It’s Time to Innovate for the Innovators

By Beau Downey

A young soldier sits outside a conference room tapping her foot nervously back and forth. Her uniform is pressed – something she spent extra time on this morning. In her hand she has a list of talking points. She shouldn’t need them, she thinks. She’s spent most of her free time for the past few months on what she’s about to speak to. But she reads through them again anyway. Better safe than sorry. 

The door opens, and somewhere on the other side a voice calls her in. 

This soldier has done briefings before. Say what you are going to say. Say it. Then say what you said. That’s the formula everyone is taught. However, this time it’s different. This is no ordinary briefing, this is a pitch. She has an innovative idea – a way for the government to work just a little bit better – but to get the funding she needs, she has to sell it, because innovation in the military is often a competition for resources to support viable novel ideas. 

What the soldier does not yet know is that someone already came up with a similar idea at another installation and implemented it. 

There is some version of this soldier at almost every military installation around the world. Commands (and commanders) put a high cultural value on innovation, even if their budgets and formal structures do not reflect it. Exactly how many versions of this story are there? It’s impossible to know right now, because the Department of Defense (DoD) does not have the ability to track and connect research, development, innovation, and process improvement efforts in one place. 

That problem goes deeper. Without unity of effort between the services, DoD cannot quickly recognize gaps and source solutions from wherever they may pop up to scale them for timely effect. Current efforts to drive new capabilities and connect the dots between organizations are insufficient. The bureaucracy – as one might argue it is designed to do – distracts from holistic solutions with the tyranny of the now. Organizations have their own priorities, their own problems, and their own budgets. Only once those are reconciled can there be any focus on true joint collaboration. 

To understand the problem completely, it is important to zoom out and see the whole picture. 

The Innovation Ecosystem

Since the middle of the last decade, innovation has become a buzzword that excites military commanders but also carries a significant amount of baggage. You could ask three people to define innovation in the defense space, and you would likely get three different answers. One might say it’s disruptive, game-changing new ways of doing things. Another that it’s the introduction of new and emerging technologies to overhaul antiquated solutions. Another still that simple process improvements count too. And everything in between. 

  Don’t get me wrong. Simple things can still have a huge impact. As a scheduler for a missile squadron, I once got an automated spreadsheet that cut down the tedious mix-and-match of building a dynamic 24/7/365 workplan by a huge margin. It was simple, and it had a real impact on operational effectiveness (and my sanity). 

The broader point is the word “innovate” covers a wide swath of activities all clearly in the same realm, which is a consequence of the word itself. “Innovate” literally means “to make anew,” which is a pretty broad mandate. 

This is not at all a novel point for those in the innovation space; “What is innovation?” is a frequent philosophical question. For the purpose of getting ahold of the problem, it’s best to think of innovation simply as change. Change to make something better or faster. Change to create a new capability. Change to adapt to and overcome emerging threats. This is perhaps best encapsulated by outgoing Air Force Chief of Staff (and incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., who famously challenged his department to Accelerate, Change, or Lose. (1)

Our Study Objectives and Observations

When the Air Force asked my team to look at the problem of duplication of effort in 2019, we set out to see where change was happening. We quickly saw duplication was just one piece of a larger problem set, so we went to the source – to the units leading early innovation efforts – and we found them tracking innovation on SharePoint, by email … even by sticky notes and whiteboards. Seriously. And everything in between. Innovation on the sticky notes and whiteboard end of the spectrum means there is no data to pull. 

We also found a structural flaw. To quote Jade Baranski, our co-founder and CEO, “Because there is no duty identifier for innovator – no Soldier has that MOS, no Airman has that AFSC – innovation is decentralized with no real organizational structure. Service members are essentially innovating as an additional duty. While decentralization is a defining feature of the U.S. military, in the race to meet current strategic challenges, it is undeniably a hindrance in this space.” (2)

Some of the key problems we identified are summarized below.

Duplication of Effort – Duplication is not just a resource problem, though that is the most tangible way to understand it. There are millions of employees in the DoD executing billions of dollars in funding. By the law of large numbers, there is bound to be significant duplication, and indeed there was. If you have two service members working similar problem sets, that is two iterations of money solving one problem. Even just from the portion of it we could see, this problem is rampant. When you have 10, 20 or more units working in their own silos, not only does the department waste resources, but it also misses out on the synergistic effects of collaboration. We need the ability to connect efforts across organizations. Data can do that.

Visibility – Silos themselves are a product of lack of visibility. People can only act on what they see. In the portion of tomorrow’s battlefield that depends on driving faster capabilities, warfighters won’t just encounter the fog of war – they’ll find a complete whiteout. As warfare becomes more complicated, the requisite timeline from identification of a need to a completed solution will become shorter and shorter. Historically, projects would have to be in the right place at the right time with the right connections to scale. We need visibility quickly and across organizational boundaries. Data can do that.

Replicability – If you Google “military innovation,” you’ll find the success stories – fun-named projects that solved a problem for an organization. If they are very successful (meaning they made it through a competition or got major funding), there might even be a few articles on the project. Articles are not good enough to reproduce capabilities at the speed the department needs. When someone finds the new and better way, the odds are they are not the only ones who need that solution (for a great example of this, check out Kinetic Cargo). (3) The current system of depending on the right person at the right place at the right time to hear about a solution is antiquated. We need to connect the dots at the speed of relevance so units can scale innovations for strategic effect. Data can do that too.

Disconnection From Resources – By design, resources in the innovation ecosystem are distributive. Obviously, we aren’t going to invest huge amounts of money into an idea that might or might not work. Instead, we invest a little here and a little there. Some ideas succeed and they get a little more funding, while others don’t. This is not to advocate for more innovation funding necessarily, but rather to say that the current situation does not allow the military to take full advantage of its resources. Take, for example, the Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer program – an investment the DoD estimates at more than $14 billion between 1995 and 2018. (4) Many Phase I awards from this program never reach the second phase, and many defense innovators who need their technologies don’t even know the department already paid money for something relevant to their project. The most challenging problem sets of tomorrow’s battle space are joint problems that require joint solutions. The department needs the ability to quickly identify needs aligned with strategic priorities and combine disparate resources for faster solutions. You guessed it … data can do that. 

What’s Possible With the Data

Rapid growth and funding in this area without the requisite structures and systems in place to manage it has left a fragmented ecosystem that often depends more on luck, timing, and knowing the right person than its participants would care to admit. You can see that ecosystem for yourself. The DoD’s Chief Technology Officer built an interactive model of the organizations in this space, including hundreds of offices – laboratories, capabilities offices, consortia, innovation coordinators and more. (5) Despite the impression that these organizations are neatly connected, the truth is they have different systems and processes that make them more of a collection of silos than a true ecosystem. 

The DoD has responded to the demand signal from commanders to drive innovation. McKinsey estimated that of the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, $34 billion was tagged for innovation-related spending (that does not include the nearly $100 billion the department dedicates to traditional R&D programs). (6) That leaves a huge amount of resources with little ability to show where or how they have been effective at scale. Individual organizations might be able to tell you what they did and (maybe) what their specific impact was, but take another look at the interactive model. It’s a lot of stories to add up.

The answer our company has been working on for almost five years now is centralized, normalized innovation data. A single source of truth. A single, secure system to track it all with actionable insights for real impact. The future of defense innovation has to be holistic. The problem sets are too complex, and the stakes are too high to settle for anything other than the whole of American ingenuity to solve them. 

When you expand the aperture out that far, the problem of one military unit not being able to connect with another starts to seem small. Now you are looking at whole industries that benefit from innovation data. Academia working with defense labs. Venture capital strategically aligned with senior leader backing. Feedback loops from the warfighter to the developers. It truly does start to look like a living, breathing ecosystem.

Supporting Our Innovators

Remember that soldier waiting to present her pitch to get funding for her amazing idea? Imagine a data-informed future where she wins the competition and finds out immediately that others are working on the same issue. Rather than wasting resources, she connects with others and contributes to the solution, overcoming a policy blocker, a resource barrier, and accelerating the timeline of integrating the solution for her unit. Data breaks down barriers and makes the innovation ecosystem more effective and efficient for innovators.
The current state is not making change happen fast enough. It’s time to innovate for the innovators. CM

Beau Downey is the Communications Director for Mobilize, the company that built the VISION Joint Innovation System for the DoD in 2021. He has more than a decade of service in the U.S. Air Force. These views are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. government.