Military Review English Edition July-August 2014 - Page 48

Our ability to innovate and adapt to changing circumstances is one of the great asymmetric advantages of the U.S. military. A good amount of the innovation within the services has come from loyal insiders, particularly from the junior ranks—people who see problems at the tactical level and can create and share innovative solutions. Internal innovators who successfully implement their ideas usually develop and refine them through informal networks, peripheral to the people they work with daily. These networks provide a fail-free zone and energetic supporters. Nearly a century after Eisenhower and Patton challenged the dogmas of their day, we continue to observe a similar dynamic. Energetic young service men and women are coming out of more than a decade of conflict full of ideas and empowered with the autonomy they found on a complex battlefield. Many innovations that proved vital to our successes in Iraq and Afghanistan— from vehicle adaptations that protect soldiers against improvised explosive devices to software programs that track volumes of intelligence reports—were in fact developed by innovative junior officers and noncommissioned officers serving on the front lines. These were the battlefield innovators who gradually helped our Army adapt to a quickly changing situation on the ground. As we draw down our forces engaged in major conflicts, leaders accustomed to having a large amount of autonomy and flexibility while deployed will find fewer opportunities to innovate. We must encourage and equip these energetic and idealistic people, or else we will struggle to keep them in our ranks. We must facilitate their creativity and take advantage of their innovation rather than lose them and their ideas. Instead of passively waiting for such innovators to develop their ideas, we must help them network with one another outside the bureaucratic system. We need to encourage the creation and use of mechanisms that help innovators connect and collaborate, find constructive criticism of their ideas, and develop feasible implementation strategies. Creating a Culture of Innovation A 1999 RAND analysis of military innovation, commissioned by the U.S. Army, used case studies for trying to understand how militaries improve battlefield effectiveness.5 The study concluded that military necessity alone is insufficient to produce successful innovations. The right social and environmental factors must 46 propel innovative solutions beyond the gravitational pull of the bureaucracies from which they emerge. If, according to Plato, necessity is the mother of invention, then an organizational culture that encourages innovation must become its father.6 Creating the right culture for innovation will be crucial in overcoming the challenges facing the Army as we move into a post-war posture of declining fiscal resources and increasing global and strategic uncertainty. A culture of innovation can only emerge inside a bureaucracy if there is a viable marketplace for both idea creation and incubation, as well as a safe space for trial and error. Ideas need a place where they can germinate at the practitioner level and then undergo a rigorous peer-evaluation process in which they are refined and developed. In the business community, small business startup incubators such as Techstars, the Harvard Innovation Lab, and the at the Stanford Institute of Design provide this function for new business ideas.7 They provide a rigorous yet flexible process for generating, refining, and culling good business ideas before they are presented to venture capitalists for investment and action. The Department of Defense (DOD) has no process similar to these companies that help startups. While many senior leaders recognize that our best ideas often arise at the grassroots practitioner level, the reality is that very few innovators at this level possess the bureaucratic acumen and the practical experience to turn a good idea into a programmatic change within the nation’s largest bureaucracy. What these innovators need is a mechanism—independent of the bureaucracy—that provides a safe place to refine and incubate these ideas as they emerge. The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum Just such a mechanism, the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, was developed, funded, and executed entirely by junior officers across the services beginning in 2013.8 Conceived as a web-based forum that brought participants together in person annually to promote innovation within the DOD, the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum has grown into a movement of considerable diversity. Its members rank from sergeant to general officer. They come from every branch of military service, and include civilians from the defense industry.9 The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum hosted its first annual conference July-August 2014  MILITARY REVIEW