Emergency insurgency

By April 10, 2018June 25th, 2018Acquisition, Army ALT Magazine
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Peter Newell, former chief of the U.S. Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, thinks DOD and intelligence agencies execute their missions but won’t do innovation well until innovation has a separate but integrated system of its own.

by Mr. Michael Bold

Is the U.S. defense establishment structurally capable of fostering innovation? Peter Newell, a retired Army colonel and former director of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF), doesn’t think so. In his new role as managing partner of the Silicon Valley consulting firm BMNT, Newell is working to change that, helping to develop a national security pipeline to drive innovation in DOD at startup speed.

Newell is on the speed dial of leaders throughout the defense and intelligence acquisition communities, people who reach out for his company’s help defining and solving tough problems and erasing organizational roadblocks that stop innovation in its tracks. With Steve Blank, the startup guru who launched the Lean Startup movement [See Critical Thinking], Newell created Hacking for Defense, a national university program run by the nonprofit arm of BMNT that helps DOD and the intelligence community solve critical national security challenges.

Newell’s work with REF and BMNT has given him a unique vantage point for understanding how government agencies and other large organizations can get innovation right. He points to two things that need to change for the Army to make progress in terms of innovation:

  • Creating a separate but integrated innovation system.
  • Changing how requirements are written.

Newell, who leads a Hacking for Defense class at Stanford University, contends that continuing the U.S. military’s technological superiority requires harnessing the work of “passionate, dedicated innovators who survive by skirting the bureaucracies that would grind them down.” (Photo by Rod Searcey, Stanford News Service)


“What the defense and intelligence community need is separate systems for execution and innovation that operate in parallel, with permeable barriers that allow the easy exchange of people, ideas, problems, insights, and solutions,” Newell wrote in a Dec. 14 op-ed for Defense One, in which he described an insurgency of innovators doomed to failure without real support from the “greater defense establishment.

Under the current system, he wrote, continuing the U.S. military’s technological superiority requires harnessing the work of “passionate, dedicated innovators who survive by skirting the bureaucracies that would grind them down.”

The Army, Newell said, needs to find and train a generation of entrepreneurs—people who are experts at moving the new ideas generated by innovators through the Army’s bureaucracy are critical to its future success. “I was successful with REF because I became an expert at legally manipulating the DOD’s requirements, acquisition, contracting and finance systems to get solutions deployed,” he said in a Jan. 10 interview with Army AL&T. “The role I played as the ‘Army’s entrepreneur’ from 2010 to 2013 needs to be recreated in every division and major command in the Army. Professional entrepreneurs in uniform will be the ones who build, maintain and discipline the innovation pipelines that Steve Blank and I have described previously.

“Let’s have an honest conversation about what innovation really is,” he said. “I think that the word is overused and completely misunderstood across the national security space, across the government.

“Part of it is first recognizing that the enterprise system that we’ve built to very efficiently handle the national security budget … will never, ever, ever be well-suited for fostering innovation inside. It’s just not designed that way, nor should it be. Which really means we need to go after a separate innovation ecosystem and system to support that. It’s not that I’m asking for another stovepipe. I think we have to be very careful that there’s a permeable barrier between the two. The innovation ecosystem is absolutely reliant on the ideas and the people and the problems that come from the enterprise, and they are absolutely responsible for delivering to the enterprise defense solutions, well-educated people and other things.”

Creating an innovation ecosystem is just one necessary step, Newell cautioned; the Army also needs to change the way it writes requirements.

“Fixing acquisition just means that we’ll just buy the wrong things faster if we don’t go after the requirements side,” he said. “… Instead of requirements, we need to be talking about problems.”


And a change in the way the Army attacks those problems needs to come from the top, Newell said.

“All of that is surrounded by a discussion on what is innovation leadership,” he said. “What does it look like at different levels? And what’s it going to take to create a professional military education system that teaches and empowers leaders to be innovative at whatever job or level they’re in? At the same time, it must provide an avenue for professional development for those who truly are professionals: They get it, they’re good at it, they’re the types of people that would do well in Silicon Valley.”

Newell added that at the individual and tactical levels, providing access to training on Lean methodologies and the principles of design thinking—an iterative approach to problem-solving that intentionally seeks out people with different perspectives, knowledge, skills and experience and has them work together to create a practical solution for a real-world problem—is important but does not go far enough. The Army needs more makers and innovators on the front lines to generate a bottom-up feeder system that would help drive innovation faster, he said.

The Army should take a look at the educational programming its contract universities provide on Army installations and encourage the schools to provide more science, technology, engineering and math classes, as well as credentialing in 3-D printing and other advanced manufacturing systems, he said. It also needs to create “maker spaces” on military bases, Newell said, where credentialed classes are taught during the day and where a generation of innovators hang out at night to tinker on ideas in a collaborative environment.


Finally, Newell said, at the strategic level the Army needs a cadre of “Sherpas”—people whose job is to monitor the innovation ecosystems across the force, searching for and solving systemic barriers to innovation. The Army will need the same group to capture, write and adapt the doctrine for innovation across the force, he said.

The work Newell recommends is indicative of the kinds of change in culture and policy that Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis called for in the 2018 U.S. National Security Strategy, which provides the authority and guidance national security leaders need to make a significant commitment to creating a culture for innovation within their organizations.

“Success no longer goes to the country that develops a new fighting technology first, but rather to the one that better integrates it and adapts its way of fighting,” Mattis wrote. “Current processes are not responsive to need; the Department is over-optimized for exceptional performance at the expense of providing timely decisions, policies, and capabilities to the warfighter. Our response will be to prioritize speed of delivery, continuous adaptation, and frequent modular upgrades. We must not accept cumbersome approval chains, wasteful applications of resources in uncompetitive space, or overly risk-averse thinking that impedes change.”


Warfighters from the Air Force National Guard 129th Rescue Wing demonstrate casualty triage to students from a Hacking for Defense class at Stanford University in September. The students were part of a team sponsored by the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Agency and tasked with evaluating methods to reduce bottlenecks in casualty care triage using wearable sensors. To truly advance innovation, what’s needed are more innovators on the front lines, according to Newell. (U.S. Army photo)


In terms of culture change that will boost innovation in the Army, Newell warns that talk without action won’t get the Army where it wants to go.

“Culture’s an interesting thing,” he said in the Army AL&T interview. “I think that next to ‘innovation,’ ‘culture change’ is the most overused phrase out there. You can’t mandate or write an edict saying ‘change the culture’ and expect it to happen. You have to actually act. … One thing I tell people is, ‘You’re going to have to show me what things you’re actually going to do that reinforce what that culture is.’ Think about it: Back in the ’50s and the ’40s, when we finally said we’re going to integrate the military, what it took to change that culture. You had to force people to do things. … You can talk about it all day long, but until you actually get down into the weeds where it happens—it has to be reinforced with a set of behavior patterns. Which means you’ve got to create activities and do things that will lend themselves to that culture so that people can see what it is you’re talking about.”

MICHAEL BOLD provides contract support to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center. He is a writer/editor for Network Runners Inc., with more than 30 years of editing experience at newspapers, including the McClatchy Washington Bureau, The Sacramento Bee, the San Jose Mercury News, the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He holds a B.J. in journalism from the University of Missouri.

This article is published in the April – June 2018 issue of Army AL&T magazine.

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