Small Wars Journal

The Dilemma of Defense Innovation and Adaptation (Part II)

Fri, 11/25/2016 - 12:05pm

The Dilemma of Defense Innovation and Adaptation (Part II)

Rod Korba

If you want to make enemies, try to change something.1

                                                                                             -- Woodrow Wilson

Dr. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate in economic science, but a trained cognitive psychologist, has described two neural pathways, or cognitive decision making processes, that apply to the dilemma of defense innovation and adaptation.2 System 1 is our instinctive, rapid, largely unconscious, and emotive mode of decision making. System 2 is our conscious, analytic, deliberate and reasoned mode of decision making. System 1 uses stereotypes and idiosyncratic meaning, to interpret and react—with astonishing speed—to threats to stability and security, which it detects in the environment. It produces a “quick and dirty, internal draft of reality,”3 which System 2 can use as a reference to arrive at explicit beliefs and reasoned choices.4 System 1 thinks rapidly—It emphasizes control over situations and events, rather than cognitive analysis. System 2 thinks slowly—it filters the raw perceptions from System 1, and critically interprets their veracity, value, outcomes and probability. It assesses the threat represented by change and methodically develops a logical analysis. We all possess rapid and slow decision making capabilities. Both these modes of thinking contribute (at different times) in our response to change, and how we deal with the intrinsic, internal dilemma represented by defense innovation and adaptation. In Part II of this essay, I examine many of the barriers to change that exist within defense organizations, and the examine how to overcome these obstacles and maintain the homoeostasis or balance that is necessary to process change.

Getting Past the “No!” in Innovation

It would be irresponsible to identify the challenges surrounding defense innovation, without providing suggestions for improving innovation adaptation. This is akin to admiring the problem, which many articles on defense innovation invariably do. Yet this step is far easier said than done. Innovation itself is not change. Yet, innovation and change are inexorably tied together…they create an inseparable rhythm. Innovation is the act or process of developing new ideas, devices, or methods. Functional or material change is the result of adopting an innovation, and therein lies a significant behavioral challenge, for if necessity is the mother of invention…then change is her redheaded stepchild. The cost of innovation is a measurement of the personal, institutional, and environmental disruptions that it creates. People in the military tend to like innovation. What they dislike are the personal changes and the risks that it fosters.

People don’t necessarily resist change. But they do resist being changed.5

                                                                                                                             -- Peter M. Senge

Based upon their size, complexity, traditions, chain of command, critical mission, and culture of discipline, military organizations can be highly resistant to change. Furthermore, military personnel can share a number of conservative beliefs, traits and perceptions that make them prone to resist change. The best strategy for advocates of innovation, is to understand the dynamics of change as they relate to their organizations, and then develop counter-resistance strategies to negate those attitudes, values and beliefs. 

Sources of Change

Everett Rogers (1971) suggested that there are two major drivers that govern the success of change in social systems. These were defined by: 1) Recognition of the need for change (internal or external to the social system), and 2) The origin of the idea (internal and external to the system). The social dynamics of adaptation begin here. The greatest potential for successful change occurs when recognition of both the need for change (the problem) and the origin of the idea (the solution) are internal to the system. Rogers called this category immanent change because the potential for successful change is far greater. The least potential for successful change occurs when both the need for change (the problem) and the origin of the idea (the solution) are external to the system. Rogers called this category directed change, because the imposition of both the need and the origin of change, are from outside the system. The innovation, or the impetus for change may come from a variety of sources (the mission and strategy; organizational structure; new people; organizational culture; knowledge of an organization; processes or ways of doing business; policies & legal agreements; technology; products; marketing and customer relations; and methods of integration6), but the adaptation to change is invariably a social process that may require a high level of personal or organizational investment or effort to sustain. It is essential to understand the human dimensions of change when studying how innovations diffuse in social systems.7

Human beings are adaptive creatures who actively create the reality they experience. Our judgments and our world views are shaped by our values, beliefs, and sense of self. These factors affect our balance between stability and change. Some military leaders embrace change, because it offers the opportunity to think aggressively and grow personally and professionally. The majority of military personnel are conservative about change, requiring evidence in varying degrees, to be convinced of the value of the change(s) being proposed. Due to the responsibilities inherent with national defense, it is necessary that military personnel have a healthy skepticism about change and innovation, especially if change occurs on the frontline, above the flight line, and beyond the shoreline where it directly impacts the warfighter. These are individuals within whom resistance to change can and must be calculated—and overcome. 

If it’s Not the Innovation, Then it’s the Adopter.

An individual’s predisposition toward change is normally a broad category of response.

Change is a social phenomenon, as well as a technical and a behavioral construct. A universal theme connected with change is that it will require work to accomplish. Change requires variation in the way people think and operate, which requires an expenditure of energy. Change can make people feel overloaded and overwhelmed. Thus change can be equated with a resentment and an unnecessary “re-tooling.” A part of the skepticism that may facilitate a resistance to change is the cynicism of “What is in it for me? This is not an unreasonable response, especially given the potential cost of change. If people see themselves as extensions of the organization, this becomes the corporate ‘me.’ Ownership Matters: People tend to support that which they help to create.

Why some people are more likely than others to resist change.

The following categories of resistance to change are offered below, in order to underscore the breadth of the challenge and to articulate examples that will require communication strategies to overcome. Too often we attempt to innovate or facilitate change in the DoD without much consideration given to the attitudes, motives, fears, and skill sets that act as barriers to change—nor the time that is necessary for target audiences to socialize the change before they are expected to comply.

Mistrust:  Trust lies at the core of the acceptance of change. Distrust breeds the resistance to change. If you trust your managers and supervisors, you will be more accepting of change. If you distrust your leadership, or if they are unproven to you, your ability to change is in direct proportion to the trust and faith you have in them. People fear the hidden agendas among those leaders they perceive as potential reformers. Winning trust is a powerful tool in diffusing innovation.

Fear of the Unknown: The degree to which change represents an unknown outcome, is the degree to which skepticism (or downright rejection) of change will occur. Thus, the greater the unknown, the greater will be the resistance to change. When change is implemented without warning, or without an adequate explanation of the probable outcome of change, the greater the resistance to change will be.

“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.”8

Organizational Culture & Infrastructure: Innovation cannot exist in a vacuum: It requires an organizational culture that supports “out of the box” thinking, risk and creative problems solving. A good formula for innovation involves strong leadership, a nurturing environment, diversity of thought in close proximity to processes of change, and an entrepreneurial approach to material/non-material solutions. Good ideas can come from anywhere. This means cultivating the knowledge skills and abilities of all of the personnel within an organization, including collaboration outside of established solos and swim lanes. The further across the organization you reach, the greater the potential for change.

The Frozen Middle9. This term describes an organization’s middle management team that resists new ideas, initiatives and innovations. In a large defense organization, these would be the staff directors, deputy-directors, and key personnel in a head-quarters structure, who are below the senior leadership, but above the action officer level. Regardless of the innovation or initiative that is endorsed from the top-down, or forwarded from the bottom up, it is the flexibility, willingness and ability of middle management adapt to change, and their capabilities to operationalize an innovation or initiative, that will determine whether an innovation succeeds or fails. Thus, if middle management is cold to an idea or an initiative, it has little chance of flourishing.

Change Agents: To sustain change, organizations need to develop structured yet flexible processes. This will require reinforcement, resources, adaptive capabilities and cultural embedding. Change can create a ripple effect that reaches distant points in ever-widening circles. Second, third and fourth-order effects can disrupt departments, clients, and people, through the Law of Unintended Consequences.10 Change Agents can anticipate these unintended consequences, and assist in adoption. Change agents must consider all affected parties, however distant, and work with them to minimize disruption.

Alignment of learning & change facilitators. Varying degrees of learning are necessary in order to implement change. Yet, often people are expected to adapt to change without understanding the what, why, and how of changes. Many changes struggle at the implementation stage when people need to learn to do things differently. Sometimes the necessary resources, tools or skills have not been provided.

Bad timing: Bad change never had good timing, but for good change—timing is everything. For change in a military organization to thrive, a number of critical factors need be present: Technological innovation or competition; supportive leadership with adequate control of the process; a clear and shared vision of a better way; and adequate resources (time and money). But if change is not initiated at the right time or with the right level of interest and empathy, it usually won’t work. There isn’t always a right time and place for military change, because there is never a right time to do a difficult thing.

Envy, Ego & Ownerships: It is often said that good ideas can come from anywhere…but it can be threatening to military leadership when they do. Military leaders are promoted, largely based upon their ability to solve problems. Being “upstaged” by a lower ranking individual can be a threatening “loss of face” to some individuals. Thus, ideas can be co-opted by higher-ranking leaders who take credit for all of the ideas developed under their tenure. Individuals who are associated with the last version or iteration of an idea that didn’t work, or the one that’s being superseded, are likely to be defensive about it. Additionally, military organizations frequently have “ownership” that blocks outsiders from offering solutions. Leaders can help people maintain dignity by celebrating those elements of the past that are worth honoring, and making it clear that the world has changed. That makes it easier to let go and move on.

Surprise: Unannounced decisions, battlefield surprise, and unintended consequences are but a few examples of the type of change that can occur without warning. Surprise (especially when it is perceived as negative change) up-ends people with no time to get used to the idea or prepare for the consequences. Resistance to this type of change can be severe. Sudden change can cause people to push back aggressively, due to their fear of the unknown. Military leaders should avoid the temptation to make rapid changes and impose decisions on subordinates.

Loss of job security/control: Often feared and frequently implied, restructuring or downsizing causes resistance among employees that they will be eliminated, moved, or reorganized against their will. Change interferes with perceived security and autonomy that lie at the core of personal stability, and imply a loss of control and self-determination. Military leaders must rely upon all of their skills to impart a vision of solidity and clarity of purpose. This is a time to focus on established routines and processes with a clear connection to the mission and the larger strategic picture.

Past resentments: Our experiences (good and bad) with change technology, people, organizations and operations (to name a few) are always in our memories to ground our evaluative judgments. As long as an organization operates in a consistent fashion, these memories remain covert. But change of an unknown outcome can resurrect those experiences, open old wounds, and make active what had been passive experiences with change. If this type of resistance to change occurs, leaders might want to consider gestures toward healing the past, before consolidating the future. 

WIIFM:  This acronym stands for “What’s in it for me?” Unfortunately, the personal cost of change, or the self-serving approach to innovation, clouds the adoption of new ideas in defense organizations. Individuals who are wary of change, can view an initiative or an innovation from this perspective, rather than asking what the idea represents to the individual or the organization writ large. The challenge is to identify this mindset, and strategize the building of a consensus that turn the orientation of the problem from “me” to “we.”

The ROI: A profitable return on investment (RON) represents a strong relative advantage for a new idea, as opposed to the established way of doing things. This is often a cost and reward ratio in defense organizations. If the ROI is high, the initiative or innovation stands a strong chance of adoption. If the ROI is low, the chance of implementation is slim.

We are too busy to attempt that now:  There is never a bad time for a truly good idea. Conversely, there is never a good time for a truly bad idea. Yet, the operational tempo or battle rhythm of defense organizations can act as a major inhibitor for change. Make certain that your innovation is directly relevant to the operational needs of the organization, or introduce your idea at a time when it can earn the consideration that it merits. As when little is certain, timing is everything.

Sometimes the threat is real: Whether it is slow and incremental, or rapid and significant, the argument can be made that all change is disruptive and holds the latent potential for unintended consequences—even change deemed to be positive. When technological change replaces existing tools, jobs can be consolidated; costs can be cut and shareholder investments wiped out. The best course for leaders to follow, when change poses a significant threat to the status quo, is to be transparent, honest, fast and fair.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of barriers to defense innovation. Your task—when designing the diffusion of your innovation and developing your persuasive campaign appeals—is to understand these normative human behaviors, anticipate their occurrence, and design your messages to permeate these barriers to change.

The warfighter is engaged in a life or death struggle for peace.11

                                                                                                          -- Morihei Ueshiba

This is Part II of a three part series on the Dilemma of Defense Innovation & Adaptation. Part III will examine why 9 out of 10 innovations fail to reach successful diffusion, and offer over a dozen practical suggestions on how to dramatically improve upon these odds. Rather than admiring the problem (which we do so well), Part III offers practical strategies to overcome these thorny defense obstacles.

End Notes

1.   Wilson, W. (1916). Address to World's Salesmanship Congress, Detroit (10 July 1916)

2.   Holt, J. (2011). Two Brains Running, New York Times, Sunday Book Review.

3.   Ibid.

4.   Ibid.

5.   Senge, P.M. <>

6.   Rogers, E. (1962), The Diffusion of Innovations, Free Press of Glencoe, New York.

7.   Ibid.

8.   Taverner, R. (1593) Collections of Proverbs. In Titelman, G.Y. (1996). Random House Dictionary of Popular Sayings. New York.

9.   Byrnes, J. L.S. (2005). “Middle Management Excellence,” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.

10.  Edward, T. (1996). Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. New York, Alfred A. Knopf).

11. Ueshiba, M. (1992). The Art of Peace, Shambhala Publications, Boston MA. Page 25.

About the Author(s)

Rod Korba is the Senior Interagency Advisor, Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization (JIDO). A former Motion Picture Producer/ Director, Combat Camera Commander, and communication consultant, his PhD is in Communication Psychology. Among his research interests are information operations, branding and identity management, message design and organizational innovation. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and are not reflective of the policies or the positions of any agency of the U.S. government.