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Thinkers Strategize in DoD’s Innovation Corps Boot Camp

WASHINGTON, Jan. 15, 2018 — Forty innovative thinkers from the four military services gathered here last week for a class where they tested out new methods to solve problems in the Defense Department.

Joshua Marcuse, executive director of the Defense Innovation Board, acknowledged the participants likely would encounter resistance in DoD when trying to solve problems with new approaches. His message to them: Keep fighting.

"When you hit that barrier, I want you to figure out a way to push forward," Marcuse said Jan. 12, closing out the weeklong class. "When the going gets tough, you need to hang in there."

The military and civilian personnel in the DoD pilot of the Innovation Corps boot camp learned about and applied the Lean Startup principles, which aim to solve problems and develop products faster and with less waste.

New Approach to Problem Solving

The class was the first time the boot camp was held for DoD-wide participants, Marcuse pointed out. Previous efforts encompassed the intelligence community.

It is critical that leaders are receptive to new approaches to problem solving, he said. Otherwise, innovative thinkers who continually face opposition might stop trying to be change agents, resigning instead to be a “cog in the machine,” he said.

Another scenario, he explained, is that these thinkers might “fight the fight a different way,” taking their ideas and talents into the private sector. 

"But they're not fighting shoulder to shoulder with you in your trench at that point, or in your foxhole -- and we need them in the foxhole next to you,” Marcuse said.

Importance of Operating with Agility

The Defense Department has proven it can be highly innovative and operate with extreme agility, as it has done in the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, Steve Blank, the founding father of the principles for Lean Startup, said via phone today to DoD News. But, he added, resistance in innovation is encountered back home, as the DoD execution machinery and bureaucracy “crushes whatever we did in the field.”

Blank underscored the importance of agility and innovation in the Defense Department as the United States faces near-peer state adversaries and a host of evolving nonstate threats.

In recent decades, he said, the United States essentially faced a single threat – the Soviet Union – and built organizations, structures and capabilities to counter it with the luxury of being able to respond over the course of years.

 "Fast forward to today -- we don't have one threat,” he said. “We need, in fact, a scorecard to figure out who we're dealing with.".

Today’s adversaries are “ironically not burdened with our 100 years of success," or with all the things DoD needs to support, such as contracting, procedures and other bureaucratic matters, Blank said.

The goal of the Innovation Corps and its methodologies is see how innovation and delivering solutions can be done at speed -- not just from idea to demonstration, but also from idea to deployment, he said. He recommends that each DoD and intelligence community agency establish an organization that has an innovation pipeline.

‘Eye-Opening’ Experience

Marine Corps Capt. Chris Wood, from Headquarters Marine Corps Installations and Logistics, is an innovation lead in the next-generation logistics innovation team. As a participant in the Innovation Corps boot camp, he said, he found it interesting to see the collaboration among the personnel from the different commands, including those with various levels of experience in these techniques. Tasks included conducting in-person interviews, examining the needs of the customer base, and testing a hypothesis on how to apply solutions to problem solving.

“To see them receive the training and really embrace it was eye-opening for me in that it starts to build a realization that these tools can be applied to a lot of different functions," he said.

With the world outside DoD constantly evolving, Wood said, the department needs to be agile to best respond to the threats and meet the demands of the warfighter.   

"We cannot accept doing business the same way that we have been,” he added.

Recommendations from Defense Innovation Board

The Defense Innovation Board meets Jan. 17. The 14-member panel will include in its recommendations that DoD examine whether career avenues exist in the agency for innovative thinkers who want to apply new approaches and methods to problem solving, Marcuse said.

Board member and retired Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas System, said he never encountered innovation in a structured fashion in his nearly four decades in the military.

“We did innovation via technology, but it was more about finding ‘things’ that solved a certain tactical problem,” he said in a written statement, noting a process or intellectual framework to help shape thinking did not exist in the military when he served.

“Efforts to build innovation capacity in the DoD workforce are essential to renewing our competitive advantage on the battlefield," McRaven noted.

(Follow Lisa Ferdinando on Twitter: @FerdinandoDoD)