Military Strategy for Innovation

Dr. Thomas Barnett has been advising the US government on foreign policy and national security for some time now. A few years back Barnett spoke at TED, which is conference of leading minds and creatives, on military policy and battle procedure. Barnett explained that military strategists have long struggled with two seemingly opposing responsibilities. On one hand you have a force that must advance and gain new ground. The is the “take the hill” band of soldiers that is built, bread, and designed to advance and attack. On the other side of the coin you need to secure and occupy the ground that has already been taken. This is a significantly different task with significantly different requirements upon the soldiers.

Consider organizations and how they come about. A small business starts up and is reved to “take the hill”. Things are relatively low on complexity with little administration needed. Innovative risk is just part of the daily routine and creative thought is considered normal. Everyday is a risk, working to gain ground and advance the organization. At some point though you begin to require the ability to hold ground. Organizations make the switch from an advancing force with nothing to loose to a organization with ground to hold. It’s a mindset change that involves less risk and significantly greater administrative energy.  So things begin to drift from advance to occupy, and soon the advancement stops or significantly slows. Organizations can become a bloated occupying force, built exclusively to hold the hill with little ability or stomach for innovative risk.

With this in mind we can see why it can be so very difficult for existing organizations to embrace innovation or creative movement. Long standing organizations are full of administrative occupiers – and there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that. It isn’t the occupying that is wrong, it’s loosing the stomach for advancement that matters. You get a company with people wired to think about keeping the organization running, holding the position, and implementing structure, policy, and procedure to keep some sort of equilibrium. It’s important for leaders to understand that the clashes with innovation and creativity are often not simply a matter of “young, idealistic, kids and old, stick-in-the-mud, grandpas”. It’s a matter of “advancers” and “occupiers”. They’re different directives and it takes skill and understanding to manage these groups effectively. It’s why innovation is really a culture as much as anything. It’s developing that team of advancers who’s only concern is taking the hill.

As you drive innovation or creativity in your organization, remember that both sides are important. It’s important to hold the ground you have and advance on new territory. Doing so requires a delicate balance of administrative structure and risky innovation.

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