Best Defense

‘Innovation as a Discipline, Not Fad’

“Successful new innovators ask, ‘What must be true for this idea to succeed?’”

Left: Major General Julian Ewell in 1968. (Octofoil magazine); Right: General Frederick Weyand. (United States Army)
Left: Major General Julian Ewell in 1968. (Octofoil magazine); Right: General Frederick Weyand. (United States Army)

That’s the title of an article in the “New England Journal of Medicine.”

It’s interesting to see how innovation is thought about in other fields. Medicine is different from war in that doctors operate every day, but some officers can go through an entire career without ever seeing combat.

That said, the authors, David Asch and Roy Rosin, list four basic questions that need to be addressed in considering an innovation:

  1. “Does anyone want it?”
  2. “What will people do with it?”
  3. “What happens if people actually use it?”

Finally, “Successful new innovators ask, ‘What must be true for this idea to succeed?’”

Asking those four questions should help anyone working to change the U.S. military.

In another article, Asch and another co-author, Kevin Volpp (who between them have earned two MDs, a PhD and an MBA), ask the interesting question: What business are we in? (They reference the famous example of railroad men thinking they were in the railroad business, when they actually were in the transportation business — a misconception that blinded them to the threats posed to their business by cars, trucks and planes.) Their point is that doctors should consider if they are in the business of providing health care (that is, input) or health (outcome).

What business are you in? It’s a worthwhile question because it is the beginning of the first question in developing strategy. I think the three strategic questions are:

  1. Who are we?
  2. What are we trying to do?
  3. How are we going to do that?

For example, I think that in the Vietnam War, then-Maj. Gen. Julian Ewell, fighting in the Delta, thought he was in the business of killing. To his north, then-Maj. Gen. Frederick Weyand thought he was in the business of protecting the people. Both thought that their way ultimately was the way to prevailing.

Image credit: Octofoil magazine/U.S. Army

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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