‘Being future ready is a way of challenging the Status Quo; constantly evolving and transforming how we think, equip, train, educate, organise and prepare for cooperation, competition and conflict.’
– Army in Motion Command Statement, by Lieutenant General Rick Burr, AO, DSC, MVO 2020
Australian soldiers have consistently demonstrated resourcefulness and ingenuity since the formation of our service. There is even an entire book dedicated to Australian innovation in wartime. The opening quote, drawn from the previous Chief of Army’s concept of Army in Motion, challenges the Army to be both evolutionary and transformational in preparing for the future operating environment. This article, drawing on lessons learnt from Google’s approach to innovation, offers some ideas on how we can harness the ingenuity of our force to optimise the Army’s approach to meeting the future ready challenge.
Understanding the difference between evolutionary and transformational change is an important first step in pursuit of the Army in Motion concept. Evolutionary change is a cumulative process that builds on small changes to business-as-usual activities. Most service members will have experienced this when implementing after action review (AAR) outcomes.
Given that it largely involves making incremental adjustments to existing models and it entails relatively low risk, evolutionary changes are primarily linked to optimising a ready now capability. Transformational change is more radical. It seeks to make fundamental adjustments to existing models and requires far more deliberate critical and creative thinking than those usually applied to AAR processes. It also introduces more risk into the change process, as the outcomes are generally harder to predict and may involve expenditure of resources with no pay off.
Despite the risks associated with transformational changes, they can be an effective way to develop a future ready capability. If being future ready is essential, then it needs to be prioritised. There are, almost always, more things that could be done than can be done. The answer shouldn’t be to just work harder, in fact many of the innovations I have witnessed throughout my career have been developed to make existing processes easier or simpler.
Given the time and resourcing, every soldier can be an innovator. Google employs a 70/20/10 model to allocate time and resources. This approach means that 70% of their projects are dedicated to their core business, 20% of their projects are related to their core business and 10% are unrelated to core business.
In Google management’s words this “supports a culture of ‘yes’ rather than ‘no.’ It promotes ‘what-if,’ out-of-the-box thinking. This positive framework feeds their core business while also encouraging new ideas and big dreams that can become huge wins for the company. In the long run, a few of those unrelated 10% ideas will turn into core businesses that become part of the 70%. And that’s good for business and the bottom line.” This model isn’t really a simple “plug and play” into the Australian Army’s existing battle rhythms, but it is worth exploring some ways in which it could be adapted.
Units could employ the 70/20/10 model as a time-based allocation. This would mean, in a fortnightly training program, seven days are spent focused on ready now training, two days are dedicated to innovating new Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) to further optimise existing tasks (evolutionary solutions), and one day is spent on “blue sky” innovation to develop transformational change.
Obviously, this template will be challenged by external demands and exercise schedules, but if it is protected and allowed to thrive it has the potential to create a virtuous cycle of innovation that will likely be copied by other units within the brigades and eventually normalised. This time-based model would create the greatest opportunity to access the ingenuity resident in all our soldiers. A risk of this model is that, when additional administrative or ready now tasks inevitably appear, the easy answer will be to reapportion 20/10 time to achieve these – commanders will need to manage this temptation.
Another option is for units to allocate staffing effort against the 70/20/10 model. Under this approach, units can dedicate 70% of their staffing allocation to ready now training, 20% to red teaming and evolving solutions to this training and 10% toward transformational initiatives. This may seem an appealing approach as individuals can focus in on their roles without having to continually shift between different functions.
However, it holds at risk one of the fundamental truths of innovation: that it can come from anywhere, at any time and in any form. Limiting the focus of innovation to only 30% of the staffing effort excludes 70% of the innovators and potentially 100% of the good ideas. It also risks creating an “us and them” culture if one area of focus receives greater attention and resources, that can impact unit cohesion and morale.
Soldiers need a culture where failing isn’t a failure. Some of the proposed initiatives are not going to work regardless of the effort that is dedicated to them, our soldiers should be encouraged start again. Other ideas, particularly in the transformational domain, will likely require iterative attempts to achieve. What may initially look like a failure, may really be a great idea yet to be realised. Soldiers should feel empowered by their chain of command to test the boundaries of innovation.
Much of this culture stems from having patience with progress – often we look for easy wins that quickly demonstrate value, a by-product, perhaps, of the need to meet annual Performance Appraisal Report metrics. There is a place for this type of innovation, particularly in the evolutionary domain, but a lack of patience can stifle the transformative changes that are necessary in meeting the Army in Motion challenge.
Ingenuity can thrive in an environment where feedback from commanders and higher echelons encourage and demonstrate commitment to real change. While this can be built at the unit level, it will be optimised if it is sponsored by higher headquarters. The establishment of Army sponsored innovation competitions with categories for evolutionary and transformational proposals can feed into the existing Army modernisation programs as a direct feedback loop for resource allocation. Good ideas can be quickly scaled and funded under existing models for the benefit of the Army writ large. Showing our soldiers that their ideas will be heard and actioned creates a virtuous cycle of innovation, encouraging all to lean into the Army in Motion concept.
The ingenuity of our soldiers, if harnessed, provides the Army with a unique competitive advantage in meeting the challenge of the Army in Motion concept. This article has offered two courses of action that leverage Google’s 70/20/10 innovation model to ensure that units can prioritise evolutionary and transformational change. Both courses of action contain inherent risks that our leaders at all levels will have to balance; however, limiting ourselves to risk adverse business as usual is not the answer. The two proposed options are by no means the only ways forward – ultimately it is about finding a way to consciously and deliberately prioritise innovation. As an Army we should be pushing the boundaries of what is possible and create an innovation permissive environment, where we can truly become Future Ready!