(As featured in The Modern War Institute)
Despite Pentagon innovation investments, like creating Army Futures Command, critics across the national security ecosystem remain frustrated by the glacial pace of change. These delays remain, in part, because the military is emphasizing acquisitions reform while neglecting the need to empower tactical leaders that can implement the Army’s modernization vision. Instead of expanding the number of frontline personnel executing our innovation strategy, the Army has exhibited a bias toward reshuffling existing bureaucratic structures with only minor personnel expansion. This has triggered a proliferation of offices intended to support innovation, while ignoring that current systems deny tactical leaders the resources, and time, needed to implement change. The result has been a labyrinth of disconnected teams that leave soldiers struggling with antiquated systems, while Congress pressures Army Futures Command to produce wins.
At its core, Army Futures Command cannot reach its potential until it compensates for two critical design flaws. First, the Army has created a four-star headquarters capable of marshaling resources and developing a vision; but, the command lacks a sustainable, scalable, and efficient means of connecting to the tactical formations capable of implementing that vision. Until that disconnect is eliminated, innovation will be treated as “someone else’s problem” and fail to achieve the daily progress needed for enterprise-level change. Second, it has failed to integrate lessons in technology and culture change from the startup community—lessons described in books like Crossing the Chasm, which shows that success in launching a product (or a military capability) requires leveraging innovators and early adopters. While there are differences between launching commercial ventures and military capabilities, both demand an understanding of the technology adoption curve and the need for user feedback to create value-generating solutions. If the Pentagon does not find a way to identify and invest in its intrapreneurs, the failure of these efforts will only reinforce cynicism.
The search for a sustainable and scalable means of implementing innovation at the tactical level was at the heart of several pilots by leaders in the 75th Ranger Regiment. Our experiments found that the Army can enhance the efficiency of existing offices, and expand the talent pool addressing modernization challenges, by creating a duty position and career path for innovation officers. Further, these findings align with Defense Innovation Board recommendations for workforce modernization. These innovation officers would bridge the transition gaps and silos between existing research centers, private sector partners, front-line soldiers, and military innovation enablers, applying a decentralized approach akin to the entrepreneurs-in-residence of many Fortune 500 companies. They would use best practices from private-sector entrepreneurship to change how capital, technology, and expertise are applied to solve problems. If the Pentagon empowers hand-selected officers and enlisted personnel with the resources and authorities to pursue this strategy at scale, it would accelerate and de-risk modernization efforts through a grassroots approach driven by insights from those that confront these capability gaps each day.
Unlike disconnected innovation offices, embedding innovation officers in tactical formations lets them transform real-world pain points into problem statements that can be resolved by guiding them through a pipeline that links partners across an innovation ecosystem. This approach prevents the creation of additional bureaucracy and focuses on creating more value with existing defense innovation enablers, like the National Security Innovation Network or Army Applications Laboratory. Further, since it leverages force-generated problem statements, challenges like product-market fit and customer adoption can be accounted for as early as possible in the development cycle.
Why are Existing Tools Not Enough?
At present, military innovation efforts are often framed as acquisitions challenges, with a principal planning assumption that essentially amounts to “if we can buy technology faster, we will become a modern force.” This assumption was central to the Obama administration’s creation of the Defense Innovation Unit, which pursues modernization through greater connection with startups and more agile acquisitions processes. At the tactical level, this assumption often manifests itself in commanders assigning innovation duties to their contracting and acquisitions staff sections.
The problem with relying on acquisitions to solve all our problems is that doing the wrong thing faster (or lighter, or with more expensive tools) is still doing the wrong thing. Not all problems can be resolved with a government-issued credit card, especially when those problems are related to process or culture. Even when challenges can be rectified by purchases, contracting decisions often seek to minimize risk (making disruptive innovation unlikely) and those making purchase decisions often lack direct experience with the problem they are solving. The need to avoid trying to buy victory in the face of bureaucracy is not new—defense innovators like Col. John Boyd (famous for his conceptualization of the OODA Loop) demanded nearly thirty years ago that we prioritize people, ideas, and hardware—in that order.
Acquisitions biases aside, the absence of an assigned duty position for full-time innovation officers means even when commanders pursue more comprehensive portfolios it often takes the form of a secondary duty after a soldier’s “day job.” This casual treatment of innovation does not account for the complex domain knowledge required for both conducting iterative experiments and navigating the defense innovation ecosystem.
While innovation does require trial and error, you cannot “just do it” and expect success. Such an approach simply leads to the same flurry of motion without progress that causes 75 percent of venture capital–backed startups to fail. That statistic is a sobering number if you consider that the precious few startups with venture capital are run by full-time professional entrepreneurs. The private sector has adapted to this failure rate by adopting tools that de-risk innovation, like design thinking, rapid prototyping, lean-startup methods, scrum, and agile management. These tools require experience to translate concepts into capabilities and at present, despite free resources from sister services, the Army lacks any program to train these skills.
Innovation’s technical challenges are compounded by social and cultural obstacles. That is because launching capabilities requires leveraging complex cultural networks, which the Army neither incentivizes nor trains. For example, while the Pentagon laments its cultural gap with Silicon Valley, what training plans exist to equip soldiers to bridge that void? The National Security Innovation Network has its startup innovation fellowship; but, Army engagement at the servicemember level has been minimal. Even worse, networking is seen as distasteful in a culture of the “silent professional,” with many servicemembers and veteran service organizations assuming that tools like LinkedIn are irrelevant until you leave service. Accordingly, networks of potential collaborators are latent, dormant, or nonexistent, inhibiting opportunities for collaboration.
These challenges are amplified when capability gaps are due to ineffective policy, such as excess red tape and self-induced bureaucracy, or poor workforce talent design. Consider that the Pentagon’s new chief management officer, Lisa Hershman, who has already saved $6.5 billion by implementing better business processes, sees herself as navigating the “most entrenched bureaucracy in the world.” This reality led former Secretary of the Army Mark Esper to prioritize eliminating bureaucratic burdens and unnecessary administrative requirements. While these senior officials have made progress, the scope of the challenge exceeds what any individual can tackle. So, what means are there for the soldiers immersed in a sea of unnecessary administrative hurdles to recommend their elimination? The lack of any meaningful answer to this question speaks to an organization that would benefit deeply from a new approach to innovation.
Can’t Army Futures Command Fix This?
While the establishment of Army Futures Command is important, the organization was never intended to become a panacea. That is because modernization is both a cultural change, which requires widespread engagement, and a technical challenge that demands diverse skills sets. Army Futures Command is well suited to fielding massive weapons programs and aligning existing federally funded research and development centers; but, at present the command’s military personnel are mostly limited to the multi-billion-dollar cross-functional teams. Even for those personnel that overcome the rank and billet hurdles to serving in Army Futures Command, many must also overcome a lack of former innovation or entrepreneurial experience, given the absence of Army programs training these skills.
The Army Reserve’s 75th Innovation Command is the next most likely source for innovators; but, the challenge of managing disruptive innovation on a part-time basis is a serious one, so while these personnel will play an important role in a robust innovation ecosystem, both time and resource limitations mean the command is not optimized to be a primary driver of innovation. Reserve servicemembers could be most effectively leveraged once a problem statement has been curated and an active-duty command has aligned resources and personnel to generate a solution. If these conditions are met, reservists can apply their civilian-sector skills to solve capability gaps. Absent these conditions, reservists may struggle to find the right direction or lack the context needed to solve the right problems and calendar space for the time demands of launching new capabilities with only about a month of their time available per year.
Since design constraints prevent both Army Futures Command and the 75th Innovation Command from fielding large-scale innovation forces, those personnel—if we accept the need to have them—must come elsewhere in the Army, like tactical-level units. The problem is that while tactical formations have the needed volume and depth of talent, there is no mechanism to tap into it. The result is a chicken and egg scenario: the operational force is consumed using antiquated solutions and an important source of new solutions is underleveraged due to insufficient demand signal.
At the heart of auto manufacturer Toyota’s success is kaizen, a culture of empowering insightful frontline workers to pursue constant “low hanging fruit” improvement. Harvard Business Review profiled how a similar strategy allowed Sir David Brailsford to transform British Olympic cycling from earning one gold medal in seventy-six years to winning seven of ten Olympic gold medals in 2008. In both cases, executives set a compelling vision for their organization, and trusted personnel at all levels to use tight feedback loops to close incremental capability gaps.
The Army can harness the disruptive power of this strategy by embedding innovation officers in their tactical formations. This would create a vast talent pool of diverse thinkers, capable of applying entrepreneurial training to iterate toward the innovation vision and concepts outlined by leaders and organizations like Army Futures Command. This does not replace enterprise-level efforts. Instead, it creates connective tissue among innovation networks, multiplying and sharing insights. At the local level, these innovation officers would provide commanders with personnel that can generate solutions and could liaise with both the private sector and partners across the Department of Defense . What’s more, emphasizing lean-startup methods achieves these goals at a fraction of the cost of large-scale programs.
Innovation officers would emulate the approach of Silicon Valley founders, who overcome resource constraints by focusing their efforts on generating maximal customer value at minimal cost through rapid iterations of discovery learning. The focus on embedding innovation officers at the tactical level checks against the groupthink or cognitive blind spots that can occur when central offices are expected to imagine the diverse needs of an organization whose personnel’s jobs range from door breaching to data science.
This idea, that entrepreneurial servicemembers can solve problems that central offices cannot, is at the core of organizations like the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum and Air Force programs like Sparktank. The similarities between launching defense capabilities and creating businesses, like the need to achieve user adoption by deeply understanding customer challenges, is behind tools like the Mission Model Canvas, which is trained by the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program. What the Army needs is a program that trains and empowers its personnel to leverage these concepts at scale, protecting their time and career paths from bureaucratic interference and insufficient resource access.
The need for innovation officers as a full-time duty position, and viable career path, became apparent from our experiments tackling innovation challenges with the 75th Ranger Regiment. When we began our efforts, there was a need to build methodologies and tools to close capability gaps, not just seek material or acquisitions-based solutions. As we began exploring our options and available resources, we discovered that a host of ready partners and funded programs existed that could support our efforts. The problem was that before our teams began sending demand signal to offices like DARPA and others, it was hard for them to determine user-level operational needs.
Once we began finding partners, our next challenge was sustaining engagement, since the Army’s current personnel systems do not offer the flexibility to keep people in these roles long enough to gain traction. These personnel longevity challenges are compounded by task organization—there was no obvious composition of our innovation cells or the reporting chain that best accommodated disruptive innovation. The result of these design constraints was an ad hoc approach to launching projects, which made success contingent on personnel having both the career runway and calendar bandwidth to pursue solutions.
In the hunt for a solution, we began experimenting with innovations officers working for battalion executive officers on commander-identified priorities, with minimal additional duties outside this role. These personnel focused on refining capability gaps and closing them by establishing partnerships and connective tissue with existing teams across both the Department of Defense and the civilian sector. We found that soldiers could generate simple and effective solutions to real-world problems once they were given time, resources, and permissions. Since they worked at the point of friction, and were driven by the urgency of upcoming deployments, their cycle time and focus on desirability and feasibility let them bypass the lengthy delays inherent in enterprise-level programs. Further, we found that as we gained experience communicating our needs to private-sector and public partners, they became more responsive and effective in addressing our use cases.
This initial experience led to the conclusion that formalizing this role, establishing a training curriculum, and building the infrastructure needed for this idea to scale can have a transformative impact on the pursuit of Army objectives.
Scaling the Concept
The first step the Army must take toward driving institutional change with an innovation-officer model is challenging the service’s definition of success. If the Army’s investment priorities can be deduced from its cross-functional teams, the present system reveals a tendency toward large-scale weapons programs, like the next-generation combat vehicle. While the Army does not need to pivot all its resource allocations, it does need to fix its antiquated business processes and close daily technology gaps. This requires setting conditions for efforts that take small steps forward toward goals like greater supply chain efficiency and automating internal processes.
This expanded lens does not mean that we should encourage frivolous development initiatives. Instead, we should demand all our capability development pilots have strong business cases that eliminate waste, reduce distracting mission requirements, and add value for commanders by aligning with mission accomplishment. This approach, borrowing from private-sector investment criteria, allows our innovation strategies to prioritize tangible outcomes and clear value delivery, as anything not generating value as measured against the mission and commanders’ intent is wasting taxpayer dollars.
Creating duty positions for innovation officers does not mean establishing a new branch. Such a decision would delay progress for years, become hampered by existing talent-management challenges, and risk moving innovation officers away from frontline challenges. On the contrary, the aim should be minimizing barriers to entry so we can allow these personnel to solve problems as soon as possible, while providing the flexibility needed to maneuver between forward-deployed elements and external resources. Accordingly, we can minimize administrative noise through a bifurcated talent model, providing either an Additional Skill Identifier or a specialty code for personnel with entrepreneurial and digital skills. These specially selected and well-trained servicemembers would be managed by their service chiefs using the Defense Innovation Board’s “Workforce Now” recommendations.
The next risk we must circumvent is that of commanders under-leveraging these personnel or micromanaging the innovation process. While commanders are responsible for communicating their intent, they must understand that tools like scrum and the lean startup are most effective when the nuanced elements of a project are governed by self-organizing teams. Commanders play a vital role, setting a clear vision and trusting their personnel to serve as fire-and-forget resources, checking in for key milestones but otherwise allowing a degree of independence that is atypical in Army culture as they iterate to success. This unique autonomy, and expertise, would let them balance exposure to unit problems with maneuvering around a disconnected ecosystem. A key step in meeting these requirements is training leaders to best leverage these resources, using tools like seminars with private-sector CEOs sharing best practices.
The enlisted and officer personnel chosen as innovation officers could be trained to achieve two primary goals: understanding the defense innovation ecosystem and applying entrepreneurial tools to launch capabilities. The Army could make immediate progress toward these outcomes by using free resources from interagency and interservice partners like NavalX for design-thinking and scrum training, AFWERX to understand startup engagement, I-Corps for lean-startup methods, and the National Security Innovation Network for startup fellowships and hackathon experience. Soldiers trained to navigate the innovation ecosystem would become liaisons between host commands and the Pentagon, creating dozens or even hundreds of connection points for tasks like mentoring Hacking for Defense classes, networking within partners at universities, hosting hackathons, and providing user feedback for development partners from academia, federally funded research and development centers, or firms awarded small business innovation research grants.
Once these personnel gain experience, they could assist their commands by developing and executing innovation-strategy roadmaps to sequence capability development efforts against commander priorities and existing resources. These roadmaps could be designed to integrate the vision of leaders at Army Futures Command and the unique challenges of operational units. As innovators narrow their efforts to specific capability gaps, they could be supported through immersion in incubators or working with private-sector mentors.
As the Army cultivates senior leaders with these entrepreneurial skills, or recruits civilians with extensive private-sector experience, we could normalize chief innovation officers at the division level and their special-operations equivalents. These personnel could use their experience maturing capabilities from initial idea to deployed reality to mentor a portfolio of junior innovation officers, while developing a vision for their command’s future technology and assisting with enterprise-level policy development. Since these skills are not trained by existing military systems, personnel must have access to private-sector training and broadening assignments, like training with industry or working in startup incubators.
The Pentagon has a chance to accelerate innovation efforts, if as an institution, it is willing to trust junior leaders to build our military, instead of just working within it. Empowering defense entrepreneurs to navigate and leverage existing programs, while protecting their time and providing them resources, would create enterprise-level value at startup costs.
While there are real challenges to achieving this goal, the first several steps can occur at minimal expense or additional risk. For example, the Army can ask for branch-immaterial volunteers for a pilot program using existing curriculum from interagency partners to establish training baselines, before partnering these volunteers with experienced mentors. The initial feedback from this cohort, as they work to close capability gaps and synchronize Army Futures Command and their host command’s priorities, can inform future iterations and resource requests, allowing the Army to adapt the program to meet customer needs.
Over time, military recruiting efforts can be complemented by onboarding civilian-sector talent through direct-hire programs, creating a new opportunity for service. The military has acknowledged the need to use direct commissions for cyber-branch skills, and the same approach can be used to close digital and entrepreneurial talent gaps. Versions of this approach have been used to onboard skilled private-sector leaders as government civilians, and would attract the technologists and startup entrepreneurs that the Pentagon has struggled to attract, while giving them a level of context and engagement with the program that other solutions cannot replicate. While initial recruiting for this effort can emphasize veterans with relevant civilian-sector experience, opening this to the broader civilian community could be done smartly by integrating lessons from the Special Forces 18 x-ray program.
Military service inherently involves an incredible degree of trust. We train young soldiers and officers so we can trust them, when we put them on the front lines, to make critical decisions to protect American national security. Perhaps it is time to let them lead the way in the innovation fight, too.