Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

‘An innovative thinker is someone who thinks innovatively,’ or, why Army officers have a hard time discussing innovation

Army Col. Eric Aslakson tackles that problem in a good article in the May issue of ARMY magazine.

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Army Col. Eric Aslakson tackles that problem in a good article in the May issue of ARMY magazine. “With respect to doctrine, the Army relies mainly on circular definitions to describe innovation and creativity,” he writes. For example, he notes that Pub. 6-22, on “Army Leadership,” tells us that “creative thinking involves thinking in innovative ways.” Or, more plainly, creative thinking requires one to think creatively.

Basically, the Army lacks the vocabulary to discuss innovation. People often confuse it with adaptation. (Adaptation is going from a manual typewriter to an electric — that is, doing the same thing better. Innovation is doing something differently — say, inventing the laptop. As Peter Drucker put it, innovation is “change that creates a new dimension of performance.”) The problem may be that innovation is like sex and sports — everyone thinks they’re an expert, just from life experience. In fact, innovation is a discipline, with a history that should be studied, methods that can be learned, and an recognizable environment that finds ways to encourage serious thinking.

Or, as Colonel Aslakson puts it, “In short, our young officers and NCOs are generally not encouraged to actively question, observe, network and experiment across a broad diversity of organizations and environments… so they are not positioned to make the critical associations that drive innovation across all endeavors.”

Army Col. Eric Aslakson tackles that problem in a good article in the May issue of ARMY magazine. “With respect to doctrine, the Army relies mainly on circular definitions to describe innovation and creativity,” he writes. For example, he notes that Pub. 6-22, on “Army Leadership,” tells us that “creative thinking involves thinking in innovative ways.” Or, more plainly, creative thinking requires one to think creatively.

Basically, the Army lacks the vocabulary to discuss innovation. People often confuse it with adaptation. (Adaptation is going from a manual typewriter to an electric — that is, doing the same thing better. Innovation is doing something differently — say, inventing the laptop. As Peter Drucker put it, innovation is “change that creates a new dimension of performance.”) The problem may be that innovation is like sex and sports — everyone thinks they’re an expert, just from life experience. In fact, innovation is a discipline, with a history that should be studied, methods that can be learned, and an recognizable environment that finds ways to encourage serious thinking.

Or, as Colonel Aslakson puts it, “In short, our young officers and NCOs are generally not encouraged to actively question, observe, network and experiment across a broad diversity of organizations and environments… so they are not positioned to make the critical associations that drive innovation across all endeavors.”

Btw, ARMY magazine continues to impress me. It used to be at the back of the pack of military magazine — ProceedingsMarine Corps Gazette, and so on. But for the last couple of years, it has led the way. AUSA is to be congratulated for this.

Photo credit: JOSH JANSSEN/Flickr

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. Twitter: @tomricks1

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