Tuesday, August 17, 2021

What innovation leaders share with military leaders

I'm a fan of military history, and it is always striking to me to see how much new product development and innovation can learn from the military and vice versa.  When we look at the military, we often don't think of innovation, or perhaps we think of the wrong kinds of innovation, like super expensive hammers or weapons systems that sound great but don't work.  The military is rich in innovation, but most of that innovation flows from the middle and lower ranks.  Generals, like executives, for the most part become conservative as they climb the ladder.

The reason we know of people like Napolean, or Grant, or Patton, is because they were innovators who broke the mold.  They were generals who used their insight and innovative tactics to win.  Most innovation (like up-armored Humvees) were the brain child of the soldier in the fight, and in many cases these innovations were discouraged or even blocked by higher ups.  There are plenty of examples, from the breech loading rifle (rejected by the British during the Revolutionary War), the Gatling Gun (rejected by the War Department during the Civil War), funding for heavier than air vehicles (directed to Langley rather than to Wright), the development of the F-15 - just read the books about Boyd

Let's examine what happens to many generals and why that is similar to innovation leaders.

Mental models and organizational structures that restrict innovation

What do we think limits military generals from innovation or new tactics?

 - Drawing the wrong lessons from previous conflicts (preparing for trench warfare and static positions while the Germans develop the Blitzkrieg)

 - Poor intelligence from the front, or not willing to hear the truth about what's happening, or the truth is filtered as it works its way to the top

 - Rapid advances in military hardware and technology that the generals did not understand and could not adapt to

 - Fighting the "last war" - using strategy and tactics that might have been more effective in a former confrontation that were outdated and easily overcome in this war.

 - Failure to act decisively when the opportunities presented themselves

 - Lack of willingness or understanding to promote people who understand what's happening and to place them in leadership positions

 - A deep belief in the power of one's own army to defeat an opponent - perhaps we could call this institutional arrogance

So much for the history lesson - what's this got to do with leading innovation?

What we can learn from these examples

There are a number of correlations between military commanders and the people who will lead innovation programs and initiatives in corporations.  

First, both operate within a highly regimented structure, with a significant amount of top down control  This means that they will either adhere to the existing structures and ways of work, or, through rapid learning, will seek to adapt to the situation.

Second, both the military and large organizations are relatively slow to act, but once they get moving with enough energy and momentum can be hard to stop.  Inertia is a big problem, as is the willingness to believe that the skills and capabilities that won the last conflict or solved the last problem are still relevant.

Third, most military leaders and corporate executives are students of history, but don't spend enough time looking into and preparing for the future.  Knowing enough history to avoid repeating it is valuable, but understanding and assessing future scenarios to prepare to win the next way is also vital.

Fourth, technologies, skills and knowledge are moving faster and the world is a very different place than it was when these leaders (military or corporate) were coming up.  This means they either need to be rapid, constantly engaged learners or willing to put people in charge who have been closer to the action more recently.

Fifth, on occasion both types of leaders will need to take significant risks in order to win  Steve Jobs returned to Apple and cut 90% of the product line  Hernando De Soto burned his boats on arriving in the New World.  Patton decided that he could drive the Germans out of France through rapid attacks and denying the Germans fuel.  

Sixth, the speed and pace of change needs should cause leaders from both organizations to constantly reassess just how prepared they are, and where the next threat will come from.  Disruptions always come from unexpected places and from unexpected sources.

Finally, being able to shift through the news and the noise, and being willing to hear both the good news and the not so good news.  Too often, executives and military leaders don't want to hear the "bad news" and that leads them to double down on poor strategies.  We've got to have better intel, and we've got to be able to digest it and understand what it means more effectively.

How do innovation leaders help their teams and lead from the front?

  1. Get unfiltered insights from customers and the market. Don't accept data that has been filtered, go to the source or have trusted subordinates get the unfiltered data, feedback and needs from the market.
  2. Train your staff on innovation methods, tools and processes.  Make sure they are able to execute on the work you will ask them to do.  They should be as adept at innovation as they are at any other task or job.
  3. Create a meaningful strategy of which innovation is a core component, but not the only component.  Demonstrate and communicate what you want from innovation and how you'll measure success.
  4. Put the right people in charge of innovation work.  Not the "right people" who are good at your day to day operations, but the people who take risks, demand better execution and have a vision for the future.
  5. Lead from the front.  You don't have to "do" innovation, but you need to be engaged in the strategy, supporting the work, asking questions, providing the resources and cheering on the team.  If you are too far from the front lines, you cannot know what is happening, and your teams cannot feel your presence, and may become concerned that you do not support their work.
  6. Communicate.  Then communicate some more.  Be specific about what you want, when you want it and communicate your goals, your support for innovation and the work of the team.  Be sure your actions and investments say the same things as your emails and presentations. 
  7. Be a bit humble. Even if you are the best in your industry, expect that disruptive forces are going to attack you.  Shift from the "know it all" mentality to the "learn it all" mentality.

Of course, one thing that corporate innovation leaders could learn from their military counterparts is funding.  The military has to re-up each year, and justify huge investments in people, in training and in equipment.  In the corporate world, where annual planning and budgeting is also a reality, we need to be better at defining the rationale for innovation and obtaining the funds necessary to implement innovation skills and complete innovation projects.


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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:40 AM


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