Building the Hierarchy of Innovation in the Defense Department: A Plan for Action


“Success no longer goes to the country that develops a new fighting technology first, but rather to the one that better integrates it and adapts its way of fighting….”
-The National Defense Strategy (2018)

One of the central military questions of our age is how to utilize new ways of thinking about driving defense innovation. And the conversation has moved fast. With the release of the new National Defense Strategy, the discussion no longer revolves around just technology and offsets. Instead, it recognizes that what will count most will be the speed at which someone recognizes an emerging problem, articulates it in a language others broadly understand, assembles the right team to build a pathway toward a solution, and delivers that solution to the battlefield.

In a recent episode of “The Innovators” podcast, I talked about how my passion for understanding battlefield problems developed during my military career. I also discussed how the work Steve Blank and I are doing led us to develop the concept for government-focused innovation pipelines, end-to-end innovation processes that deliver products at speed (versus disconnected innovation activities).

In the process of defining these innovation pipelines we observed that there are distinct types of people who actually drive innovation in the military’s ecosystem: makers and innovators, entrepreneurs, and innovation gurus. Here’s how they work and our ideas on how their expertise can be harnessed to support our national security objectives.

On the Frontlines: Makers and Innovators

At the tactical level in every organization, you can find makers and innovators. They are the people at the grassroots level who constantly tinker with things to figure out how they work. They code during their work breaks. In their barracks, you can find parts and pieces of a robotics or drone project. On weekends, they can be found in a machine shop modifying a piece of equipment to better fit their personal needs. They are ingenious, passionate about their ideas, and driven to create new things. Makers and innovators are found most often in the tactical echelon of innovation. However, they show up in other interesting places as well.

One example of a maker and innovator, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Yates, turned up at one of the Rapid Equipping Force’s deployable labs in Afghanistan with an idea to improve the bipod for an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), a light machine gun. He had no prototyping skills other than his ability to sketch and describe his idea. What he did have was an idea and a desire to do something with it.

Another example is found in U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Cat Norcom. She is an air refueling jet boom operator from Travis Air Force Base. One of the founding members of the Travis Air Force Base Phoenix Spark Lab, she is a self-taught coder who can program in four languages. When we met, she explained to me, over the pieces of a power supply system that was inadequate for their mission parameters, how she was looking for potential pathways to increase its operating threshold. When we met recently in Palo Alto, she was just about to run the first set of tests on a new prototype that could eventually deliver a 50 percent improvement over the current configuration.

Makers and innovators are motivated by the opportunity to explore, learn, and gain feedback on their ideas and gadgets. They celebrate finding new tools to use and flock to pop-up classes to learn the latest techniques about everything from new coding languages to the newest welding techniques.

These people are motivated by the adventure of learning and the thrill of the hunt for a new problem to solve, not by awards. Fortunately, there are efforts emerging in the services to support their efforts to find and solve problems like the ongoing  Marine Corps Innovation Boot Camp, the Air Force Phoenix Spark and Kessel Run programs. In other cases, tactical commanders like Army Col. John Cogbill, have taken matters into their own hands.

Cogbill, a former Stanford University fellow who participated in the first Hacking for Defense class, has imported the course’s methodology into the brigade he now commands at Fort Campbell. Teams across his brigade take on problems they have internal to the unit like replacing hard to get tools or reconfiguring command and control nodes to allow them to be more agile. Acting on recommendations of a junior officer, they have created a partnership with Vanderbilt University’s Engineering School and now have university students helping to design and print parts for soldiers’ innovation efforts.

Masters of the Middle: Entrepreneurs

Having ideas is not enough to drive innovation. As Steve Blank has discussed, it takes entrepreneurs who can build teams of people around ideas and discipline those teams to turn an idea into a product against a deadline. Entrepreneurs have tightly connected, trusted networks that they use to thread their efforts through their organizations’ bureaucracies. Entrepreneurs are experienced in the tools of search and discovery needed to build pathways and are well versed in measuring risk against opportunity. They have the respect and trust of their supervisors built on years of experience in their organizations. Like makers and innovators, they are passionate about their latest projects and often consumed with an omnidirectional desire to see them through to completion.

Entrepreneurs operationalize innovation within organizations. They make stuff happen.

U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Chris Wood is a great example of an entrepreneur. He has figured out how to grow nascent ideas for innovation into full-scale productions within the Marine Corps. Two years ago, Wood was trying to simply connect Marine maintainers to one another so they could share their designs for printed parts for their equipment. He subsequently grew that effort into a full-fledged, institutionally supported Marine Maker movement. His portfolio today has expanded to include the Marine CoLab effort as well as a stake in the Marine Corps vision for additive manufacturing.

Many but not all entrepreneurs have been makers and innovators. But relatively few makers and innovators will ever be entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are impassioned and motivated by the complexity of the opportunity, size of the impact of the solution, and the all-consuming battle it takes to turn an idea into a deliverable product. There is no set pathway to becoming an entrepreneur, no set experiences, and definitely no set character traits other than an ability to think critically, judge risk vs. opportunity, and act decisively. Largely the hunt for a harder problem to solve and a bigger impact to make is what motivates them. They do not fear failure. Rather they embrace it, recognizing the value of failure as a learning process.

Providing Overwatch: Innovation Gurus

For lack of a better term, innovation gurus are the people who build and discipline innovation pipelines. They have been entrepreneurs with multiple successes and failures alike. They know every path through the pipeline and every obstacle that lies along it. While it’s not their job to carry the load for the entrepreneurs in their organization, they will make sure the entrepreneurs are properly prepared and balanced for the journey. It usually takes decades of experience to become an innovation guru.

Innovation gurus are responsible for identifying and quickly reducing organizational obstacles to innovation. They capture lessons learned and own the organizational doctrine that establishes the common language that drives the culture of innovation within their domain. Innovation Gurus are organizations’ innovation strategists.

Today’s growing national security innovation insurgency owes it roots to so many innovation gurus, many of whom I have been lucky to know.

I met Ben Fitzgerald while he was at the Center for New American Security championing the first of what would be a series of working groups supporting a study looking beyond the third offset strategy, the Defense Department’s plan to retain the U.S. military’s technological edge. Ben went on to serve as a professional staff member in the Senate Armed Services Committee before he was hired as the director of the Pentagon’s Office of Strategy and Design, essentially making him the chief innovation strategist for Under Secretary of Defense Ellen Lord.

Defense innovation made a major leap forward this year. Renowned innovation gurus Bruce Jette, Hondo Geurts, and Bill Roper became the assistant secretaries for acquisition in the Army, Navy, and Air Force respectively. All three have built innovation pipelines and are incredibly experienced at bending government bureaucracy to their will. As a colonel, Jette pioneered the creation of U.S. Army Rapid Equipping Force, an organization I led from 2010 to 2013. He was the epitome of the Army’s modern entrepreneur. Geurts is well-known for championing major changes within the special operations community that led to their agile acquisition programs as well as the establishment of Special Operations Forces Works (SOFWERX). Roper was the founding director of the Defense Strategic Capabilities Office, which was originally responsible for taking the Defense Department’s existing technologies and combining them into new capabilities.

Driving Innovation at Speed

It is encouraging to know that today there is a robust human capital ecosystem that drives innovation within the military. Unfortunately, the innovators and makers who feed it, the entrepreneurs who drive it, and the gurus who guide and discipline it are largely self-made. While their efforts in getting an innovation program deployed are heroic, their numbers fall far short of those produced in very deliberate programs that China and Russia run. To our hundreds of self-made entrepreneurs, China and Russia are producing tens of thousands of their own who already have the capacity to significantly challenge our technological advantages on the battlefield.

Fortunately, there are some things the U.S. armed services can do to better leverage and grow the ranks of the makers and innovators, entrepreneurs, and innovation gurus we need to meet the innovation demands of the coming century.

First, it’s long past time to make hacking, making, and innovating intramural sports in the military and give it same support and prestige they do to combatives, marksmanship, and other critical individual skills. Thinking through a problem and delivering a timely response should be as important as putting steel on a target.

Second, the Pentagon should demand that the universities on military installations provide science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and entrepreneurship course options to servicemembers. For example, there should be an associate’s degrees program in advanced manufacturing and a degree program for national security innovation and entrepreneurship available on any military installation that offers college courses. And, of course, the services need to do the same within the professional military education system.

Third, to support the new courses it is time to establish educational facilities on installations where for-credit and pop-up educational activities like “hands-on” coding, prototyping, and advanced manufacturing skills are taught during and after duties hours. Open those activities to support unit level training and competition between classes.

Fourth, the Defense Department should expand successful entrepreneurial activities like Marine Makers, Phoenix Spark, and Hacking for Defense, and deliberately connect them into pipelines that deliver both innovation and people with broad networks they will leverage in the future.

Fifth and finally, it is time to expand on the concepts pioneered by programs like Kessel Run and Hacking for Defense to include fellowships outside the government for senior officers and non-commissioned officers focused on creating entrepreneurial response mechanisms to technical and policy-related problems.

Only by harnessing the collective passion and motivation of innovators and makers, entrepreneurs and innovation gurus alike does it becomes possible to drive innovation across an organization. We have found this to be especially true within the Defense Department and the intelligence community where integrating and adapting on the battlefield is most important.


Peter A. Newell (@PeterANewell) is the managing partner of BMNT Partners, a Silicon Valley based company that provides a platform where innovators can work together at the intersection between business, government, academia and society.  He is a recently retired U.S. Army Colonel and the former Director of the U.S. Army Rapid Equipping Force.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Charles Rivezzo