Wednesday, November 6, 2013

DEF2013, Intrapreneurship and Learning to Innovate Within the System

Over Columbus Day weekend a group of almost 100 individuals from vastly different backgrounds came together for the inaugural Defense Entrepreneurs Forum 2013 ( to discuss innovation in the military and how to affect positive change in a large organization.  Held at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, the DEF2013 audience consisted of military members (from midshipman to general officer), civilian engineers, academics, entrepreneurs, journalists and students.  But most importantly, participants were there because they believed in the cause, not simply because they were getting a free weekend in Chicago.  With the government shutdown cancelling official travel plans most participants paid their own way to DEF2013.  They chose to spend three days with strangers, connected by a passion for their country and a dedication to improving the organizations that are tasked with her defense.  This was not a place for detractors – every attendee was committed to being constructive and pragmatic in his or her approach to the toughest problems facing today’s military.

DEF2013 isn’t the first conference to focus on military innovation, but it was unique in several ways.  First, it was organized independently by a group of officers without official DoD support and with little funding from external sources, allowing the conference to remain free of influence from special interests.  But perhaps more importantly, rank was literally removed from the room.  Uniforms were absent and participants wore badges that identified a person only by name and organization.  Although everyone maintained the proper customs and courtesies, the universal commitment to the cause and the informal setting allowed attendees of every rank to fully participate and be heard.  For a long weekend at least, the lack of an overt display of rank allowed for a more free exchange of ideas.  

The military blogosphere has been saturated with recaps of this ground-breaking event (check here and here) and most of the talks are available on the DEF2013 YouTube channel. So rather than give a full after action here are some of key takeaways from the weekend that young innovative Marines and Sailors might find useful.

-“Know your stuff.”  First and foremost, be tactically and technically proficient in everything that you do.  Being good at your day job helps build credibility and trust.  Working hard to ensure proficiency will poise senior leaders to be more receptive when you throw a ‘crazy’ idea out there.  Second, be right.  If you have an idea that goes against the existing conventional wisdom, ensure that it is well-reasoned and represents real improvement on the status-quo.  

-“Good execution trumps a great idea.”  It is easy to pontificate around the water cooler or to write an article on one of the dozens of military blogs.  But an idea is just that, a bunch of words on paper.  Put some skin in the game and try to implement your idea.  It may not turn out exactly as you envisioned, but you’ll get further along than by doing nothing.

-“Junior Leader Innovation isn’t new.” Any leader can rattle off dozens of times that a young Marine has come up with an innovative idea and improved a unit.  In a great talk available online, LCDR BJ Armstrong tells the story of Vice Admiral William Sims who, while a lowly Lieutenant in the early 20thcentury, changed Naval gunnery foreverno small task in the age of the battleship.  

LT Sims’ real success wasn’t in the development of the technique (he stole that from the British), but in his ability to convince the stodgy bureaucracy to implement change.  To do so he was willing to take big risks and gamble with his career, and in what he would later call the “rankest kind of insubordination” he wrote directly to the President of the United States.  

Then President Theodore Roosevelt‘s response?  “Give him entire charge of target practice for eighteen months, do exactly as he says.  If he does not accomplish anything in that time, cut off his head and try someone else.”  

The rest, they say, is history.  

File:William sowden sims.jpg
As a young Lieutenant, Vice Admiral Sims affected change within the Navy, although he later admitted that writing directly to the President was “the rankest kind of insubordination.”

-“Intrapreneurship versus entrepreneurship.” Changing an organization, especially one like the military, is difficult to do from the inside.  Its even harder to do from the outside.  In another great presentation Major Peter Munson (USMC, ret) made an analogy between predators and those best equipped to affect change from the inside.  Be tactically proficient, know when to strike, and when you do, execute with extreme violence of action.  

In another story about great intrapreneurship, a participant relayed the story of two innovative officers who worked for change in the Army just before World War II.  In 1919 the two men, one an infantry officer the other a cavalryman, discussed a better way to use the tank, then a nascent technology.  However, an article proposing an alternative to the existing doctrine did not go over well, and the Army Chief of Infantry himself threatened the young author with court-marshal if he published again.  The author of the offending article?  A young Major Dwight Eisenhower, then with only five years in the Army.  The cavalry officer?  Lieutenant Colonel George Patton, who went on to become one of the most accomplished and innovative tank commanders in World War II.  

                                         What if Eisenhower had left the Army after being told to “shut up and color”?

-“Relationships matter.”  For better or worse, relationships matter, no matter what business you are in.  Having a champion, someone who can provide top cover, is often just as important as a great idea.  Change can be threatening to an organization and being able to convince people otherwise takes skill and relationship building.  More often than not someone in a position of power must take notice to facilitate change.  For junior innovators this means learning to establish strong personal relationships based on trust.  For mid-level and senior leaders this means looking after young innovators.  

Why is DEF important to the Marine Corps?
Interwar periods are traditional times for innovation.  Pete Ellis wrote his seminal work Advanced Base Operations in Micronesia, in 1921, twenty years before it became the foundation of the Marine Corps’ island hopping campaign in World War II.  The transport of troops via helicopter, also known as vertical envelopment, was developed between World War II and the Korean War.  More recently, in 1989 a young Captain John Schmitt wrote FMFM-1 “Warfighting”, codifying the Marine Corps adoption of Maneuver Warfare as doctrine.  

Somewhere in our battletested Corps is the next Pete Ellis or John Schmitt.  Nurturing these young innovative leaders is imperative to ensuring the continued success and relevance of our Corps.  As we transition from of 12 years of combat, organizations and movements like DEF will help facilitate the type of thinking that we need to excel on the next battlefield.  We at the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum don’t claim to have all the answers, but we're working to ask the right questions.  

Capt Mike "Squirrel" Christman is an AH-1W pilot and a board member of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum 2013.