Best Defense

How to do this ‘innovation’ thing

Everyone in the defense world is into innovation these days. But how is it done?


By Captain Chris Telley, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest innovator

Everyone in the defense world is into innovation these days. But how is it done?

News flash: People actually have studied this before the defense world seized on it. There are common denominators identified by authors like Walter Issacson or Steve Johnson, as well as print venues such as “Wired” and “Fast Company” from which we can draw. Here are some of their findings:


First, you’ll need to form a team. Unlike a normal exercise, you don’t need the entire staff; though, a well-represented mix is healthy. The most successful groups of history’s innovators had a variety of skills. Conglomerations of physicists, chemists, electrical engineers, production engineers, and mathematicians collectively gave birth to the hardware, software, and connectivity that are the digital age. Volunteers are quite useful but sometimes the quiet introvert hiding in his cubicle has something really valuable to add. Our more predatory organizations may be biased toward combat arms skillsets; this would be a mistake. A logistician could be the one who solves a land-based maritime fires dilemma. Field Marshal Heinz Guderian worked as a signal officer but was critical in pioneering Blitzkrieg. Also, the senior personnel must not walk into the room having already solved the problem. The discriminator for your teams’ membership must not be age, rank, or branch, but willingness to learn.


The single minded “Eureka!” moment is a myth. Most big ideas come from collaboration among dynamic networks, the most successful motivated by collective achievement. Our units have most of the ideas needed to solve any possible problem, but we’ll need more than just a tiger team. Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it will require the fullest possible breadth of our personal and professional networks.

Establishing forums that provide peer review for the above mentioned teams’ findings, in meetings, VTCs, email groups, and beer calls is vitally important. Such forums should possess a mix of Shark Tank and TED talk type of content, always followed up by further collaboration. Embracing a flat network model over hierarchical development may make some supervisors uncomfortable. Some networks of experts may need coaching to be a receptive audience. Collaborative forums don’t work with only stone faced senior raters in attendance. The teams should challenge convention — the discussion is only productive if someone challenges back. Trust in disciplined initiative will move us from the temptation of control to empowering risk taking.


The good work that was done learning how to “ask the right questions” during the last fifteen years of complex counterinsurgency is still valid. Multidomain, megacity, and Gray Zone problems are big, fluffy concepts that can drive change, but innovation must be more than a buzzword. These awe inspiring dilemmas must be broken down into nuts-and-bolts solvable equations. It may take several rounds of analysis to decipher where a programming or process issue lies without even scratching the surface of how one would solve that problem. A good problem statement will guide a project in the presence of competing equities and even in the face of unresolvable constraints. We may not yet have a latest generation missile or optic on hand, and that’s okay. The tactic that we write to engage a cruise missile bearing surface ship with an HIMARS rocket will be a really good starting point once a metal sensing warhead is fielded.


Innovation for the combat leader doesn’t have to be expensive but it will not be without risk. First and foremost; places like Bell Labs and Xerox PARC allowed for, and even congratulated, failure. After a setback, Thomas Edison once said he hadn’t failed, he’d simply discovered 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb. We need to convince people that their ideas are worth sharing by investing in a non-attributional but competitive environment. Failure on experimental projects must be rewarded with light-hearted communal awards but be specifically unrepresented in formal evaluations. It is worth noting, here, that even a mediocre solution may be amazing in the face of a failing median. Commanders must also underwrite wild successes. Not only is innovation an inherent gamble but it carries the risk of creative destruction i.e. innovating yourself out of a job; a problem for stakeholders in any setting. True innovators are not worried by this, because they are problem solvers, and there are always more questions out there that will seize their interest.


Underwriting risk is most important in terms of resource decisions. In the recent history of Silicon Valley innovation, some groups were flush with capital, some were not. The monetary resource commitment necessary to spark the innovation may be as light as buying the beer for a Saturday night brainstorm or as heavy as funding lots of travel to answer hard questions. The most important resource is the long period of time that ideas take to mature and coalesce.

An hour-long working group, among ten other working groups, isn’t going to create the innovative thinking and responsive solutions General Milley is looking to produce. A premium of man-hours and money are required to meet the Army’s goals for sustainable readiness. Commanders will need to intervene and assume risk on what their organizations will not do in order to create space for innovation. In a world of personnel rotation, performance evaluation, and budget cycles, this will be very challenging. Only commander involvement can really separate talented people from already overwhelming daily tasks to provide space for deep introspection and wide collaboration.

None of the above suggestions are intended to indicate that the U.S. Army does not need new systems or that the institution isn’t doing anything to innovate, far from it. Events in Ukraine and study of Chinese Anti-access/Area Denial capabilities demonstrate that our force has much acquisition work left to do. However, it was a young Army sergeant, not Detroit Tank Arsenal, who innovated scores of Sherman tanks out of hedgerow death traps after the Normandy invasion. There are plenty of problem-solving programs underway, from Defense Entrepreneur’s Forum to Mad Scientist forums. These projects are good but don’t really drive the rough-shod tinkering required of a low level innovative process.

Also, it’s been well demonstrated that most important military innovations have previously occurred in peacetime, not during war. Contemporary military leaders won’t likely get an “inter-war period” to sort things out. We’ll have to do what we can, with what we’ve got, while fighting a vicious cycle of novel security threats.

As with anything else we do, battlefield innovation begins with commanders. It will take inspired officers and non-commissioned officers, across services and even nationalities, to work out the solutions to targeting moving ships from the land or sequencing cyber effects, air delivered fires, and ground forces against an enemy network. Those leaders must be well motivated because the constraints of proprietary data streams, releasability of targeting data, and a maddening diversity of technocratic lexicons will conspire to protect the status quo. Cultivating inspiration requires a climate where ideas are allowed, then experimented on, matured, and integrated with others. Commanders must find the right people, create networks, embrace risk, and apply resources to kindle the fires of innovation that are resident in their own formations. Real innovation is ugly and disjointed; it’s white boards & coffee stains. The important thing is that we start a process.

Captain Chris Telley, U.S. Army, is currently the Information Operations Officer for United States Army, Japan at Camp Zama, Japan. He holds a B.A. from the University of North Georgia. His past assignments include 1st Squadron of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 1st Squadron of the 4th U.S. Cavalry, and Office of the Secretary of Defense Joint Test Unit. He commanded in Afghanistan and served in Iraq as a United States Marine. He tweets at @chris_telley . The above statements are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Government.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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