In 1972, a young man dropped out of college after his first semester. He then lingered around campus as a “drop-in,” attending only classes that interested him. For the next 18 months, he learned seemingly obscure skills like the art of calligraphy, a subject that had no practical relevance to his life. The student, of course was Steve Jobs and a decade later his knowledge of calligraphy would help shape the groundbreaking user interface of the Macintosh computer’s operating system.
By studying calligraphy, Steve Jobs engaged in what Clayton Christensen and his coauthors call “discovery activities”. These lack immediately apparent value, yet broaden a person’s horizons, generate ideas, and develop relationships across multiple disciplines. Discovery activities can include associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking. In a study of private sector Chief Executive Officers, Christensen and his partners found that business leaders with a reputation for innovation spent 50% more time on discovery activities than their less-innovative counterparts. Discovery activities bear valuable fruit in ways that cannot be anticipated, forging mental connections and suggesting ideas that would never occur without exploring beyond one’s usual domain.
This finding turns conventional wisdom on its head, particularly for those in the military.
Military leaders are trained in a traditional planning mindset that dictates that one should not embark on a new enterprise without a clear strategic goal and a roadmap detailing intermediate steps to guide the journey. Many leaders insist on seeing an immediate identifiable purpose for every action and expenditure, and see little reason to authorize the spending of time or energy without a clear return on investment. While this mindset seems logical, especially in a constrained budget environment, it leaves little room for discovery activities and excludes some of the most important dynamics of innovation. This same conventional wisdom also sees no value in exploring innovative ideas without a clearly defined problem in view, even though much innovation literature sees problem-finding and solution-finding as parallel activities that each have their own logic but are interwoven in complex ways.
Providing a space for innovative thought and unconventional relationships was one of the driving forces behind the founding of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF) last year. It was designed specifically to provide opportunities for the discovery activities that Christensen, et al identified. While DEF aimed at promoting a culture of innovation within the Department of Defense, its strategic mission was only loosely defined. The founders wanted to create a valuable experience for their peers, but could not identify precisely what that experience would look like. This ambiguity, intrinsic to any entrepreneurial venture, led to push back from skeptics. In the lead-up to the event last October, participants heard complaints about the lack of strategic clarity, the amorphous purpose, and the risk that DEF was putting the cart before the horse.
Then the magic happened. At the DEF2013 conference every participant felt it. We experienced an outpouring of creative energy and reveled in the chance to build friendships with like-minded innovators across diverse communities. Before we flew home, we knew that DEF2013 was a success. Part of the very reason for its successes seemed to be its amorphous nature. The lack of definition allowed DEF to be a thriving, creative environment; participants were able to shape the experience to their desires and needs. Still, it was difficult to explain to those who adhered to the conventional wisdom about innovation. If a skeptic asked us what value DEF2013 added, few of us could have offered a satisfying answer. DEF was a classic discovery activity. In the space of three days, participants were able to experience ALL the activities Christensen, et al described, from associating, questioning, and observing to experimenting and networking outside their usual lane.
The discovery activities that occurred in Chicago coalesced into tangible outputs – projects and relationships that directly benefit the Department of Defense. The founders of these projects attribute their success to DEF, although none of them could have foreseen that success at the time.
For example, Navy Lieutenant Darryl Diptee earned acclaim at DEF for his EVA smartphone application, designed to help those who might be suffering with depression, PTSD, or other mental challenges. The software allows clients and counselors to communicate via encrypted interactive journaling with text, pictures, video and audio notes. Relationships Lieutenant Diptee made at the 2013 DEF conference led to a sequence of breakthroughs, culminating in connections to the Chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, President of CONTACT USA, Master Coaches at the Robbins Research Institute, and multiple Podcast interview opportunities. None of these breakthroughs was likely to happen without DEF.
In the area of leader development, Army Majors Nate Finney and Joe Byerly benefited directly from their time at DEF. As ideation group co-leaders, they brainstormed ideas for improving professional military education. While many of their initial ideas about using social media were failures, they learned that failure and setbacks are integral parts of undertaking new endeavors. The very process of collaboration and experimentation led to new relationships and a cycle of learning. After learning from their initial failures, Majors Finney and Byerly developed a web-enabled leader development program based around the reading of classic texts, beginning with General U.S. Grant’s Memoirs. This program had over 200 registrants for less than 100 slots. The course applies past lessons to today’s military leaders, while incorporating discussions with leading historians and senior military leaders. Without the experience and the relationships forged at DEF, this program would never have been started.
DEF also led to a connection between Major Finney and a professor with the College of William & Mary and co-director of the Project on International Peace & Security (PIPS). This professor recognized that his program, which selected undergraduate fellows to research and produce policy proposals for government, could benefit by plugging in to the DEF community. Largely thanks to this connection, PIPS established a Military Fellowship program that partners serving military members with PIPS students. A chance meeting at DEF led directly to the creation of a valuable partnership between the military and academia.
Like Majors Finney and Byerly, Air Force Major Mark Jacobsen marked his work as an ideation group leader last year as a failure. He led a brainstorming session about promoting innovation at the unit level, but the group kept hitting dead ends. However, a tangential discussion led to a promising idea for identifying and incentivizing service members who are already engaged in innovation. Six months later, that idea grew into a proposal at the Air Force’s School for Advanced Air & Space Studies (SAASS) for establishing an Air Force Futurist program that would reward proven Air Force intrepreneurs by officially supporting them as scouts for new concepts and technologies. The proposal has been well-received at the general officer level and is under consideration for implementation across the Air Force.
As these examples show, activities like DEF can add tremendous value. They lead to serendipitous new discoveries, connections, and relationships. They provide a safe environment for experimentation and even for failure, which any accomplished entrepreneur knows is a requirement for eventual success. Discovery activities lie at the heart of innovation, but they are inherently unpredictable; their value cannot be measured beforehand with a simple metric like Return on Investment.
In our tough budgetary environment, in which every expense is subject to scrutiny from Congress and the American people, it is easy for government and military leaders to fall back on a futile search for certainty. This is a dangerous mistake, for it is in precisely such times that the Department of Defense requires fresh thinking and new approaches. That means embracing uncertainty and promoting a culture of discovery and exploration. Rather than betting on existing approaches to warfighting, the Department of Defense can place many small bets by encouraging innovative service members to explore the frontiers of the possible. DEF is committed to promoting a culture where such innovation can thrive.
DEF2013 was a discovery activity that brought diverse younger leaders together from the military services, government, and the private sector. It unleashed a wave of creative energy, leading to a variety of exciting projects that add value to the Department of Defense.
Between October 24th and 26th, DEF will return to the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Innovative leaders from every corner of the defense world will come together to listen to engaging speakers, participate in workshops, pitch new concepts, and hammer out crazy ideas on bar napkins. What’s the Return on Investment? We have no idea, but we look forward to finding out… and we hope you will join us.
Mark Jacobsen is a U.S. Air Force C-17 pilot and Middle East specialist, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Political Science at Stanford University.
Nathan K. Finney is a U.S. Army officer, the Managing Director of the Military Fellowship at the Project on International Peace & Security, the editor of The Bridge, and a member of the Infinity Journal’s Editorial Advisory Board.
Joe Byerly is a U.S. Army officer and a student at the Naval War College. He writes frequently on the subject of leadership and professional ethics for his blog, From the Green Notebook, and for Small Wars Journal.
Mikhail Grinberg is a defense industry management consultant focused on strategy and transaction advisory services in Washington, DC.
Roxanne Bras is a U.S. Army officer and is currently working as a Civil Affairs Team Leader in Cambodia.
Darryl “D” Diptee is a Navy Mustang, CEO and Chief Innovator of 3D Perspectives Corp, Editor of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum Inspired Innovators Handbook, a published Scientist, a world renowned Life Coach, and a serial Social Innovator.