Tuesday, May 25, 2021

What If "Innovator" Was A Job Title?

I have been thinking a lot about innovation recently.  It occurred to me that the US Army has
a number of official specialties.  We have Strategists and Simulators and Marketers, for example.  Why not, I thought, make Innovator an Army specialization?  

I tried to imagine what that might look like.  I know my understanding of Army manpower regulations and systems is weak, but bear with me here.  This is an idea not a plan.  Besides, what I really want to focus on is not the details, but how the experience might feel to an individual soldier.  So, this is one of their stories...

I made it! The paperwork just became final. Beginning next month, I am--officially--a 99A, US Army Innovator.

The road to this point wasn’t easy. I graduated college with a degree in costume design and a ton of student debt. After my plans to work on Broadway fell through (Who am I kidding? They never even got off the ground), I had to do something. The Army looked like my best option.

For the last two years, I have been a 68C, a "practical nursing specialist", working out of a field hospital at Ft. Polk. My plan had always been to make sergeant and then put in my OCS packet. Things changed for me after a Joint Readiness Training Center rotation.

Patients kept coming to us with poorly applied field dressings. They were either too tight and restricted blood flow or too loose and fell off. As I thought about it, it occurred to me that there might be a combination of fabrics, that, if sewn together correctly, would be easy to apply, form a tight seal to the skin, and still be easy to change or remove.

As soon as I got back to the barracks, I hit the local fabric store, pulled out my sewing machine, and made a prototype. It took a few tries (and lots of advice and recommendations from the doctors and nurses in the unit) but eventually I got it to work. I never thought I would be able to use both my nursing skills and my costume design skills in one job but here I was, doing it!


I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my new kind of field dressing until one of the RNs made me demonstrate it for the hospital commander. He watched without saying a word. He finally asked a few questions to make sure he knew how it worked, and then things got quiet.

Finally, my RN spoke up, “I think we could really use something like this, Sir.” He stood up straight and said, “I agree.” Then he looked at me. “I’m going to hate to lose you, Specialist,” he said, “but I think you need to put in for an MOS reclassification.”

Until the hospital commander told me about it, I had never even heard of 99A. There were some direct appointments, of course, but those were coming out places like MIT and Silicon Valley. For normal soldiers like me, getting into the Innovation Corps was more like going into Civil Affairs or Special Forces. You had to have some time in service but, more importantly, you had to have a good idea.

At first, it was easy. I simply submitted my idea to a local Innovation Corps recruiter.  I included some pictures and a short video that I shot on my cell phone of my prototype in action.  The recruiter told me that the Army used the same “deal flow” system used by venture capitalists. I’m not sure what that all entails but, in the end, it meant that my idea was one of the 50% that moved on to the next level.

For more info on deal flows see, Basics of Deal Flow.

My next step was a lot more difficult. You can think of it as the Q course for Army innovators. I went TDY for a month to the Army’s Innovation Accelerator in Austin, Texas. Like all business accelerators, the goal was to give me time, space, mentorship and (a little) money to flesh out my idea. I worked with marketing experts and graphic designers to come up with a good name and logo. I worked with experts in the manufacturing of medical equipment to help refine the prototype. I even had a video team come in and make a great 2 minute video showcasing the product. It was exciting to see all of the other ideas and to have a chance to talk about them with the enlisted soldiers, officers, and even some college students and PHDs--all trying to bring their ideas to life.

The Army crowdsourced the decision about which projects got to move on from the accelerator. That meant that each of us put together a “pitch page,” kind of like what you would see on Kickstarter or IndieGoGo. Units all across the Army had a fixed number of tokens they could spend on innovative projects each quarter. Each of us needed to get a set number of tokens or we would not be allowed to move on. In the end, out of the hundreds of applications and the dozens of people at the accelerator, I was one of the 10 chosen to move forward, one of 10 who gets to call themselves a US Army Innovator.

That’s where I am today. My next step is a PCS move to a business incubator. I could stay here in Austin with the Army’s business incubator, but the Army has deals with incubators all over the country. I am hoping to get a slot in one of the better medtech incubators in Boston or Buffalo. It will be a two year tour (with the possibility of extension), which should give me plenty of time to bring my idea to market, with the Army as my first customer.

For me, the best part is that I am now getting Innovation Pay. It is a lot like foreign language proficiency pay or dive pay. I’m not getting rich but it sure is better than what I got as a specialist. More importantly, there are ten tiers, and each time you move up, you get a pretty substantial raise. This means that once you become an Innovator, you are going to want to stay an Innovator.

The other great part about this system is that you can move up as fast as you can move up. There are no time-in-service requirements. If I am successful in the business incubator, for example, I could be a CEO (Innovator Tier 6) in just a couple of years. Running my own company at 28? Yes, thank you!

And if I fail? I know there are still bugs to work out with my idea. I have to get the cost of production down, and there are lots of competitors in the medical market. Failure could happen. While I won’t be happy if it does, the truth is that, by some estimates, 90% of all start-ups fail. The Army has thought about this, of course, and gives Innovators three options if their projects fail. 

First, I could go back to nursing. I would need some refresher training but my promotion possibilities wouldn’t take a hit. The Army put my nursing career on pause while I was in the Innovation Corps. 

The second option is that I come up with a new idea or re-work my old one. The Innovation Corps has developed a culture of “intelligent failure,” which is just a fancy way of saying “learn from your mistakes.” In an environment where 90% of your efforts are going to fail, it is stupid to also throw away all of the learning that happened along the way. Besides, the Army also knows that persistence is a key attribute of successful entrepreneurs. The Army wants to keep Innovators who can get up, brush themselves off, and get back in the saddle. 

Finally, I might be able to go back to the accelerator as an instructor or take a staff position in Futures Command or one of the other Army organizations deeply involved in innovation.

I’ve had a chance to talk to a lot of soldiers, enlisted, NCOs, and officers, on my journey. The Innovation Corps is pretty new and, while many have heard about it, almost none of them really understand what it takes to become an Innovator. That doesn’t seem to matter though. Almost all of them, and particularly the old-timers, always say the same thing: “The Army has been talking about innovation my whole career. I am glad they finally decided to do something about it.”

For me? I’m just proud to be part of it. Proud to help my fellow soldiers, proud to help the country, and proud to be a US Army Innovator.

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Future Is Like A Butler

Imagine someone gave you a butler. Completely paid for. No termination date on the contract. What would you do?

At first, you’d probably do nothing. You’ve never had a butler. Outside of movies, you’ve probably never seen a butler. You might even feel a little nervous having this person in the room with you, always there, always ready to help. 

Once you got over your nervousness, you might ask the butler to do something simple, like iron your shirts or make you some coffee. “Hey,” you might think after a while, “This is pretty nice! I always have ironed shirts, and my coffee is always the way I like it!” 

Next, you’d ask your butler to do other things, more complicated things. Pretty soon, you might not be able to imagine your life without a butler.

The parable of the butler isn’t mine, of course. It is a rough paraphrasing of a story told by Michael Crichton in his 1983 book, Electronic Life. Crichton, more famous today for blockbusters like Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, and WestWorld, was writing about computers, specifically personal computers, back then. Crichton correctly predicted that personal computers would become ubiquitous, and the main goal of Electronic Life was to help people become more comfortable with them. 

The story of the butler was a launching point for his broader argument that personal computers were only going to get more useful with time, and that now was the time to start adopting the technology. It worked, too. Shortly after I read his book, I bought my first computer, a Commodore 64.

Today’s Army faces much the same problem. The difference, of course, is that the future presents today’s military with a much broader set of options than it did in 1983. Today, it feels like the Army has been given not one but hundreds of butlers. Quantum computing, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, 3D printing, robotics, nanotech, and many more fields are arguably poised to rapidly and completely change both the nature and character of warfare.


Despite the deluge of options, the question remains the same, “What do I do with this?”

The answer begins with Diffusion of Innovations theory. In his now classic book of the same name, Everett Rogers first defined the theory and the five types of adopters. Innovators, who aggressively seek the “next big thing”, are the first to take up a new product or process. Early adopters are the second group. Not quite as adventurous as the innovators, the early adopters are still primarily interested in acquiring new technology. Early majority and late majority adopters sit on either side of the midpoint of a bell-shaped adoption curve and represent the bulk of all possible adopters. Finally come the laggards, who tend to adopt a new innovation late or not at all.
(Source: BlackRock White Paper)

For example, the uptake of smartphones (among many other innovations) followed this pattern. In 2005, when the smartphone was first introduced, only 2% of the population (the Innovators) owned one. Three years later, market penetration had only reached 11%, but, from 2009-2014, the smartphone experienced double digit growth each year such that, by 2016, some 81% of all mobile phones were smartphones. This S curve of growth is another aspect predicted by Diffusion of Innovations theory.

Not all innovations succeed, however. In fact, all industries are littered with companies that failed to achieve critical mass in terms of adoption. While there are many reasons that a venture might fail, management consultant Geoffrey Moore, in his influential book, Crossing the Chasm, states that the most difficult leap is between the early adopters and the early majority. Early adopters tend to be enthusiastic and eager to try the next big thing. The early majority is more pragmatic and is looking for a solution to a problem. This difference in perspective accounts for much of the chasm.
Source:   Agile Adoption Across the Enterprise – Still in the Chasm


The Army is aggressively addressing the innovation and early adoption problem by developing sophisticated plans and tasking specific units and organizations to implement them. The need to innovate is, for example, at the heart and soul of several recent policy announcements, including the 2019 Army People Strategy and the 2019 Army Modernization Strategy. Beyond planning, the Army is already far along in doing some of the hard work of innovating. Indeed, organizations and projects as small as TRADOC’s Mad Scientists and as large as the Army Futures Command Synthetic Training Environment are examples that show that Army senior leaders understand the need to innovate and are acting now to put early adoption plans into motion.

But what about the rest of the Army? The part of the Army that isn’t directly involved in innovation? The part that is not routinely exposed to the next big thing? That hasn’t, to get back to the original point, ever had a butler?

Again, Diffusion Of Innovations theory provides a useful guide. Rogers talks about the five stages of the adoption process: Awareness, persuasion, decision, implementation, and continuation. For the rest of the Army, awareness, and, to a lesser extent, persuasion, should be the current goal. 

While this may seem simple, in a world of hundreds of butlers, it is deceptively so. With so many technologies poised to influence the Army of the future, it becomes extremely difficult to focus. Likewise, merely knowing the name of a technology or having some vague understanding of what it is and what it does is not going to be enough. No one in the Army would claim that you could learn to fire a rifle effectively merely by watching YouTube videos, and the same holds true for technologies like autonomous drones, 3D printing, and robots.

The only way to engender true understanding of both the strengths and weaknesses of an innovation is to provide a hands-on experience. Cost alone should not be a significant impediment to exposing the bulk of the Army to the technologies of the future. Autonomous drones are now available for under $1000, entry level 3D printers can be had for as little as $200-$700, virtual reality headsets are available for $300-1000 and build your own robot kits are available for a couple of hundred bucks

None of these products are as sophisticated as the kinds of products the Army is considering, of course, but putting simpler versions of these technologies in the hands of soldiers today would likely significantly improve the Army’s odds of being able to cross Moore’s chasm between visionary thinking and pragmatic application in the future.

How and where should the Army implement this effort to familiarize the force with the future? Fortunately, the Army has a good place, a good concept, and some prototypes already in place--at the library. The Army library system contains over 170 libraries worldwide. While many people continue to think of libraries as silent spaces full of dusty books, the modern library has been re-imagined as a place not only for knowledge acquisition but also as tech centers for communities.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the “makerspaces” that are increasingly woven into the fabric of modern libraries. Typically offering access to equipment that, while relatively inexpensive, is outside the budget of most households, or to technology that is best first experienced in a hands-on, peer learning environment, makerspaces allow users to try out new technologies and processes at the user’s own pace and according to the user’s own interest. 

3D printers, laser cutters, video and podcasting equipment are often combined in these makerspaces with more sophisticated traditional equipment such as high end, programmable sewing machines. Most times, however, the makerspace has been tailored by the local librarians to meet the needs of the population that the library serves. Indeed, the Army already has at least three examples of makerspaces in its library system, the Barr Memorial Library at Fort Knox, the Mickelsen Community Library at Fort Bliss and The Forge at the US Army War College.

Imagine being able to go to the post library and check out an autonomous drone for the weekend? Or to sit down and 3D print relief maps of the terrain you were going to cover on your next hike? Understanding the basics of these new technologies will not only make the future force more comfortable with them but also allow soldiers to think more robustly about how to employ these technologies to the Army’s advantage.

While the cost of such a venture would be reasonable, acquiring the funding for any effort on the scale of the whole Army cannot be taken for granted. More challenging, perhaps, would be the process of repurposing the space, training staff, and rolling out the initiative. 

But what is the alternative? To the extent that the Army, as the 2019 People Strategy outlines, needs people at all levels “who add value and increase productivity through creative thinking and innovation,” it seems imperative that the Army also have a whole-of-army approach to innovation. To fail to do so risks falling into Moore’s chasm, where the best laid plans of the visionaries and early adopters fall victim to unprepared pragmatists that will always make up the bulk of the Army.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The BPRT Heuristic: Or How To Think About Tech Trends

A number of years ago, one of my teams  was working on a series of technology trend projects.  As we looked deeply at each of the trends, we noticed that there was a pattern in the factors that seemed to be influencing the direction a particular tech trend would take.  We gave that pattern a name:  the BPRT Heuristic.  

Tech trends are always interesting to examine, so I wanted to share this insight to help you get started thinking about any developing or emerging techs you may be following.  

Caveat:  We called it a heuristic for a reason.  It isn't a law or even a model of tech trend analysis.  It is just a rule of thumb--not always true but true enough to be helpful.
  • B=the Business Case for the tech.  This is how someone can make money off the tech.  Most R and D is funded by companies these days (this was not always the case).  These companies are much more likely to fund techs that can contribute to a revenue stream.  This doesn't mean that a tech without an obvious business case can't get developed and funded, it just makes it harder.
  • P=Political/Cultural/Social issues with a tech.  A tech might be really cool and have an excellent business case, but because it crosses some political or social line, it either goes nowhere or accelerates much more quickly than it might normally.  Three examples:  
    • We were looking at 3G adoption in a country early in the 2000's.  There were lots of good reasons to suspect that it was going to happen, until we learned that the President's brother owned the 2G network already in existence in the country.  He was able to use his family connections to keep competition out of the country.  
    • A social factor that delayed adoption of a tech is the story of Google Glass in 2013.  Privacy concerns driven by the possibility of videos taken without consent led to users being called "Glassholes."  Coupled with other performance issues, this led to the discontinuation of the original product (though it lives on in Google's attempts to enter the augmented reality market).  
    • Likewise, these social or cultural issues can positively impact tech trends as well.  For example, we have all had to become experts at virtual communication almost overnight due to the COVID crisis--whether we wanted to or not.
  • R=Regulatory/Legal issues with the tech.  The best example I can think of here is electromagnetic spectrum management.  Certain parts of the electromagnetic spectrum have been allocated to certain uses.  If your tech can only work in a part of the spectrum owned by someone else, you're out of luck.  Some of this "regulation" is not government sponsored either.  The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers establishes common standards for most devices in the world, for example.  For example, your wifi router can connect to any wifi enabled devices because they all use the IEEE's 802.11 standard for wifi.  Other regulations come from the Federal Communications Commission and the International Telecommunications Union.
  • T=The tech itself.  This is where most people spend most of their time when they study tech trends.  It IS important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a particular technology, but as discussed above, it might not be as important as other environmental factors in the eventual adoption (or non-adoption...) of a tech.  That said, there are a couple of good sources of info that can allow you to quickly triangulate on the strengths and weaknesses of a particular tech:
    • Wikipedia.  Articles are typically written from a neutral point of view and often contain numerous links to other, more authoritative sources.  It is not a bad place to start your research on a tech.  
    • Another good place is Gartner, particularly the Gartner Hype Cycle.  I'll let you read the article at the link but "Gartner Hype Cycle 'insert name of tech here'" is almost always a useful search string  (Here's what you get for AI for example...).  
    • Likewise, you should keep your eye out for articles about "grand challenges" in a particular tech (Here is one about grand challenges in robotics as an example).  Grand Challenges outline the 5-15 big things the community of interest surrounding the tech have to figure out to take the next steps forward.  
    • Likewise, keep your eyes out for "roadmaps."  These can be either informal or formal (like this one from NASA on Robotics and autonomous systems).  The roadmaps and the lists of grand challenges should have some overlap, but they are often presented in slightly different ways.
Obviously, the BPRT Heuristic is not the answer to all your tech trend questions.  In providing a quick, holistic approach to tech trend analysis it does, however, allow you to avoid many of the problems associated with too much hype.  

Monday, September 21, 2020

Cyber Teachers! Here's A Cool Resource You Should Know About...

A couple of my colleagues in the cyber department here at the Center for Strategic Leadership at the US Army War College have put together a very handy resource for anyone working or teaching cyber or cyber-related issues:  The Strategic Cyberspace Operations Guide.

Nothing in the guide should be particularly new to experienced cyber instructors.  It is still extraordinarily useful as it puts everything together in one package.  As the authors said themselves, "It combines U.S. Government Unclassified and Releasable to the Public documents into a single guide."  

The 164 page document contains six chapters:

  • Chapter 1 provides an overview of cyberspace operations, operational design methodology, and joint planning, and execution. 
  • Chapter 2 includes a review of operational design doctrine and applies these principles to the cyberspace domain. 
  • Chapter 3 reviews the joint planning process and identifies cyberspace operations planning concerns. 
  • Chapter 4 describes cyberspace operations during the execution of joint operations. 
  • Chapter 5 provides an overview of cyberspace operations in the homeland. 
  • Chapter 6 includes a case study on the Russian – Georgian conflict in 2008 with a focus on cyberspace operations.
I found the entire document to be very well edited and presented.  It was about as easy a read as this sort of thing can be.  Most importantly, it did the really hard work of getting it all into a single package.  Recommended!

(Reader's Note:  As always, the views expressed in this blog are my own random musings and do not represent any official positions.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Book Review: Burn-In, A Glimpse Into The Future Of Man-Machine Teaming

(Note:  A colleague of mine, Kelly Ivanoff, came to me a few weeks ago with a review--a really well-written review--for the new thriller by Singer and Cole called Burn-In.  I don't have a lot of guest bloggers, but I knew that SAM's audience would be interested in the book, and I told Kelly I would be happy to publish the review.  Over the next couple of weeks, Kelly got me an advance copy of the book, and I have been reading it myself (I knew 12 years of blogging would have to be good for something, someday...).  

So, who is Kelly Ivanoff and what qualifies him to comment on the future of AI, machine learning and robots?  Check this bio out:

Colonel Kelly Ivanoff presently serves at the United States Army War College.  His previous assignment was as the Executive Officer to the Director, Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC), the predecessor of today’s Army Futures Command.  He’s a veteran of three combat deployments and has four years of experience specifically working future force-related efforts including concept development and force design.
Boom.  Mic drop.  Let's get to the review...Oh, and none of this is the official position of the Department of Defense or the Army.  It's all just Kelly, me, and our opinions.  Also, I'll add my two cents on the book after you're done reading what Kelly has to say.

By Kelly Ivanoff

The United States Army sees great potential in artificial intelligence and robotics to significantly impact outcomes in future combat operations.  Army General John “Mike” Murray was recently quoted in Breaking Defense, “If you’re talking about future ground combat, you’re not talking tens of thousands of sensors…We’ve got that many in Afghanistan, right now. You’re talking hundreds of thousands if not millions of sensors.” Murray later wondered, “How do you make sense of all that data for human soldiers and commanders?”  His answer:  machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Best-selling authors P.W. Singer and August Cole must have the same convictions as senior Army leaders.  Their new book, Burn-In is a riveting work of fiction, set approximately ten to fifteen years in the future, with real world, present-day implications concerning the great potential of robotics, artificial intelligence, and man-machine teaming.  They offer prophetic examples of how the military might harness and exploit the potential of these evolving technologies to improve situational understanding, “make sense of all that data,” and make better decisions.  Importantly, they vividly describe scenarios that stimulate imagination and allow consideration of challenges similar to those prioritized by General Murray and his team at Army Futures Command.

Burn-In presents the story of FBI agent Laura Keegan, a former United States Marine Corps robot handler, who is tasked to team with a robot partner to test the limits of man-machine teaming; in other words, conduct a ‘burn-in”.  Beginning with a series of controlled experiments and exercises Keegan attempts to better understand the advanced robot she’s been provided; a TAMS (tactical autonomous mobility system).  The tests are designed to explore the robot’s physical agility and its ability to learn and, as a result, improve its own capability.  The tests also challenge Agent Keegan to expand her imagination for the employment of robots and build her trust in artificial intelligence and machine autonomous operations.  The tests are halted due to a series of what seem to be unrelated disasters that inflict great damage and kill thousands of people in the national capital region.  It quickly becomes apparent the disasters were no accident.  In response, Keegan and TAMS embark on a thrilling, action-packed race to identify, locate, and stop a revenge-motivated murderer who caused the destruction.  Through this mentally and environmentally stressful period Agent Keegan overcomes her biases and comes to embrace man-machine teaming and the use of artificial intelligence in problem solving and decision making.  Ultimately, through their portrayal of this fictional story, Singer and Cole reveal numerous real-world opportunities and challenges surely inherent in our near future.  

Burn-In is much more than just a riveting story.  Singer and Cole creatively advance important concepts about the use of robotics and artificial intelligence in defense and security-related professions.  Much can be learned from their work.  Burn-In brilliantly describes example scenarios pertaining to three of the four “initial thrusts” of the Army’s newly established Artificial Intelligence Task Force; those three being Intelligence Support, Automated Threat Recognition, and Predictive Maintenance (the fourth being Human Resources / Talent Management).  The authors also provide examples related to all of the additional Areas of Interest identified in a recent call for whitepapers issued by the Army Artificial Intelligence Task Force.  Burn-In is important for the vividly described problem-centered scenarios and the conceptual solutions offered.  

Burn-In is an exceptional read and it should be a centerpiece in the library of aspiring senior military leaders, defense officials, and those involved in military modernization efforts.  Its value lies in its description of the world as it will be.  Just as the scientist and author Isaac Asimov once argued, “It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today.  No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be”.  For this reason military leaders and those engaged in the development of military technologies and operational doctrines should read this book.  It will stimulate ideas about the future operational environment and offer conceptual solutions to the inherent challenges.  Beyond the aforementioned professional reasons, read Burn-In for the sheer enjoyment of a well told story.  It will not disappoint.    

My two cents:  I like the book, too!  It reminds me of some the early work by Tom Clancy or Ralph Peters (my favorites!), and I suspect it will have that same kind of effect on military and government professionals that read it.