A Simple 3-Step Plan For Fostering Military Innovation


In the same way that service members and veterans train to become better soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines, they can train to become better innovators. Innovation is not a flash of brilliance, doesn’t have to be expensive, and it’s not the secret sauce of select companies in Silicon Valley. Innovation is a skill that anyone can develop. It’s the activity of rapid experimentation with a clear measure of improvement.

The military often describes innovation as something to be bought or sold; it’s a new generation of technology or an upgraded weapons system. Skills, on the other hand, are developed with practice. Marksmanship is improved on the firing range. Some are better marksmen than others, but anyone is capable of improving with practice. The same is true of innovation.

Below are three foundational building blocks for an innovation training plan.  They can be implemented tomorrow by anyone interested in a more innovative organization.

Find the motivation to train.

Why bother to train unless the training will pay off? The foundation of an innovation training plan is the mindset that improvement is possible.

In what's known as the PERTS lab, Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck and her team have shown the benefit of believing that one’s talents can grow over time. Whether the human brain is in fact capable of growth, Dweck has found the mere belief that abilities are flexible leads to increased performance. She labels this belief a “growth mindset,” the opposite is a “fixed mindset.” Dweck has found the positive effects of a growth mindset everywhere from athletics to math classes. The effects come in part from the view that challenges are opportunities to be overcome, not obstacles to be avoided. Taking on challenges provides a learning opportunity and the potential for growth.

Anyone who has trained for a physical competition has thought the same way. The marathon runner begins training with the belief, spoken or not, that logging miles on the road will lead to better running during the race.

A growth mindset may be more important for innovation than for running. The essence of innovation is rapid experimentation. Most experiments fail, at least in the sense that they do not solve an innovator’s problem. A growth mindset supplies the motivation to start experimenting in the first place because it frames failure as the key learning. The commitment to continue experimenting after many failures — having the “grit” to keep working over months or years — is key to innovating in areas with no easy solution.

Encourage failure that leads to learning.

We would rather be hero than goat, preferring an activity that is esteemed, or respected by others, to one that is ridiculed. Because experimentation and failure go so closely together, whether failure is esteemed is a limiting factor on innovation. Esteem can come from multiple directions: above from a leader, below from subordinates, or laterally from peers. All organizations, military or civilian, get the behavior they esteem. If praise is given for avoiding mistakes, members of an organization will stick to skills with which they are comfortable while avoiding activities they have not yet mastered. If praise is given for experimenting with new ideas, innovation will follow.

When Silicon Valley’s fastest-moving companies describe an “innovative culture,” they mean a culture that esteems failure in the service of learning. Facebook employs “culture warriors” to remind its team members of getting esteem right. Companies like IDEO have banned the word “failure” altogether. Others have embraced the mantra of “fail fast.”

Praise of failure does not come naturally for those with military experience, who do not need to be reminded that it can cost lives or waste taxpayer dollars. Yet, we are also prone to confuse what is “comfortable” with what is “safe.” When the military is fighting a new type of warfare — counterinsurgency, for example — familiar methods of fighting may be more dangerous than trying something new.

To lay the foundation for innovation, the military can create safe spaces in which to experiment for the sake of learning. Exercises and wargames are two examples. Wargames are not new, but what defines an innovative wargame is the esteem of failure during the wargame.

Prototype fast.

If innovation results when rapid experimentation meets a clearly defined measure of improvement, which of the two is more important? Measures of improvement are usually not clearly defined; what does “improving national security” actually look like? What does “better government” mean? Should an innovator focus first on defining a measure of improvement or beginning to experiment?

The lead designer of Google Glass, Steve Lee, was asked to build a one-of-a-kind hardware product at a company whose strong suit is software. Lee and his team did not know what problems they were trying to solve: computing problems, ergonomic problems, hardware limitations, or all of the above. To begin, he wired a set of glasses to a computer. He threw the computer in a backpack and wore the ensemble around the Google campus. Lee told Fast Company in a May 2012 article: “I mean, I had no previous experience with wearable computers beyond, like, a watch. So from day one, I started putting these devices onto my face and understanding the ergonomics and the social factors and comfort issues beyond just what kind of cool functions we could add to the system.”

Lee would eventually create dozens of prototypes and hundreds of variations of Google Glass. But the initial prototypes allowed him and his team to learn what problems were the most important to solve, such as how a user could best interact with the device (swipes of the finger rather than voice commands), and where to store the information in the field of vision. As Lee’s story shows, the first step in the learning process is defining what exactly counts as improvement. Experimentation is the means to begin this process of learning.

The initial prototype of Google Glass was an example of a “minimum viable product,” or MVP. As Eric Ries describes in “The Lean Startup,” entrepreneurs are better off releasing an incomplete product rather than something fully polished. A product, once released, begins the process of learning as users interact with the product and give feedback. For a military innovator, an MVP can be broadly defined as any policy or tactic leading to a change of behavior.

Together, the three blocks define a new way of thinking about innovation: It is a skill to be developed. When the belief that problems can be solved meets a clear measure of improvement and the opportunity for rapid experimentation, human ingenuity takes over the rest.

The skill of innovation is more important than ever as the global security environment and economy change at an increasing pace. Veterans and service members can start developing the skill now. We have been comfortable with training since day one; we need to expand the training mindset to include innovation.

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos

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Bellavia survived the intense enemy fire and went on to single-handedly kill five insurgents as he cleared a three-story house in Fallujah during the iconic battle for the city. For his bravery that day, President Trump will present Bellavia with the Medal of Honor on Tuesday, making him the first living Iraq war veteran to receive the award.

In an interview with Task & Purpose, Bellavia recalled that the house where he fought insurgents was dark and filled with putrid water that flowed from broken pipes. The battle itself was an assault on his senses: The stench from the water, the darkness inside the home, and the sounds of footsteps that seemed to envelope him.

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(U.S. Army/Pvt. Stephen Peters)

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After many weeks of fighting there and at Mindanao, he was finally captured by the Japanese and spent the next several years languishing under brutal conditions in Filipino and Japanese World War II POW camps.

Now, having just turned 100 years old, the Antioch resident has been recognized for his 42-month ordeal as a prisoner of war, thanks to the efforts of his friends at the Brentwood VFW Post #10789 and Congressman Jerry McNerney.

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(U.S. Marine Corps/Staff Sgt. Andrew Ochoa)

Editor's Note: This article by Gina Harkins originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

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The North Carolina-based Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, will test drones, robots and other high-tech equipment at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center near Butlerville, Indiana, in August.

They'll spend weeks weaving through underground tunnels and simulating fires in a mock packed downtown city center. They'll also face off against their peers, who will be equipped with off-the-shelf drones and other gadgets the enemy is now easily able to bring to the fight.

It's the start of a four-year effort, known as Project Metropolis, that leaders say will transform the way Marines train for urban battles. The effort is being led by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, based in Quantico, Virginia. It comes after service leaders identified a troubling problem following nearly two decades of war in the Middle East: adversaries have been studying their tactics and weaknesses, and now they know how to exploit them.

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(Reuters/Carlos Barria)

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Trump told reporters he was signing an executive order for the sanctions amid tensions between the United States and Iran that have grown since May, when Washington ordered all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil.

Trump also said the sanctions would have been imposed regardless of the incident over the drone. He said the supreme leaders was ultimately responsible for what Trump called "the hostile conduct of the regime."

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