Why the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum Matters: Peripheral Networks & Innovation

October 21, 2013

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If you follow the military blogosphere, you’ve probably heard something about the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF2013), which convened its first conference in Chicago over Columbus Day weekend. Every attendee will tell you DEF2013 was a smashing success, but does it have any broader significance for the Department of Defense? Does it create any value?

We at the DEF board believe that it does. Armed forces have long depended on informal networks to generate fresh thinking. DEF is only the latest of such networks, and could potentially become one of the most powerful.

Let’s back up and talk about innovation. The rate of technological innovation is dramatically accelerating, and we’ve all seen the fierce struggle in the private sector to keep up with such rapid change. Firms have adopted radically new organizational structures to keep pace, and it’s no longer a surprise when plucky startups like Google or Twitter unseat established giants like IBM or Microsoft. Firms must innovate or die, but as Clayton Christensen argues in The Innovator’s Dilemma, this poses a real challenge for established players. Firms essentially have one job: to deliver ever-better products that satisfy the expectations of both customers and shareholders. The problem is that disruptive new technologies are so unexpected that they actually clash with existing values. There is little market for them, initial products are clumsy, and a lot of learning has to take place before they begin to show their real value. For those reasons, established firms are lousy at disruptive innovation. Such innovation almost always begins elsewhere, in the form of new startups. Established firms are only able to develop disruptive innovations when they spin off devoted sub-organizations to tackle the job, according to Christensen.

This isn’t good news for the Department of Defense, one of the largest and most hierarchical organizations on the planet. Unlike the private sector, we can’t let the market do the heavy lifting for us. We can’t simply let the Department of Defense die, and we can’t look to a startup to fight our enemies. In the past, we’ve compensated for our organizational rigidity by throwing an ungodly amount of resources at problems, but that’s not viable in today’s economy. Even if it once was, it’s hard to applaud a model that measures program life cycles in decades and cost overruns in the tens of billions.

So here’s the dilemma: the Department of Defense needs innovative thinking, but innovation is notoriously difficult to do within the straitjacket of bureaucracy.

One solution is to form informal networks outside formal organizational structures in which innovative thinking can occur. That can be as simple as a few friends drawing sketches on bar napkins or trying new tactics, techniques, and procedures on the training range. Over time, these ad hoc networks can push ideas back into formal channels. Military journals provide formalized but still peripheral networks in which innovators can inject fresh thinking into the mainstream.

Sometimes these ad hoc networks take on a life of their own, relentlessly pushing new thinking on a stale organization. In some cases, the organization eventually recognizes their value and draws them in. Such was the case with the German General Gerhard von Scharnhorst, who was eventually entrusted with reforming the Prussian military after the disastrous battle at Jena. In addition to creating the professional military staff, Scharnhorst and his network acquainted the world with a promising Prussian officer named Carl von Clausewitz. In other cases, these networks of “Young Turks” are less welcome. Billy Mitchell was ultimately court-martialed for his intemperate advocacy of airpower in the interwar years. Fortunately for his fellow airmen, the development of airpower theory was able to continue through the 1930s in the Air Corps Tactical School, a formal structure that nonetheless had enough autonomy to stay under the radar. Although airpower still faced a painful learning curve in World War II, the pre-war activities of these loyal dissidents laid the groundwork for airpower to develop into a finely honed instrument of war.

The Internet has multiplied and empowered these peripheral spaces. Social networking allows water cooler conversations to span the globe. Blogs permit a faster publishing and discussion cycle than traditional journals. In 1999, Platoon Leader and Company Command created informal networks where young commanders could collaboratively learn from each other’s experience. Small Wars Journal began in 2005, redefining what a military journal could be. In 2012 the Disruptive Thinkers movement began, with chapters in multiple cities where thoughtful military personnel could congregate to discuss new ideas.

The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum is the latest iteration of these peripheral networks, and it holds unique potential. With its focus on innovation, DEF attracts those who value creativity and see the world in a different light. The DEF2013 conference brought these individuals together, providing them with new opportunities for discovery and collaboration. By drawing on diverse experiences in the military and private sector, participants were able to identify and propagate best practices for the hard work of creating change within the Department of Defense. LCDR “BJ” Armstrong, for example, gave a powerful talk (starts 1:13:45) on what today’s young leaders can learn from Lieutenant William Sims and the naval gunnery revolution he precipitated at the dawn of the 20th century.  That is ultimately what DEF is about: equipping entrepreneurial young leaders to be effective change-makers in their formal organizations. Its posture is not adversarial but complementary.

With time, DEF has the potential to become an “idea engine” to introduce fresh thinking into the Department of Defense. As things stand, a young innovator with a good idea faces a daunting challenge. He or she must build an alliance of stakeholders, pitch the idea to senior leaders, find champions, and push the idea through the bureaucracy. DEF will help facilitate this informal process. As its reputation grows and it forms more relationships with both young innovators and senior leaders, DEF will be seen as honest broker. It will give innovators a creative playground, provide a safe environment for failure and iteration, identify the most promising ideas, and connect innovators with the decision-makers who have authority to execute their ideas and who stand to benefit from them. DEF members have already presented some intriguing ideas. Two Air Force nurses proposed a currency program to keep nurse supervisors proficient in their primary tasks, while a Navy LT showcased a suicide prevention app that keeps high-risk troops in continuous contact with mental health professionals through an interactive journal. DEF is a forum where such ideas can get a fair hearing, and the best ideas can get noticed.

There is no guarantee this will work, but it is certainly worth trying, especially at a time when budget constraints are straining existing processes to the point of failure. DEF is an experiment; its board will proudly admit that. Innovators have a saying, which grinds against conventional bureaucratic wisdom: “Fail fast and fail often.” Every failure is an opportunity for learning, refinement, and iteration. Every attendee at DEF practiced this rapid innovation cycle in the context of small groups, and most will tell you it is both challenging and exhilarating. As an organization, DEF is on the same journey.

We have a long journey ahead and no doubt a lot of learning, but so far so, so good. If nothing else, we threw one heck of a conference at a time when the government was shutdown, the money was gone, and conference travel was all but banned. That was no small accomplishment. It suggests that when the system is failing, stepping outside it might not be such a bad thing.


Maj. Mark Jacobsen (USAF) is a C-17 pilot, Middle East specialist, and strategist.

Maj. Nate Finney (USA) is a strategist, founder of the Strategy Development Foundation, and a member of the Infinity Journal’s Special Advisory Group.

LT Ben Kohlmann (USN) is an F/A-18 pilot who works for the CNO’s rapid innovation cell. He is the founder of Disruptive Thinkers and the cofounder of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum.

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