Illustration by Sir John TennieL

Through the civilian glass

Observations from one more DEF2013 participant

The inaugural Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (#DEF2013) was a success. The reasons for this have already been enumerated. But to summarize: a simple clothing change removed rank and fostered cross service dialogue, twitter facilitated invaluable side conversations and immediate feedback, multiple speeches and discussions offered variety, and people were tasked with tangible outcomes. Having attended tech conferences such as SXSW and a myriad of corporate and think tank events, DEF met or exceeded them all. Really.

This was the conference. But what about the idea?

At the core of DEF’s mission statement, which is being refined, is to be more than a weekend conference or even a network. In a world that is rapidly shifting, DEF is in a unique position to define problems, start conversations, and help cradle solutions which may help the US military function better.

In the spirit of the Field Notes notebooks provided, I am writing these ideas to “remember them now,” not later. And hope they help further the debate.

Good-bye to all that…

Defining a problem in need of a new or better solution is the primary objective of most successful ventures. And DEF’s target problem is clear: the military has an extremely hard time innovating. Basic processes either don’t exist, are unnecessary, convoluted, or simply archaic.

Before you break my civilian glass, remember that most of this is geared toward all aspects of military life outside the institution’s core mission. The problem is not with how we fight, it is with how we assign people to bases, train them in classrooms, utilize their best skill sets, or make information about the nearest commissary readily available. And the beneficiary of such modern and efficient solutions is not just the military, it is also the taxpayer.

There are perhaps countless issues, but I want to focus on four broad barriers preventing change. None of them are surprising. DEF’s evolving approach is unique and could help overcome them; it should be celebrated and supported.

Bureaucracy

Disregarding the prospective length of this post, this is not a place to wax lyrical about the capital B. In fact, to borrow from one DEF speaker, Justice Stewart’s thinking on pornography applies to bureaucracy too: “I know it when I see it.”

And in this spirit, bureaucracy that stifles upward mobility, suffocates new ideas by destroying motivated individuals with paperwork, and provides an endless void that is impossible to fill needs to be prosecuted. This refers to the bureaucracy of process, not ineffective leadership.

DEF attracts participants that are able to “…see it.” They are students of military practices and history, and have an astute appreciation for policies, procedures et al. No one is dropping the gauntlet at the gates of garrisons. DEF is gathering people that can see where the pressure points reside and are motivated to help fix them.

Leadership

Examples of effective leaders and organizations have been beat to death. However, to repeat one oft-cited one, the engineers that thought of and developed GMail did not make Larry Page or Sergey Brin lesser leaders. They made them widely more successful as pioneers of a company that attracts, retains, and fosters talent.

The military has such leaders; many of them. However, even the good ones are skeptical of renegade ideas, having seen too many of them distract soldiers from their primary responsibilities and fail. This is where commercial business models seem too remote. They should not be. It’s adapt, not adopt.

What successful firms are able to do internally, the military may need some outside help. One way to think about DEF may be as a collaborative lab where military “employees” come to achieve what Google has with giving its engineers time to explore. At DEF ideas can be born, iterated, and championed. They can fail, and fail quickly.

The Forum, can also serve as a stamp-of-approval — a signal for leaders to be more willing to accept ideas born out of its process. As a curator of success stories, DEF can offer legitimacy.

Budget

Many domains where DEF participants see room for improvement are, of course, funded. Most, however, do not have research and development dollars put against them. The bus that picks up drunk soldiers has a budget. Good luck, however, finding a single R&D buck dedicated to make this bus operate better through a location-based app.

So, as the military continues to spend widely on research, large portions of its operations are expected to evolve without investment. Companies that follow this logic fail.

And this is where DEF can close the gap. It is not an angel investor or a venture capital fund. What DEF can do, in the immediate term, is help find champions. Colonels, Captains, Brigadier Generals, and Rear Admirals with budgets that are willing to devote time and attention to ideas that may help. Invariably finding those research dollars needed to launch new solutions.

Finding investment, by leaning on effective leaders that can help overcome bureaucracy, is the key to making DEF work.

Transition

Finally, a major issue in the military is its inherent and procedural transitions. Even when a solider manages to effectively sell their idea, they may be sent to another base. Two year posts do not provide enough run-room for new ideas to be born, fought for, tested, and implemented. Not in the military.

DEF’s network can help cure this. Not by changing doctrine, but by doing what the military has always done. The people always change, but their posts (position, rank) are permanent. A Captain in a tank company may rotate out, but the company will have a Captain.

This system won’t be perfect. But imagine if a C-17 pilot and member of DEF started an initiative at Dover AFB, only to be posted abroad one year later. Instead of giving up the idea or not trying to implement it to begin with, this officer could tap into the DEF network to find collaborators that are willing to literally come on board and fill their boots.

In the future, base swap software — as one idea at the conference proposed — could ensure that ideas, like posts, can stay in place or grow even if a new person sits at their helm. As the network expands, collaborators can request assignments based on a market-place of ideas. This has the potential to ensure that someone that is passionate about a project will be present and motivated to help complete it.

By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired. — Kafka

Skeptics don’t extinguish fires

The military may soon be staring down a forest fire of shifting challenges.

Faced with budget decline, sequestration, withdrawal from Afghanistan et al. the military is going through a period of change. Force structure is being revisited; end strength is expected to come down. Many that served multiple tours and stayed did so out of duty, patriotism. Perhaps counter-intuitively they will have less issue leaving, having paid their dues.

Those with college and graduate degrees will have an easier transition, should they choose to cut ties. The uncertain job market will be kinder to them. And those that volunteer to leave to join corporate ranks or start their own business will be disproportionately from the best and brightest personnel pool.

So how can the military retain its talent?

This past weekend at DEF, ideas and jargon born out of Silicon Valley were surely overused, as they are at any conference focused on innovation. But the California eco-system is held-up on the emulation pedestal — even if overhyped — for a reason. It seems to work.

The military can adapt ideas not just about app development, but about people management. Encourage new ideas, allow for experimentation and creativity, stimulate cross discipline collaboration.

DEF is not the solution. But it can help put out localized fires and expand from there. For example, it can be successful as:

  • A place to brainstorm ideas, receive feedback, and network across ranks and services
  • A community of like minded professionals with complimentary skill sets willing to partner to solve problems
  • A place to find champions that are willing to open the hierarchies’ doors and find approvals and budget for ideas

Junior officers in Afghanistan and Iraq were given more autonomy and were allowed to be entrepreneurial. Perhaps that was the reward for taking high risks. As these driven professionals come back to garrison, the military should explore new models to tap their creative potential. It should look toward DEF to give soldiers the freedom to think, explore, and create. Approve and encourage experiments, and provide constructive feedback that won’t impact career/promotion considerations.

The military should train for and demand the skills required to win wars, but allow for experimentation in areas that need fixes or new solutions. As DEF participants can highlight in spades, there is much room for improvement.