December 14, 2013  

Fostering military entrepreneurs

The ‘Disruptive Thinkers’ plan a conference

Navy Lt. Benjamin Kohlmann, Marine Capt. Lindsay Rodman, Army Maj. Nathan Finney, and Air Force Capt. Jeff Gilmore

Our generation has returned from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, where we met war’s chaos with the creativity it demanded, to a garrison life where innovation remains both badly needed and too often stifled. We want to put our natural entrepreneurship and our shared experience to further use in the military we serve, to advance useful new policy and technology solutions within an institution that often has difficulty absorbing unorthodox ideas.

Defense Entrepreneurs Forum logoSo we have formed informal groups and networks of similarly minded people — from all services, communities, and even the civilian world — who come together to find inspiration, sounding boards, and partners. We started small, a group of friends sharing their frustrations over beers in a San Diego bar, but our “Disruptive Thinkers” movement has grown quickly into monthly events and satellite chapters across the country. On Oct. 12-14 in Chicago we will host our most public and far-reaching event yet: the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum.

This unofficial gathering of military professionals will be a weekend dedicated to upending the traditional military conference. Inspired by dynamic civilian events such as TED gatherings and coder hack-a-thons, DEF will feature combat-tested leaders talking about what it means to be a military entrepreneur, as well as free-flowing discussion groups for trading and developing ideas to put into the heads and hands of senior leaders.

The original Disruptive Thinkers group was born of two friends’ efforts to link their creative peers with young, successful business owners. Their vision of a small book club soon exploded into monthly events attracting upwards of 60 attendees in San Diego, drawn from surrounding military installations and the civilian innovation community at large. The movement began to gain national attention in April 2012, when Small Wars Journal published the founders’ article, “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers.” Satellite chapters were soon established in Nashville, Austin, and Washington, D.C.

DT meetings provide a look into worlds not often explored by military personnel, who are typically only encouraged to study military subjects. Moreover, even a generation raised to embrace online social networks has found great utility in traditional in-person gatherings. In forms as varied as lectures, small groups and non-traditional seminars, the meetings explore everything from architectural theory and biomimetic design to crowdsourcing techniques and educational transformations. The goal is cross-pollination — bringing world-shaping trends to the fingertips of those executing tactical operations — but participants have also said the meetings have shaped their views of leadership.

Importantly, many members of the DT movement have found inspiration in their own chains of command, from senior officers who champion innovation and disruptive thought within their units and enable their subordinates to run with good ideas and improve processes, systems, tactics and technologies. Already, the term “disruptive thinking” has helped move the conversation toward more unconventional solutions previously considered too radical to implement.

Even flag and general officers have begun to understand the value of pushing emerging leaders to dive into innovative methods. Last October, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert stood up a “disruptive” group of junior officers and enlisted personnel to look outside normal ideation channels for new and rapidly implementable solutions. Dubbed the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) and championed in particular by Rear Adm. Terry Kraft of the Navy Warfare Development Command, this group of 15 Navy junior officers and enlisted personnel headed out to visit entrepreneurial and innovative organizations from across academia, industry and the military. The CRIC has met with influential senior military leaders such as Andrew Marshall and Capt. Henry Hendrix, as well as academic all-stars such as Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen, author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” Word is getting out, and interest across the Navy is palpable: more than 50 junior officers and enlisted have applied for five open slots in the fiscal 2014 CRIC.

The CRIC is the military’s first official recognition that younger leaders who understand the pace of change around them are well-suited to recommend and implement 21st-century solutions. It will hardly be the last. Meanwhile, the spirit shared by the DT movement and the CRIC will take a new form this fall in DEF2013: an informal, DoD-wide version of these disparate efforts. By showcasing junior leader talent within earshot of senior leaders and fellow innovators, real change can happen.

The military entrepreneurship movement is just beginning, and further evolution, both incremental and radical, is inevitable. This movement is powerfully shaping how today’s younger leaders approach their contributions to the military services, and senior leaders are beginning to take notice. By engaging in further cross-generational and cross-rank exchanges of ideas emanating from unconventional sources, forward-thinking service members of all types will continue to create the solutions required by our 21st-century military.

The authors are board members of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. Their opinions do not reflect the opinions of their services or of the Department of Defense.