“Sir, I Have a Revolutionary Idea”: Innovation in the Military and the IC

West Point graduate

We think of military people as conservatives, realists — even pessimists. We think of them as obedient, lacking any imagination and vision. We especially enjoy blaming intelligence officers for not being innovative, for tending toward stifled group thinking, for possessing the undesired combination of arrogance and nearsightedness. We therefore blame them for not being able to predict events: Pearl Harbor, the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles to Cuba, 9/11, the Arab spring and countless others throughout history. Novelty and vision are, so we believe, the province of the private sector. Only there, in the promised land of innovation, can we find the next generation of any and every conceivable technology. But my experience has proven otherwise.

For the last several years, I have been working with government entities — especially militaries and intelligence agencies — suggesting sophisticated methodologies to help them to think creatively about the future. The wisdom of the crowd and big data analysis, two elements I believe can revolutionize strategic planning, have been joyfully adopted by governments around the world, in growing numbers.

In my experience, the willingness to push boundaries and experiment with new methodologies is one of the driving forces behind government–led research and strategic planning. I have found it easier to create interest and experimentation with new approaches to analysis and forecasting when dealing with governments than with private market corporations. The possibilities are endless: How will West Africa’s economy evolve in the next 20 years? What future threats will air forces around the world face? How will future population shifts affect Europe’s national borders? How will climate changes influence the global marketplace? This is just a partial list of topics I was asked to answer on behalf of government entities last year.

Why is the “military mind” so badly mischaracterized? How can one explain the shift from what Samuel P. Huntington portrayed in 1957 as “conservative realism… obedience… pessimistic, collectivist, historically inclined, power-oriented, nationalistic, [and] militaristic,” to the innovative, even intellectual entrepreneurship of today? The truth is that Huntington missed the mark. History is full of examples of sophisticated, daring senior officials. From the early days of wargames in the Prussian army to the revolutionary thinker General Donn A. Starry, the history of national security is overflowing with innovation and unique ideas.

This is especially true if we look at the organizations whose main purpose is to develop the knowledge that supports decision-making — primarily intelligence organizations, but also other strategic-planning apparatuses. In these organizations, the culture of debriefing, learning from failure, and developing new methodologies is well established.

Right, you say, but they sometimes (too often) fail to predict the future, or even help decision-makers be well prepared for the future. Trust me, they are well aware that they operate in a complex environment, and that their ability to comprehend this complexity is limited. Do a quick Google search and take a look at the impressive corpus of writings on geopolitical analysis methods and forecasting. See how many books and articles have been written on the issue of strategic surprise, on new approaches and methodologies for coping with decision-making under extreme uncertainty. This flood of publications stands in harsh contrast to the relatively limited literature on surprise, analysis and strategic planning in the business world. Sure, there are several great books and articles, some of them even offering sound advice. But between the two disciplines, the business sector is left trailing in government’s dust.

So failure in predicting the future is one reason the military gets a bad rap. Size is another one: Government organizations are usually much larger than corporations. They are also less concerned with profit, and don’t expect to see a return on investment for any one activity — especially an intellectual one. But what corporations sometimes miss is that (a) size has nothing to do with pioneering analysis and forecasting, and (b) not only are new methods usually inexpensive, there is concrete value in preparing for the future.

Sophisticated, daring analytic methods like crowdsourcing and big data analysis can generate actual revenue. Crowdsourcing for analytic purposes hinges on picking the brains of the many to facilitate the strategic planning of the few. Big data analysis is literally the automatic manipulation of huge amounts of information to get clear, immediate insights that are otherwise inaccessible. And most importantly, if done correctly, these analyses, insights and forecasting can fully support immediate decision-making, enabling decision-makers to quickly reach the right conclusions. This does more than save money — it creates money.

The world is changing rapidly. German sociologist Ulrich Beck named our era “the age of risk”, in which the unexpected is the only thing that can be expected. We need to think differently, more creatively, of the future. Governments understand this — it is high time the private sector learns it, too.

About the author


Dr. Shay Hershkovitz
Wikistrat Chief Strategy Officer
Director of Analytic Community

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

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