Bringing Innovation to the Military

On March 1, 2016, Former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter spoke with the Commonwealth Club of California. To begin his speech, Carter said, “one of my core goals in this job has been to build, and, in some cases, rebuild the bridges between the Pentagon and America’s wonderfully innovative and strong technology community.”[1] To support that statement, Carter created the defensive innovation advisory board, headed by Eric Schmidt, the Executive Chairman of Alphabet. The board has offered a set of informal recommendations to Carter, including building software platforms and human networks to encourage innovation, sponsoring innovation contests, providing education to advocate collaboration and creative thinking, increasing the recruitment of computer scientists, and spending more on machine learning technologies. Finally, the board suggested the DoD establish a Chief Innovation Officer position, which Carter has made an effort to do. Little has been said about the role of the position, but the Officer would be a senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense.

With innovation becoming the big push, companies have been advised to establish a Chief Innovation Officer. The Forbes article notes, “businesses need to establish uniformity of command by designating a single person to be accountable for their innovative programs.”[2] Guess who disagrees? That’s right, Eric Schmidt. The Chairman of the board who just advised Ashton Carter to hire such position. In his book How Google Works, co-authored by Jonathan Rosenberg, Schmidt writes, “As business managers, we like to manage things. Want something done? Then put someone in charge of it. But innovation stubbornly resists traditional, MBA-style management tactics. Unlike most other things in business, it cannot be owned, mandated, or scheduled.”[3] Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, echoes a similar message about the position. “As soon as a company has a Chief Innovation Officer you know that a company has a problem.”[4]

If adding structure to innovation will only hinder innovation, how does a company/agency encourage or capture innovative ideas? Udi Manber, a previous employee at Google and the former Chief Innovation Officer at Yahoo, comments, “Innovative people do not need to be told to do it, they need to be allowed to do it.”4 So don’t force innovation; evolve it organically.

Then maybe Carter is on the right path with his DIUx initiative. The Defense Innovative Unit Experimental (DIUx) is an experimental group within the Department of Defense with the mission of “accelerating technology into the hands of the men and women in uniform.”[5] The first DIUx technology hub facility opened in Silicon Valley in August 2015. The California team connected innovators with senior level DoD leaders. These connections opened Pentagon funding sources, fellowship, and rotational programs to encourage innovators. Carter then followed a Silicon Valley lesson and decided to iterate DIUx to create DIUx 2.0. This iteration pushed DIUx as a nationwide initiative. Since then, two more DIUx hubs have opened in Boston and Austin, TX. Carter also upgraded the start up’s processing power and operating system. He implemented a flat structure with DIUx 2.0, another a page out Silicon Valley’s playbook. He even snagged Isaac Taylor, a former head of operations at Google X, to join in the leadership team. And finally, Carter reorganized the communication system of DIUx so the unit would report directly to the Secretary.

Of course, none of these efforts mean anything if the new Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, doesn’t continue the work initiated by Carter. But, it has been reported that Mattis will continue to invest in innovation, so it seems as though the innovation advisory board will remain intact, along with the DUIx hubs. So far there is no word on Mattis’s plan to hire a Chief Innovation Officer, but it looks as though the option remains valid.

-Lauren Young



[3] Schmidt, Eric, and Jonathan Rosenberg. How Google Works. New York: Grand Central, 2014. Print.



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