Building an Innovation Ecosystem Part 1: Culture and Framework

An innovation ecosystem is a set of beliefs, capabilities, and practices that enable people throughout an organization to identify problems and create solutions. It requires an organization to flatten itself by removing obstacles to ideation and collaboration. At the same time, it requires clarity of purpose from the organization’s leaders. In the Information Age, building in innovation ecosystem is vital to survival for every organization in every industry.

Several months ago, I wrote an article on why we need an innovation ecosystem in the U.S. military, and have since worked hard with my teammates to build one within our unit. This series is about the lessons we are learning along the way. While we are a large military unit, this series is written for any type of organization looking to develop the culture, framework, and resources needed to generate ideas internally and move them forward. Just substitute Air Force with your company, and Airmen/troops with your employees in the discussion below.

Infographic by TSgt Andrew Cleland describing our wing’s innovation ecosystem.

This first installment of the series will focus on lessons related to culture and framework, while follow-on posts will dive deeper into practices — including resourcing, project management, DevOps, and education. It’s important to note we are still learning. We do not claim to have anything figured out or to have a recipe for success. What we have is experience in doing something inspiring, fun, frustrating, worthwhile, and very necessary.

With that, let’s dive into the first lessons we learned as we began building our innovation ecosystem.

Avoid innovation theater. Too often, top-down innovation programs fail to address the critical question of what motivates young, innovative troops to to put themselves and their ideas out there (hint: saving the military money isn’t it). In our organization, Airmen want to believe they can actually change the Air Force for the better. There’s nothing wrong with setting up innovation labs, conducting hack-a-thons, or putting out infographics like the one here, but all of these are simply innovation theater if leaders aren’t actually listening to our troops’ ideas. Airmen-driven innovations must, at a minimum, generate a needed conversation among senior leaders. We have good reasons to listen to our troops’ ideas if we consider the pace of change affecting everyone in the Information Age, which brings us to another important point.

Know why you are innovating. Like everything else happening within an organization, innovation has to have a purpose. Finding the right reasons to innovate will determine whether an ecosystem ultimately emerges. Our organization scaled years ago based on an industrial model of intelligence production. Our Airmen processed, exploited, and disseminated intelligence data for further analysis downstream. As we flooded command and operations centers with indigestible amounts of data, we recognized our value proposition wasn’t how much data we threw into the system, but what relevant data we discovered for our mission partners.

Our unit started viewing itself as a discovery organization, which changed our approach to innovation. Our purpose shifted from industrial intelligence production to creating, developing, and integrating knowledge and data at speed and scale in order to discover threats and opportunities for decision-makers. One of our brilliant senior non-commissioned officers led us through a gamestorming exercise to uncover this idea during a leadership conference. This new purpose allowed Airmen-driven innovation to focus on developing new software, relationships, and services that ultimately addressed the problems related to discovery rather than production.

This experience provided us a critical lesson regarding innovation. A bureaucracy will always favor and incentivize activities it can easily measure, which tend to be outputs from industrial processes. Innovating within industrial processes has always happened, but an innovation ecosystem can only emerge when an organization favors problem-solving over process-following. That shift can happen when an organization clearly understands and articulates its core purpose and value proposition.

This is only the start, however. An innovation ecosystem will not organically emerge simply because an organization is aware of its why as it were. It also depends on the entire organization to value learning, which highlights another important lesson.

Embrace discovery learning. One of the biggest flaws of military culture regarding change management is the requirement to spell out a concept of operations (CONOPS) before making an investment in resources. CONOPS development is often a painful staffing process. When the CONOPS takes its final form, it’s often flawed from the satisficing needed to make it acceptable to various stakeholders. As we execute the CONOPS, the flaws inevitably emerge, and we double down with resources in an attempt to overcome them.

This linear approach to change is akin to the Waterfall Model the private sector has largely replaced with Agile, Lean, and Design Thinking methodologies. These latter three models embrace discovery learning, productive failure, and pivoting as normal business practices. It became clear to us an ecosystem would only emerge if we adopted the core ideas behind these methodologies. We had to be willing to make an investment of time and resources into projects that have a direction, but no clear path to the destination (which itself may be a little fuzzy). Figuring out what those projects were depended on our unit holding discrete events to discuss which efforts to invest in — which brings us to the last point.

Create venues that bring out ideas. We created a Shark Tank style venue, called Innovation at the Edge (I@E), where Airmen pitch minimum viable products to me and members of our unit and higher headquarters staff. We play the role of venture capitalists — judging if an idea has a market, if the team behind the idea has passion and experience with the problem, and if the product or idea can evolve further with right investment. We have another venue called Innovate, Collaborate, Organize, and Network (ICON), which is a TED talk format where Airmen (young enlisted and officer ranks) pitch ideas on policy changes or capability development.

While the ideas and MVPs are valuable, the greatest aspect of I@E and ICON is the learning that takes place. It is very common for ideas to take new form after Airmen innovators connect during the venues. We also collectively define new moonshots (big ideas) and roof shots (incremental steps to get there) for our organization. Put simply, bottom-up innovation venues create incredibly valuable conversations, ideas, and connections that won’t happen anywhere else.

Creating a venue isn’t enough, however. The lead up and the follow through are more valuable to the ecosystem than the venue itself. That is what I’ll focus on in future posts to this series. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas, and lessons on building an innovation culture and framework in your organization.