In other words, an essential part of getting ideas implemented means taking responsibility for them, while also getting wide participation and buy-in. This cannot be done if necessary people throughout the organization feel excluded or marginalized during the formative process or that the valuable ideas can only emerge from a clique. Consider how the proposed changes will affect the organization, which entities likely to support or resist it, why they hold these views, and the validity of their concerns. Entrepreneurs need to approach the problem from the correct framework to align their innovation with agents with a stake in its success. Since established organizations usually fail when trying to implement a truly disruptive innovation, the entrepreneur should consider ways to establish an organization that can use the idea. A sustaining innovation thrives best with an organization with requisite resources and can be incorporated within the established organization, so the entrepreneur should gather evidence to demonstrate its potential for superior performance.
The vast majority of innovations come from cognitively diverse groups working together over time, not the work of a lone genius. Kohlmann’s article correctly complains about the insular nature of most professional military education programs. Networks dominated by people within the same industry and similar skills do not expand the domain of professional knowledge. Cognitively diverse groups can connect ideas in new and novel ways, with many models, perspectives and methods of generating and testing new ideas. They can also exapt ideas from other fields or ideas originally conceived for another purpose because they have a broader range of perspectives, experience and knowledge to draw upon. Organizations and people can set favorable conditions for developing good new ideas. Good ideas that get implemented tend to be in the “adjacent possible.” Some great ideas throughout history were never implemented because they lacked complimentary assets required for them to succeed. Ideas that are feasible in the near term, with all the required conditions right are most likely to succeed. Many really great ideas occur through serendipity or learning from what appears to be an error. The best new ideas develop over a period of time. While many ideas appear to be spontaneous, and many good quality decisions can be made instinctively, putting together concepts often requires time. (This book provides extensive research on instinctive and deliberate thinking and decision making, including evidence demonstrating when a mode provides superior results, or is prone to systematic errors and biases.) Military planning and decision-making processes do allow for slow, deliberate thinking depending on the problem and time available. Revisit ideas with people when possible to give them an opportunity to share how their thoughts have evolved over time. Foster discovery driven skills in the organization. These include associating (making novel new connections across areas of knowledge), questioning (probe for causes, ask “why” or “why not”), observing, networking (a diverse network), experimenting (active thinking to test ideas and generate new ones).
Critical thinking and implementing ideas is as important as having them. Critical thinking and experimentation help prevent the adoption of flawed ideas and provide evidence to support good ones. Continuous professional reflection and critical thinking are required to prevent cultural myths, stereotypes, tribal wisdom and folklore from perpetuating or infiltrating the professional body of knowledge. Examples include biological and mechanical models used by annihilation theorists, such as Douhet, Basil Liddell-Hart and J.F.C. Fuller to proscribe “shots to the brain” to quickly win wars (Elkus, Adam, Resiliency and Counter-Resiliency in the Information Age: An Evolution in Military Affairs, paper presented at the International Studies Association conference, San Diego, CA, April 1-4, 2012). Many faulty business fads have been adopted by the military over the years, and continued to live on long after they fell out of favor in the business world. Reflection and critical thinking skills supplemented by active experimentation hone ideas and check their validity. The U.S. Army Command and General Staff College uses the Kolb experiential learning model in professional military education to incorporate new knowledge into the profession. The article “The Reflective Military Practitioner: How Military Professionals Think in Action” also describes other techniques that work in concert with the Kolb learning model to incorporate knowledge into the professional body of knowledge. Other means to get ideas into practice include formal avenues, such as the Joint Operational Planning Process, or informal methods such as discussing ideas with other professionals, developing a consensus and experimenting. (Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers, by Geoffrey A. Moore and Regis McKenna describes a great technology adoption model with advice on getting innovations implemented.) Formal authority, titles or resources should not constrain implementation of a good idea that fits an organization. Entrepreneurship is all about connecting the ideas together, finding resources, and creating an environment where the idea can succeed. Entrepreneurs in the civilian world often leave large enterprises to start their venture because it cannot succeed within the existing organization, and then need to convince venture capitalists to share the risks of bringing the idea to market. While government entrepreneurs will have a harder time starting a new organization, they do not have the same risks when they succeed in creating one.
Professionals have an obligation to develop and improve their profession. Innovative leaders look beyond delivering on existing commitments and seek and make the most of the creativity and knowledge they can access. They develop and encourage their people to contribute to the mission in every way possible, including drawing upon their range of ideas, insights, and experiences. While brand new officers and junior enlisted members may not have a fully developed understanding of the military or an organization’s mission, they do have varied insights, perspectives, knowledge and experience that could be combined in new ways. Innovative leaders ask questions designed to refine critical thinking skills and develop a shared understanding of the problem and how it’s framed. When possible, engage in active experimentation to test ideas to reveal potential benefits and areas requiring further thinking. Warfare involves continuous cycles of adaptation against a thinking opponent. Developing an organization’s ability to rapidly adapt to changes, and learn to proactively improve provides decisive advantages on the battlefield. Innovation requires developing a skillset, and understanding the environment and organization to succeed.