Overcoming Sequestration with Ingenuity: Lessons from a 9-Year-Old Entrepreneur

Being forced to spend the hot summer at your father’s run-down outdoor auto parts store isn’t exactly how most kids would choose to spend their vacation.  Yet 9-year-old Caine used his ingenuity and imagination to turn what could have been a very frustrating summer vacation into an inspiring and heartwarming story that has inspired people across our country.  His simple story can provide many lessons as our nation and military faces a potentially long summer of fiscal discontent because of sequestration.

Caine wasn’t the type of kid to sit and complain about being bored. Within a week of going to work with his dad, he began transforming trashed cardboard boxes in to his fantasy arcade. Day in and day out, he built intricate carnival-like games with functioning ticket dispensers, game passes and prizes.  Caine even made his own T-Shirt for his newfound business.  The only problem was that no one was enticed enough to try out his games. He stood by patiently waiting for customers to play one of his homemade games.  Finally, a guy named Nirvan stopped by to pick up a part for his car and decided to give the arcade a try.  He was so impressed with Caine’s enthusiasm and the intricacies of Caine’s work that he started to make regular visits to the cardboard arcade.  Caine’s big break was about to come.  His one customer, Nirvan, was also a producer of documentaries and had a surprise in store.  Nirvan knew how much it would mean to Caine to have a line of customers at his arcade.  So he filmed the event and used the power of social media and digital collaboration to coordinate a flashmob of Caine’s arcade.  Literally hundreds of customers surprised Caine on a random Saturday.  All summer long, his cardboard arcade became a place of wonder and awe for the city of East Los Angeles.  His story went viral with news stories on every network station. Even celebrities like movie star Jack Black stopped by to try out his amusements.  More importantly, he inspired a movement.  Within a single day, over $100,000 was raised to fund Caine’s previously non-existent college fund and also create a foundation to empower children’s imagination and entrepreneurship.  All this happened because of the power of an idea, an attentive videographer and effective sharing of an engaging story. 

What is most inspiring about the Caine’s Arcade story is the fact that Caine used his imagination and positive attitude to build his passion in spite of his seemingly dismal conditions. When Nirvan showcased Caine’s work through the connective power of social media, he turned a simple idea into a national story.  In a previous essay I wrote, titled “Where is Lt. Zuckerberg?”, I discussed the immense potential power of harnessing social media and how our military needs to better utilize those tools to build a strategic advantage.  The success of Caine’s story clearly illustrates the power of social media to rapidly spread ideas, inspire people and create lasting change even when few resources are available.  Those lessons can be applied to our military, especially in these fiscally constrained times.

Sequestration has forced difficult, unprecedented fiscal and readiness challenges on our fighting force.  It has the potential to seriously harm our ability to project power.  But in any difficult situation, there are always positive, creative, inspiring people to power through challenging situations.  Through their infectious positive attitude, these types of people overcome challenges and move organizations forward no matter the challenge. It begs the question, how many innovators within our ranks are just waiting to be discovered, waiting for that chance to enthusiastically share their game-changing ideas? 

A year and a half ago, while stationed at Travis Air Force Base, I was honored to be part of a project called the Digital Air Wing Initiative.  The concept was simple:  build a process where any airmen, regardless of rank, could suggest a technical improvement.  Once the idea was selected, they would surround themselves with strong multi-disciplined subject matter experts who could rapidly fix a problem outside of the traditional bureaucratic channels.  Within a week of revealing the concept, we had 10 viable projects to fix problems that were frustrating the average airman.  One by one, we began to address the frustrations of the ‘man in the arena’ who dealt with annoying processes or systems everyday. Innovators, some barely out of high school, relished the opportunity to collaborate and have their ideas heard.  They came up with ingenious solutions that led to tangible cost and man-hour savings.  We spread our message utilizing a YouTube video and by spreading the word through traditional base media. Ninety days after we began the project, we eliminated mailbox clogging announcement e-mails for the entire base. We also turned a dilapidated internal homepage into a slick, modern website that sped communication across a 10,000+ person base.  The innovative ideas didn’t originate from a senior leader, they came from some of the most junior personnel on the base.  The encouragement to be innovative by the Wing Commander, though, made the initiative a reality.

Innovation is the current buzzword across the DoD as a panacea to all the problems we face. But in practice, it’s a much more contentious topic. Ben Kohlmann’s “Disruptive Thinking” series of articles ignited significant debate about how to best innovate within the military.  Respected senior leaders fall on both sides of whether this type of innovation is effective or detrimental for the larger force.  Another more recent article written by Mark Jacobsen attempts to bridge the gap between the two camps by giving advice to both junior leaders and senior leaders on how to coexist and thrive in an innovative environment.  One thing is clear though.  The challenges we currently face are so severe that something must be done to fix our predicament.  In my opinion, it is time to move beyond just talking about innovation and time for action.  I believe it is time to establish a system where every member’s ideas to better our service are valued.  I believe that now is our moment to rise to the challenge.  The naysayers believe that our military is headed for a long decline with fewer resources, less talent and no turnaround strategy. Yet I know from experience that there are brilliant young innovators in our military who possess real, sometimes off-the-wall solutions to the myriad of difficult problems we face.  The untapped brainpower of our innovators is one of the greatest weapons we have at our disposal.  While I can’t offer solutions on how to exactly to replace billions of lost funding, I offer lessons learned from Caine’s story and my experiences to devise a simple two-pronged solution for leaders (both junior and senior) and subordinates to thrive in a seemingly bleak environment:

1.)   If you are a leader, reach out to your people and seek out innovators--some of which are just a few years older than kids like Caine.  He or she might not be your #1 go-to subordinate.  They might be the shy, socially awkward, quiet worker that might need gentle encouragement and an appropriate forum to share their game-changing idea.

2.)   If you are a subordinate, don’t be afraid to speak up if you think that you can do something a better way regardless of your rank.  If we already had answers to all of our problems, there wouldn’t be problems to face. With such few resources left, now is the time to step forward, sell your idea and be that innovator who brings a game-changing idea to our military.  What you think is a simple idea might actually be the key to solving our current crisis.  Speaking up is difficult but the alternative of doing nothing is much worse.  Our military needs you now!

The amazing thing about our military is that everyone has an idea, a passion for something and a story to share.  A story is the lifeblood of the human experience.  In a few short words, a video or a picture, a story conveys ideas and translates that experience to the larger community.  Like Nirvan, we must continuously search to find innovators, capitalize on their abilities and share their stories to inspire a larger audience.  Just as Caine’s story sparked a movement, we need showcase similarly brilliant minds within our ranks.  Once identified, we need to build repeatable, sustainable processes to continuously mine that talent and align their passions with our requirements.  Like Caine, sometimes the most amazing entrepreneurial ideas come from small, unassuming, seemingly unimposing, junior personalities.   But they are out there.  And it’s everyone’s job to find them.

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