Academic journal article Military Review

The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum: Developing a Culture of Innovation

Academic journal article Military Review

The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum: Developing a Culture of Innovation

Article excerpt

When you combine a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship, you get the magical alchemy of great performance.

-Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don't

On a chilly afternoon in October 1920, two young officers who shared a duplex at Fort Meade, Maryland gathered with their wives for a leisurely dinner that likely changed the course of American history. For years, these two officers held an unpopular, almost heretical view-that tanks, used with only limited success in World War I, held the key to victory in any future ground war in Europe. Their names were Capt. Dwight Eisenhower and Maj. George Patton. Both officers had suffered criticism for their ideas. In Eisenhower's case, his 1920 article in Infantry Journal about armored forces won him a stern condemnation from the chief of infantry, who assured him that his unorth- odox opinion guaranteed a career climax as the head coach of the Fort Meade intramural football team.1 Patton made a similar splash with a letter in Cavalry Journal advocating the creation of an independent Tanks Corps.2 Historians would later cite these articles as "nothing less than a proposed tank doctrine for the next war ... what these two upstart tank officers were suggesting would alter the whole doctrine of land warfare."3

Their invited guest that afternoon was a rising star in the Army at the time named Brig. Gen. Fox Connor. Connor had known Patton for years but had just met the young Capt. Eisenhower. After dinner the three officers and their wives went to the motor pool to give Brig. Gen. Connor a ride on a British Whippet tank. Connor was so im- pressed with Eisenhower and his thoughts on the future of armored warfare that he invited him, at Patton's urging, to become his brigade executive officer. Decades later, President Eisenhower would cite Connor as his most important mentor during his long climb from lieutenant to commander in chief.

Patton and Eisenhower were, to use a modern phrase, disruptive innovators. They were applying innovative solutions and cre- ative approaches to a novel problem faced by their military service (how to use tanks effec- tively).4 Their ideas, however, challenged and even threatened the established organizations and traditions of their respective branches. The history of military innovation reveals that this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, most revolutionary ideas emerge from junior-level practitioners-who are unlikely to be able to refine or implement their innovations within the straightjacket of the military bureaucracy. What these innovators need is-

* a means to connect with one another for the purpose of refining and incubating their ideas;

* a forum to discuss their ideas; and

* an understanding mentor who can help them navigate the bureaucratic hurdles neces- sary to overcome or manage the institutional resistance to innovation.

Our ability to innovate and adapt to changing cir- cumstances is one of the great asymmetric advantages of the U.S. military. A good amount of the innovation within the services has come from loyal insiders, partic- ularly from the junior ranks-people who see problems at the tactical level and can create and share innovative solutions. Internal innovators who successfully im- plement their ideas usually develop and refine them through informal networks, peripheral to the people they work with daily. These networks provide a fail-free zone and energetic supporters.

Nearly a century after Eisenhower and Patton chal- lenged the dogmas of their day, we continue to observe a similar dynamic. Energetic young service men and women are coming out of more than a decade of conflict full of ideas and empowered with the autonomy they found on a complex battlefield. Many innovations that proved vital to our successes in Iraq and Afghanistan- from vehicle adaptations that protect soldiers against improvised explosive devices to software programs that track volumes of intelligence reports-were in fact developed by innovative junior officers and noncommis- sioned officers serving on the front lines. …

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