Innovation is the current watchword at the Department of Defense. Pentagon leadership is pushing the military services to maintain the U.S. military’s qualitative edge. A recent story in Marine Corps Times explains how the Corps plans to get in on the game. According to the report,
Several Marine Corps generals said during a panel discussion here at the annual Modern Day Marine expo … that to meet those challenges they will need to further refine their new concept of operations, Expeditionary Force 21, but they must also count on industry to furnish innovative equipment solutions.
“The innovation piece is critical,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, the deputy commandant for Combat Development and Integration and commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command.
“We’ve got to [be] better at getting stuff out to the fleet — get it out there quickly, get it to our Marines to experiment with. If they break it and it doesn’t work, we go back to the drawing board,” he added.
This type of “fast-fail” approach to innovation has been popular among software startups for sometime. However, there are both important reasons why this approach is inappropriate for the Marine Corps and important lessons it can provide for the larger defense innovation enterprise the Pentagon is pursuing.
The fast-fail approach to innovation calls for technology to be put into the marketplace with the expectation that it will most likely fail. The lessons learned by the company will then allow it to pivot to a more successful product. Losses are minimized because the failure occurs before large amounts of capital are invested in the original product, thus providing opportunities to develop the new, superior product.
A recent essay by Henry Kressel and Norman Winarsky, former business executives, in the Harvard Business Review, however, explains why this approach is inappropriate for most business ventures. They write:
The hit-or-miss approach makes sense only when and if you have struggled with your existing value proposition, and it’s failing. Then, of course, you can and should change course from your original vision. Many great companies have achieved success after reaching a point of failure in their existing approach and then finding a new market to attack. But we agree with Mike Moritz, a leading venture capitalist at Sequoia Partners, who told us, “Pivot means you’ve failed. It’s not that you shouldn’t have to move on sometimes, but it shouldn’t be a strategy.” He went on, “‘Fail fast, fail often’ is marketing rubbish. Nobody likes failure. Constant pivoting is like having a compass without a bearing. You need to know true north.”
Even if fast-fail were generally a sound strategy, it is not necessarily appropriate for a military organization. War, despite what you might see on CNN, is exceedingly rare. Opportunities for “market” feedback are therefore exceedingly rare.
Moreover, unlike software companies, which can often operate on the cheap in their early years, military technology is increasingly expensive. Throughout its history the Marine Corps have prided itself on low-tech, relatively inexpensive solutions to complex problems. But in recent years, expensive programs such as the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, V-22 Osprey, and the Marines’ version of the F-35, have all come with high price tags. Other services—the Air Force and Navy, in particular—pursue exceedingly expensive capabilities almost exclusively. Often it is a matter of organizational and cultural predispositions, but some of those choices stem simply from the nature of defense technology.
While failure should not necessarily be a purposeful strategy, it is an inevitable part of any attempt to innovate. Experimentation and trial-and-error will always be a part of the process. But if the organization attempting to innovate should not have a high tolerance for failure, who should?
Kressel and Winarsky argue that the fast-fail approach is more appropriate to investors than entrepreneurs.
Many venture capital investors like to have a broad portfolio containing lots of small bets, some of which have a greater likelihood of taking off but most of which will fail. This approach allows them to pick and choose the ones that show traction, and to spread their risk over many ventures. It also means they don’t have to invest too heavily in any one venture at the earliest stages.
In defense planning, the investor is the U.S. Congress. There are therefore several lessons for Congress and the Department of Defense that should inform how they pursue military innovation.
First, avoid centralization. Overemphasis on jointness will ensure that congress cannot spread risk across the military services. Instead of having built-in redundancies to insulate the U.S. forces when inevitable failure does occur, jointness risks catastrophe for the entire force.
Second, Congress needs to be willing to tolerate failure. Even if fast-fail is an inappropriate innovation strategy for the military, the Marine Corps’ embrace of it shows that they understand it is a part of the innovation process. Politicians, who stake their jobs on their perception of their own infallibility, need to internalize that lesson.
Finally, relatedly, and most importantly, Congress needs to ensure investments are kept low until “market” demand emerges to demonstrate which capabilities are most worthy of investment. Doing otherwise risks wasting scarce resources without any potential for return on investment.