Intellect and innovation for warfighing capability.


December 8th, 2017 by Luke Morton

Why does innovation matter?

For the last several decades, Australia–a small country with a mid-sized economy–has depended on a small, highly professional and technologically-superior military to maintain an edge over potential adversaries. As we approach the future, however, it seems less certain that we will be able to maintain as great a technological edge even with the support of our allies.

Biologists describe this problem as ‘The Red Queen Hypothesis,’ after the character of the same name In Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking Glass. In it, the Red Queen says to Alice ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.’

She may as well have said it to those of us in the Australian Defence Force. If we want to stay in the same place, let alone improve on our position, we must innovate. The underlying logic to this argument rests with the Theory of Natural Selection.

The Theory of Natural Selection is traditionally thought of as specific to biology, but its four rules can be applied to a wide variety of other domains, like psychology, economics, culture and even warfare.

To illustrate, take the four rules of natural selection and biological evolution, and make minor adjustments for war.

In other words, if we do not innovate, we may bring about our own extinction. The service chiefs seem clear on the importance of innovation.


“A focus on innovation at all levels will harness the creativity of our people… Leaders and supervisors must encourage their people to challenge intelligently and to employ creativity and ingenuity to produce new ways to solve problems and meet their objectives.”

– VADM Tim Barrett, Navy Innovation Statement, 2015

“The people who will win the important fights of the 21st century are not those who have mastered the processes and concepts of last century, or even of today… We need people to think in new ways and see new chances; who seize opportunities to innovate and create winning edges.”

– LTGEN Angus Campbell, Keynote to ASPI National Security Dinner, 2017

“I intend to lead an Air Force… where innovation is normal and openly facilitated.”

– AM Leo Davies, CAF Commander’s Intent, 2015


How prepared are we to innovate?

But innovation cannot simply be declared. Peter Drucker famously said ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast,’ or in other words, strategy fails where behaviour points another way.

This is relevant because we challenge the notion that we are far from a world-class innovative organisation. To illustrate, a few months ago, while discussing the future of our military, a colleague said to one of us:

‘I don’t have time for that future $#!*’

In our experience this attitude is representative of the military mind. It’s not because we are all Luddites who fear or fail to see the benefits of innovation. The problem is that the nature of work (situation) affects our collective behaviour (culture) in a way that impedes our personal motivation and ability to innovate (individual).

At the situational level, military personnel are pragmatic by necessity. The nature of our work is defined by tactical mission sets that specify clear tasks to be completed within constraints.

This impacts our behaviour, because it means there is an extreme focus on finishing the job with what we have at hand and disregarding anything else. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but scaled up to the cultural level it means people who spend some of their time thinking of new ways to do things are considered to have their heads-in-the-clouds. There is clear evidence for this in the disdainful language we use for such people: ‘good ideas fairies.’

Unfortunately, this means at the individual level, people who could and would innovate to our collective benefit are either discouraged from doing so, or not empowered to try.

This actually makes us less creative, because like every other muscle, our brains work according to a simple rule: use it, or lose it.

From flash to bang…

Anecdotally, we know that Australian officers, soldiers, sailors, and airmen have the potential to create a winning edge through innovative solutions. There are many wartime examples. But we cannot gamble our future success on past nostalgia.

Innovative thinking takes practice, and innovations themselves are nothing until they are deployed. Therefore we propose that the ADF could and should implement systematic initiatives for fostering innovative thinking, and helping them through the system. That is, from flash to bang.

Going forward, Part 2 of this series will present a case study of a previous organisational change that offers lessons as to how the ADF can systematise innovation. Part 3 will put forward our vision for becoming the innovative organisation we feel the ADF needs to be, to prepare for the future.

About the author:
Captain Luke Morton is an Australian Army officer with operational experience with TF633.7 (Rotary Wing Group 5) and JTF642.1 (TAG-E). He holds a Bachelor of Business, a Master of Arts (Strategy and Management), and is currently studying towards a Master of Business Administration.

Comments are closed.