Small Wars Journal

The Dilemma of Defense Innovation and Adaptation

Tue, 11/22/2016 - 7:48am

The Dilemma of Defense Innovation and Adaptation

Rod Korba

Human beings have an innate conflict between our need for stability (security) and our need for change (transformation). Both these needs are encoded in our DNA, fueled by our instincts, and reflected in our behaviors. The tension between stability and change creates an awkward interdependence that gives rise to its counterpoint and challenges our ability to regulate these behavioral extremes. This is a uniquely human dilemma that has resulted from our evolution and adaptation as a species. In the deep time of our cortical development, each layer of our hominid brain preserved, transformed and extended the overall attributes and capabilities of the brain as a whole. We exhibit the need for stability and security at a lower or primitive level of cortical activity or brain function, while the need for reason, foresight and invention evolved in our expanding frontal lobe, at the highest level of cortical function. Thus, we are both creatures of habit and we are products of creativity and change. In the world that created us, these traits (among others) lead to a new species: Homo sapiens (Latin for wise persons). In the world that we created, the homeostasis or balance of these internal forces forged the invention of tools and the gradual development of technology. Nurtured by imagination, this conflict between stability and change fired our ingenuity and allowed us to thrive as humans. Change is not a necessity in life—change is life itself. 

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor themost intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.1

                                                                                                     -- Charles Darwin

Nowhere in this country is this innate conflict between stability and change more deeply textured than in the Department of Defense, where our mission is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country.2 National defense is an entrusted responsibility that our profession of arms will not jeopardize. It is our raison d’etre. We jealously guard this commission, and protect it with our very lives. And while evolution and adaptation are extremely gradual processes in nature, the development of innovation and adaptation have accelerated exponentially in our technological world. The distance between harnessing the power of flight, and landing on the moon, was only sixty-six years. The gap between the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA and the completion of the human genome project was fifty years. Moore’s “Law,” which had estimated that as computer processing speed doubled every two years, the size and cost of micro processing would be reduced significantly, has predicted explosive growth.3 On average, human knowledge is doubling every 13 months.4 According to IBM, the build out of the “internet of things” will lead to the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours.5

The mantra of faster, smaller and cheaper has placed previously unimaginable technology into the hands of average humans. “The computer in your cellphone today is a million times cheaper and a thousand times more powerful than a main-frame computer in the late 1960s. That’s a billion fold increase in price performance of computing.”6 “Solar power, driven by exponentially-increasing nanotechnology, will satisfy the entire world's need for energy in less than twenty years.”7 Adaptability and agility are essential in order for our military to remain vital and relevant in this volatile and expanding world, but our mission to secure the stability of the nation renders us resistant to the adaptive change that we require. A failure to accommodate both of these needs, and accomplish both of these objectives—is unacceptable. This is the inherent and compelling dilemma of defense innovation and adaptation.

The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out.8

                                                                                                      -- B. H. Liddell Hart

Strange Bedfellows

Military regulation and creativity are strange bedfellows. Regimentation and discipline do not engender innovative thinking. But if the Department of Defense desires to become an adaptive enterprise, we have to acknowledge how innovations succeed and fail within military systems, and improve upon our record. But many facilitators of creativity challenge the very nature of what makes the military good at what it does. However, the social science research on innovation 9-10 has consistently indicated that creative and adaptive organizations are places where 1) failure is accepted 2) diversity of opinion and counter-culture thinking are tolerated 3) and where disagreement is encouraged. Not necessarily behaviors that you see in conventional military organizations, or that we would encourage among our warfighters.

Steeped in tradition, our US military has had a love-hate relationship with innovation and change. And while military leaders will enthusiastically embrace tactical innovation on the front line, above the flight line, and beyond the shoreline (where our warfighters are directly engaged in combat), during peacetime leadership is hesitant to support tactical or strategic innovation, especially in organizations more distant from the fight. This risk aversion and resistance to change is borne in the cost of blood and treasure endured in the last conflict, which shapes the tendency to prepare for the last war that we fought, rather than the next one. Our strategies, tactics, techniques and procedures are tried and true. The established ways are certain. Our doctrine is built around new weapons systems. This episodic cycle of war and peace leads to sporadic excellence punctuated by sustained mediocrity. Thus, after an armed conflict, we are prone to suffer from “ophthalmic atherosclerosis” (sic): A hardening of the arteries affecting vision. If we aren’t progressive, we become the risk-averse custodians of the status quo.10

But vision and sustained innovation are precisely what we need. For the first time in our nation’s history we are facing a protracted conflict against non-state actors in a low tech, global war of terrorism, while maintaining our capability to fight episodic wars against nation states. Disruptive technologies have accelerated armed conflict and created the need for continuous processes of innovation and adaptation. As a result, we must develop new methods and mechanisms for managing change within the Department of Defense. The rise of non-state “nations,” and the facilitation of threat networks suggests that we are in the midst of a paradigmatic shift in the manner that we prepare for global conflict. We must change and continually adapt to a new, complex and increasing volatile global environments.

Innovation—the heart of the knowledge economy—is fundamentally social.12

                                                                                                     -- Malcolm Gladwell

The Impetus to Innovate

Recognizing this challenge, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel launched the Defense Innovation Initiative in 2014. Current Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has prioritized technology and innovation efforts; founded several Force of the Future ventures; created the Defense Innovative Unit Experimental in Silicon Valley—with a second DIUx hub in Boston and a third in Austin, Texas—to facilitate defense collaboration; and called for greater innovation at all levels of the Department. Nonetheless, in order for his innovation initiatives to proliferate within the Department of Defense, Secretary Carter will need to socialize his programs inside the building he often disparages as “the five sided box.”13-14 Ironically, it would be very difficult to find a military Commander, or the Director of a DoD activity or agency, who would not heap lavish praise on his or her organization as being highly innovative! This paradox can be explained (in part) by three underlying factors: 1) Human beings are inherently inquisitive, resourceful, ingenuous, persistent and inventive. And as long as human beings work for you, they will explore ways to solve problems. The challenge isn’t in finding good ideas: the challenge is in making good ideas happen. Most never do. 2) Military organizations can be innovative in disorganized and disconnected ways, where senior leaders embrace pockets of originality, but fail to attend to the extensive wealth of innovative potential that exists across the entire organization. The tendency of defense organization to cloister silos of expertise, promotes vertical idea flow, rather than the horizontal integration of a shared “problem consciousness,” and a far broader pool of potential employee solutions. Vertical idea flow may lead to the adoption of a particular innovation, whereas horizontal idea flow may lead to change in the culture of the organization and a process of continual innovation. 3) To be both effective and unsiloed, innovation programs must be sustained through organizational resources, within and across our defense organizations. We need the bandwidth to support innovation.

In a brave new world characterized by global terrorism and technologically advanced nation states that pose a threat to our national security, and in an economic environment that continually challenges us to do more with less, we must be prepared to operate in collaborative and integrated ways that emphasize decentralized operations with coordinated control15. Innovation flourishes in this type of environment, but it requires a commitment by defense leadership to sustain this type of organizational change. Today, close to a dozen DoD organizations, from Combatant Commands, to agencies and organizations, have begun to establish their own internal innovation offices. This is precisely the type of support that the Secretary of Defense must encourage within his Department.

Two Kinds of Innovation & Two Decision Strategies

Of further necessity is the recognition of two types of innovation, and two types of human problem solving in the DoD. Revolutionary Innovation 16 is seismic, disruptive and transformative. It is the result of radical “out of the box” thinking and inspired genius, that results in major paradigmatic shifts in thinking. This type of innovation is rare, and often requires a consortium of problem solvers and subject matter experts to restructure a problem in depth. These types of innovations are relatively rare. In contrast, Evolutionary Innovation17 is continuous, adaptive improvement. This is a more diverse portfolio that favors incremental product or process innovations. Generally, these are the smaller scale ideas that taken cumulatively, can sustain an organization for many years. In a calculated migration to a horizontal flow of ideas, employees are given the chance to experiment, develop novel solutions, and to take some risks as part of their regular jobs. Management is there to listen, guide and support.  

The Department of Defense needs to rethink its institutional approach to enterprise innovation (DIA, NSA, NGA, CIA and others have begun to lead the way). Given the dual requirement to fight episodic wars against nation states, as well as the continuous wars of terror waged by non-state actors, it is necessary to recognize the value of a sustained evolution of innovation, as opposed to the episodic revolution in innovation. It is also crucial to recognize the difference between problem solving and innovation. Problem solving requires convergent thinking. Innovation focuses on both convergent and divergent thinking. Thus, when a diverse team of experts from multiple domains interact, their approach to problem solving is far different than those generated by teams of similar leaders from within a single organization, the emerging solution space becomes much wider, dramatically increasing the probability that more innovative options will arise. The coordination of innovation across the interagency is far more productive than innovation within a single agency.

The Department of Defense must think outside the five-sided box, and apply drive-reduction strategies that displace our innate need for security, by reframing stability as a calculated risk—rather than a solid and necessary precondition for national security. Faced with both revolutionary and evolutionary change, how do you calculate the risk of doing nothing? Change ignites ingenuity and drives our innate need for change. Without change there is no progress.

The term dilemma comes from the ancient Greek word dilēmmatos, which involves two assumptions or premises, regarding equally viable positions from which one must choose. Defense innovations evoke the dilemma of a choice between stability (security) and change (transformation). However, in a world where technology is expanding at breathtaking rates, we simply must change, or risk being overtaken by those who do. We must recalibrate this internal balance. Defense innovation is a non-kinetic, decisive, and fundamental element of power, which is essential to our national security.


This is Part I of a three-part series on the Dilemma of Defense Innovation & Adaptation. Part II will examine change related behaviors, and explore how to overcome barriers to organizational innovation and adaptation. But rather than merely admiring the problems surrounding defense innovation and adaptation, Part II will analyze the cognitive strategies that can be used overcome the knowledge and attitudes of military personnel who resist being change. Part III will offer communication strategies to design and diffuse successful innovations within the Department of Defense.

End Notes

1.   Charles Darwin,

2.   The DoD Mission,

3.   Moore, Gordon E. (1965-04-19). "Cramming more components onto integrated circuits." Electronics. Retrieved 2016-07-01.

4.  David Russell Schilling (2013) “Knowledge Doubling Every 12 Months, Soon to be Every 12 Hours.” Industry Tap

5.  Ibid

6.   Kurzweil, R. (2010). Merging with the machines: Information technology, artificial intelligence, and the law of exponential growth. World Future Review (World Future Society), 2 (2), 57-61.

7.  Miller, Max, “Ray Kurzweil: Solar Will Power the World in 16 Years.”

8.   B. H. Liddell Hart, In Changing Minds in the Army:Why It’s So Difficult and What To Do About It. Stephen J. Gerras and Leonard WongU.S. Army War College, June 201

9.   Tidd, j. & Bessant, J. (2013) Managing Innovation: Integrated Technological, Market and Organizational Change (5th Ed.) John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY

10. Shafique, M, (2012) Thinking inside the box? Intellectual structure of the knowledge base of innovation research (1988–2008), Strategic Management Journal, John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY

11. Alberts, W. (2005) “Guardians of the Status Quo,”

12. Gladwell, Malcomb, (2000) “Designs for Working,”


14. Mehta, Aaron, (2016) “Carter Heads to Silicon Valley as ISIS Cyberwar Expands, defense/innovation/2016/02/29/ash-carter-silicon-valley-isis-cyberwar-san-francisco-rsa/81110598/

15. McChrystal, Stanley (2015), Team of Teams: New Rules of engagement for a Complex World, Portfolio-Penguin, UK

16. Osolind, K. (2012) “Re: Revolutionary Vs. Evolutionary Innovation,” Everyday Inventive Blog 

17. Ibid.

About the Author(s)

Rod Korba is the Senior Interagency Advisor, Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization (JIDO). A former Motion Picture Producer/ Director, Combat Camera Commander, and communication consultant, his PhD is in Communication Psychology. Among his research interests are information operations, branding and identity management, message design and organizational innovation. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and are not reflective of the policies or the positions of any agency of the U.S. government.


I have had the opportunity to work in the military innovation space, and will be attending the Hacking 4 Defense Educators Course in January, 2017 at Georgetown University.

I think Western Defense orgs get innovation both right and wrong:

Western teeth arms commanders are trained and encouraged to display tactical creativity and innovation on the battlefield, albeit under the watchful eye of higher command and within higher command's intent so they don't go TOO far off the reservation.

Command directs WHAT effect they want achieved, not the HOW.

For example, If I'm leading a reconnaissance patrol tasked with discovering enemy location/disposition and my patrol is lit up withdrawing in good order, I'm not punished for failing, I'm acknowledged for learning. Specifically learning the enemy location and disposition.

Even though we got lit up, it's NOT failure, it's learning.

But we seem to lose perspective when we switch from kinetic to non kinetic problem solving.

We switch to a bureaucratic and inertia riddled organization that loses the vast majority of its adaptability and agility, which I perceive to be fear of failure trumping the organisations need to learn.

We need to learn what TO do, and what NOT to do as quickly/cheaply as we possibly can.

Lean StartUp Methodology is well placed to be a core non kinetic problem solving framework for Defense related non-kinetic creativity, Innovation, and Problem Solving.

But I would add the following training/skills/experiential value:

Bias awareness/mitigation training(particularly Confirmation and Conformity Bias)

Sunk Cost Fallacy and Gambler's Fallacy awareness/mitigation training

Pattern recognition(REAL patterns, unlike Gambler's Fallacy)

Influencing from a position of weakness strategies

Negotiation(particularly focused on shared value)

Observation of Environment training(Design Thinking:Empathy)

Interviewing training

Interpersonal networking training, particularly penetrating 1, 2, 3 degrees of contact deeper in personal/peer networks


When bullets are flying, innovation seems to come FAR easier in our "kinetic culture".

But the other 99% of the time when there are no bullets flying, we seem to act like the 5 monkeys in a cage:

"Nowhere in this country is this innate conflict between stability and change more deeply textured than in the Department of Defense, where our mission is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country.2"

Suggestion: The U.S./the West's (wrongly named?) Department of Defense may be better understood -- not from a defensive "deterring war and protecting the security of our country" perspective -- but, rather, more from an offensive "advancing our national interests and dealing with problems that result therefrom" point-of-view.

Possible evidence to support this argument:

a. C.E. Callwell -- in his famous "Small Wars: Principles and Practice" -- would appear to explain the purpose of one's "defense" forces more in such "offensive" terms that I am suggesting here:

"The great nation which seeks expansion in remote quarters of the globe must accept the consequences. Small wars dog the footsteps of the pioneers of civilization in regions afar off. The trader heralds, almost as a matter of course, the coming of the soldier, and commercial enterprises, in the end, generally leads to conquest."

b. Clausewitz also, in his "On War," appearing to view the use of one's "defense" forces more in such "offensive"/"pursuit of one's national interests" terms as I have proposed.(?)

This being the case, then might we, likewise, better see and understand the need (or lack thereof) for "defense" innovation and adaptation -- and the suggested dilemma related thereto -- more from this "offensive"/"advancing one's national interests (and dealing with the problems related thereto) perspective?

This, rather than the -- seemingly improper/erroneous/outdated -- "defensive" position suggested (a) in this subject paper and (b) elsewhere?

Thus, to see the need for "defense" innovation and adaption -- and the problems related thereto -- more through the "West v. the Rest" lens of the New/Reverse Cold War of today; wherein we find:

a. The U.S./the West now actively pursuing -- often through "offensive" means -- the expansion of our unusual and unique way of life, way of governance, values, attitude and beliefs, etc., and

b. The Rest of the World (both great powers and small and both state and non-state entities) -- in the face of such an assault -- acting (in various tried and proven but also in various new and innovate ways) to resist the U.S./the West's such "offensive" initiatives?

Bottom Line Questions:

Thus, is it "the West now on offense"/"the Rest now on defense" conflict environment that appears to drive "defense" innovation and adaption requirements today? (In this light, to accurately see both our great nation and small and both our state and non-state actor problems currently?)

Accordingly, might the related "dilemma" contention -- suggested by our author here -- might this also need to be viewed more from this "West now on offensive"/"the Rest now on defensive" perspective today?