How The Marine Corps Builds an Innovation Culture

marine-corps-logoJennifer Edgin is the Chief Technology Officer of the Intelligence Division at the Headquarters of the Marine Corps. As the Senior Technical Advisor to the Director of Intelligence, she is responsible for building and infusing new technologies within the Marine Corps Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Enterprise (MCISRE). Jennifer is one the “innovation insurgents” inside the Department of Defense driving rapid innovation. Here’s her story of the Lean innovation accelerator she’s built for the Marines.


If you asked 100 people to describe a United States Marine, they would probably use words such as “Warrior,” “Fierce,” “Patriot,” “Honorable,” and “Tough.” Marine Corps culture transcends generations and is rooted in the values of courage, honor, and commitment.  Marines are known for adapting to change and overcoming obstacles and adversity to meet new mission requirements continuously.  Three years ago, Marine Corps Intelligence outlined a mission to harness the disruptions occurring in the new frontier of warfare, the Electronic battlefield. To achieve this mission, we established a framework that leveraged Marine Corps tenacity, agility, and adaptability to create a persistent culture of innovation.

One of our primary goals in establishing this framework was to keep the user front and center, and to quickly deliver solutions to their challenges. To achieve this, we stood up the Marine Corps Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Enterprise (MCISRE) Accelerator. Like a tech startup accelerator, the MCISRE Accelerator assembles a cohort of active duty Marines of all ranks, experiences, and disciplines and pairs them with developers, designers, and mentors through a 12-week “Design—Develop—Deploy” cycle.  Marines are taught tools and methodologies from the Lean Startup, Design Thinking, and Service Design practices, which are then used to zero in on a problem; identify the target customer segment; validate the problem and solution by “getting out of the building” and submitting their problem and concept designs to peers for feedback, designing wireframes and prototypes, developing a minimum viable product (MVP); and finally pitch the MVP to the Director of Intelligence (DIRINT) and other leaders and stakeholders for a go/no-go decision for release.

Over the course of the last year, we have carefully measured and monitored our framework so we could quickly identify what was working, what was not working, and tune accordingly so that the end result created value for both the Marines in the cohort and the larger community of Marine Corps Intelligence. Below are the top 5 factors we found are necessary to successfully innovate.

1. Understand Your Customer and Teach Them to Solve Real Problems
Innovation begins and ends with understanding the customer and the specific problems they are facing. Too often in government, problems are talked about in generalizations, users are not part of the design and development of solutions, and anecdotal information gets passed around without data to validate it until at some point it becomes “truth” and is accepted without verification.

distributed-common-ground-surface-systemOne of the most difficult exercises for our cohorts is distilling “world-hunger”-level challenges into discrete, focused problems we can solve in 12 weeks. We learned that if you cannot define your problem in one sentence that a 7 year-old can understand, you don’t understand the problem.  If you want to create innovative solutions, you must start by defining real problems. Real problems—when defined properly—have metrics that quantify the scope, magnitude, and impact.

Before we launched the MCISRE Accelerator, we conducted site visits, and spoke with Marines from around the world to hear from them what wasn’t working and what was.  After our site visits, we identified common issues across each of the sites, disciplines, and ranks, and launched data surveys to explore and quantify problems.  The data showed us how users were currently performing a mission, where deficits existed in enabling technology and processes, and which anecdotal problems were actual problems and which were not. We then compared the results of the surveys with the site survey interviews and prepared a list of the top issues and challenges facing Marine Corps Intelligence. When we launched the MCISRE Accelerator, we used this information to quickly move the focus of the cohort from the world-hunger view to zeroing in one or two key issues that caused major disruptions in their tasking and productivity.

One of the biggest benefits to this process was that it helped shift the focus of the Marines from nebulous systems-centric thinking—“The network architecture sucks”—to identifying specific pain points impeding their productivity on the job. Because the tools and methodologies we use are simple but highly effective for analysis and problem solving, many of our cohort Marines take them back to their units so that they can reframe problems within their communities of practice.

2. Always Be Shipping
If vision without execution is hallucination, frameworks that don’t produce tangible products breed insanity.  Within the MCISRE we have two frameworks that engage Marines. Our yearly technical design meeting (TDM) brings together Marines to identify and address challenges and issues across the MCISRE. The outputs of the technical design meeting are used as primers for defining the problem themes that each MCISRE Accelerator cohort will work on.  The MCISRE Accelerator pairs Marines with developers and designers who work collaboratively both in person and virtually to design, prototype, and then develop and build a minimum viable product (MVP) in 12 weeks.  These two frameworks allow us to continuously innovate from within, creating a pipeline of challenges to be solved over the long term and implementing against them iteratively and quickly.  This rapid implementation creates real metrics that allow us to create quick, measurable value and kill bad ideas before too much time, money, and human capital has been spent on them. Rapid implementation also allows leadership to make quicker decisions on where, when, and how to apply resources.marine-map-photo

3.  Always Be Measuring
Big idea fairies live everywhere, sometimes for a very long time. This can be particularly true in the government where the acquisition lifecycle imposes “shipbuilding timelines” on information technology systems. Successful innovation requires one simple act: always be measuring. Using the Lean Startup methodology to build, learn, and measure in a 12-week cycle provides quantifiable data and user feedback that allows us to validate problem/solution fit quickly. By the time our cohort is pitching to the DIRINT and other leaders and stakeholders, the minimum viable product (MVP) has metrics that validate its value to users as well as prevent redundancy, loss of, or misalignment of capability, funding, and other key resources.

4.  To think differently…be different
Most meetings within the government involve PowerPoint, a conference table, and a bunch of subject matter experts espousing the relative merits or demerits of a point. These meetings can last hours to weeks, and at the end, there might be nothing tangible to show. When we set out to create this culture of innovation, we knew that to get people to do things differently, we had to get them to think differently.

Our first mission value was to create an experience for our Marines, stakeholders, and mentors that was counter to the typical meetings they were used to and focused on establishing a co-creative environment where everyone’s input had value regardless of rank, experience, and skill.  Our technical design meetings and Accelerators use little technology; are not set up as lectures; encourage jeans and your favorite T-shirt; and require constant, active participation. When you walk into our rooms, you will see Marines on their feet, Post-It notes and markers in hand, diagramming, sketching, and plotting furiously on white boards, flip charts, and any other available surface.  They paper the room with problem statements, lean canvases, journey maps, value proposition canvases, process flows, wireframes, and Pixar-worthy storyboards. By the end of the week, you can walk the walls and see the progression of problem to solution in their words, through their eyes, from their point of view. This process takes Marines outside of the normal rank structure that they are accustomed. It is admittedly uncomfortable for them at first. But within hours of the kickoff, these simple tactics result in ideation, collaboration, and production that is evident to them and fundamentally changes how they approach problem solving and conduct meetings when they return to their units.marines-hit-the-beach

5.  Do It Again… and Again… and Again
With any new skill, repetition is important.  Marines don’t learn close order drill with a one-time explanation, they spend countless hours on the drill field until they have mastered it.  We apply the same repetition mindset for our innovation methodology because it creates an environment of continuous learning.  With every repetition, we learn more about our problems and how we can solve them.  We learn which solutions are working and which ones are not.  We learn what techniques for engaging Marines are working and which ones are not. We learn how the operating environment is evolving.  Continuous learning is the objective of our innovation activities, and it is more powerful than the solution itself.  Learning means successes, learning means failures, learning means growth.

November 10, 2016 marks the 241th anniversary of the formation of the Marine Corps; 241 years of adapting to changes and 241 years of innovation. Innovation does not mean that it has to come from external entities.  Sometimes you just need to put Marines in jeans, challenge them to think differently, and give them another opportunity to adapt and overcome.

6 Responses

  1. Semper Fi Steve! Love this article and very true… Whether it’s today’s Marines, back when I was in or those that came before me…

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  2. fantastic real world application of the best of the best innovation techniques. LOTS of lessons learned her. Wisdom.

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  3. This really stuck with me “Do It Again… and Again… and Again”. I’ve been applying the lean-startup methodologies ever since I first read about it.

    But it’s only been through constant repetition that the underlying theory has crystallized within me. Repetition makes it second nature. I’m not quite there yet, but soon enough.

    I’ve failed, and failed. But in time…

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  4. I especially loved number 4: To think differently, be different. Having people together in a room with markers, stickies and co-creating solutions is fantastic. What tools might you recommend to help create this environment online, when teams are geographically dispersed? Current tools easily display presentations, allow for comments and polls. But I’ve found that for the level of collaboration described in this article, you need a different set of tools. I’d love to hear some best practices around this.

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  5. Thanks for putting meat on the bones of how you put this together Steve. Great learning and wish we could bottle it and send it to Corporate Australia. An Innovation culture for Business Model Innovation is my focus all the way over here !!

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  6. You won’t be able to fix the Marine Corps without removing TIS and TIG requirements towards promotion.

    The Marine Corps must give smarter people greater agency and wide mandates within the system in order to achieve maximum utility in strategic thought development.

    Like

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