Part I: Innovative Leadership

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Photo courtesy of New Zealand Defence Force

Innovation is the key to success in modern military operations, thus it is imperative that the military commander be innovative if they are to succeed on the modern battlefield. This maxim is prevalent in recent discourse around military leadership; however, the idea of the innovative military leader is wrought with risk. In striving to achieve the ideal of being an ‘innovative leader’ commanders can unintentionally adversely impact their units or unwittingly generate a climate of ‘innovation theatre’.

The primary risk for the ‘innovative leader’ is the perpetuation of ‘sacred cow’ ideas. A ‘sacred cow’ is an idea that, due to the rank of its proposer, is insufficiently analysed or critiqued. As innovation relies on the generation, and subsequent scrutinisation, of a large number of ideas to identify those most appropriate, leaders must be cognisant of the fact that subordinates may be unwilling to adequately challenge their ideas.  If some ideas are exempt from robust examination, it is impossible to conduct a fair assessment. In order to achieve a high tempo of innovation, projects and ideas must be allowed to fail quickly, with resources prioritised towards those more successful efforts. Again, if one of these projects or ideas is immune from a thorough review process, it inevitably commandeers increasing resources, endangering more promising projects. Subordinates may also be unwilling to frankly assess the proposal’s chances of success. This mentality can create an organisational determination to aggressively pursue the idea without allowing it to fail, resulting in a classic ‘sunk cost fallacy’. Such behaviours equate to time and resources being sunk into sub-optimal ideas, and, alternatively, awareness of these problems can lead to leaders being unwilling to put ideas forward for fear of falling into the sacred cow trap.

The best way to avoid the sacred cow trap is to establish a dialogue within the chain of command. Central to this is the cultivation of an environment that is conducive to enabling fair and honest feedback around ideas without straying into insubordination (or a complaints forum). While there are other solutions to this problem—such as anonymous submissions or post-it note brainstorming—these are potentially superficial remedies to avoid addressing the root cause. Rather, a good leader will foster a culture that enables the rigorous examination of ideas and provision of fair and honest feedback, regardless of rank. Feedback is not exclusive to the initial assessment of the idea but is important right through the research and implementation phases of innovation. A leader must engender an environment where subordinates can have honest discussions around the prospects of an idea.

Of the leaders I have spoken with, many will insist that they have created such an environment without realising that often such a belief is, in and of itself, a sacred cow. This was summed up perfectly when I spoke to a senior officer  about this concept, who insisted that he had established a culture within their unit that encouraged honest and frank feedback. To demonstrate the point, he turned to a subordinate who was in the break room at the time and asked if this was true.

“Yes sir, absolutely.”

The irony seemed to be lost on him.

It takes a strong leader to look critically at what kind of culture they have created, and this is especially true for those who consider themselves ‘innovative leaders’. There is, however, a litmus test to determine the culture of a command chain. Propose a fundamentally flawed (but not overtly absurd enough that the team perceives the test) idea to the organisation and measure their reaction. If the team does not interrogate or challenge the idea, this could indicate a sub-optimal innovation culture. This assessment is a good way to back up some critical self-reflection around innovative leadership.

It is important, however, to acknowledge that this tunnel vision is not only present at the idea-generation phase. It is also prevalent in the research phase, evidenced by the fact that this phase is sometimes ignored entirely. How often has a new idea been implemented without conducting any trials to assess its desirability, feasibility, and viability?

The solution to this challenge is the Minimal Viable Prototype (MVP) construct. There are many fantastic articles on MVPs, so there is little gain from delving too deep into the topic. Essentially, however, an MVP is a fast, low-cost trial that assesses the basic premise of an idea. Utilising MVPs, leaders can get bias free assessments of their ideas. As such, this process provides a similar function to that of a reconnaissance patrol, looking ahead to assess the feasibility of, and best path for, the intended course of action.

The innovative leader must also possess a willingness to fail, and learn from this process. This has become an increasingly popular topic recently, but how is it achieved? How do leaders build cultures that are supportive of failure? The answer is that leaders must be willing to fail themselves. They need to stick their head over the parapet and both declare  their failures and demonstrate lessons learned (rather than just lessons observed). It is not enough for leaders to state that they are supportive of failures/learnings: they must themselves walk the walk. By failing quickly, learning faster, and moving on, innovative leaders can generate a high tempo of successful innovation within their organisations.

Being an ‘innovative leader’ is highly attractive, but it comes with a lot of risks. If leaders are not willing to be honest about their own biases and shortcomings, they risk falling into one of the many leadership traps that are prevalent around innovation. Critical self-assessment will empower leaders to explore innovation without becoming trapped in the risks inherit to being an innovative leader. Engendering a culture where subordinates not only feel empowered to give fair and honest feedback, but to fail in the pursuit of personal and organisational growth, will allow the modern military leader to be truly innovative.

There is another option. Rather than just being an innovative leader, the modern leader must consider that being a ‘leader of innovation’ may have more benefit to their organisation as a whole. In Part II we will thus explore what it takes to be a leader of innovation.

This is Part I in a three part series on ‘Leading Innovation’. 

About the author

Tim Jones is the Assistant 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.