Skip To The Main Content

Three Innovation Strategies from the Military

Wednesday September 12, 2018


Although the U.S. military is known for being rigid, rank-oriented and historically bound, the branches frequently produce incredible innovation. At the same time, corporate America — which generally offers less hierarchy, higher compensation and more comfortable working conditions — struggles with innovation output. Companies can adopt a few tactics from military history to retarget their strategies.

1. Encourage employees not to be afraid to innovate without guidance. When I was a young lieutenant at the 101st Airborne Division (air assault), my infantry company received an unexpected alert to fly from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to mock attack some U.S. Marine Corps units at Fort Stewart, Georgia. We only had six hours between our alert and when we were scheduled to leave for Fort Stewart, so we did not have much time to assemble, pack or rehearse for our mission. The junior supply clerk, who had been in the Army for less than a year, forgot to prepare the fuel funnels, leaving us with no way to fuel our vehicles. Was there shouting, cursing or despair? Never. Instead, the senior sergeant created funnels out of duct tape and the heavy plastic wrapping from some old ready-to-eat meals, the standard Army field ration. It never occurred to the senior sergeant and his team to be scared or to await instruction. They saw an issue, acted to innovate an acceptable substitute, tested it and then put it into action.   

2. Use the essential I’s — insight and initiative — to drive innovative solutions. One of my favorite military innovations was sparked by a simple tin can. During the early stage of the Vietnam War, soldiers and sailors began using the M60 machine gun, which, because of its dependability and high rate of accurate fire, became a critical element of success during enemy ambushes. However, the machine gun had a tendency to jam. The solution, developed by soldiers and sailors, was to attach an empty C ration can underneath the ammunition belt. This vastly reduced jams and no doubt saved lives. An empty C ration can tied to an M60 machine gun became an iconic image from the early years of the war. It also showed that insight into a problem combined with initiative and available materials can have an enormous impact at a low cost.

3. Create a legacy of success to inspire innovation during future crises. During the middle of the Korean War, U.S. Marines were surrounded by thousands of Chinese troops. The Marines drew inspiration from military history to attack the troops from behind. The personnel knew the historical examples of courage, endurance, ferocity and sacrifice that inspired past successes. By comparison, most employees in corporate America are unaware of their companies’ histories, which leaves them with little to draw on for inspiration. Executives should take time to teach their employees about company history to instill a sense of pride in the workers. Plus, by highlighting previous successes, companies can teach their employees about tried-and-true tactics they can adopt and adapt to solve problems.

Military personnel fear mission failure rather than innovation failure. By comparison, at many companies, employees are afraid to take initiative and innovate because they don’t want to upset management. The secret to a culture of innovation — a key weapon in the battle for market share — is instilling the belief that it is acceptable, desirable and even imperative to create new solutions big and small.