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Innovation, Reform Are Contagious, Vice Chairman Says

WASHINGTON, Aug. 25, 2016 — Innovation and reform are contagious, and military leaders increasingly are seeking ideas and expertise from younger officers, noncommissioned officers and civilian employees to keep the ball rolling in the Defense Department, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today.

At the Center for Strategic and International Studies here, Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva discussed the state of innovation in the Defense Department with Kathleen Hicks, the director of center’s international security program.

He said the ideas of reform and innovation are spreading in the military.

Innovation takes many forms, Selva said. The general reached into history to highlight one example: the National Security Act of 1947 that created DoD, the intelligence community and the National Security Council.

Institutional Reform

“It is an exceptional example of institutional reform -- the process by which institutions realize they have a problem they want to solve and it is not a problem of a tactical or operational nature, but a strategic nature,” the vice chairman said. “It is about the relationships inside the agency and reforms about making those agencies more useful to the decision makers who rely on those agencies.”

Without the National Security Act, harmonizing the various agencies in the national security community would have been vastly different, Selva said.

Reform and innovation are necessary because of the challenges facing the United States, the general said, putting Russia and China at the head of the list of those challenges. “They are global challenges,” he added. “There is very little in our relationship with Russia that doesn’t move the global stage almost immediately, and the same is true of China.”

The United States must have in place structures and processes to manage the tough decisions that will have to be made, he said.

Iran and North Korea are also challenges, Selva said, the most significant being the nuclear capabilities both counties covet. “Our agreement with Iran staunches that program for a number of years, [which] is a positive development,” the general said. “But it is not the end. It is the beginning. It is the beginning of a relationship that might be built on compliance with that plan.”

North Korea is a challenge because it is so opaque, he said. “We only know what we know about North Korea because of the bits and pieces that we can collect,” he added. “And understanding the trajectory of North Korea is critical to understanding the trajectory of security in the Western Pacific.”

Violent Extremism

The challenge of violent extremism also remains a wild card. The vice chairman said he will not put a name on the challenge, “because we have watched violent extremism morph over the past decades in ways we couldn’t even dream of.”

Inside all these challenges is room for continuing reform in the institutions of the government and department that will help leaders manage and understand the challenges and react quickly to the variables of those challenges, the general said, and innovation also plays a large role.

“Innovation is about tactical, operational and strategic choices within organizations to adopt new ways of doing things,” Selva said. “It can make the organization more effective or more efficient, or possibly both.”

Innovation in an organization the size of the Defense Department – about 3 million people – is not easy or quick, he acknowledged. But the basics are the same, he said, no matter if the organization is a small startup or a global national defense institution. Innovation is “people who are willing to bring new ideas to the fore, people who are willing to take risks with those new ideas, and people who are willing to fail,” the vice chairman said.

Too Hidebound?

Some people believe the U.S. military is too hidebound to be innovative, but they are wrong, Selva said. The idea “is as far from the truth as you can get,” he added.

“The military that brought you GPS doesn’t innovate?” he asked. “The military that brought you tactical innovation on the battlefield doesn’t innovate? The military that brought you the AirLand Battle [strategy] in the 1970s and 1980s, and has continued to refine that capacity almost to a science, doesn’t innovate?”

Innovation is accepted in the military, Selva said, but innovators have to convince leaders it is worth it. “We grow up assessing risk,” the general said. “It started my first day on active duty.”

Selva said he showed up at pilot training and the instructors told him that after 10 instruction hours, he would be soloing. “You don’t think there is a bit of risk assessment involved in climbing into a jet airplane with 10 hours of flight time to go fly by yourself without the comfort of an instructor to correct those minor errors that can quickly turn into a catastrophe?” he said.

Risk Assessments

The military hammers risk assessment into its personnel to look at everything they do, because risk can kill people or cause the mission to fail, Selva said, both being unacceptable outcomes. “It’s not that we are risk-averse, it is that we are eminently conscious of risk,” he said.

The military is constantly looking at where risk is coming from and how to counter it so imaginative competitors can’t challenge the United States and erode its advantage, increasing risk to the United States, its allies and its partners. To counter this innovation becomes even more important, Selva said.

“If a young officer comes to me and says, ‘I have an idea to make our command and control more efficient and quick,’ I’ll listen,” the general said. “Then my question to him is, ‘Are you willing to be wrong?’ -- because you have to be willing to test a hypotheses to see if it is right. If it is not, then you know to move on to another proposal. But you have to be willing to be wrong to start.”

Commercial industry uses innovation exactly that way, Selva said. “It’s fast, but it is iterative,” he said. “Failure is acceptable, but repeated failure, maybe not. It moves like a small brush fire, and it fertilizes everything in its path as it thins out the underbrush. People who are successful at it are astronomically successful at it.”

DoD’s problem is that it treats every bit of innovation like a forest fire, the general said. “We bring out the fire brigades and we try to put it out, because innovation is only good if you are right,” he said. “Asking hard questions is only all right if you know the answer. And none of that fosters innovation.”

Selva has ordered the fire brigades back to the fire stations and is working with people around the department to foster innovation and to give them the freedom to fail and learn.

“And I am not the only person doing this,” he said. “If I was, it would be an innovation insurgency. This is now becoming systemic in the department, where senior leaders are asking young officers and NCOs and civilians for their ideas and their expertise. We are triaging their ideas to find those that will make us more effective on future battlefields. And we are finding them.”

Distribution channels: Military