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  • Writer's pictureTheDave

Innovation : an age old military tradition 

Innovation is a great buzz word, at its best it is used to inspire people to thinking creatively and solve new and old problems. At its worst it is used to justify a lack of intellectual rigour and a 'fail fast' 'agile' approach. I believe the military is a great source of innovators and stories of innovation.

Innovation isn't about methods, it's about solutions to problems. to confuse things, if the problem is poor ideation or analysis methods then the innovative solution may result in a new method. The innovation results in a solution to the problem, how that innovation occurs doesn't matter.

It is the art of finding a solution be it a solution to an old problem, 'how do we transport people from A to B' . Or a solution to a new problem 'how do we combat the erosion of trust in our democracies as a result of the digital communication landscape' and the 24hr news cycle'

If we trust Googles (via the Oxford English Dictionary) definition of innovation we see it is the act or process of innovating, so lets look at the definition of the word 'innovate' .



  • make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.

  • introduce (something new, especially a product).

"the company's failure to diversify and innovate competitively" "we continue to innovate new products"

verb gerund or present participle: innovating


What I feel is missing from this definition is the need for a problem. Would we define art as a form of innovation in its own right? Probably not, as it doesnt solve a problem (Debatable I know) . Therefore my view and understanding is that innovation is possible when a problem is present, that problem is subjective to you and your organisation. (happy to be challenged on this @dmad_actual on twitter or comment below)

So innovation is a solution to a problem that could be a new problem which requires a new solution or make a change/update to an old solution to an old problem.

How we achieve this solution, the 'means and ways' may be innovative in that they are new but they are merely the mechanics by which we innovate. Innovative 'means and ways' don't automatically equal innovative solutions. Obviously the 'means and ways' could be the problem that requires an innovative solution. A good example of these 'ways and means' are design thinking methods that can help engage a group and elicit more input to the problem analysis.

Innovation is something that is subjective, the way a technologically forward thinking organisation such as Spotify or Monzo structure themselves and operate may appear innovative to the outsider. But for those organisations innovation will appear and be focussed on different solutions to different problems. If your organisation is still struggling to get application teams to work with modern software development techniques then your technology innovation landscape is very different.

There is nothing original under the sun, that's why understanding our history is so valuable! So don't assume because you feel the need to innovate that someone, somewhere else in the world or point in time hasn't solved this problem or innovated around this specific issue.

If you have read any of my previous articles you will be aware that I was formed in the pressure cooker that is the military, and jumped out a few years ago. I have a strong belief that the military, specifically the British Military, have a strong ethos and culture of innovating.

Why? because of a few of Murphy's Laws of combat, specifically:

Law 2. If its stupid but works, it isn't stupid. If you've got a big brain that may be the barrier to your ability to innovate, therefore it is taught across the military to promote initiative and involve all ranks in planning. Unfortunately on occasion, like in any business the HIPPO (Highest Paid Persons Opinion) concept takes affect.

Law 8. No plan Survives contact. Innovating on the fly is built into every junior leader in the infantry. The phrase 'no cuff to tough' is used to justify a lack of planning at times but it really means that the individual is prepared to deal with the unexpected.

Another reason the military is a great source of innovation is the fact that nearly always resource is low in quality and quantity and/or you are against the clock.

So the doctrinal answer to a problem is often merely a guide to how someone did it once rather then the answer/solution you should pursue.

A key point here that I want to pick up on is the lack of resource being a key catalyst for innovation. A great example of this is some of the escape attempts during WW2. The Great Escape for example is really a story of innovation, and partially of thinking through the problem to the end rather than focussing on the immediate issue. They managed to escape but very few of them actually escaped, could they have focussed their innovative thought more on post break out activity? This highlights a key aspect of innovation, make sure the problem/question you are tackling is the the correct problem. Verne harnish in his book Scaling Up highlights the need to ask the right question rather then find the right answer.

My personal favourite innovator from the war is Brigadier Dudley Clark, go read about him, but to get you started here are some of his exploits:

  • He led the strategic deception aspects of the war in North Africa and the Middle east

  • He once got caught by German security forces dressed as a woman in Madrid whilst doing something sneaky and was released a short time later. There's photo evidence!

  • He was fundamental to the creation of the SAS, British Commandos, and US Rangers.

  • He was referred to as 'Britain's greatest deceiver of the war'

The role of innovation in deception is a valuable subject to understand, the parallels between WW2 deception techniques and today's marketing techniques are frighteningly similar.

From my own time serving one of my favourite stories of innovation was when our Warrior ( a tank that carries soldiers) got stuck on a Basra street. The vehicle had managed to get a track either side of a 1ft high central reservation which happened to be the exact width of the hull , with a substantial telegraph pole to its front and rear, the vehicle was stuck.

Warrior Vehicle on a typical Basra Street

It couldn't turn off the central reservation as this would have taken a track off the vehicle and caused larger issues. The greater risk here was that it was a sitting duck on the edge of the Shia flats (the badlands of Basra) in prime RPG range.

Time was key, we couldn't tow the vehicle off, the posts to front and rear were too strong to drive over.

So we had a problem, which needed a solution, a solution that would be the first of its kind (to us on the ground at least). So we needed to innovate.

The solution was incredibly simple (note Law 2 above) after about 5 mins of head scratching we spotted a giant piece of rubble (this was a worn torn city) , the rubble was the same height as the reservation.

It took 4 of us to lift it awkwardly the 100 meters to the front of one of the tracks, place it in the right place and allow the driver to drive onto it, turn just enough to get the track onto the reservation and give it some beans to crash past the front telegraph pole.

The phrase 'Adapt and overcome' epitomises the spirit of innovation, go anywhere in any military and a phrase similar to this one will be in common use.

For me this adapt and overcome culture is absent in the corporate world, in the behemoths, the traditional finite minded organisations that make up most of our economy. The reason for this is a natural risk aversion brought about by a lack of strategic support and finite mindedness.

In order to innovate, failure must be expected, accepted and actively promoted. Aides to innovation are, decentralized responsibility, collaboration, communication, breadth of team diversity, visualisation and data capture methods that are as fluid as the mind, and time to think.

This last point is important when trying to 'Innovate' intentionally. If you want to find a new solution to an old problem or are struggling to find a solution to a subjective problem then carving out time, the correct time, where a diverse team can focus on that problem with clear minds is vital. Put simply if I'm thinking about a client meeting at 2pm, I'm not thinking broadly and creatively at 11am. Dedicate time to innovation.

This article has set out to define innovation the issues and debatable points around it. To highlight the role the military has taken in innovation and how those who have served might be some of the best people to help your organisation to innovate.

This article is underpinned by some of the concepts I have previously written about, specifically ' Shy kiddies getting no sweeties' and the 'JFDI' mentality.

Thanks for reading.


#innovation #culture #military #business #solutions #mindset

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