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.