Military Innovation: The Leadership Dimension


2015-06-08 By Dr. Les Nunn

In his article entitled “Re-Norming the Asymmetric Advantage in Air Dominance: ‘Going to War With the Air Force You Have,’” former Secretary of the Air Force, the Honorable Michael W. Wynne, concluded his paper with

“This march towards the future must begin in our imagination as we cannot assume that historical success will be replicated in the future without innovative thinking and serious planning.”

After pointing out the reality of not getting the desired funding to effectively develop a new air force, he addressed the issue of how best could the existing assets be best utilized.

In his well-reasoned position, Secretary Wynne suggested that fifth aircraft work hand-in-glove with fourth generation fighters in future battles.

He highlighted the role of fifth generation aircraft as scouts and battle managers with legacy aircraft providing density and weapons support.

Assuming this is the desired approach, how best can it be accomplished?

Innovative thinking is key here.

In interviewing many innovative thinkers (Ross Perot, Dr. Stephen Covey, George Foreman, Jack Hanna, among numerous others) for my books “The Creative Genius” and “Creating a Genius Company,” I found a number of consistent keys to success in creative people and creative businesses that can be applied here.

The traits of successful people included imagination, feelings for others, contrarians in thinking, loaners, passion, ability to look for patterns and find relationships, visualization, focus, determination, commitment, daring to be different, striving for constant improvement, and the ability to look at a situation from a number of different angles.

When delving into the backgrounds of these highly innovative people, it was learned that each of them had a widely varied history of jobs before launching their very creative business.

These backgrounds were across the board, but each job held had taught the person skills that, when combined with skills learned in other vocations, enabled the ultimate creation and operation of the new, successful, innovative company.

One person, for instance, was a truck driver, policeman, judo athlete, mailman, horse trainer, jewelry designer, and award winning artist. While some might consider him a failure in that he had so many different jobs, he ultimately became an Olympic competitor, three time U.S. champion, and a United States Congressman who was a very valuable asset to the military in obtaining needed funding. This was possible as he could easily see the big picture of what the Air Force was trying to accomplish and understood how the proposed subparts would effectively go together to make the military more powerful when adequately funded.

This concept is not new.

It was first experimented with in 1944.

In 1948 the Rock Pool Experiment was started with 20 artists who were brought together.

The consulting firm Arthur D. Little, Inc. was involved with this, but took it to another level with a new group composed of a physicist, electromechanical engineer, anthropologist, graphic artist and a sculptor.

A time of budget constriction is a time for thinking; not shrinking from innovation. At the heart of the decade ahead is the ABSOLUTE requirement for a clear commitment to innovation.  Credit Image; Bigstock
A time of budget constriction is a time for thinking; not shrinking from innovation. At the heart of the decade ahead is the ABSOLUTE requirement for a clear commitment to innovation. Credit Image; Bigstock

The synergy developed between these people of totally different backgrounds was surprising. Problem solving became easier as each vocation brought into the picture a fresh way of thinking about a problem.

This was recently shown to be true again with Simon Fraser University.

They combined experts in the fields of biology, chemistry and physics to study the toes of the lizard Gecko.

The resulting combined study led to the invention of a tailless timing belt climbing platform that can go up vertically smooth walls.

Biochemists at the University of Washington had worked unsuccessfully for many years to solve the structure of a retrovirus enzyme.

Finally, they put the problem onto the computer game “Foldit,” which allows multiple players to work together in solving problems. Using Foldit, non-scientific computer game players were able to create models good enough for the scientists to refine them and determine the enzyme’s structure.

This combination of science and non-science enabled the non-scientific computer people to do in days what scientists alone could not do in years.

The combining of seemingly unrelated skill sets learned from totally unrelated backgrounds resulted in a highly innovative environment.

In large companies and the military, it is historically not likely that a person will start out in one AFSC and cross-train into a number of apparently unrelated other AFSCs.

And that is not likely to change in the near future.

But following the examples of these highly innovative and creative people studied, it would enhance the future military in a truly needed skill set – innovative problem solving.

Commander’s call-type meetings are an attempt to bring all sub-organizations in a unit together to understand and effectively carry out the mission of that military unit, but more, much more, needs to be involved.

With limited funding, the different services are having to join together in mutual acquisitions and utilization of assets. Not only is this likely to continue, but we will see more integration between the services in budgeting, acquisition, planning, and operations.

Secretary Wynne anticipated this when he said “Tomorrow’s pilots must become strategists in the cockpit, directing the fight from their position as air battle managers.” He anticipated this direction would not only include air assets, but ground forces as well. To be truly coordinated, this must be the case.

There are a number of challenges to shaping an innovative approach forward.

The US Army has dominated strategic thinking during the land wars. This has meant that joint thinking has really been about support to US Army operations, but what Wynne is talking about, as a former West Pointer, is joint effects from a joint force.

Another factor which can drastically inhibit this innovative environment is the “generational technological gap” existing between newly entered younger military personnel as compared with their superior “lifers.” Generally, far more technologically advanced younger people can quickly find their “new and better” ideas of how to do the job are not well received by older, senior supervisors.

The current Deputy Commandant of Innovation highlighted the importance of getting on with the F-35 precisely because of what he called the emergence of the I-Pad generation pilots.

The insertion of the aged A-10 into the Washington debate precisely highlights thinking of a non-I Pad generation set of strategic thinking and interests.

For the future of the American military, all services must work together to attain and maintain the ultimate goal of global military effectiveness.

This is especially true when we look at China and other explosive threats in various quadrants of the world.

To accomplish this, several things are required: an open mind that your way might not be the only good way, an in depth understanding of the other services, subordination of some of each service’s goals that conflict with a multilateral joint service operation, joint planning, joint budgeting, joint training, as well as joint operations.

To accomplish this innovative environment, changes must take place in orientation, duty assignments, training, and implementation.

For that to happen, adjustments in mind-sets need to occur.

Any change in this area will require time to effect, in addition to a willingness to accept the change.

Dr. Les Nunn is Professor Emeritus, College of Business, University of Southern India. 

[email protected]