Innovation at Speed – when you have 2 million employees

Success no longer goes to the country that develops a new fighting technology first, but rather to the one that better integrates it and adapts its way of fighting…Our response will be to prioritize speed of delivery, continuous adaptation, and frequent modular upgrades. We must not accept cumbersome approval chains, wasteful applications of resources in uncompetitive space, or overly risk-averse thinking that impedes change.

If you read these quotes, you’d think they were from a CEO who just took over a company facing disruption from agile startups and a changing environment. And you’d be right. Although in this case the CEO is the Secretary of Defense. And his company has 2 million employees.


In January, Secretary of Defense Mattis released the 2018 National Defense Strategy. This document tells our military – the Department of Defense – what kind of adversaries they should plan to face and how they should plan to use our armed forces. The National Defense Strategy is the military’s “here’s what we’re going to do,” to implement the executive branch’s National Security Strategy. The full version of the National Defense Strategy is classified; but the 10-page unclassified summary of this strategic guidance document for the U.S. Defense Department is worth a read.

Since 9/11 the U.S. military focused on defeating non-nation states (ISIS, al-Qaeda, et al.) The new National Defense Strategy states that we need to prepare for competition between major powers, calling out China and Russia explicitly as adversaries, (with China appearing to be the first.) Secretary Mattis said, “Our competitive advantage has eroded in every domain of warfare.”

While the Defense Strategy recognizes the importance of new technologies e.g. autonomous systems and artificial intelligence – the search is no longer for the holy grail of a technology offset strategy. Instead the focus is on global and rapid maneuver capabilities of smaller, dispersed units to “increase agility, speed, and resiliency .. and deployment … in order to stand ready to fight and win the next conflict.” The goal is to make our military more “lethal, agile, and resilient.”

The man with a lot of fingerprints on this document is the Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. Shanahan came from Boeing, and his views on innovation make interesting reading.

“The DoD must become less averse to risk” is something you’ve rarely heard in the government. Yet, Shanahan said, “Innovation is messy, if the (defense) department is really going to succeed at innovation, we’re going to have to get comfortable with people making mistakes.”

All of this means that significant changes will be needed in the Department of Defense’s culture and policies.  But now the change agents and innovation insurgents who have been fighting to innovate from the bottom up at Office of Naval Research, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, etc., will have the support all the way to the Secretary of Defense.

The innovation language in this document is pretty mind blowing – particularly the summary on page 10. It’s almost as they’ve been reading the posts Pete Newell and I have written on the Red Queen Problem and the Innovation Pipeline.

This document, combined with the split of Acquisition and Logistics, (the office responsible for buying equipment for the military), from Research and Engineering will enable the DoD to better connect with private industry to get technology integrated into the defense department. The last time the country mobilized private industry at scale was the Cold War.

As you read the excerpts below from the 2018 National Defense Strategy imagine the shockwaves this would send through any large company.  This is a pretty unprecedented document for the military.

on page 3
“…Maintaining the Department’s technological advantage will require changes to industry culture, investment sources, and protection across the National Security Innovation Base. “

on page 4
“Defense objectives include: …Continuously deliver performance with affordability and speed as we change Departmental mindset, culture, and management systems;

on page 5
Foster a competitive mindset. To succeed in the emerging security environment, our Department and Joint Force will have to out-think, out-maneuver, out-partner, and out-innovate revisionist powers, rogue regimes, terrorists, and other threat actors. We will expand the competitive space while … reforming the Department’s business practices for greater performance and affordability

on page 7
Cultivate workforce talent. … Cultivating a lethal, agile force requires more than just new technologies and posture changes; …it depends on the ability of our Department to integrate new capabilities, adapt warfighting approaches, and change business practices to achieve mission success. The creativity and talent of the American warfighter is our greatest enduring strength, and one we do not take for granted.
…A modern, agile, information-advantaged Department requires a motivated, diverse, and highly skilled civilian workforce. We will emphasize new skills and complement our current workforce with information experts, data scientists, computer programmers, and basic science researchers and engineers…The Department will also continue to explore streamlined, non-traditional pathways to bring critical skills into service, expanding access to outside expertise, and devising new public-private partnerships to work with small companies, start-ups, and universities.

on page 10
The current bureaucratic approach, centered on exacting thoroughness and minimizing risk above all else, is proving to be increasingly unresponsive. We must transition to a culture of performance where results and accountability matter.

Deliver performance at the speed of relevance. Success no longer goes to the country that develops a new fighting technology first, but rather to the one that better integrates it and adapts its way of fighting…. Current processes are not responsive to need; the Department is over-optimized for exceptional performance at the expense of providing timely decisions, policies, and capabilities to the warfighter. Our response will be to prioritize speed of delivery, continuous adaptation, and frequent modular upgrades. We must not accept cumbersome approval chains, wasteful applications of resources in uncompetitive space, or overly risk-averse thinking that impedes change. Delivering performance means we will shed outdated management practices and structures while integrating insights from business innovation.

Organize for innovation. The Department’s management structure and processes are not written in stone, they are a means to an end–empowering the warfighter with the knowledge, equipment and support systems to fight and win. Department leaders will adapt their organizational structures to best support the Joint Force. If current structures hinder substantial increases in lethality or performance, it is expected that Service Secretaries and Agency heads will consolidate, eliminate, or restructure as needed.


Up to now innovation within the Department of Defense has been the province of a small group of insurgents, each doing heroic efforts. Now innovation at speed has become a nation’s priority.  Culture change is hardest in the middle of a large organization. It will be interesting to see how each agency in the Department of Defense (and its contractors) adopts the strategy or whether the bureaucratic middle kills it/waits it out. Time will tell whether it provides real change, but this is a great start.

3 Responses

  1. There seems to be closer alignment in many of the world’s forces with entrepreneurial ways of thinking, though I do recall the flattening on management structures in the UK’s Royal Air Force happened overnight during the Falklands (Malvinas) conflict.

    Last year I worked with the US University of Foreign Affairs and Cultural Studies at Fort Leavenworth to develop their new red team leader / critical (and creative) thinking programme. Most of my input relied on the UK Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Guidance, plus of course the EU EntreComp competency framework.

    Interesting times for those of us who continue to challenge norms!

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  2. Not surprising… Col. Mattis is a Marine. And only the Marines adopted the ideas of Col. John Boyd (despite the fact that he was Air Force). Robert Coram’s biography of him, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot that Changed the Art of War, is fascinating. More so, the OODA Loop and his theory of warfare.

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  3. There are not that many organizations in the world with 1,000,000+ employees, so change management is more of a challenge. There are several in China of course, such as Sinopec, PetroChina etc. . Are there any lessons to be learned from the Chinese megacorp failures/successes ?

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