Military leaders universally acknowledge the value of innovation. I’ve never heard a single senior military commander speak negatively about this subject, and most say they would welcome even more innovation. Yet our junior leaders who are most creative and most determined to make their chosen Service better, often feel like they are operating in hostile environments where new ideas are not welcome (for an excellent description of this gap between senior and junior leaders, see Maj Mark Jacobsen’s post from Small Wars Journal). Unfortunately, many of these younger officers and non-commissioned officers grow frustrated by the constant struggle, and either give up or separate. Why does this happen? How can we reconcile our expressed desire for more innovation with the hostile environment encountered by our most promising innovators?
The first reason is simply that innovation is inherently difficult. If it weren’t, it would be easier to find, both in and out of the military. But another, more important reason is that cultivating an atmosphere in which innovation can thrive requires leaders to break from the traditional military command culture in several ways. When I commanded an Operations Support Squadron, responsible for providing critical support functions for the base’s flying squadrons, I was determined to promote innovation, though I’d never seen this modelled at the unit level. So I did what any innovator would do – I tried a bunch of ideas. Some of them worked, some of them had no effect, and some of them failed. I learned a lot, from the experience and from the squadron itself, and in hindsight I think there are five keys to cultivating an innovative culture at the unit level: defining the challenge, dismantling the stovepipes, delegating radically, developing a tolerance for failure, and defending your innovators – and their free time.
Define the challenge. Innovation is a means to an end, and it’s the leader’s responsibility to clearly define the challenge that serves as the focus of your organization’s innovation efforts. When disruptive innovation becomes disconnected from a defined purpose, it becomes merely disruption. You can encourage your innovators to propose challenges to address, or come up with them on your own, but ultimately, determining and clearly communicating the objective, purpose, or challenge is the leader’s job.
Dismantle the stovepipes. The best innovations often result from employing an “old” approach in a “new” context. To facilitate this process, leaders must strive to eliminate internal and external stovepipes, and their innovation-stifling effects. First, identify your internal stovepipes; they will be peculiar to each organization, but they are most certainly there. Create cross-functional teams to address specific tasks. Assign project officers outside of their normal “lanes.” Organize social events to maximize interactions across the boundaries of your typical work flow. Then, search for opportunities to expose your organization to outside influences. Leverage “honorary commander” programs with local business leaders, and occasionally invite leaders from other disciplines (business, sports, media, education, etc) to your social functions. The free movement of ideas across these internal and external boundaries is a necessary precondition to innovation.
Delegate radically. Every leadership course you attend, every book you read, will encourage you to delegate. But to institutionalize innovation in your organization, you will have to learn to delegate radically. Subordinate leaders who aren’t empowered can’t innovate, and you should not only give them the authority to act within their defined spheres, but you should also give them some of your own authority. I specifically authorized any of the squadron’s subordinate flight commanders to say “yes” in response to any request from our customers, even when they were committing resources beyond their flights. In exchange, they only had to keep me informed of their actions. The only one in the squadron authorized to tell our customers “no” was me. Empowered in this way, the flight commanders often found ways to make things happen; this also encouraged them to work together, which further broke down our stovepipes.
Develop a tolerance for failure. The path to innovation includes, and is often defined by, the failures that are encountered along the way. Unfortunately, this constitutes the primary obstacle to innovation in the military context. With their reputations, and sometimes their very commands at stake, few commanders have the stomach for failure. The secret to managing these treacherous waters is to fail early, fail small and fail smart. Teach your innovators how to design small-scale experiments for their ideas. Manage the risks of failure by clearly thinking through the consequences beforehand, and show your subordinates how to do the same. Communicate your expectation that failure is a natural part of the process, to both your unit and – more crucially – to your boss. Then demonstrate your tolerance by focusing on the lessons learned from each failure, rather than assigning blame, criticism or punishment.
Defend the innovators – and their free time. If necessary, defending your innovators from your boss will probably come naturally to most leaders. But sometimes you will also have to defend the innovators from themselves. Show them the value of working within the system, and encourage them to take the long view if they become discouraged (for additional tips, see LCDR BJ Armstrong’s remarks from the US Naval Institute blog). Our Services are better served by developing innovators who are savvy enough to know how to survive in the bureaucracy while retaining their inner fire for revolutionary changes. Finally, recognizing that innovation often occurs in the midst of unstructured time, help your junior leaders create “white space” on their calendars. One of the best ways to do this is to ruthlessly trim your organization’s meeting schedule. Cancel meetings that serve no purpose, and limit attendance to only those who have something to contribute. When you must hold a meeting, make sure it’s productive by communicating the purpose, agenda and required outcome beforehand.
None of these principles are new. Most of them are applied, at least in part, by many military leaders. But I’m convinced that employing them collectively, comprehensively and relentlessly will cultivate an environment in which innovation truly thrives. And, by the way, following all of these principles will probably make you more than a little uncomfortable as a commander. If that’s the case, congratulations! You’re well on your way to being a leader of innovators, and in my experience, your innovators will not let you down.
Michael Bob Starr has served in the Air Force for 21 years in a variety of operational, staff and command assignments as a B-1 pilot. Currently the Vice Commander of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, he will report to the Pentagon this summer to begin a tour as Chief of the Strategy Division for Headquarters Air Force.