Small Wars Journal

Innovating the Right Way

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Innovating the Right Way

Kevin Duffy

When he took to the podium at the Reagan Library to officially announce the rollout of a “Third Offset” strategy in November of 2014, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was both acknowledging a specific set of challenges and seizing upon an ongoing, remarkable, and perhaps unprecedented historical moment for innovation and idea incubation in the American national security enterprise.  As the Secretary acknowledged, his department needed such a strategy in order to ensure military dominance in an environment of proliferating, novel security challenges and simultaneously tightening budgets.  What was left unsaid, however, was just how much momentum had already been created for innovation and free-form ideation in military affairs, and how it had made the time ripe for just such an initiative to be launched, and ultimately to succeed. 

That momentum had been building for a few years, with military personnel and their civilian and academic-sector counterparts creating robust networks, entrepreneurial forums, “disruptive thinking” cooperatives, and countless blogs and websites to share, analyze, and critically assess new ideas on how the United States keeps itself secure.  From the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell (founded in 2012 with the goal of “provid[ing] junior leaders with an opportunity to identify and rapidly field emerging technologies that address the Navy's most pressing challenges”) to websites like Small Wars Journal (founded in 2005) and the robust and lively War on The Rocks (founded in 2013), there have never been so many avenues for the expression of new ideas from so many stakeholders.  There has never been, in other words, a better time, environment, or collection of contributors to undertake a major innovation initiative. 

These are not insignificant details, but critical pieces of information that must be considered when attempting to balance innovation with risk and ultimately ensure the security of the United States now and in the future.  Security challenges are proliferating and growing in complexity, adversarial geopolitical competition is increasing, and budget constraints do continue to be a concern.  At the same time, however, more and more of America’s best minds, from all ranks, backgrounds, ages, and branches of service, are able to offer insights and ideas for addressing these challenges than ever before. 

Acknowledgment of these truths—that the United States has both a certain set of challenges and the creative brainpower to successfully meet them—is the only legitimate starting point for a conversation on innovation in the armed forces today.  But it is just a starting point.  The current defense innovation initiative must indeed seek to capitalize on the great work and potential that is evidenced by ongoing conversations and programs; but actually launching into the execution of such an initiative also requires clarity of purpose and a definitive idea of the end that is ultimately being sought. 

The very potential for success that is provided by the present talent level and momentum, and the consequences of “getting it right” in terms of an innovation program, should compel the decision makers currently spearheading the Third Offset initiative to be very clear about exactly what they want to do, and how they want to do it. At the very least, they must be sure to get some basics right:  knowing their goals, creating a coherent process, and ensuring that they are empowering leaders to engender, undertake, and capitalize upon innovation.  And of course, to be successful, an approach to innovation must also ultimately account for risk, not only in terms of the adversaries and problems faced, but also the pitfalls and dangers inherent in the very process of change itself.

Seek a True Offset

First and foremost, an effective approach to innovation must have the right goal:  to provide a tactical and/or strategic advantage to the country’s security forces.  “Advantage” implies a difference between what one has and what potential competitors or adversaries have—an “offset strategy”, in other words, must actually offset.  Rapid technological advancement and innovation does not necessarily offset, so long as that advancement and innovation is easily adopted or nullified by potential adversaries.  For this reason, any effective approach to innovation in the military today must necessarily involve an advancement in capability that cannot be detected and/or replicated by others.  This could mean proprietary or highly classified systems whose application does not provide clues to their existence or methodology (e.g. Allied code-breaking programs in World War II).  It could mean enhanced stealth platforms or even miniaturization (an idea mentioned by Hagel) of existing technologies to the extent that they are inherently undetectable.  It could mean reorganization or revision of tactics on the part of various units so as to make their status, capabilities, missions, and methods unpredictable.  In any case, any initiative undertaken under the auspices of this offset strategy must be ever-cognizant of its unique goal of not just making advances, but making advances that adversaries are unable to either match or counter. 

Welcome All Ideas, But Provide Focus for Known Issues

Having this goal in mind, the military can then turn to the best methods of achieving it.  A truly effective innovation program must employ the most open possible forum, allowing ideas and proposals from all stakeholders for the broadest variety of potential technologies, mission sets, and problems (capitalizing on much of the work that some of the aforementioned excellent websites and blogs are doing now); but it must also be able to place special emphasis on the exploitation of known technologies and solutions for near-term issues.  One way to accomplish this is a two-tiered system with both  “unconstrained” and “constrained” pathways.  Such a system would include a wide-open forum or consortium that welcomes and rewards the proposals of all contributors addressing all problems.  This pathway would have the benefits of ensuring awareness of potential challenges, solutions, technologies, and strategies that the larger military establishment may not have considered.  It would also result in a database of ideas and suggestions for a wide array of contingencies that may unfold in the future.  With its unconstrained nature, this pathway would also be more likely to produce systems and approaches that work across structural and organizational boundaries, creating synergies and allowing for thinking that is not bounded by bureaucracy and history.

A more focused, “constrained” pathway could address best uses for imminently emerging technologies and potential solutions for immediate challenges.  This pathway would allow the military, informed by current events and intelligence, to ensure that some attention was being paid to developing innovative approaches for scenarios, adversaries, or fields of inquiry that leaders are specifically concerned with.  Secretary Hagel, for instance, identified “the fields of robotics, autonomous systems, miniaturization, big data, and advanced manufacturing” as likely areas of focus under the third offset strategy.  Such topics could be introduced within the “constrained” pathway by assigning specific personnel to study them or issuing an open challenge for ideas on how to employ those technologies in a military context.  Scoring criteria, timelines, and action teams could be developed to address each topic being covered in the “constrained” pathway.  Suggestions or ideas from the “unconstrained” pathway that were assessed to be particularly applicable or useful could be moved to the “constrained” side, assigned to personnel for development, and exposed to the rigors that were not appropriate in the “unconstrained” portion of the program. Such a dual-track system would draw in the widest possible array of ideas while assuring appropriate focus and development for pressing or emergent areas of emphasis.

Leaders Who Can Run Innovative Organizations

Acknowledging the importance of developing appropriate leadership as an integral part of the offset strategy, Secretary Hagel emphasized that the effort “will focus on our most important asset – our people – by pursuing both time-honored leadership development practices, as well as emerging opportunities to re-imagine how we develop managers and leaders”.  Such a focus will be hugely important to the overall success of the innovation initiative, most especially for two distinct reasons.  First, all innovators are leaders of a kind, as they by definition strike out into new territory ahead of others.  But have leaders of this type traditionally been given the tools and recognition they need to advance upward through the military bureaucracy in order to actually take functional leadership roles? Are especially savvy technical minds—for instance, those who can develop and field effective new methods and technologies—generally considered as up-and-coming organizational leaders?  Do career tracks and specialties as they exist now prevent or discourage such individuals from rising to influential positions?  An effective offset strategy should look to address these questions through a process review and potential revamping of career tracks and assignment policies.

Just as any innovation initiative within the armed forces must make leaders out of innovators, so must it do the opposite: make innovators out of leaders (or at least make leaders familiar with how to engender and pursue innovation).  While there could be many potential avenues to instill military leaders with an aptitude and appreciation for innovative thinking, an easy place to start would be the many training and education centers that personnel at all ranks attend throughout their careers.  Tailored educational modules for design thinking, innovation, and emerging technologies can easily be built into various schoolhouse curricula—from boot camps to mid-career courses, from War Colleges to Flag/General officer seminars—with content targeted to the audience and incorporating an introduction to the organizational mechanisms and programs that are established as part of the offset strategy.  Larger training and education centers could moreover benefit from the creation of an Innovation Chair position.  The individual selected for that position, perhaps a retired tech sector luminary drawn by the prestige and impactful nature of influencing the national security establishment, could inform curricula development and lecture and mentor attendees on how to leverage technology and innovative thinking for dramatic change.        

Know Both Types of Risks

To innovate in the context of national defense means using ingenuity to confront external risks, a process that by its very nature requires incurring internal risks.  These two types of risk are important and distinct factors in decision-making, so much so that both need to be enumerated and included in any coherent approach to organizational change.  Deliberate innovation for a specific threat or technology must account for the specific risk of the adversary or situation it was designed to address.  For instance, an innovative program or technology to confront major power aggression may be distinctly different than that for confronting dispersed terrorist operations, just as innovating for sensing and detection technology may need to be different than innovating for ballistic missile systems. 

Once the specific mission-related risk that an innovation program is designed to confront is acknowledged and factored in, though, one must still be cognizant of what might be called “process related risks”, or the risks inherent in undertaking any program of change or innovation.  Such process related risks include: the risk of investing in a failed technology or program (lost time, money, and personnel exertion for something that doesn’t ultimately work), the risk of concentrating innovative efforts on the wrong problem set (ultimately setting us up to be blindsided or fall behind when a different challenge emerges), and the risk of moving too fast and then fielding a technology or program with unintended consequences.  

So, external risks drive the need for defense innovation, while internal risks can inform the conduct of that innovation.  Without the external risks, there would be no need to change anything, and without the internal risks there would be no way to direct and judge the quality of that change.  The risks in both categories are unavoidable, but remaining cognizant of them through the process of innovation is always necessary in order to ensure the intended outcome and avoid mistakes along the way. 

Acknowledge the Talent, Build the Process

The men and women of the U.S. military, along with partners from across the broadest spectrum of stakeholders, are already pushing for and engendering change through myriad platforms and programs, both within official channels and without.  They are doing so at a time when challenges to national security abound in ways that test the imagination and will of our nation, and while budgetary uncertainty and fiscal constraints call into question the confidence upon which large-scale technology and acquisitions programs have traditionally relied.  While these latter dynamics are forcing national leaders to confront vexing questions, the former dynamics provide a source of potential solutions and abiding hope for the future.  That is, while the need for the third offset strategy and a focus on defense innovation in general have been articulated in terms of current challenges, they should be acted upon in the context of current activities. 

A host of ongoing initiatives and forums, and the hundreds of voices contributing to them, have made it clear that there are countless ways to innovate in the national security sector.  The Department of Defense’s own initiative must be based on an acknowledgment of this fact; it must understand that the innovators are out there, tirelessly working and applying lessons learned from a broad array experiences as they articulate new ways forward.  The defense establishment must embrace the energy and ideas already being produced and provide a way for them to have real impact.  It can do this by creating and sustaining an innovation program that seeks true offsets through a dual-track (constrained/unconstrained) ideation process, that educates and empowers leaders at all levels to pursue and understand innovation, and that remains ever-cognizant of risk.  Indeed, perhaps the greatest risk faced by the American armed forces is to be found in not creating a coherent program to fully capitalize on this historical moment.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Duffy is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Coast Guard and the Commanding Officer of Maritime Safety and Security Team Miami.  He holds master's degrees from Norwich University, the U.S. Naval War College, and Harvard University.