Academic journal article Air & Space Power Journal

US Military Innovation

Academic journal article Air & Space Power Journal

US Military Innovation

Article excerpt

Fostering Creativity in a Culture of Compliance

Innovative Spark

Almost 2,400 years ago, Plato wrote, "Yet a true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention."1 These words have resonated through the centuries and have transformed to a maxim describing how challenging conditions are often needed to spark innovation, especially in environments reluctant to change. As the wars of this century begin to fade, the US military faces a daunting fiscal environment, personnel drawdowns, and continually altering threats that create ideal conditions for new ideas and change. To capitalize on this opportunity, senior leaders must promote a clear understanding of innovation and work to shape the military's culture of compliance into one of disciplined creativity.

Understanding Innovation

The landscape of American military dialogue on innovation has become cluttered over the last two decades with sensationalized language of transformation and revolutions. Somewhere along the way, our infatuation with technological change led us to view innovation as a point instead of a process-a dangerous error because it creates an unrealistic expectation for future innovation. As Michael Siegl points out, "innovation is a complex process that is neither linear nor always apparent. The interactions among intellectual, institutional, and political-economic forces are intricate and obscure. The historical and strategic context within which militaries transform compounds this complexity."2 Innovation in the military, as in other sectors, seems an isolated event only when we intentionally separate the culminating breakthrough from the sequence of preceding events. If we view history with this restricted view, then Edison's light bulb and the Wright brothers' aircraft appear as dynamic manifestations of inspiration. Conversely, if we view these innovations as products in their full context, then we begin to see innovation as the consequence of creativity and effort applied over time.

In the course of the American military experience, the dialogue on innovation has slowly transitioned from the assumption of individual genius as its primary source to technological breakthrough and adaptive tactical application as recognized drivers. However, the increased emphasis on technology undermines the important role of individual advocacy and organizational culture in the innovative process. In his article "Understanding Innovation," Col Thomas Williams argues that "true innovation is not a discrete event or individual action, but a process. As a process, it demands that leaders understand multiple complex systems. Innovation thus includes building consensus and preventing interference or sabotage from risk-averse or hostile players. It also requires an understanding of differing frames of reference, intricate structures, and diverse control and boundary systems."3 Sometimes this understanding is connected with preexisting conditions rather than revelations associated with new breakthroughs. It seems that "the people who appear as great innovative thinkers are often only pointing out what has become true, but not yet commonly known and accepted."4 The lesson for military leaders is that the next great breakthrough does not have to come from their organization, their service, or even the military. Since truly new ideas are rare, it is likely that the next innovation is already here and just awaiting recognition.

Embracing Innovation

This concept of receptivity to innovation is another recurring theme in US military history. Whether contemplating the transition to maneuver warfare or the gradual acceptance of aircraft as something beyond observation platforms aloft, the military establishment has consistently demonstrated a reluctance to embrace innovative methods. Although the aspects of individual and organizational resistance to change have been well documented, the hierarchical nature of the military makes it especially reluctant to embrace major shifts. …

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