Military Innovation Advice

Leaders seeking to foster a climate of innovation in the military face the challenge of providing the right incentives to motivate their team. In combat environments an intrinsic motivation exists. Convincing a combat unit that their chances of survival will increase if they adapt their tools, techniques, and procedures is easy. When you return home finding the same motivation may be a challenge.

In the corporate world economic incentives for innovation and entrepreneurship naturally exist. Survival of the coolest new gadget, most capable device, most clever idea may lead to wealth and fame. Failure to adapt may lead to bankruptcy. Those economic pressures do not exist in the military. Instead, other pressures often work against the “good-idea fairies.” Often in the military if you come up with a new idea you may be shunned by your peers for trying to “outshine” them or snubbed by your subordinates for trying to “make your mark” before you punch out to your next assignment. The fact that leaders often rotate positions every 1-2 years also creates a problem with innovation sustainability.

In the military, limits to innovation and adoption of new technologies also exist due to budgetary constraints and an overarching goal of maintaining good fiscal stewardship of taxpayer funds. When Congress loosened the purse-strings during OEF and OIF units procured a number of off-the-shelf technologies – resulting in temporary enhancements but also some waste. Now that the fiscal climate has changed how can small units still find ways to innovate and obtain new technologies to enhance their unit’s capabilities?

Based on my experience I would offer the following advice:

1) Timing is everything. Recognize that whatever mark you set out to make is limited to your shelf-life and the timeline of your teammates. Attempting to take on a new project or program as you are nearing the exit will undermine your ability to sustain your project. Unless your team recognizes the value of your effort – they will consider slow-rolling progress for fears that your successor will change course. On a broader scale, knowing your organization’s cycle – what priorities are on the horizon – when there will be space to buffer against the risk of wasted time or effort is key. Backwards planning against when a delivered technology will provide the greatest gain or allow for the greatest adoption will reduce the friction that comes with any new project. People what to know why they should take on extra effort now rather than later.

2) Leader buy-in is a pre-requisite. You get nowhere unless whomever is driving the ship supports your cause. Fostering this buy-in takes time. Often the leader must not only believe in the idea but also your ability to pull a project together to provide whatever deliverable you are seeking on time and on/under budget. I have found that nesting projects inside a boss’s set agenda or priorities is the best way to gain support. Find out what matters to him or her and then seek projects that fall within these lines of effort. You don’t have to wait for your boss to task you with a “requirement” but instead you can and should seek novel ways to solve problems your boss or team may have not fully understood or recognized. That’s your job.

3) We need both transformational and transactional incentives. In the military transformational leadership is a trademark. “Be all you can be” was the motto that drove me to enlist. The best leaders try to inspire a sense of higher purpose in their team. It’s not about what every individual is going to get but the fact that the team, unit, organization will get better. Using that motivation to bring about change should be one’s first choice. Transactional incentives such as prizes, public recognition, time-off etc., can also work but in the military we have to be a bit more creative. Not every effort deserves a reward but people do respond to competition. If you read Peter Diamandis’ recent book Abundance you’ll find many clever ways that the commercial sector and government are leveraging large prizes to foster small business innovation.

4) Understand colors of money and budgets. Budgetary constraints are a key hurdle to overcome. In developing a plan to integrate a new technology you need to either make a tradeoff by retiring an older technology to make way for the expenditure on your new gadget or you need to find new sources of funding. Money exists for research and development as well as procurement – your organization may just have to seek those dollars out. There are plenty of folks that are looking for project sponsors. The military labs such as MIT-Lincoln Labs, Johns Hopkins, DARPA, etc. will work with you if your objectives align.

5) Sustainability. The last piece of advice I would offer is that no matter what new technology you seek to bring into an organization you have to recognize that its shelf-life is limited and it will require backside support. These factors alone often drive most folks not to try. It is daunting to imagine how you can guarantee an effort will continue long after you are gone. To overcome this you have to pick the right teammates to sustain your efforts. You need to be transparent when pitching a project and acknowledge these challenges. Build in budget and resources to ensure that your project is not a flash in the pan.

We always welcome comments to these posts. So if you have advice you think other military communicators could benefit from on this topic, please add your comments below.

3 thoughts on “Military Innovation Advice

  1. Have you ever read Drive by Daniel Pink? It looks at how to incentivize creativity, and I find myself thinking about it all the time. His premise is that external rewards like money, time off, what have you, are good motivators for repetitive tasks that don’t require innovative thinking or new ideas. Want the floor swept faster? Offer a $20 bonus. But if you want to inspire people to be creative (whether it’s commissioning someone to paint a picture, or paying a bounty for patent submissions), extrinsic rewards narrow focus and produce inferior results.

    Creativity and innovation flow instead from intrinsic motivation. He identifies three properties that you need to feel that motivation: Purpose, Autonomy and Mastery.

    If you have Mastery & Purpose, but no autonomy: you’re an expert in your field driven to do it, but you don’t have the authority to accomplish what you want.

    If you have Purpose and Autonomy, but not Mastery: you really want to do a good job, you have the freedom to accomplish your tasks, but you don’t have the skills and training to do them.

    Only with all three of them working in concert will a person feel truly, internally motivated to give you their best work, and their best ideas. These are the people that think about the problems at home and come in with new solutions in the morning.

    Pick it up if you get a chance.

    Liked by 1 person

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