Picasso couldn’t teach his legions of devoted acolytes the mastery of color and composition that differentiates his work. By the same token, true innovation (irrespective of the field of inquiry) can’t be reduced to practice. There are no shortcuts. Sorry Jomini.
But we can create (or at least influence) the conditions under which such flashes of inspiration are likely to manifest. And one of the most important of these conditions is the cross fertilization of ideas. The defense industry presents extra barriers (i.e. security, proprietary information, export restrictions, etc.) to the open, cross-cutting collaboration that provides the seed corn for such innovation hot beds as Silicon Valley. But in a world where competitiveness is increasingly predicated on information-based intellectual capital (as opposed to industrial capital), the companies (and militaries) that sample from the largest pool of ideas will earn an overwhelming strategic advantage.
Following are some additional thoughts on how the Defense establishment can position itself to compete in the all important battlespace of ideas:
1. Explore new approaches to problem identification, problem vetting, and problem solving. To get ahead of the competition, the Defense establishment must accelerate problem AND solution discovery. The best way for this to happen is to place experts with knowledge of the problem space in direct contact with the widest possible cross section of technology subject matter experts (i.e. people who understand the art of the possible). The web is a great vehicle for facilitating this kind of interaction, but it’s not a solution in and of itself. Person to person interaction is far and away the preferred vehicle for facilitating the synergistic group dynamics that underwrite productive brainstorming. Consider by way of example the “innovation flash mob” used by the Nordstrom Innovation Lab to prototype new approaches for improving the customer experience. Check out the following clip…
2. Replace the old industrial model where carefully controlled requirements strictly limit the problem and solution spaces. Life is messy. And contemporary warfare is even messier. It took the British empire over 100 years to learn that imposing “order” on the battlefield only works so long as all the players elect to follow the same set of rules. While we teach improvisation and ingenuity as cornerstones of modern operational art, we continue to plan and equip for wars according to a strictly prescribed (albeit artificial) order. To remain competitive in the irregular warfare environment, the Defense establishment must pursue approaches where more organic problem <-> solution dynamics can emerge, making allowances for the disruptive insights that fail to conform to the “orderly” corporate view of the problem space.
3. I have said it before: problems are the new currency in defense. And job #1 is to actively engage the collective resources of the U.S. (global) tech base to underwrite solutions to these problems. Much has been made of asymmetric advantages enjoyed by terrorists and insurgents in modern global conflicts: speed, agility, invisibility, etc. I would submit that the U.S. enjoys an even more compelling asymmetric advantage – one that, by and large, we have failed to make full use of. The engine that drives the U.S. economic machine is commercial technology innovation. But today, thanks to the Internet, our terrorist and insurgent adversaries enjoy almost equal access to these innovations. DoD must look for opportunities to directly engage the commercial technology marketplace in the problems of Defense. This is easier said than done. By and large, the commercial tech base views Defense as an opaque, inscrutable world, where the barriers to entry eclipse the modest financial returns that a company might expect to realize. The first step to overcoming this impedance mismatch is to educate the commercial tech base (in a non-FedBizOpps kind of way) to the “jobs” that Defense practitioners need to accomplish. In today’s war, our strategic reserve is the commercial tech base. It’s time they joined to fight!