The Army is mildly obsessed with innovative leadership, as reflected throughout strategic documents such as the Army Operating Concept and the Army Vision, and leadership doctrine. For example, the Army’s leadership manual extols the necessity of innovative and creative leadership and its associated approaches, solutions, ideas and thinking more than 50 times in just over 100 pages.
Given that level of emphasis, one would assume a corresponding Army focus on the process of developing innovative leaders. Unfortunately, that assumption would be largely wrong.
Army senior leadership has beaten the innovation drum for more than 15 years, coinciding with the wave of business innovation books in the late ’90s such as Tom Peters’ The Circle of Innovation and Clayton Christensen’s original The Innovator’s Dilemma. However, the Army has failed to create and foster in doctrine and practice a culture of innovative leadership in our ranks.
With respect to doctrine, the Army relies mainly on circular definitions to describe innovation and creativity. For example, Army Doctrine Reference Publication 6-22 Army Leadership states that “creative thinking involves thinking in innovative ways while capitalizing on imagination, insight and novel ideas.” Similarly, Department of the Army Pamphlet 600-3 Commissioned Officer Professional Development and Career Management affirms that “the goal of Army leader development is to … produce agile, innovative and adaptive leaders,” but simplistically states that an innovative officer is one “who is creative, inquisitive and insightful, and who easily identifies new solutions and catalyzes change.” Unfortunately, neither adequately describes the actual process of being innovative or developing innovative Army leaders.
Absent a doctrinal model for developing and fostering innovative leadership, we can again look to Christensen for insight. In his 2011 book The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators, he provides a broad framework for developing and fostering innovation. First, citing several studies on creativity and genetics, he asserts that only one-third of creativity and innovation stems from genetic predisposition—meaning, nearly two-thirds of innovation is the result of learned skills that can be practiced and ultimately mastered.
This critical insight is not adequately recognized in the Army. Contrary to Army leadership doctrine, which considers innovation a conceptual component of the intellect attribute, or what a leader is, it rightly belongs as a core competency—what a leader does—that can be developed through schooling, training, experience and progressive leader development programs.
Christensen describes five discovery skills common to innovative leaders. First is the cognitive skill of associating: synthesizing and making diverse connections across unrelated fields. Next is a batch of four supporting behavior skills: questioning, or challenging the status quo; observing, or intense observation to gain insight; networking, defined as actively searching for new ideas by engaging those with radically different viewpoints; and experimenting, or intellectual and experiential exploration and testing.
According to Christensen, practicing the behavior skills of questioning, observing, networking and experimenting triggers the cognitive skill of associating. Elements of this model are successfully, albeit selectively, used in the Army right now; an equivalent process of innovation needs to be refined and cultivated.
The second and more important area of concern is innovative leadership in practice. Of particular concern is innovation at the organizational and direct level of leadership, where the most impactful leader development occurs. Referring back to Christensen’s four behavior skills, do our senior Army leaders actively and consistently call on their teams to critically question and challenge the status quo? Do they encourage their teams to observe people and processes in different environments to discover workarounds, surprises and anomalies? Do they foster networking across diverse organizations, individuals and perspectives? Do they cultivate an environment of experimentation in which their teams try new experiences, take apart processes and ideas, and then test these new ideas outside the confines of scheduled exercises?
As a senior officer who has served throughout the highest levels of the military, I have found that the answer to each of these questions is usually “no.” The Army largely fails to actively and consistently foster an innovative leadership mindset. For example, when resources are constrained or challenged, parochialism often prevails. When junior leaders seek diversified assignments, they are warned about “falling off the radar.” We espouse the great value of coalitions but do not integrate our staffs until forced through headquarters-driven personnel reductions.
Despite its unique opportunities for joint, interagency and private sector interaction, Washington, D.C., is avoided as a point of pride. Advanced Civil Schooling is used as a retention tool, not a method of directed talent management. Exercises are designed to support training objectives, not to stress systems and expose failure—particularly for enablers. A profusion of mandatory training requirements and additional duty assignments limits time and flexibility, and fosters administrative risk aversion. Our organizational structures are hemmed by bureaucracy and hidebound by tradition, where reversing modularity is a surrogate for innovative force structure design. And unfortunately, questioning your higher headquarters is often considered a demonstration of disloyalty, not discovery.
In short, our young officers and NCOs are generally not encouraged to actively question, observe, network and experiment across a broad diversity of organizations and environments—joint, interagency, coalition and corporate—so they are not positioned to make the critical associations that drive innovation across all endeavors.
Obviously, these observations are not applicable throughout the Army. We have real bright spots of innovation, including leveraging commercial technological innovation to better secure our networks; analyzing and adapting to violent extremist organizations through new operational doctrine and intelligence-sharing processes; and continuing to heavily invest in research and development and professional military education. But given the challenges and opportunities of the future security environment and projected future funding constraints, now is the time to fully embrace the charge of the 2015 National Military Strategy to improve on our greatest advantage: innovation among our people.
Innovation cannot be a part-time endeavor. It must be an underlying mindset nurtured by senior leaders and permeating day-to-day operations—train as you fight. The Army must support its own call for innovative leadership with inno-vative doctrinal and policy changes that actively support a real and deep culture of innovative thinking in the Army.