The Bottom Line: Revolution Through Evolution

November 15, 2013
By Maryann Lawlor
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A revolution quietly erupted in October. On the University of Chicago campus, more than 80 innovators came together to discuss their ideas about how to solve some of the military’s most vexing problems. Not blind to the chain-of-command bureaucracy in which they operate, these pragmatic dreamers passionately moved forward in spite of it, because the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF) conference provided a place for in-person networking and commiserating, brainstorming and bracing one another up.

Although the conference took place last month, DEF’s organizing team planted the seeds of the revolution several months ago with an unconventional approach. Turning to technology, they created a virtual forum where innovators could post their ideas, gather input and comment on others’ proposed solutions.

But as wonderful as virtual networking can be, nothing beats face-to-face, handshaking, name-tag-wearing interaction at conferences. Cognizant of shrinking travel budgets and time constraints but armed with the knowledge that their audience was already a bunch of risk takers, the team decided to take a chance. To attend the event, they asked innovators to pay their own way and dedicate their Columbus Day weekend to a conference that no one was even certain would be beneficial.

It turns out that DEF team members knew their audience very well: they built it, and the innovators came. Wearing business casual (the uniform of the long weekend) to level the discussion field, dozens of emerging military leaders and their civilian counterparts spent three days learning from the experiences of successful entrepreneurs. More than 100 entrepreneurs took advantage of the opportunity to tap into the knowledge and encouragement-sharing event via the online access the DEF team set up. In-person and virtual conference participants heard from business and leadership experts who offered tips about moving good ideas forward in organizations that have a million moving parts and are steeped in tradition. They were encouraged to find advocates for their ideas and urged to persevere. They found people like themselves both in passion and yes, sometimes in frustration.

Most importantly, they innovated … quickly. Although they could develop their ideas through virtual collaboration on the DEF website prior to the event, this gathering gave participants the opportunity to show their true grit. During two four-hour ideation sessions on Saturday and Sunday, seven self-assembled groups of visionaries focused on solutions to problems that ranged from facilitating billet swaps to helping reduce the number of service member suicides.

On Monday, they faced the innovator’s equivalent of the Top Chef Judges’ Table and presented their solutions in five-minute (absolutely no more than five minutes!) sales pitches. After each presentation, the judges—three entrepreneur and business experts and a brigadier general—challenged the presenters for one minute (this time clock was a bit more lax) about their ideas: Could this be done within the military bureaucracy? How? Isn’t there a solution already out there for this problem? How could this idea be expanded to the commercial sector to make money?

Despite tough questioning, not one of innovators was swayed from the belief that his or her idea was a good one even if it needed some work. That is passion. That is innovative spirit. That is persistence. That is perseverance. Those are the traits of many of today’s emerging military leaders, and they must be nurtured.

The DEF event did just that, but the bottom line is that today’s military structure is not set up to foster creative solutions and incorporate them into the bureaucracy. The status quo is acceptable. The status quo is comfortable. The status quo is easier. But constantly bumping up against the status quo will lead some of these innovators to leave the military and go to the private sector. Within that faster paced environment, their passion—and their solutions—will be nurtured, and the military services are likely to find themselves turning to the very same people who once reported to them for new ideas to solve new problems.

There is no doubt that the DEF conference attendees are dedicated individuals who are devoted to serving—and improving—the military. They paid their own way, spent their own free time, considered the constraints of their employer, and put their ideas out there to be fostered and yes criticized. But between each presentation from the experts, between each ideation session, they weren’t on their cellphones checking email (the usual activity at all conferences); they were talking to each other and cultivating relationships with like-minded people. They may not have been aware of it, but they were designing the 21st century’s revolution in military affairs, a revolution not about war but about new ways to bring about peace.

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