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Innovation Toolbox – Innovation: Why do we need it in the military? (Part 1 of 3)

The idea was fantastically, wildly improbable. But like most fantastically, wildly improbable ideas it was at least as worthy of consideration as a more mundane one to which the facts had been strenuously bent to fit.

Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)

Ask any senior military leader today what qualities they want in their people and you will probably hear: innovative thinking, out-of-the-box ideas, and a drive to challenge the status quo. This is equally applicable if you were to consult leaders from the business world. Commercial enterprise, arguably, seeks these qualities and rewards them more-so than the military. The reason for this might be that profit – the ‘bottom-line’ – drives the need to outperform competitors: hence business invests heavily in dynamic recruitment models and ‘innovation’ programs to give their company the much-needed edge. Should the military be any different? If so, why? Does the military promote innovative thinking in the absence of a tangible reward? What is the drive for military leaders to innovate?

Innovation itself has parallel characteristics in civilian enterprise and the military, but both the context, and purpose, are fundamentally different. Innovation is all about making changes to an existing situation by introducing new ideas or methods. It is creative and critical thinking, focused towards a goal. It is more about new concepts, resourcefulness and creating flexibility, than a new technical break-through (although application of new tech requires innovation). In the military, when innovation becomes a cultural practice and a shared mindset, then adaptive action will be the fruit – within the uncertainty and friction in war. A culture of innovation, and the ability to think, becomes the ultimate weapon in the pursuit of victory.

Recent conflicts like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria have blurred popular understanding of the purpose of military force, and the ends towards which it may be employed by government. The context of the military must be accurately understood in order to see where this culture of innovation sits. It is, in fact, argued that the military needs innovation to a much greater extent than business – precisely because of the context in which it is established and positioned to act.

The military is unique in that it is a tool for government, legally empowered to use lethal force in order to compel an adversary towards a desired political outcome. Waging war is a human activity, and humans are required to kill, if necessary, to change the will of an adversary. As such, it should be the last resort. All other avenues of influence (Political, Diplomatic, Economic) should have been pursued, and should not stop, but rather be continued, in concert with the employment of military force – under a unified strategy. Given this purpose, the way a military uses force must be as swift and decisive as possible toward the objectives set for it; and the method by which this force is used must be such that an adversary has minimal opportunity to undermine or deny their achievement.

Understanding the adversary, and how they might innovate (and adapt) should form the foundation for critical thinking in the future fight. Recently, organisations fighting under the banner of ISIS have out-thought the West by leveraging open-source media platforms to rapidly propagate their message and fan recruitment. This enabled global support for their cause to rapidly accumulate among radical groups, and led to an influx of foreign fighters and support. Essentially, they ‘crowdsourced’ supporters through wide and prolific messaging that was popularized through media. Could we have predicted this approach? What could we have done to out-think this action by an adversary?

The myriad of factors present in a military conflict (the Nature of War, as outlined in the Letters from Hamel) play out in the context of the duel between opposing sides. War itself is a clash of wills between forces; a contest between opposing commanders. Each force, once committed, has a set arsenal of capabilities at its disposal – but it is how a commander uses these, that determines whether they are able to attain the upper hand. Killing the enemy, destroying his equipment, and rendering him unable to attain his desired outcome is the aim – the ultimate game of chess – but with life-and-death consequences. Within this duel, you must outperform the enemy in solving the problems before you. You have to do this without all the information (unable to see all the chess pieces), and with an imperfect understanding of their thinking. Thus, being able to innovate is critical, and it must happen at each level of command in the force. It is about the entire team. It is a culture focused on winning.

For this culture to be effective junior leaders have the responsibility to not only create new ideas, but to challenge and develop the ideas of senior leaders to help them make better decisions. DEF aims to challenge and inspire innovative thinking in order to foster this culture, so as to bring this weapon to bear, when next called upon by government. The business sector has recognised the need for this cultural shift, and they have been developing programs to engender this. In the military, we have an obligation to be even better. We must ask ourselves:

  1. Why do we do things the way we currently do?
  2. How adaptable is the enemy and how can we adapt quicker?
  3. Is our team enabled to question and adapt?
  4. How do we lead in the creation of this culture?

This thread on DEF Aus ‘Innovation Toolbox’ series continues, so keep a lookout for:

Part 2: What does innovation look like?

Part 3: What can we learn from civilian innovation programs?


About the author

Jamie Martin is the Deputy Director of DEF Australia. He is an Army Aviation officer and Tiger pilot who has been focusing on strategy during his studies at the Australian Command and Staff College through ANU. He is passionate about encouraging critical thinking and innovation in the ADF.

2 thoughts on “Innovation Toolbox – Innovation: Why do we need it in the military? (Part 1 of 3)

  1. Interesting article Jamie, looking forwards to parts 2 &3. In particular your thoughts on how we best implement innovation from initial trg, all the way through the ACOTC. If start-ups follow the “Fail quickly, fail often” mantra, I fear Defence has gone too far down the “Move cautiously, fail never” path. I think their is opportunity to change this culture but it needs to be driven hard from the top down. DEF and blogs like this are a good start, looking forward to the DEF forum at the end of the year.

  2. Major reform needs to occur in order to drive mindsets away from the often stalemate resembling, motivation deprived attitudes which can occur across all ranks. The mentality that ‘this is the way we have always done it’ or ‘this is how we ran shop at x-y-z unit’ is deeply malignant across the board and detrimental to any change in line with strategic planning no matter what level or work group it occurs at.

    How do we achieve this? The approach needs to be dynamic, and I concur strongly with Darren Bently’s comment on it being a top-down decision, this is vital to ensure prevention of a potential exploitation limit – something which would greatly hinder the support and process of new ideas. Intellectual openess is a value which SHOULD be abided to, without members fearing predjudice resulting from more senior ranks disagreeing with, or not giving due consideration to their proposals.

    For equipment health, we have the system of raising RODUM’s to raise issues and initiate an investigation, followed by development of ways to fix that said fault. We are an organisation that is reliant on more than equipment, the cogs that drive us are thinkers, are ideas. Why not utilise a similar model to implement a structured platform for improving processes, strategy, SOP’s and generally effect positive change to how we operate? A standardised process to fix the many faults that we cannot naively believe either do not exist, or will simply fix themselves given enough neglect over time. It should be foresight, not an incident occuring that serves as a catalyst for organisational change should we wish to maintain our reputation as a modern, respectable armed force.

    As an organisation we tend to note lessons learnt, but often without actually actioning any measures of improvement to fix the underlying issues. We cannot continue diagnosing ailments and failing to provide, or not even attempting to prescribe some cure or treatment for such things.

    The American historian and author Howard Zinn famously stated: “You cannot be neutral on a moving train”. It is this neutrality, this acceptance of situations where reform is most definitely possible that needs to be avoided and discouraged from day-dot in personell, with the overwhelming support of hierarchy right up the chain of command.

    Really interesting article Jamie, looking forward to further submissions along similar lines of discussion!

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