Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Alphabet Inc., speaks at the inaugural Lincoln Center Global Exchange, Friday, Sept. 18, 2015 in New York.

Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Alphabet Inc., speaks at the inaugural Lincoln Center Global Exchange, Friday, Sept. 18, 2015 in New York. Diane Bondareff/Invision for Lincoln Center Global Exchange

Here’s How to Stop Squelching New Ideas, Eric Schmidt’s Advisory Board Tells DoD

An exclusive preview of the Defense Innovation Board’s new recommendations for James Mattis.

“DoD does not have an innovation problem; it has an innovation adoption problem,” reads one of the new recommendations from the Defense Innovation Board. It even has an “innovation theater” problem: the preference for small cosmetic steps over actual change.

The advisory is chaired by former Alphabet chief executive Eric Schmidt. Their latest series of recommendations, to be voted on and then (after a successful vote) delivered to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, suggests that the Pentagon too often tends to squelch its new ideas with outdated bureaucratic models and obsolete cultural notions.

Obtained exclusively by Defense One before the meeting, A draft of several new recommendations include:

  • Design a fast track for new technology initiatives. Basically, take the Army’s Rapid Equipping Office, which pushes urgent-need technology to front lines, and make its processes the norm for some new technology development. From the recommendation: “DoD should develop a sustainable process, as opposed to another rapid office, that would act as a ‘fast-track’ for: (1) identifying and prioritizing the most critical operational warfighting problems, (2) assembling cross-functional teams that span organizational boundaries and disciplines to develop rapid solutions.”
  • Start an incubator. In the business and tech world, incubators help startups turn ideas into businesses by providing management, funding, office space, and expertise. The board is suggesting that the military take some of its best and brightest and help them build DOD ‘startups’ related to specific problem areas, like big data analysis. “The military has to establish a new approach to empowering its most talented people…allowing the military’s most intrapreneurial people to work on their ideas to get them elevated past the usual roadblocks in the system,” it says.  
  • Create an innovation + STEM career field. In much the same way that the military created the cyber operations career field, it should do the same with science, tech, and innovation. The new career field would “cover innovation, rapid capability development and acquisition, data science, and STEM)” and would “will operate in small teams across the Joint Force.”
  • Establish technology and innovation training for senior DoD leaders. This would be a sort of camp where leaders can learn how to recognize, respect, and nurture entrepreneurial ideas and potential among subordinates – or at least stop accidentally crushing them. “Successful innovation practices being implemented within the private sector are not understood or not viewed as acceptable paths by senior Department leaders. As a result, the Department is not maintaining its once pronounced technological advantage over its adversaries,” the recommendation says.

A few folks in the Defense Department have already made some progress on the last recommendation. Last week, a handful of flag officers from the Marines, Air Force Special Operations Forces, the Office of Naval Research, and other military outfits participated in a weeklong class and training event in entrepreneurship. The class was modeled after the Innovation Corps, or ICorps, curriculum developed by Silicon Valley luminary Steve Blank and used by more than 80 universities across the United States plus the National Science Foundation and the intelligence community. The goal is to roll ICorps training out to a lot more officers in the years ahead, while also educating leaders and superiors about how to better nurture good ideas.

Innovation Theater

Small steps like ICorps training can help the Department better nurture its bright minds and new thinking. But real change has to be structural, Blank said. Otherwise, the Department will continue to prefer innovation theater to actual change.

The military can change quickly in certain circumstances, Blank said, citing the sort of resourceful thinking that troops display in combat zones to, say, counter ISIS drone swarms.

“The problem isn’t [people in defense] don’t know how to innovate. It’s that when they got back [from conflict] bureaucracy crushes it,” he said. Trying to push a new idea is too often “ad-hoc and heroic.”

He said the solution has to be organizational: DoD needs a new innovation office — or at least an officer — with real money and authority, treated with deference almost befitting a Combatant Commander, to take what the Rapid Equipping Force does during wartime and make it permanent and consistent.

“Our adversaries in the 21st century are now continually disrupting us,” Blank said. “We have multiple adversaries moving at a speed faster than we are. Tools and tech that DoD used to own, drones and crypto was stuff we used to own, that’s not the case anymore.”

“China is now Apple. Not us.”