By Daniel Hulter
Approximate Reading Time: 20 Minutes
Inspiration for this article came from the headline artwork above from GapingVoid.
Every branch, organization, and agency across the Department of Defense (DOD) is an ecosystem – a body of interrelated organisms that together comprise a larger, complex, adaptive, living system. Like any complex adaptive system, the organization’s survival and success requires exploration and experimentation at its existential periphery, where it makes contact with the adjacent possible, a term which Steven Johnson borrowed from complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman to refer to every potential future just outside the bounds of what a thing already is. Every organization must facilitate the institutional equivalent of random genetic mutations in evolution. Through trial and error, they can semi-intentionally stumble upon serendipitous connections and conceptual collisions, in order to discover and grow adaptive enhancements. These are what enable institutions to react, mutate, succeed, and survive as they accelerate into new contexts and future volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environments (#VUCA). Why is it so important that our institutions evolve? Because the world and our context changes around us: enemies change tactics, new markets emerge, competitors come and go. Organizations must adapt at a speed faster than the rate of contextual change. The important role that exploration, tinkering, experimentation, and even the act of play have in facilitating such creativity, discovery, learning, and innovation are well supported by research.
At the outer edges of its organizational bounds – its mission, identity, and strategy – every institution is putting time, energy, and effort into these essential exploratory, experimental mutations. It seems like every day we hear something about the efforts underway across the DoD in artificial intelligence/machine learning, virtual and augmented reality, and other such cutting-edge pursuits which many consider the most potentially potent veins to excavate as we mine the adjacent-possible.
But while each military branch and DoD organization facilitates many of these necessary, peripheral endeavors, I fear their perspective on the dynamics of these ecosystems is holding them back from being as innovative as they could be, and reducing the impact that their existing efforts already have. I reached out to the folks at Gapingvoid Culture Design Group to help me illustrate why, using the Air Force as an example.
Here is a depiction of how I believe the Air Force pursues innovation.
The Air Force positions itself as an ecosystem with a highly structured interior. On the periphery, they actively invest in purposeful, creative exploration, here portrayed as tendrils of the organism reaching into the adjacent possible. On the edges, Air Force innovation labs and accelerators direct their time and resources outward, feeling blindly to discover opportunities for mutation and growth in order to deliver developed enhancements to the structured interior. There they can be locked into place to join the ranks of fixed system components, like some sort of efficient, engineered machine with organic appendages – like a robot with squid tentacles.
But there is something wrong with this approach, and it stems from the fact that a complex ecosystem cannot be sufficiently adaptive if it has an overly-structured interior.
The organization faces a continuous need to adapt, so those experimental forays into the adjacent possible are necessary and meaningful. However, the wings, squadrons, and flights that comprise the Air Force are not rigid, internal components; they are complex ecosystems which require just as much iterative, nuanced adaptation as the system they occupy. The delivery of innovations to internal organizations cannot be strictly engineered “unfreeze, change, refreeze” change-management they teach us in professional military education. Human environments are complex, requiring sustained, adaptive fluidity: at no point should they be frozen.
Complex adaptive systems require a significant degree of internal complexity in order to survive and thrive. Organisms and ecosystems will not endure if their internal components are too strictly structured, because excessive constraint makes them less adaptive. As an example, we would be unable to re-engineer the internal components of a human body to be square and stackable, re-plumb and rewire them to save space. Our bodies are internally extremely complex. There are systemic interdependencies down to the cellular level that we could not possibly account for. The highly un-stackable shape of our internal organs has a good reason- because complex adaptive systems develop organically. Humans evolved through the slow, emergent process of incremental gains in fitness. Mutations that make a system or organism more fit do not do so with an outcome in mind, and that which is more fit is not necessarily more efficient.
As an internally inflexible bureaucracy, the Air Force, like other government organizations, is short on systems and processes that enable internal adaptive mutation. Most of the wings and squadrons across the Air Force are like organisms whose tendrils have been clipped, like internal organs whose organic, adaptive nature has been stripped by some efficiency enthusiast who likes to stack things.
We can see evidence of our lack of internal adaptability in the hardiness of dysfunction in everyday operations – the constant systems outages, the failure to adopt modern software solutions and management practices, the frequent incidence of problems that we can solve easily from home (e.g. computers on commercial software but are prevented from solving at work). This is what the rigid internal structure is protecting. Organizationally peripheral labs and accelerators have limited bandwidth and adaptations for smaller internal entities don’t take priority. As a result, the Air Force’s internal structure inhibits potentially useful adaptations within the system. The organization resists solving problems because of its intrinsic inflexibility, intolerance for uncertainty, and low tolerance for variance.
While the Air Force invests in adaptations at the margins, most of the systemic surface area in contact with the adjacent-possible is internal to the ecosystem. Every office, organization, and individual have their own unique opportunities and space for variance, exploration, and experimental mutation. Those internal entities and structures cannot be rigidly engineered. They are ecosystems within ecosystems, all the way down to the individual, and all innovation starts with individuals in contact with and exploring the adjacent possible in search of adaptive innovations exercised through creativity, personal discovery, intellectual exploration, and experimentation.
With that in mind, here is perhaps a better way to view the ecosystem of each of our organizations:
Viewed this way, the ecosystem isn’t comprised of rigidly engineered structures, but of organisms. These are internal organizations, cultural bodies, communities of practice, or capabilities. Each of them, while functioning as a component of the larger ecosystem, is also an evolving, adaptive organism. It makes contact with its own adjacent possible and, with its little tendrils, seeks out mutation at those margins to identify, experiment, and adopt adaptations that make it more fit, more efficient, and more value-creating. Internal to those organisms are other adaptive organisms. Adaptation at these smaller scales doesn’t necessarily mean the ability to mutate to the degree that the entire Air Force does. It can also mean that when new capabilities are developed and explored by the larger organization, their delivery and implementation are organic and adaptive in nature rather than excessively structured and overly standardized. It is not uncommon for process and program implementations to stumble because leaders failed to recognize the unique complexity of the environment and the need to assess, experiment, and iterate when introducing change. Too often, we treat an organ transplant like it’s replacing a computer graphics card, and that goes about as well as one might expect.
The idea that our organization evolves only on the periphery while stagnating internally is something I’ve thought a lot about lately. As leaders’ enthusiasm for topics like AI implementation reaches a fever pitch, frustration with existing systems and processes is growing in parallel. I’ve heard a lot of commentary from colleagues that basically amounts to, “Why are we even talking about AI when so many of our systems don’t work and we’re still using technology from 1999?” People on the inside of that ecosystem are watching leaders focus on big, flashy initiatives driven by high-visibility mission-sets, but we’re hamstrung inside these rigid structures, unable to adapt our dysfunctional systems to a context that has now changed enormously since these systems were first installed decades ago. Those innovative, exploratory organizations that exist on the outer margins aren’t going to address the fact that I can’t check my email 10% of the time, that I can’t trust Air Force systems of record, or that recall rosters are still being managed on PowerPoint slides hosted on SharePoint sites that can’t be accessed half of the time from half of our computers. They won’t address these issues, because their priorities are informed by their perspective, and from the periphery, my pains are not their priorities.
This is all just to illustrate how our perspective and approach, in organizations across the Department of Defense, is imbalanced in favor of organizationally marginal innovation, rather than internal, adaptive innovation, which arguably has far greater consequence for the health and efficiency of the existing organization. It is so important that, even at the smallest scale, if we are able to adapt and improve, that individuals, offices, and units have that freedom of exploration and experimentation. Not only will this facilitate their incremental, localized innovations, but it will also make them far more capable of adopting and adapting to the advancements coming down from innovation labs and accelerators at higher echelons of the organization.
CALL TO ACTION
Here are a few ways for your organization to get more internally complex, to facilitate the kind of interior capacity for mutation and adaptation that fosters innovation and will make your peripheral mutations stronger and longer-lasting.
Execute with values
If you want the leaders within your organization to act with some degree of autonomy, they’re going to need clear boundaries. Consistent and clear communication of the values and vision of the organization will make leaders feel safe taking action when adaptation is required, because it is clear when methods aren’t matching up with intent. Clarity about the intended value of any given system or process can give those who execute the confidence to interdict when contextual shifts have made existing designs ineffective.
For a great introduction to the power of aligning narratives and how to create an organization that fosters greater autonomy, read One Mission by Chris Fussell. I described some of the perils of failing to incorporate values-mindedness into execution in this article for The Strategy Bridge.
Foster psychological safety
People are far more bold and innovative when they feel safe venturing out, having ideas, speaking their mind, and making mistakes. When we foster an environment where people are free to be vulnerable, experiment, and express themselves, it gives every individual room and confidence to let their little tendrils grow and reach into the adjacent possible. As they are more able to reach one another, they will also inspire one another, allowing your most creative-minded to make those around them more creative.
For a primer on psychological safety and how it benefits teams and organizations, read The Fearless Organization by Amy C. Edmonson. For a clear roadmap of how middle managers and frontline supervisors can foster psychological safety, read Radical Candor by Kim Malone Scott.
Make room for exploration
Many leaders fail to recognize the importance of white space – free, unformatted time that gives us room for our minds to wander, for us to reflect and explore ideas and thoughts unimpeded by the normal rules about how we spend our time. Choosing to spend time with zero expected output might seem like a crazy idea but letting go of organizational priorities just to facilitate mental breathing room is something that many very successful corporations already.
For more thoughts on white space, see Heather Venable’s piece fomenting creativity in professional military education. For my own thoughts on why outputs are harmful measures of effectiveness for innovation efforts, see this piece I wrote on my observations as I helped stand up a Wing Innovation Office.
Use proven design and problem-solving frameworks
There are a lot of options out there for methodologies and frameworks with quick training and certification programs. My personal favorite is Think Wrong, but there’s also Design Sprints from Google, Design Thinking approaches taught by Stanford’s D. School or IDEO, and many others. It honestly doesn’t much matter which one you start at, because the principles of good design and problem-solving are universal and the best methods are not intuitive. We are all subject to the same cognitive pitfalls, habits, and biases, so without a good framework, our amateur attempts at brainstorming, ideating, designing, and developing are far less productive and collaborative than they could or should be.
Possibly the most important thing in making your organization more innovative is conceptually the simplest, but the most difficult to implement: create a network and make it fluid. The more quickly and easily information can flow between nodes both inside and outside your organization, the more innovative network effects will compound. Connectivity is facilitated through the tools you use, the culture you cultivate, and the habits you form. We need communication tools that make interaction frictionless, spontaneous connections easily facilitated, and information discoverable. We need habits like ‘working out loud’ that enable serendipitous connections to occur and for good ideas and best practices to infectiously spread. A leader should always be seeking out ways to break down silos.
I explored the essential role of connectedness in Air Force innovation in this piece, which drew heavily on Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From, General Stanley McChrystal’s book Team of Teams, Geoffrey West’s mind-bending book Scale, among others. One of the most important things about increasing connectedness is that it allows weak ideas to combine into great ideas, scattered efforts to coalesce into stronger projects, and isolated innovators to find a community to draw strength from. Connectedness is a true force-multiplier.
These days, we see a lot written about how to foster innovation in large organizations. As a result, we’ve seen significant progress in the development of dedicated offices looking to methodically mine the adjacent-possible for advances that will open new horizons in mission effectiveness and efficiency. Though these efforts show significant promise in their outputs, I fear we are neglecting a critical characteristic which would make these organizations more receptive to the introduction of innovations and organically innovative in their own right. Increasing the internal complexity of our institutions is absolutely essential to enabling adaptation and innovation so that we can truly advance at the speed of relevance.
Daniel Hulter is a U.S. Air Force Non-Commissioned Officer with 13 years’ experience in intelligence, program management, academic support, and innovation management. His recent effort has focused his study and writing on how the Air Force and DoD could better facilitate organic innovation throughout the force. He is an active member and volunteer for the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government. His writings can be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, Medium, and more recently on the blog “Sounding Slightly Off” on WordPress and Facebook.
What is the Adjacent Possible?: https://medium.com/@SeloSlav/what-is-the-adjacent-possible-17680e4d1198
Why the Freedom to Experiment and Fail is Important for Innovators: https://www.inc.com/thomas-oppong/why-the-freedom-to-experiment-and-fail-is-important-for-innovators.html
How Vuca is Reshaping the Business Environment and What it Means for Innovation, Sunnie Giles: https://www.forbes.com/sites/sunniegiles/2018/05/09/how-vuca-is-reshaping-the-business-environment-and-what-it-means-for-innovation/#1fd04352eb8d
Why it Pays to Play Around, Andreas Wagner: http://m.nautil.us/issue/73/play/why-it-pays-to-play-around
The Best Model of Adaptive Change You’ve Never Heard of: https://medium.com/@marcusguest/19-the-best-model-of-adaptive-change-youve-never-heard-of-75524fca3f0e
Why You Need “White Space” in your daily routine – Jocelyn K. Glei https://jkglei.com/white-space/
What Happens in White Space Should Not Stay in White Space – Heather Venable: https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2019/6/11/what-happens-in-white-space-should-not-stay-in-white-space-fomenting-creativity-in-professional-military-education
A Few Thoughts on Air Force Innovation – Daniel Hulter https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/few-thoughts-air-force-innovation-daniel-hulter
Keeping Off the Grass – Daniel Hulter https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2019/7/8/keeping-off-the-grass
Author’s Recommended Reading
The Fearless Organization – Amy C. Edmonson
Radical Candor – Kim Malone Scott
Where Good Ideas Come From – Steven Johnson
Team of Teams – General Stanley McChrystal
One Mission – Chris Fussell
Scale – Geoffrey West
Seeing Around Corners – Rita McGrath