VIEWPOINT EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES
Innovation Does Not March — It Calls Cadence
“No answers exist in these walls.” This is a mantra taught in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps, or I-Corps. The statement seems simple, but its gravity is profound. The I-Corps program teaches academics and entrepreneurs about lean startup techniques and how they can be used to de-risk a startup long before years and millions of dollars are spent.
The lessons from I-Corps along with many others from the lean startup community are prescriptive for modern defense innovation and acquisition, and may provide insights for the Army and the broader military acquisition ecosystem.
Perhaps the first lesson is that innovation should solve a problem. A cynical view might suggest that deploying a new weapon system has nothing to do with a Silicon Valley lean startup method. One might argue that weapon systems hold to their own unique ecosystems and purpose. However, abstract away all the complicating factors and the naked problem remains. The magic of modern innovation frameworks reveals itself when one views the weapon system as a response to a customer problem, which in this case happens to be a military problem.
Given the recent surprise launch of the Chinese hypersonic delivery platform, it is with a sense of irony that in the technology innovation ecosystem, a breakout success is called “escape velocity.” However, this term based on the U.S. lunar program suggests the mindset in the civilian innovation ecosystem.
Escape velocity is the concept that the innovation, either through its merit or execution, cannot be matched by market forces, competitors, or otherwise. This approach allows for groundbreaking innovation, the revolutions in innovation that are “capital-I innovation” and give such a profound advantage that the competition sees it as insurmountable.
Now consider a specific application such as long-range precision artillery fire. The customer, the battlespace owner, has several problems to solve. It needs to effectively engage the adversary earlier and before the adversary can engage the battlespace owner. Further, the owner needs precision, owing to the economy of force principle. This problem set is not new. Rather it is one any commander would be familiar with. For example, Mehmed the Conqueror would have faced it as he aimed his large artillery at the fortified walls of Constantinople. This advent represented a capital-I Innovation: reliable fortification defeat by artillery.
Over time, innovators and foundries met this defend-attack problem set with larger cannons, thicker walls, new powder formulations and angular defenses, to name a few. This model of incremental innovation carried cannon development forward for nearly 450 years until another capital-I Innovation occurred with the French development of the hydro-pneumatic recoil mechanism. This innovation changed combat going forward. Commanders could quickly and accurately put more rounds on target than ever before and reliably mount guns on moving platforms.
This innovation led to further developments in long-range precision fires and armor that were never possible previously.
This changed the face of battle as we know it today.
While the battlespace evolved considerably between the two advents, both represented capital-I Innovation and shaped subsequent combat.
Both had problem sets that commanders and innovators solved by applying newly available practices enabled by technology. When asked what the problem set was for both cases, it is likely a commander would have stated it was indeed long-range precision fires. Neither invention would have likely existed if the innovators had not integrated practices and technologies outside of their known military capabilities.
They did not invent something completely from nothing. Rather, they synthesized a novel application — in this case a military application. Innovation did not march, but rather, called cadence, and commanders had no choice but to listen.
Regardless of what lean innovation framework defense innovators employ, there is a common element in all civilian frameworks that is instructive to follow. All frameworks take this problem-back approach to understand and empathize with the customer problem. Whether it is called “jobs to be done,” “unique value proposition,” or simply “problem,” it does not matter.
It is the empathy with the customer problem that matters — getting into their workspace and feeling the customer problem firsthand. It requires humility of the innovator to understand that their solution may not solve the problem.
To pose a solution and seek a problem is called solution fitting and rarely solves the issue as effectively as a pure problem-back approach.
These frameworks abstract the problem away from the known constraints. Abstraction like this allows for innovators to look at the problem set without the anchors or distractors of what has been done before. This helps overcome the status quo bias. Innovation can occur with a status quo bias, but it tends to be incremental and safe — no reason to disrupt what was done in the past. However, for capital-I Innovation the status quo bias must be minimized.
As Steve Blank wrote in The Startup Owner’s Manual and Dan Olsen highlighted in The Lean Product Playbook — and now wholly incorporated in the I-Corps program — there are no answers in these walls. To really understand a problem, innovators must talk to customers.
What does that mean for the Army and defense? Who is the customer?
Defining the customer is not easy. First, it is important to understand what a customer is. In the classic definition, it is one who will exchange something of value for a product or service. In defense applications this definition is not quite as straightforward. One could argue that it is the taxpayer that is the ultimate customer for defense, but that simplifies the definition too much in a military problem set context.
Perhaps commanders are the customer, as they are the ones interested in the outcomes produced by a weapon system. For purposes of defense applications, the definition becomes broader as it likely includes the soldiers deploying, sustaining and using the weapon systems. Together they all make part of the chain that realizes the value of the weapon system and outcomes that the taxpayer desired for the nation’s military might.
In applying the “no answers exist in these walls” mantra, it is these customers that innovators need to be talking to and understanding their problems. The innovator should look for ways to address their problems in an integrated approach, because no warfighting function exists in a world unto itself. These customers understand the problem set at a visceral level that no PowerPoint slide deck can capture in a headquarters briefing room.
The unique aspect of defense and battlefield applications complicates the lean approach of understanding the customer problem and delivering a solution.
Nearly every new practice enabled by technology has long-chain effects, whether supply or command and control. Defense innovators need to be sensitive to ripple effects and solve the problems that arise from new innovation, whether incremental or capital-I Innovation. Here, history is instructive. Even the great recent innovators like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk did not single-handedly solve all the long-chain problems introduced by their innovation. That is the purpose of a team.
Getting out and talking to customers is revealing. Innovators will quickly learn if customers share their perceptions of the problems and, more importantly, the ground truth. It allows innovators to test hypotheses and pivot before costly investment into systems or ventures goes too far.
The soldier touchpoint for any program is a revealing moment that often comes too late as a defense system developer found when a soldier asked why the test system could not be as easy to use as the soldier’s phone.
Defense innovators should take these modern innovation frameworks to heart and engage their customers as early and as often as is feasible.
Talking to customers is as much art as it is science. Henry Ford famously quipped, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Whether apocryphal or not, it drives the point that innovators must take customer feedback as directional, not as a destination.
Applying data science to customer interviews and looking for the underlying themes and messages are how many big tech firms guide product innovation. The call center has become these companies’ greatest data mine for insights because it concentrates the problems customers are dealing with. A defense innovator may find the dining facility or wash racks equally productive.
Unlocking value through innovation is not easy. There are whole virtual communities in high-tech dedicated to innovation and lean product development. This community of practice approach may be instructive for defense innovation.
Innovation is stubborn and refuses to give up its secrets to those not willing to work hard, and innovation certainly does not march upon order. Rather it must be cultivated.
The defense industry and the military services can learn a valuable technique in talking with the customer to understand the customer problem deeply. That will lead to innovation and developing solutions that solve those problems more quickly than happens today.
For when innovation calls cadence, we all march.
Maj. Ray K. Ragan serves as an Army Reserve officer, with combat tours in Iraq and the Philippines and multiple mobilizations around the world. He currently is an innovation officer with the Army 75th Innovation Command and leads the Arizona Tech Scouting Team.
Topics: Emerging Technologies