Small Wars Journal

Foundational Principles of Innovation: Defining an Elusive Term

Thu, 08/20/2015 - 6:54pm

Foundational Principles of Innovation: Defining an Elusive Term

Mark Lavin II

The term innovation is grossly overused and therefore not well understood.  It is a provocative term used in numerous ways to serve multiple purposes. Innovation can describe a business model, a product, a technology, a process or even the characteristics of a human being.  Initiatives in the Department of Defense (DOD) have recently gained momentum under the guise of innovation.[i] National security decision makers in Washington, D.C. clamor for the next innovative item to purchase without first answering the most fundamental question; to do what?

As the military continues to downsize, the recent national military strategy showcases innovation as one of three mechanisms to retain our comparative advantage in a complex future environment.[ii]  In order to achieve this ambitious goal, the DOD must adopt foundational principals of innovation to guide strategic decisions in a resourced constrained environment.  This article proposes such principles derived from an understanding of temporal parameters, historical vignettes, and organizational characteristics that cultivate innovation in the military.    

Foundational Principles of Innovation

Innovation is defined as “a new idea, device or method.”[iii] Put more practically, it is the unique application of a method, technology, or idea that delivers a decisive advantage.  Innovation in the military ideally informs future force development in order to provide the maximum combat capability to joint commanders in the shortest amount of time with available resources. The following principles are imperative to convert new ideas into valued outcomes.

Unifying Problem. Innovation occurs through evolutionary problem solving. Only coherent and comprehensive problems drive change.  The 2015 National Security Strategy endeavors sustained US global leadership, yet a unifying problem for the Joint force to resolve remains elusive.[iv]  

Vision. Solutions require an intellectual foundation to guide organizational efforts.  At a minimum it is composed of a clear purpose and core competencies.  Without a unifying problem however, a vision is plagued by speculation and will often include artificialities based on flawed or archaic assumptions.

Strategy. Every process produces a predictable output. Innovation requires strategies that integrate processes so that viable solutions are fully examined and not artificially discarded. A viable strategy connects a vision to methods and mechanisms by setting priorities and aligning immediate challenges with enduring and emerging conditions that solve the problem.

Timely Resources. Innovation is generated by making prudent investments at critical decision points requiring rigorous assessments and harsh divestiture. More critical than how many resources is the manner to which they are expended.  Investment decisions that do not reinforce a strategy grounded in a problem and described by a vision overly exposes solutions to risk.

Culture of Learning. Innovation requires people who can sustain intellectual rigor through critical thinking and ingenuity achieved only through incentivizing acceptable levels of failure and a cumulative method for building knowledge. The wrong people with the wrong skills will stunt more innovation than any other factor.

Temporal Phases of Innovation

It is critical to understand innovation in a temporal context or it arbitrarily becomes a goal with scheduled progress updates.  Innovation matures very slowly, taking time to evolve into a useable product or idea.  Humans have been developing computers, green energy, lasers, and combustible engines for decades.  Innovative products materialize when concepts and technologies merge into a viable product and lifecycles are defined by three phases. 

Discovery.  The foundation on which all innovation depends, discovery is often understood as basic research for genuinely new knowledge; something previously unknown.  For the military it must also include intelligence collection, professional military education, and leader development.  Discovery is a constant process of learning, researching, collecting, and exploring. 

Application.  Often described as invention, tinkering, and (more specifically) applied research, military innovation also includes concept development, individual and collective training, wargaming, experimenting and testing.  Application demands people, who are able to think critically, define problems, synthesize information, communicate effectively, and understand the tertiary implications of external stimulants to an operational environment. 

Exploitation.  Often described as an acquisition process, business model, or material development horizon, military innovation is a solution that has a decisive tactical and operational impact.  Exploitation is not simply an item, but enabled Soldiers who achieve sustainable political objectives with incomparable training, equipment, and leadership against an adversary.  Military organizations can exploit vulnerabilities and opportunities with rapid adaption or sustained, evolutionary and incremental development.

There is a clear trend that the information age has seen an increased pace of innovation due to access to advanced technology.  However, these parameters frame innovative practices and ambitions because, despite any increased pace, the transference rate and criterion to move between them is impossible to predict.  Each unique idea will mature at a pace the environmental conditions (problem), organizational processes (vision/strategy), people (culture), and science (resources) permit.


Innovation is not a new concept and militaries have done it successfully throughout history.  Specific to the United States, the military has demonstrated innovation worth exploring through the lens of the aforementioned principles.    

Carrier-centric Naval Warfare.  The maturation of naval aviation shows that the migration of battleship centric to carrier centric warfare was an evolutionary process that occurred over three decades and included both world wars. In the 1890s, the birth of aviation found a willing partner in the Navy who was seeking a role for its military applicability.  The relatively immature capability of aviation survived as an experiment within the Navy largely due to the unifying problem of fighting on the high seas with parity.  The vision was initially a flying scout vessel that could identify enemy ships, mines, and submarines without decisively engaging the fleet.  In 1911, naval aviation was determined to be a feasible concept following Lt. Ellyson’s successful demonstration of taking off and landing aboard the Pennsylvania.[v]

Although 1911 was a banner year, the Navy’s developmental method was iterative in nature.  Between 1898 and 1916, the capability of naval aircraft was drastically improved through a close partnership with the emerging aircraft industry.  Pilots and scientists collaborated on fabricating better construction materials as well as augmenting the “lighter than air vessels” with wireless communications, weapons, magnetic compasses and improved projection platforms.[vi]  Although World War I provided an influx of resources, it was the combat success of naval aviation during the war that ensured the program survived interwar resource reductions.  Ultimately, it was the Navy culture at the time that brought everything together to eventually change the character of naval warfare in the 1930s.  Wargaming, concept development, and fleet exercises facilitated brutally honest assessments of new ideas driven by leaders who took an interest in the results and the people cable of solving complex problems.[vii]

The vignette highlights an instance where the military was extremely innovative particularly when the nation faced existential threats and enemies.  Though not explicitly followed during development, the principles of innovation are recognizable.  A cursory look at conflicts since the nation emerged as the sole superpower however, highlight innovation as collectively more circumspect particularly when the foundational principles are not easily discerned.

Somalia, 1994.  The U.S. military led an international coalition that displayed an operational reach and speed never previously seen in history.  Innovation allowed the rapid deployment of forces half way around the world to provide security for the delivery of aid to suffering people. Innovation did not prevent however, mission creep or the fog of war detailed in the book Black Hawk Down.  The geopolitical result of America’s withdrawal from Somalia in March 1994 was an international assumption that the United States would not commit ground forces to operations where 18 American lives may be lost.[viii]   That assumption was unchallenged until Operation Iraqi Freedom in the wake of the September 11th attacks.

Global War on Terrorism, 2001.  The strategic challenges of 911 remained unsolved.  Despite rapid fielding initiatives, how did innovation build a nation in Afghanistan or stabilize Iraq?  The United States trained, equipped, and fought with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) over eight years and at the cost of billions of dollars.[ix]  After two years of Maliki’s policies, the ISF in over 1/3 the country folded after a few engagements of combating a determined enemy.[x]    In Afghanistan, despite over a decade of efforts to grow and develop a security apparatus that exceeded over $1 billion a month in 2010, the nation teeters on unstable political and security footings.  It is not an absence of technological innovation that has failed to bring strategic success, but a failure to understand sustainable political objectives.

Cultivating Innovation in the Military

The most difficult tasks for any organization that desires innovation is recognition before it is too late.  The British and French lost entire armies to the machine gun and trench warfare in WWI because military leaders failed to recognize the military innovation and operational effects of defensive machinegun positions. The French lost their country at the opening of WW2 largely because the political and military leaders failed to recognize the military innovation of the tank within maneuver warfare.  Hindsight has perfect vision and no prediction is ever 100% accurate.  Therefore more important than predicting the future is to understand the atmosphere and environment that cultivates innovation through people who can identify and harvest a decisive advantage.

Four Virtues of Innovation

The following themed virtues underpin a military organizations ability to cultivate innovation.  When recognizable, an organization is capable of developing truly innovative solutions.  These virtues should be organizational goals for those who endeavor innovative results. 

Culture.  Culture is defined by rituals, beliefs, and intellectual achievements of a society, group, place, or time.  A military organization with a culture of learning must sustain investment in intellectual rigor, analysis, and achievements.  This includes building resiliency through incentivizing acceptable levels of failure and a cumulative method of analysis.  Relearning the same mistakes is not a culture of learning but a culture of insanity.[xi]

Organizational Fitness.  For a military organization to integrate innovation it must first build proficiency.  Just having good ideas never accomplished anything.  In order to exploit the application of a new discovery a military organization must first build expertise grounded in core competencies.  Practice makes perfect. It also builds instincts, confidence, and cohesive teams.

Purpose.  Purpose has two components: a vision or mission of the organization and emotional health of its people.  The principles of mission command and leadership encompass this virtue; however purpose must also be felt in the organizational climate.  People must have a sense that they are contributing to the organization’s success.  Otherwise, it’s never more than a job.

Ingenuity.  This is the product of creativity and accomplished through critical thinking, and a mechanical mastery of the organizations equipment and methods.  Capabilities and processes cannot be “soldier-proof” but “soldier-enabling” allowing them to be innovative at points of need and friction. 

Five Deadly Sins of Innovation

The following themed sins are corrosive behaviors and organizational characteristics that prevent innovation.  Not all organizations are designed to generate innovative solutions therefore these characteristics are often appropriately prevalent.  However, if the goal is innovation then these sins will pollute solution strategies and erode innovative efforts.

Coke Zero.  This has two aspects.  The first is an unreasonable expectation of flawless execution.  A zero-defect culture is the antithesis of innovation.   The second is zero-investment in failure.  Failure spurs innovation through learning in both people (education) and materiel (prototyping).  Army selection boards for educational opportunities attrite the force yet once the intellectual rigor begins, the methodology is maximize graduations.  There is little incentive to explore intellectual deficiencies in lieu of group think.  Likewise, requirements saturate materiel development and displace any opportunity for innovative methods.  There is little incentive to prototype and mature technology within materiel development in lieu of delivering narrowly focused solutions.

Analysis Paralysis. Defining the problem is the most critical step in any decision; until it becomes the problem.  Framing is essential; however when an organization or leader constantly reframes an analytical approach and scopes a problem from the lens of a solution, the result is never innovative.

Gamblers Anonymous.  A process, person, or organization that makes small wagers on a multitude of potentialities. Without a unifying problem or set of challenges this is often seen in organizations or people that employ discovery leadership.  These are not leaders committed to discovering new ideas.  These are people who rarely provide guidance, communicate a clear vision, or understand the nature of the problem.  This is the person who says, “I don’t know what I want, but I will tell you when I see it.”  This cripples innovation by sustaining a guessing game of infinite wrong answers.

The Price is Right.  The complex algorithm which translates the political value of competing interests of states into a cost, measured in treasure and lives must be an intellectually honest endeavor.  Policies that overly emphasize bargain shopping and frugal methods dilute appreciation of the enduring characteristics of war.  Lowest bidder approaches to materiel development and conflict resolution eliminate evolutionary and innovative solutions aimed at sustainable conditions.  In war, the price is never right or known until historians debate the lasting results.

Dinosaur Wrestling.  Blindly discarding the wisdom of others such as ignoring the advice of mentors or suppressing the challenges of aspiring professionals thwarts innovation.  Experience is critical, but should never be substituted for intellect or knowledge.  Experience is unique to each person but without self-actualizing it quickly becomes a habit of mirror imaging.  Innovators seek the wisdom of others, challenge biases, and are informed, NOT captured by their experiences. 


Innovation is the unique application of a technology or idea that delivers a decisive advantage.  As the military downsizes, innovation absent foundational principles cannot retain our comparative advantage in a complex future environment as required by the National Military Strategy.  The aforementioned principles were derived from an understanding of innovation that allows organizations to inspire innovation in the military.   These principles should guide technology initiatives and inform policy, organizational, and acquisition reforms thereby ensuring the 21st century remains an American one.

End Notes

[i] Pellerin, Cheryl, Hagel Announces New Defense Innovation, Reform Efforts, accessed 27 July 2015.

[ii] Joint Staff, National Military Strategy, June 2015.  The 2015 NMS continues the call for greater agility, innovation, and integration. It reinforces the need for the U.S. military to remain globally engaged to shape the security environment and to preserve our network of alliances.

[iii] "Innovation." Accessed July 27, 2015.

[iv] White House, National Security Strategy, February, 2015.  Assessed 27 July 2015. “Strong and sustained American leadership is essential to a rules-based international order that promotes global security and prosperity as well as the dignity and human rights of all peoples. The question is never whether America should lead, but how we lead.”

[v] Grossnick, Roy, et. al. United States Naval Aviation 1898-1995, Part 1-3, accessed 12 August 2015.

[vi] Ibid. (Part 2, page 15)

[vii] Williamson Murray, presentation to TRADOC, Thoughts on Innovation: Past, Present and Future, 22 May 2015.

[viii] Brooks, Rosa. Somalia’s Deadly Lessons, Los Angeles Times, June 23, 2006.accessed 18 August, 2015.

[ix] Michael O’Hanlon, Iraq Index,, accessed 21 January 2015.

[x] Mauro, Ryan, ISIS Takeover in Iraq: Biggest Islamist Victory Since 9/11, accessed 21 January 2015.

[xi]“Culture,” Merriam-Webster.comAccessed 21 January, 2015.


About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Mark Lavin II is a U.S. Army Strategist currently serving as the Strategy and Policy Branch Chief for U.S. Army South and previously served as a planner at the Army Capability Integration Center, Training and Doctrine Command.  LTC Lavin holds a BA in Political Science from Rockhurst University and a MS in Geology and Geophysics from the University of Missouri S&T. Commissioned a CBRN officer, LTC Lavin has held leadership positions at the company and platoon level including company command during Operation Iraqi Freedom II with the First Infantry Division.  He has served as a Small Group Instructor and Army Congressional Fellow.  His Joint assignments include Deputy Legislative Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Legislative Director for the Commander, US Forces-Iraq during Operation New Dawn.