JHU “Rethinking” seminar – “Barriers to Innovation”

The intent of the talk was to examine the evolution of Naval Aviation in order to reveal barriers to change. Here are some thoughts/examples based on the talk that might provide fodder for something in the future:

– military innovation responds to a demand signal. During wartime, the everyday demands of battle provide a clear picture of what works and what does not. Change happens, but almost entirely at the problem solving / tactical level. In peacetime, the demand signal is provided by close coordination between concept generation (eg. war colleges) and development (eg. experimentation centers). Once experimentation has determined what works and what does not, the process of implementation can be pushed from the top down. In the absence of this push, organizations lack the incentive to change, and change will be impeded by an organizational culture built upon the old order.

– peacetime innovation requires a vision, and that vision matters. For example… in the interwar years, the NWC proposed that the carrier was most useful as a means to produce a ‘pulse of power.’ (concept generation) So, the problem to solve became – “how do we get more sorties off the front of the boat?” A concerted effort to achieve this goal combined with a considerable amount of experimentation (and failure) enabled a 4-fold increase (aided by invention of mid-deck high wire). However, the British viewed carrier aviation as a more continuous process… thus, they developed the vastly superior concept of the angled deck (enabled simultaneous launch and recovery) that we later adopted. As another example, in the 50’s 60’s NavAir was distracted by the emphasis on nuclear capability. There was considerable effort expended to develop a carrier borne nuclear delivery option – in part driven by a need to justify NavAir’s existence. There was a vision, but it was driven more by organizational dynamics than by operational/strategic necessity. [[sidenote: the idea of the carrier as a ‘pulse of power’ is still around, and it drives a lot of our operations. A2AD threats can put this concept at risk. The carrier may be in the portion of its “product lifecycle” where we have to examine how we might use it in a new way, not just how use it better in the same way.]]

– slack is essential. In the absence of conflict, proving which technologies, tactics, doctrine, and ideas work is not easy job. It requires experimentation and risk. Experimentation and concept development cannot be accomplished by a “production” organization tasked with quotas and deadlines. It needs to be carried out by a “thinking” organization that is focused on innovation (this is highly consistent with nearly all literature on innovation – see “the ambidextrous organization” in HBR). Think about today’s Navy… they produce “presence” and are stretched thin. What time/resources/people can you use to experiment in such an environment? The NWC has set aside (I’d dare say sequestered) several professors and students and tasked them to examine/wargame certain problems… they have no deadline. They have no defined production. The game is finished and conclusions are reached when logic dictates, not when the school year ends or when the dean needs to publish a paper.

Implications / Questions for JF 2020:
– Does the CCJO provide the vision that will drive innovation? If not, what document will?
– By saying ‘SOF/Cyber/ISR’ are the 20%, are we picking winners without fully examining the problem? Where does experimentation fit into determining the 20%?
– Do our organizational structures create “thinking organizations” within our larger “production organization”? Are concept development and experimentation tied closely enough? Are they linked with leadership that has the wasta to push them on resistant tribes?

The speaker also offered a quote from Petronius (66 AD) that I quite like: “We trained hard — but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.”

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