Last week, Nimbus’ very own Simon Morgan sat on a panel alongside Brigadier Zach Stenning, Lieutenant Kirsty Skinner, and Major James Athow-Frost to discuss innovation in the British military. The panel was chaired by Lieutenant Peter Apps.
Simon’s fellow panellists were striving to make the British Army more innovative via ideas which tweaked the structure. Maj Athow-Frost had created ‘The Wavell Room’; an online publisher of analysis of British Army strategy. The idea is partly to air constructive and detailed criticism of the Army anonymously in order to initiate debate about the way things are done. Lt Skinner had created the BrAIN (British Army Intrapreneurs Network), which is more like an internal think tank which convenes people of all ranks in collaboration with external partners to talk about ways the Army could innovate.
Although much of the discussion was military-focused (Simon provided the perspective from ‘Civvy Street’), we learned several things which are applicable to our members. The first is the level of overlap: military concepts such as “offset strategy” can be applied straightforwardly to describe private sector practice. In the private sector, 2017 is a time in which most strategists have read Clayton Christensen, are conscious of disruption, and actively invest in technologies which could undermine their own standing; and “self-cannibalise” in order that they are not usurped in the way of Nokia or Kodak. “Offset” is essential: the question is, in the unpredictable world of the private sector, which is the prudent area in which to invest? Innovation in any sector is about remaining competitive; in business you may compete for profits but in the Army they are competing to outsmart the enemy.
Another concept was the chain-of-command clock – the “CoC clock” is a visual metaphor for communicating innovation pitches across large organisations. The idea is that communications about innovative ideas must bypass the chain of command; otherwise they are stifled before they can ascend it. (In the clock metaphor, the command nodes are numbers on a clock). The Wavell Room and BrAIN are both examples of tackling this challenge specifically.
A third is the concept of risk ownership; and answering tricky questions about rewarding risk. A challenge specific to the Army is the way ownership of behaviour works generally. For an ‘order’, the commander, not the serviceman or woman executing the order, is legally responsible for the outcome. This is designed to encourage swiftness of command; but means the officers on the ground are more likely to simply ‘follow orders’ than to improvise a new protocol based on their environment, leading to problems like inflexibility. It is important to note that the British Army is designed for war fighting and therefore an order may require the person following it to put their life and/or the lives of others at risk. The key question for the Army is how do they create a culture of innovation whilst maintaining the required hierarchical structure?
Within clearly-defined boundaries, it might be prudent to set the risk and rewards asymmetrically to encourage innovation. “I own the risk; you own the reward” provides a clear signal to employees that innovation is good and will be recognised; whilst at the same time, mitigating any worry that they might fail. An employee can either simply follow the instructions they are given without reacting to the context around those orders; or they can think for themselves, and pursue your goals with their own analysis. The second kind of employee is more valuable than the former. But where the cost of failure is higher than the reward for success, no organisation can hope to incentivise employees (or soldiers) to improvise.
As ever, any principles to encourage innovation must be underlined by the most important principle of all: do not go through the motions of ‘innovation’ without doing the thing itself. It is not enough to create an innovation department and announce that innovation is being settled, and then expect to not change. Management must be the innovator-in-chief, and they must listen carefully to what their team have to say, before making the prudent decision. Complacency is anathema. Innovation must be actionable, and real artists ship.
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