Monday, February 5, 2024

The Battle of Moore's Chasm And Who Will Win The Next War

There is a battle going on right now.  It is being fought by every military in the world.  

Victory in this battle is crucial.  The militaries' on the winning side will likely be on the winning side of the next large-scale war.  The losers will likely be forgotten, studied only for the mistakes they made.

This is the Battle of Moore's Chasm.

This battle is taking place everywhere.  There are physical manifestations of it in Ukraine, the Taiwan Strait, and Gaza, but there are equally important conceptual and theoretical manifestations of it in the Pentagon, on Arbatskaya Square in Moscow, and deep inside the August 1 Building in Beijing.

What this battle is about and how to win it are the subjects of this article.

What Is The Battle Of Moore's Chasm?

To understand this battle it is necessary, at first, to travel back to 1962.  It was then that a young professor of rural sociology, Everett Rogers, published what was to become the second most cited book in all the social sciences, Diffusion of Innovations 

While the book contains much that is still relevant today, the part that is important to the current battle is the idea that the "market" for an idea, an innovation, a new concept, or a technology generally follows a bell curve and that this bell curve can be divided into five major sections of users (See chart below):  Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority and Laggards. 


Fast forward to 1989, when two researchers at the famous consulting firm, Regis McKenna, Inc. (RMI), Warren Schirtzinger and James Lee, hypothesized and then demonstrated that there was a "chasm" between the early adopters and the early majority.  

This chasm existed largely due to the different motivations of the members of these groups.  Innovators and Early Adopters are very much into cool, new things.  They tend to be more enamored with the potential of a new technology or process than they are with the utility or scalability of these products.  Early and Late Majority motivations, on the other hand, typically have more to do with solving particular problems and doing so at the lowest cost and at a scale that is appropriate for their organization.

Another researcher at RMI, Geoffrey Moore, picked up on the idea and, in 1991, published what was to become one of the most influential business books ever, Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers. Now in its third edition, it has sold over a million copies and is considered by Inc. magazine as one of the top ten marketing books ever written. Think Insights has a good article that lays out the main ideas in detail, but for our purposes, their chart showing the chasm is sufficient:

Think Insights (January 3, 2024) Crossing The Chasm – Technology Adoption Lifecycle. Retrieved from

Most importantly, Moore's Chasm has become synonymous with the place where good ideas go to die.  Whether it is a lack of capital, innovator inexperience, or an inability to get traction in the much more lucrative Early and Late Majority markets, failure to bridge the chasm leads, at best, to relegation to a niche market and, at worst, to inevitable decline and bankruptcy. 

While almost all of these ideas and the literature accompanying the chasm have come out of business journals, it has a direct and immediate correlation with issues faced by militaries around the world.  Indeed, Secretary of the Army, Christine Wormuth recently said:

“This is a crucial moment for the Army to summon our ingenuity, to innovate and invest in emerging technologies, to test and develop in uncharted areas like artificial intelligence and contested domains like space and cyber, to reshape and transform the force to be more adaptable and flexible.”

Yet, across the globe, the difference between how much militaries want to innovate and how much they are actually innovating seems to be heading in the wrong direction.  As the Boston Consulting Group highlighted in its report last year on the defense innovation readiness gap:

"One of (the report's) most important findings is that the defense innovation readiness gap significantly increased in the year since our first study. Across 10 of the 11 dimensions of readiness assessed, MoDs failed to match their 2021 results, by an average of 8%."

Moreover, there is some evidence to suggest that this chasm exists within the US Department of Defense as well.  A recent report by the Center for Security and Emerging Technology put it this way:

"However, under the DOD’s current organizational structure, defense innovation is disconnected from defense procurement. This division limits innovation offices’ ability to affect technological change across the military and excuses procurement offices from integrating cutting-edge capabilities into major systems and platforms." (Italics mine)

The Battle of Moore's Chasm is real, and right now, no one is winning.

Who Will Fight This Battle?

While there are a number of possible ways to win the battle (the CSET paper, for example, references three), all of these courses of action require the right people to implement them.  Acquisition officers, policy wonks, commanders, and others all do and will have their role to play.  The most important warrior in this battle, however, is the innovation champion.

Developed about the same time as Diffusion of Innovations Theory, the idea of an innovation champion was first put forward by Dr. Donald Schön in the Harvard Business Review article, "Champions for radical new inventions."  Since then, thousands of articles (Google Scholar says about 2140) have been written about the role, traits, and importance of innovation champions in driving modernization and incorporating emerging technologies across a wide variety of fields.  

All of the more modern definitions of innovation champion are similar to the one developed by researchers at the German Graduate School of Management and Law:  "an innovation champion is an individual or a group of individuals who is willing to take risks to enthusiastically promote innovations through the various stages of the development process."

This same paper identified five skills, seven traits, and three different kinds of knowledge that were characteristic of innovation champions based on a systematic literature analysis looking at 85 of the most influential journal articles on the topic (See image to the left).

The approach here is similar to the approach taken by the US Army in teaching leadership.  With leadership, the Army focuses on Attributes (roughly equivalent to Traits in the chart to the left) and Competencies (roughly equivalent to Skills and Knowledge in the chart).  A fundamental premise of Army leadership training is that "most people have leadership potential and can learn to be effective leaders."  The same could be said, perhaps, for innovation champions.

While the approach is similar, there is not a one-to-one correlation between what the Army thinks makes a good leader and what is necessary for an innovation champion (See chart below and to the right).


In short, while routine Army leadership training likely covers many of the attributes of an innovation champion, it is equally likely that there are several gaps that will need to be filled if the Army is to have the warriors it needs for the ongoing battle.

Specifically, having the minimal technical knowledge necessary to champion particular innovations jumps out as one such requirement.  Many soldiers are so deeply involved in the day-to-day activities of running the Army or fighting in the country's conflicts, that they have little time for understanding arcane emerging technologies such as 3D printing, quantum computing, synthetic biology, 6 and 7G telecommunications systems, augmented reality, and others. Yet decisions, potentially costing billions of dollars, regarding the development, testing and fielding of these technologies will need to be made regularly and soon if the US Army's technical advantage is to remain.

Likewise, would-be innovation champions will need to learn the transformational leadership skills necessary to manage teams of experts from disparate fields.  Most military officers have grown up in an environment similar to Machiavelli's Kingdom of the Turk, which "is governed by one lord, the others are his servants; and, dividing his kingdom into sanjaks, he sends there different administrators, and shifts and changes them as he chooses."  

This hierarchical organization with its emphasis on commanders and their intent suddenly gives way when confronted by interdisciplinary teams of experts and contractors in the diverse technical fields common to innovation activities.  Here the comfortable chain of command often is replaced with something akin to Machiavelli's Kingdom of the Franks, where officers find themselves "placed in the midst of an ancient body of lords, acknowledged by their own subjects, and beloved by them; they have their own prerogatives, nor can the king take these away except at his peril."  Leading innovation activities, in short, requires different skills than leading at the tactical and operational levels.

Where Will These Champions Come From?

Some of these Skills and Knowledge categories also typically require a certain level of experience.  For example, all officers understand their organization to a certain extent, but it takes a relatively senior officer to have a feel for the entire enterprise.  Likewise, officers, as they move from one assignment to another, develop useful networks, but the kind of depth and breadth necessary to lead innovation activities typically requires a deeper rolodex.  

This kind of officer with the experience, organizational understanding, and networks to do this kind of work are generally at the level of Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel, the O5's and O6's of the Army.  LTC Richard Brown put it bluntly in his essay for AUSA, "Staff colonels are the Army’s innovation center of gravity."

Officers this senior can often come with some baggage as well, however.  For example, unless an officer's career has been carefully managed, it is certainly possible that some of the essential Traits of an innovation champion, such as creativity, risk-taking, or optimism, have been suppressed or even beaten out by an unforgiving system.  Fortunately, the right training and environment allows much of this damage to be repaired.  Creativity, for example, "is something you practice...not just a talent you are born with."

All this--filling in technical knowledge and leadership gaps while simultaneously re-energizing officers closer to the end of their careers than to the beginning--is, in military terms, a "heavy lift," a difficult, perhaps impossible, job.  Making it even more challenging is the fact that there is only one realistic opportunity to do it and that is at a senior service college.  In the Army's case, that is the US Army War College.  

The War College, as it turns out, is the critical chokepoint in the Battle of Moore's Chasm.

The 10 month stint at the War College comprises the last in-depth, formal military education most senior officers will receive.  After this, they typically move on to senior staff positions or take command of brigade sized units.  A relatively few of these graduates will go on to become generals and most will complete only one or two more assignments before retiring.  If officers don't get it at the War College, they are unlikely to get this kind of specialized education and training once they get back to the field.

Fortunately, I think the War College understands this generally and I am involved in two specific activities that are deliberately designed to address these challenges, the Futures Seminar and the Futures Lab.

The Futures Seminar use real questions from real senior defense officials to jumpstart a year long project designed, typically, to not only delve deep into the world of technology as well as more generalized "futures-thinking" but also to gain practical skills in managing highly diverse teams of experts as the students seek to integrate their thinking in pursuit of the best possible answer to their sponsor's question.

The Futures Lab also seeks to fill the tech knowledge gap but in a more hands-on way, allowing students an opportunity to spend as much or as little time as they want learning the ins-and-outs of technologies such as 3D printing, drones, virtual reality, and robots.  With a wide variety of technologies and expert assistance available, the Lab creates an environment designed to re-awaken creativity, enthusiasm, and risk-taking.

Who will win?

Andrew Krepinevich, a military strategist and award winning author, in his recent book, The Origins of Victory: How Disruptive Military Innovation Determines the Fates of Great Powers, states:

"Viewed from a lagging competitor’s perspective, failing to keep pace in exploiting the potential of an emerging military revolution risks operating at a severe disadvantage. Consequently, the common challenge for all major-power militaries in a period of military revolution is to be the first to identify its salient characteristics and exploit its potential. Silver medals are not awarded to those who come in second."

If the side that innovates best, that not only employs emerging technologies but also combines them into a system where the whole can be more than the sum of its parts, is the side that wins, then the crucial battle, the first fight, is the Battle of Moore's Chasm, and the US Army will need trained and ready innovation champions to win it.

Note:  The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.