Leadership: Using Innovators For Target Practice


April 15, 2012: One thing many junior American military officers still complain about is the resistance of their superiors (most of them) to innovation and change. This was particularly notable in the last decade, with lots of combat operations (where innovation and change can save your life) and reservists (who can't help but bring in new ideas) mobilized for active duty to force change on reluctant commanders and bureaucrats. In many cases the reluctant superiors were forced to accept change and innovation because there was a war going on and to do otherwise they could be accused of getting their own troops killed through inaction. But in peacetime, which is most of the time, the senior officers have no incentive to change and even greater incentives (the desire to get promoted) to conform and resist change.

A good example of this is the enormous growth of UAV technology in the last decade. It wasn't until after September 11, 2001 that senior aviation officers were forced to accept a wave of UAV innovation, including arming these remotely operated aircraft with missiles. Many could see these changes coming but the senior aviation generals were pilots and had an inborn resistance to putting a lot of pilots out of work.

The peacetime military tends to create an atmosphere that is hostile to innovation. That's because history has shown that many peacetime innovations prove to be disastrous in combat. Bad decisions like that can get a lot of the innovator's people killed. Thus the peacetime imperative is to cover-your-ass and hope that the next war is like the last one, because you are ready for another round of the recent past.

Peacetime troops seeking a more innovative atmosphere often point to innovators in business but they fail to take into account that business is always at war (ready to test their new ideas in a competitive and dangerous marketplace) while the peacetime military is just practicing for the next war, a war where the rules don't get laid down until the shooting starts and are constantly (and unpredictably) updated after that.

The obvious answer has been to find ways to accurately test wartime concepts without an actual war. That has been a goal for centuries, but it's very difficult to do, or even agree on how to implement such tests. The usual result is stalemate and not much useful testing at all.

Then there is the tendency of large organizations to ossify, to become blind and unresponsive because of suffocating (and very defensive) bureaucracy. Despite this the large commercial organizations are still at war and periodically one of them collapses. This does not happen to equally large peacetime military organizations. You still need a war to flush all the incompetence out into the open.

The basic problem is to come up with convincing evidence for innovations. To prove there is a problem and that you have a useful solution. The increasingly rapid rate of technological change is forcing peacetime troops to adopt new technologies, if only because potential enemies are and no one is sure exactly how this new stuff should be used. This is where wargaming and simulation have become important, although that has created even more debate, and anxiety, over how accurate the simulations are. But this type of simulation has, along with all other forms of simulation, become more reliable (in science, engineering, and economics) in the last few decades. The same tech is used for military sims.

Some officers call for a military culture that will accept "disruptive technologies" (like smart bombs and UAVs) in peacetime. The way risk-averse peacetime commanders and military organizations work when not at war is you can get the technologies but not up to disruptive levels. That has to wait for an actual war. There's too much risk to do otherwise and that shows no signs of changing.


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