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Innovation and the Army: putting people back at the heart of initiatives

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Innovation cannot be decreed, and like any word with numerous and changing definitions, the main threat to innovation would be to reduce it to a mere declaration of intent. To paraphrase General de Gaulle, one can jump on his chair like a goat and say "Innovation! Innovation! Innovation!", but that leads to nothing and means nothing. Battalion Chief Jean Michelin takes the discussion further on what innovation could imply, concretely, and in the Army in particular.

«Ugood lieutenant is someone who has fifty ideas a second and who we have to put the brakes on. Not someone you have to push."

Innovation is so ubiquitous in military, strategic and even political thinking that simply highlighting its pervasiveness has become a cliché in itself. As with many other "buzzwords" before, this overuse of the word "innovation" in discourse is increasingly met with raised eyebrows and even sarcastic comments. The author is well aware that after many speeches at the highest level of government, after many parliamentary or independent reports, after many articles - often very good ones - in many reputable publications, tackling the issue of innovation in the Army is a difficult, even perilous exercise. However, there is general agreement that innovation cannot be decreed, or at least not only decreed, and that, like any word with many and changing definitions, depending on whether theThe main threat to innovation, like any word with many and changing definitions, depending on whether one looks for them in economics, the humanities or simply in the dictionary, would be to reduce it to a mere declaration of intent.

To paraphrase General de Gaulle, of course, one can jump on his chair like a goat and say "Innovation! Innovation! Innovation! but it does not lead to anything and it means nothing. Let us therefore try to think further about what innovation could mean in practice, particularly in the army. And to do this, it seems important to start from the definition of the word.

Defining innovation applied to the Army

As such, the Larousse is particularly enlightening, since it describes innovation as "the whole process that takes place from the birth of an idea to its materialization". Every word counts in this short sentence: innovation is both a process, an idea, and the materialization of the idea. If we continue reading the definition, again in the Larousse, we also note that innovation is also "a process of influence that leads to social change and whose effect consists in By omitting the social qualifier, we can therefore also see that innovation includes an aspect of influence, rejection and replacement of the norm1.

1 Innovation would therefore be reduced to the following equation: a process of influence, which must allow the emergence of an idea that challenges existing norms and proposes new ones, and the materialization of this idea.

In view of the frequent and often unpredictable changes in the global strategic environment, it is therefore not absurd to associate the world of defence, and the army in particular, with the need for innovation. Firstly, because in an uncertain security context, the increasing pace of technological breakthroughs is likely to considerably change the way armies will operate in the near future. Second, because the identification and dissemination of ideas and the ability to experiment in short loops are essential prerequisites for an army capable of adapting at the same pace as its potential adversaries. Finally, because to enable the process of materializing an idea, the human factor is indispensable. There is nothing really new in this approach: it is an iterative process, innovation has been present in armies since the replacement of the slingshot by the bow, the bow by the crossbow, the crossbow by the musket, and so on.

Persistent cultural resistance

However, there is cultural resistance to the development of innovation in the armed forces. The first is in their nature: developing a culture of innovation means accepting the possibility of failure when an idea, once tried, does not prove to be suitable to solve a problem. In the case of armies, while error is possible, a critical, massive failure, one that jeopardizes the survival of the institution and thus of the nation it defends, is unacceptable. It is all a matter of nuance, but culturally it is a factor to be taken into account.

The second resistance lies in the military organization, which is based on a centralized and vertical hierarchy that is not conducive to the dissemination of ideas from the bottom up. When an innovation emerges in business processes, it is interesting to note that it often emanates from the units and is spread despite the "bottom-up" approach.resistance" from the hierarchy - a phenomenon demonstrated in Colonel Michel Goya's "La Chair et l'Acier".

The third resistance is more specifically French: we have seen that innovation is a process. Yet the French educational and intellectual system is intrinsically distrustful of the process, considered as a weak substratum of thought or a list of tasks, when France remains the country of great ideas. The Americans, by comparison, have made the organizational process a pillar of their educational and even cultural system, to the point where the literature on implementation - in all fields - is often far more numerous than that on theory. This specificity is probably one of the reasons why the discourse on innovation in France seems to be greeted with suspicion: because innovation, in order to be taught, requires a greater focus on the "how to do" rather than the "what to do".

How, then, can innovation be promoted and disseminated in an institution that is often - not always rightly - known for its reluctance to change? One possible avenue for reflection is to build on human capital, to develop a culture of innovation from the bottom up rather than from the top down. This is particularly important for the Army, which regularly and rightly points out that its primary strength lies in the men and women who serve in it. Too often innovation is limited to its technological aspects, particularly in the context of capability development. However, innovation is not only about imagining the capabilities of the future, the combat vehicles, drones, armoured vehicles and helicopters of tomorrow, it is also about designing how the future will be organised.It also means designing how the forces serving these capabilities will be organised, how they will be educated and trained and how their operational processes will adapt to technological change. For the French Army, innovation therefore lies above all in its ability to build a coherent whole around new material capabilities: if a breakthrough technology was sufficient in itself, French tanks would in theory have had no trouble stopping their fewer and less efficient German counterparts in 1940.3

People at the centre of innovation

Making an entire organization compatible with innovation therefore implies taking concrete initiatives to enable its dissemination from the bottom up. This starts with education and training. Without going into a long reflection on the nature of the hierarchical system of armies, we can recall that its verticality and centralisation have virtues, especially in combat situations, and that it also makes it possible to preserve a valuable principle of subsidiarity. However, regardless of the imperative of discipline, the army, because its command model allows and encourages the expression of subordinates, is a breeding ground for the development of an innovative collective state of mind. This implies not restricting the thinking of subordinates and, above all, allowing this thinking to be expressed within defined frameworks. Anyone who has commanded men and women in the Army knows that ideas exist at the lowest levels. This could be, for example, a system for carrying a flexible stretcher or installing a means of signalling on combat equipment. It could be a system to identify subordinates so that they do not have to give their names in plain language over the radio. But when these initiatives remain localized on a company-wide basis, it's not innovation. Developing innovation means putting in place a system to identify these ideas, to experiment with them at and when they are relevant, to generalize them - within a regiment, then a brigade, and beyond. Initiatives already exist within the Ministry of the Armed Forces to promote the dissemination of these ideas and their implementation4 , now they need to be extended.

Still in the field of education and training, innovation needs intermediate relays, "champions" to develop within an institution. The first obstacle to innovation is an intermediate leader who does not have the time to take an interest in a new idea. To do this, there is a need to multiply initiatives enabling managers to broaden their professional horizons by increasing interaction with civil society. This is already the case in higher military education5 , and it would be interesting to extend it to initial training schools more widely. The open-mindedness that results from regular exchanges outside the walls of the institution is a guarantee of success and balance for tomorrow's managers - and it also makes it possible to establish more sustained links with civil society.

In addition to management training, the flow of ideas, and their implementation, it is important to communicate results, especially internally. It is one thing to encourage the development of innovative ideas, to allow oneself to experiment with them, to disseminate them, but it is important to communicate the results, otherwise the willingness to take the initiative dries up. Initiatives such as hackathons or Innovation Challenges6 The creation of a network of military organisations open to the civilian world is an effective way of encouraging reflection on concrete operational problems: the results must be followed up by concrete action and information must be circulated.

Towards an Army culture of innovation

While cultural and institutional resistance still exists, and while it is legitimate to be wary of a word that tends to be used in all weathers to the point where it risks being emptied of its substance, innovation should not be seen as a buzzword that is quickly forgotten. Especially because it is a necessity for our armies at a time when our adversaries - both actual and potential - are innovating by relying on the democratisation of access to technology.

For the army to innovate, it will have to accept learning by walking, by developing initiatives of reduced scope, by accepting the idea of a process rather than a mere theoretical foundation. It will also require that the intentions announced and declined from the top of the hierarchy be translated into concrete actions in the units. Above all, it will have to be willing to go beyond its walls more than it does today, despite extremely dense operational activity. It is by building on its specificity and strength that the Army will develop a culture of innovation: the men and women who serve in it.

  1. Larousse, Definitions: innovation [ online],https://www.larofr/dictionnaires/francais/innovation/43196 (page consulted on 7 June 2018)
  2. Michel Goya, "Flesh and Steel: the invention of modern warfare 1914-1918"Paris, Taillandier,
  3. Berthold Seewald, Der Mythos von den überlegenen deutschen Panzern, Die Welt [online], .html (page consulted on 8 June 2018)
  4. In particular, we can mention the Daring Prize, organised every two years by the Mission Innovation Participative of the Directorate General of Armament: (page consulted on 8 June 2018)
  5. Armée de Terre, Le CEMAT ouvre la scolarité des officiers du CSIA, Site officieldu Ministère des Armées [on line], scolarite-des-officers-du-csia (page consulted on 8 June 2018)
  6. Allied Command Transformation Public Affairs, Allied Command Transformation hosts innovation challenge in France, Official website of the Allied Command Transformation [online], france (page consulted on 8 June 2018)

Battalion Chief Jean MICHELIN is a Saint Cyrian, an infantryman, graduated from the US Army Command and General Staff College. After serving as the pen of the General Commanding NATO Transformation, he is currently serving in the Army's Outreach Division

Title : Innovation and the Army: putting people back at the heart of initiatives
Author (s) : le Chef de bataillon Jean MICHELIN