Defense can apply a set of flexible parameters to keep the practice of innovation relevant and meaningful.
In just under 60 pages, the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review uses some form of the word innovation 33 times. That’s more than you’ll find the terms soldier, Air Force, coordination, direction, and policy—combined. Colleagues across defense agree that innovation is invaluable to security. However, many attempts to innovate still fall short. In order for innovative ventures to have the best chance at success, and for the notion of innovation to stay fresh, the Defense Department’s focus must turn to how and where innovation should occur.
In dealing with these organizational issues, the department has been encouraging its procurement officials to strike a balance between thoroughness and adaptiveness. Recognizing the barriers to effective innovation in traditional procurement channels, the Pentagon’s leadership has stood up innovation incubators across the enterprise. These include service-specific innovation hubs like the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF), joint options like the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), and a host of other centers across the DoD’s Fourth Estate, including the department’s self-described “primary innovation engine”—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Having options is good, but knowing which option to choose is where things get tough.
To begin to address these questions of how and where, the leadership must look at whom the innovation impacts, when it needs to go into effect, and how sensitive it is. If it’s going to affect a ground combat soldier without touching the lives of naval officers or Air Force pilots, then a place like the REF should get the first look. If the innovative solution is needed urgently, and falls within the proper scope, then it would make sense to look to JIEDDO, which is sanctioned to act with added flexibility to rapidly procure counter-IED systems. If the mission is highly sensitive, it is likely destined for a development center in the “black world,” such as SOCOM’s Special Operations Research Development and Acquisition Center (SORDAC).
That’s a good start, but most innovations don’t fit neatly into this limited calculus. To appropriately delegate such missions—whether to a longstanding hub for deliberate acquisitions or to one of the department’s many innovation cells— a checklist of second-order considerations must also be assessed. These parameters turn black and white into gray, but also can help facilitate higher success rates for innovative ventures:
Be wary of innovating jointly. Though it is generally agreed that service-specific innovations should go to service-level organizations, the reverse should not necessarily be true. The notion of a joint program has come under fire both from technical experts and business interests alike. Even when multiple services come together to set up a joint program office, it is rarely a joint environment. One agency usually takes the lead, and service-unique variants emerge.
This organizational reality—though not innately problematic— has a habit of compounding administrative responsibilities rather than lessening the load, often contributing to duplicative, layered reporting requirements and convoluted lines of authority. And, in these environments, the uphill battle to be nimble and innovative becomes even steeper. Looking at the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, RAND has argued that the program would have produced more cost-effective and more technically-sound designs if it had not been developed jointly, even though the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps all use the plane. To this end, joint innovations may benefit from economies of scale, but they run the risk of churning out sub-optimal products at a higher price.
Keep technology king in the innovation enterprise. Innovative missions should be directed with close attention to the nature of the technology that will come into play. An innovation in guided missile technology and a modernization effort in vehicle armor should not be, and typically are not, co-mingled. As such, many acquisition hubs should be ruled out if the project does not align with the scope of requirements they are equipped to handle. It is also critical to assign innovative missions to places where appropriate technological expertise resides. The Armed Aerial Scout helicopter and Ground Combat Vehicle programs failed at least in part because these service-specific innovations lacked the technical firepower within the Army to see them through.
Don’t forget the human element. A virtuous cycle can be put in motion by presenting an innovative mission to the right person. A program manager with strong ties with his service acquisition executive can expect to enjoy broader latitude in taking an innovative acquisition activity through its lifecycle; lines of authority can become clearer and bureaucracy can be reduced. Fortunately, the acquisition leads across much of the department are seasoned professionals in acquisition. The Army’s Heidi Shyu, the Navy’s Sean Stackley, and the Pentagon’s overall chief Frank Kendall all boast three or more years in their current roles. They know the landscape of potential champions well, and should prove effective in setting up innovative platforms for successful execution.
Deliberating on how to grow an innovative solution too often ends in it depends. Granted, there should not be a rigid, inflexible process for delegating innovative missions. But successfully bringing forth novel technology and business solutions is entirely possible so long as decision-makers ask the right questions. The parameters laid out above—though far from exhaustive— can help new initiatives find their right homes and prevent the term innovation from becoming a stale, ill-defined buzzword.
Alex Haber is a business analyst in the national security practice at Censeo Consulting Group. Jeff Jeffress is a managing director and the head of the national security practice at Censeo Consulting Group.