Staff Sergeant Disruptor: Observations on Leading Innovation


Early this year, I witnessed a new surveillance capability employed in Operation Inherent Resolve. It implemented a modernized flexible model of intelligence collection that should guide all future efforts, but it was not developed by the traditional defense contractors the military relies on. Instead, a handful of forward thinking junior NCO’s and officers, empowered and networked by their leadership, turned bar napkin concepts into new targeting opportunities and battlefield advantage. While an impactful example of innovation by airmen, this is a rare exception to the reality — the military does not truly enable innovation from its force.

In order to grow strategic agility in the face of uncertain future threats, as called for in top-level defense documents including the Air Force Strategic Master Plan, commanders themselves must take the initiative to build innovative capacity into the force at the unit level. Despite substantial emphasis by senior leaders on defense innovation, much of today’s effort is externally focused and ignores building innovative capacity within and across the force. It ignores the savvy junior enlisted and officers who are acutely aware of their challenges and new possibilities. As Bensahel and Lt. Gen. (ret.)  Barno discussed on War on the Rocks recently:

The armed forces don’t tap this stunningly diverse population by offering them early opportunities to use their unique skills, and they often don’t even bother to find out what talents they have.

To change this construct, individual unit commanders must work to become more sophisticated leaders of innovation, connecting and empowering their forward thinking talent. This article provides practical observations for leaders to consider when starting on the path to build innovation focused units.

The Challenges

The ability to out-innovate adversaries is fundamental to enduring success in war. An increasingly complex and uncertain future security landscape demands an acceleration of innovation’s pace to remain effective. Unfortunately, a military culture of rigid hierarchy and standardization poses an institutional hurdle that clashes with disruptive thought processes required to develop the kind of innovative capacity recently described by the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. John Kotter, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, explains that strict hierarchies and standardization are inherently risk-averse and resistant to change:

Part of the problem is political: Managers are loath to take chances without permission from superiors. Part of the problem is cultural: People cling to their habits and fear loss of power and stature—two essential elements of hierarchies. And part of the problem is that all hierarchies, with their specialized units, rules, and optimized processes, crave stability and default to doing what they already know how to do.

Andrew Hill describes in Parameters that militaries often see innovation as subversion of the standardization in tools, training, methods, and organization it depends on. As Gen. McChrystal points out, great innovations generally do not come from strict “top-down” organizations.

Department of Defense efforts to leverage innovation have largely sidestepped this substantial organizational challenge, instead concentrating on the search for “game-changing” technological advances that tend to come from outside the ranks of the military. Senior defense leaders push development of offices like the Air Force’s Office of Transformational Innovation and the Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, which focus on quickly finding and integrating disruptive technologies. But, the ability to truly maneuver against unforeseen future challenges requires a more diffuse capacity to innovate across the force.

The Solution

If the military is determined to “aggressively pursue a path toward institutional strategic agility”, as described in the Air Force’s Call to the Future, then it must also grow its innovative spirit at the unit level where it is best suited to build broad organizational dexterity. Every squadron and battalion has enterprising servicemembers that are acutely aware of the challenges they face but are not empowered to solve them. This task is not a headquarters job.

Commanders and unit leadership must themselves wrest this innovative inertia from the Pentagon’s E-Ring to integrate it across the force. Succeeding in this effort requires skills not taught in professional military education courses. Leaders, from wing and brigade commanders to flight chiefs and platoon sergeants, must learn how innovation works. They must build a clear and flexible vision, network knowledge, empower talent, promote transparency, and above all they must learn to tolerate — and even embrace — intelligent failure. Strategic agility, and thus the future relevance of the military, is a commanders’ business.

Observations on Leading Innovation

In my experience with successful and failed innovation efforts, from the Pentagon to multiple combat zones, several themes emerged time and again. The following observations highlight some of the more important themes and are intended as practical points for consideration. They are by no means all-inclusive but instead provide a springboard for leaders thinking through how to approach their effort to develop innovative units.

1. Explore and Understand Innovation

Successful leaders strive to understand how innovation works and to devise an approach suited to their circumstances. They explore: reading, exchanging ideas, and experimenting to find practical methods that work for their particular organization and challenges. Different organizational cultures and individual personalities respond differently to various methods. Similarly, an approach effective for one problem may not be for another. As Col. John Price describes, it takes leaders who have and promote a clear understanding of innovation to turn the military’s culture of compliance into one of disciplined creativity. Fortunately, there are a wealth of ideas and experience to draw upon within various sectors.

Academic studies of innovation are numerous and a rich source of material for leaders wanting to bring their organizations to the edge of their field. Whether it is Henry Chesbrough’s open innovation concept, Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation, or John Kotter’s eight accelerators, academics provide substantial insight into how leaders can shape organizations to innovate effectively. Likewise, industry’s struggle to keep ahead of change while delivering gains today mirrors the military’s challenge to prepare for future threats while executing today’s fight. As Defense Secretary Carter discussed with War on the Rocks:  “There’s a lot we can learn from best practices in industry.” Silicon Valley in particular provides many examples of how to create or find, invest in, and deliver new ideas that provide an edge, often by altering how the industry or market operates altogether. But, as exciting as many academic or Silicon Valley examples are, before setting up nap pods in operations centers it is important to remember that not all ideas are directly transferable to a military context. Carter reminds us that:  “We’re the Department of Defense; it will always be different.”

Of course, within the military itself, there are multiple modern examples of organizations that have developed effective innovation focused cultures and functions. The special operations community in particular is replete with examples for leaders to glean useful approaches. Gen. McChrystal, for instance, developed methods that approach innovation as a team effort that involves “breaking down silos” and “working across divisions.” Whether looking to academia, industry, or the military, leaders of successful innovation take the time to sift through the experiences of multiple fields, familiarizing themselves with the concepts and finding useful approaches and methods.

2. Innovation Requires a Strong Vision

Successful leaders of innovation create and articulate a clear and flexible vision to give their team’s creative potential direction. Separate from the obligatory unit vision statement, this vision must provide a sharp and practical sense of where innovative efforts need to aim and of the core challenges they need to overcome. It must also be flexible enough to maintain relevance while the context around it evolves. A good vision provides much needed focus to an organization’s innovative energy.

There is already extensive literature on how to create a vision but when moving from theory to practice these three points provide simple guideposts:

  • Analyze the core challenges the unit faces that require new thinking. Innovation needs to be aimed at overcoming some challenge. Spending the effort to fully understand the problem and its context goes a long way in setting up a clear 300 meter target.
  • Examine the challenges and visions of counterpart units and of the leaders above you. This will help link the team’s efforts to solving broader problems and answering higher level demand signals. This will also ensure synchronization with higher leadership, which is very useful in gaining support (material or otherwise).
  • Find the edge of your field. Whatever your unit’s function, there are people somewhere working on or studying how to do it better.  Do not wait for these future advances to slowly make their way down to the unit level —  find where your field is headed and aim your vision just on the other side of that horizon.

3. Network Knowledge and Talent

Successful military innovation often requires breaking through rigid structures to link together talented people from different communities and ranks with ideas that can be combined, reshaped, reconfigured, or completely transformed to overcome a challenge. To a large extent, innovation for today’s militaries is not a scientific or technical problem but an organizational challenge. Creating organizational agility through innovation means developing the ability to liberate information from silos and hierarchical layers and enabling it to flow with greater freedom and at accelerated speed. As Walter Isaacson, author of The Innovators, highlights:

The greatest innovations have not come from a lone inventor or from solving problems in a top-down, command-and-control style. Instead, the great successes … come from a “team of teams” working together in pursuit of a common goal.

At its heart, innovation involves “the intense collaboration of people and teams with different knowledge, gained through their experiences, and expertise in various domains and practices.”

Of course, to be able to network knowledge and talent, leadership needs to be on constant search for the innovators that possess both and be prepared to empower and guide these forward thinkers. Identifying innovators often means looking beyond rank or specialty.  They are usually the first to see threats or opportunities, the first to understand the need for change, and are often equipped with the zeal to implement it.  As Col. Jen Buckner discovered while commanding the Army’s cyber brigade, rank and position mean very little when it came to innovating. Even the brigade’s specialists were regularly impacting missions of national significance.

The challenge for military leaders is how to bring together knowledge and talent — regardless of rank, location, or assignment — without compromising the chain of command or standardization that underpin effectiveness in combat. In exploring innovation as described in the first observation, leaders will find multiple approaches capable of balancing these conflicting priorities. One method, for instance, is to establish a higher echelon focal point that connects forward thinkers across organizations, forming and guiding ad hoc teams outside the traditional hierarchy. Central to the success of this or any method is the role of the unit commander as champion of the effort, ensuring that it is considered a priority by all and providing top-cover for individuals temporarily operating outside the standard military construct. Whatever approach used, it is critical for leaders to first understand that at its core, the purpose is to connect knowledge and talent across organizational boundaries in order to enable development and application of new ideas at a far greater speed.

4. Culture Matters: Tolerance for Failure and the Importance of Transparency

Fruitful innovation-focused cultures exhibit tolerance for failure in order to free innovators to take intelligent risks on the path to success. J.B. Straubel, Tesla’s chief technical officer, points out that “obsessively attempting to avoid failure can lead to the greater failure of missing the big opportunity.” While this is also true for the military, failure is a more complicated subject for commanders whose risk calculus can include loss of life. The good news is that applying judgement in approaching risk is familiar territory for commanders and the failure involved with innovation rarely approaches this extreme. The less than good news is that the growth of a risk-averse culture among military leadership outside of combat zones has reduced the willingness of commanders to step outside the norm. In the end, successful innovation does not happen without attempting, failing, learning, and improving. This only occurs with an environment with leadership that is not immobilized by fear of failure and encourages smart risk taking.

Leaders must also establish a culture of transparency supported by broad communication that reaches across the unit, partner organizations, and higher leadership. Open visibility of the unit’s efforts — both successes and challenges — enables ideas to develop and travel faster, exposing them quickly to other pockets of innovative talent and knowledge that may be able to utilize or add to them. From a practical standpoint, leveraging technology is a significant enabler here — whether open-invite video conference updates or collaboration tools that allow outsiders with potential insight to see project details. Commanders are sometimes uneasy about broad transparency for fear of exposing failure, loss of control, or interference from outsiders. In practice, however, transparency’s benefits in building consensus among parallel organizations and developing support from higher leadership where potential investment resources are controlled far outweigh the risks involved. As Isaacson notes, innovation and problem solving at sufficient speed requires a culture of transparency and integrative communication.

5. The Benefits Extend Beyond Innovation

A final observation on leading innovation is that the benefits extend beyond the new ideas, technologies, or operational methods created. Most notably, it gives troops and teams a sense of involvement, ownership, and significance that positively impact unit morale and talent retention, even amongst the most stressed career fields. In interviewing workers from organizations implementing innovation focused approaches, John Kotter found that the personal rewards for those involved were “tremendous—though rarely monetary”. They described fulfillment from pursuing a mission they believed in, appreciation for the opportunity to collaborate with a broader array of people, increased visibility across organizations, and bigger jobs in the hierarchy. Compare this to the now common refrain captured in this statement from a former Air Force captain: “It’s just frustrating to have so many people who want to do something and want to make a difference, and increasingly the way to do that is go outside the military.”

It is important for leaders in today’s military to understand that our most talented troops often have higher compensating options outside the military. What the military offers talented people that industry has difficulty competing with is work that has significant meaning beyond the paycheck. A unit that has a clear vision of success and promotes empowered creative involvement in overcoming challenges amplifies the sense of meaning that underlies their labor.


While extremely useful, creating organizations focused on finding the next disruptive technology is not enough to make a strategically agile force. More effort should be placed in building innovation-capable units across the force. Leaders, from wing and brigade commanders to flight chiefs and platoon sergeants, must work to develop their teams’ innovative potential. They must understand how innovation works to devise a plan that fits their unit and addresses its challenge, build a clear and flexible vision to focus it, network knowledge and talent, and create a culture that tolerates intelligent failure and promotes transparency. Though it is difficult to foresee the major security challenges the military will help the nation face in the future, a force permeated by the spirit and tools of innovation will be prepared to out-match whatever they encounter.


Sean Atkins is an Air Force officer who has served in assignments from Forward Operating Bases in Iraq to the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon and recently returned from Operation Inherent Resolve. He has built and led multiple innovation efforts at the unit and higher command levels. Sean holds an MA with distinction from King’s College London. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.

Image: Air Force, Tech Sgt. Jocelyn L. Rich