Best Defense

A good article I missed on innovation

"Claiming to be innovative carries about as much weight as declaring a love for puppies"


Back in 2009, Military Review ran a good article on innovation and its discontents. I don’t know why I missed it then, but I was glad that it recently was brought to my attention.

“The problem,” the author, Army Reserve Col. Thomas M. Williams writes, “is… the word innovation is now just a buzzword used to sell everything from software to blenders.” Nowadays, he adds, “Claiming to be innovative carries about as much weight as declaring a love for puppies; it’s easy to say and unpopular to challenge.”

There are a number of problems with this. First, he says, is that Army officers are not naturally innovative. His scary thought: “rank is a reward for articulating what is acceptable” — that is, “for defending the conventional wisdom.”

It is time, he says, not to romanticize innovation. He argues that the Army is actually innovating fairly well, and concludes:

The most important thing senior leaders can do to keep the process vibrant and substantial is to refuse superficial debate, publicly challenge statements (inside and outside of the Army) that fail to meet intellectual standards, and resist the urge to distill thinking and learning down to a matrix where too often the objective is simply to complete a checklist. The way we develop critical thinkers — members of an organization committed to learning — is through practice, not prescription.

Photo credit: sunsets_for_you/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

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