Unpopular Ideas From Across the Ditch

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Part 1: The tech start-up mindset doesn’t facilitate innovation in the military/public sector

The New Zealand Defence Force’s (NZDF’s) new Defence Innovation Centre of Excellence (DICE) has been established to coordinate, resource and support innovation across the NZDF. I have been lucky enough to lead this high preforming team over the last 12 months. DICE is comprised of a small team of innovation practitioners who are responsible for the capture, research, refinement and implementation of ideas across the NZDF.

Innovation is currently a hot topic across most Defence Forces and increasingly the wider Public Sector. There seems to be a continuous stream of new innovation cells and teams being stood up in order to try and cope with a raft of emerging demands. With all this attention on innovation how do we stop innovation becoming another cheap buzz word? Or has it already succumbed to its tragic fate?

The path to salvation is simple but steep, innovation must be treated as a practice, a skill-set or job like any other. Being a practitioner of innovation is not about coming up with wild or fantastic ideas, rather it is the ruthless pursuit of implementation that provides a positive impact on the organisation. While this sounds obvious, it is often not what is happening on the ground. Defence/Public Sector thinking around innovation is at risk of being overrun by tech start-up mindsets and their jumbled lexicons.

Shocking I know, how can a so-called proponent of innovation challenge the Holy Land of innovation, Silicon Valley? But the question must be asked, are we developing innovation practitioners or salespeople? Silicon Valley methodologies run the risk of prioritising ‘innovation’ over positive impact to the organisation. Too often the discussion seems to coalesce around the ‘pitch’ or how you sell your idea. While being able to effectively communicate your ideas is vital to actually getting them implemented, too much focus on ‘the pitch’ can lead to situations where the ‘innovator’ seeks to obscure potential problems with their idea rather than address them. It creates a culture where people own their ideas and therefore do not want to see them fail. The flow on effect of this is we start running into the Sunk-Cost Fallacy as people try to force unsuitable ideas through to implementation rather than making room for other ideas or trying something different.

From a Tech Start-Up perspective this makes complete sense, you need to sell your idea in order to make money for you. Selling your idea will generate income and as long as your income exceeds the investment then you win, simple. The wider impacts / 2nd-3rd order effects of your product / idea are carried by the customer and so are essentially external to your day to day running. In the public sector it doesn’t work that way. Very rarely does an idea generate income; it can happen but it is not the norm. Even when an idea saves money on an activity, it can result in the budget for that activity being reduced. Often the Public Sector lacks a ‘customer’ who both uses and pays for the product; this undermines the entire value proposition of the tech start-up approach to innovation. The most important difference however is that that the Defence Force has to wear the wider impacts / 2nd-3rd order effects of the innovation. This includes things like changes to the current logistics systems, changes to training, roll on impacts around recruiting key skillsets, ICT concerns, security issues and much more. This is why in the public sector, the whole-of-business impact of an idea must be interrogated and innovators need to be willing to drop or defer their idea if the overall cost to the organisation out-weighs the benefit in the long term.

Another dangerous byproduct of this tech start-up mindset is too much focus is given to the (fun) idea generation component of innovation. People tend to want to chuck their ideas ‘over the wall’ and magically have them happen. Real innovation practitioners drive the implementation and stay partnered with the capability delivery components of the business in order to ensure the idea is delivered. This is the foundation of resilience in innovation, moving past excitement and motivation and into patience and determination. If our focus falls too much on the generation of ideas then we risk falling into the Innovation Theater Trap. Innovation Theater is where we have all the trappings of innovation and use all the correct buzzwords but fail to actually deliver any change to the organisation.

The simple matrix below outlines the four basic outcomes of any innovation programme, based on its rates of Idea Generation versus Idea Implementation. While this is a gross simplification of the issue, it does provide a simple reality check for any innovation programme underway. The four basic outcomes are:

  1. High Performance Innovation: The organisation is generating a high quantity of new ideas and taking them through a rigorous evaluation process that ensures they are improving the organisation overall. Those selected are rapidly implemented and the organisation is seen as constantly evolving and adapting.
  2. Low Performance (Emergency) Innovation: Innovation is often driven by pressing need rather than anticipating future requirements. But the organisation is able to rapidly adapt. This is often the situation we see during wartime. 
  3. Innovation Stagnation: The organisation is not changing significantly, innovation is not valued and quality of current practice is seen as the priority.
  4. Innovation Theater: The organisation has a strong culture of idea generation. A lot of pitching to command occurs and a ‘modern’ work culture has been adopted. However, no positive change is actually occurring and ideas are never implemented.

The outcomes above are ranked best-to-worst with High Performance Innovation as the best outcome and Innovation Theater as the worst outcome. Some may challenge this ordering. It could be argued that Innovation Stagnation is worse than Innovation Theater, however, this is incorrect for two main reasons. Firstly, Innovation Theater conceals the fact that there is actually a problem. People in the organisation feel that they are part of an innovative team so no significant efforts are made to improve the implementation rates. The second concern is these kinds of activities actually draw resourcing away from the implementation and operational components of the organisation. As a result, an organisation engaging in innovation theater is objectively worse off than an organisation that simply suffers from innovation stagnation.

While this might sound anti-innovation, it is aimed at generating a culture where equal focus is given to idea generation and idea implementation. If ideas are not implemented then they cannot be called innovation. Innovation practitioners need to have the resilience to support their ideas through the often-long implementation process and this can take years. By partnering with the capability introduction components of the organisation early in the process we can preemptively smooth the road to introduction into service.

At the end of the day we don’t need nice ideas, we need pragmatic innovation, designed to enhance our combat capability and ensure that we are prepared for a rapidly changing world. This does not mean that we shouldn’t take risks or shy away from disruptive technologies, rather we must embrace this disruption but do it in such a way that we have a clear path to implementation that contains an understanding of how the whole organisation is impacted. And if the ideas do not improve the organisation as a whole then we need to have the personal and organisational courage to let the idea go and search for an alternative solution.

Innovation is the key to success in the 21st  Century, but no idea that exists exclusively on paper is going to help us win the next war. 

About the author Tim Jones is the Deputy Director Defence Excellence (Innovation) New Zealand Defence Force. He is also a member of the New Zealand Army Reserves, serving in the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment.

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