What the US Army Taught Me About Innovation: Camouflage, Robots and 8,000-Calorie Meals

 

Let’s face it, when you think of innovation, the government and in particular the Army don’t come to mind.

So you can imagine my surprise when someone from the US Army Research Laboratory called me about coming out to do a keynote speech for women’s history month and spend the day touring the “labs.” I thought, is innovation and entrepreneurship something they would even embrace?

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But the more I talked to Kelly, my client, the more I thought, “Hey, they may have a few things going on I could learn from, too.”

That was the understatement of the year. There is more innovation and sideways thinking going on at the US Army Research Laboratory than I could have ever expected. I was like a kid in a candy store and this kid was going to touch every piece of candy in front of her.

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Yes, I did my keynote Think Sideways and it was a smashing hit but that’s not what this post is about. I’m also not going to talk about how having a row of people in their camouflage uniforms made me a little nervous…until I turned getting them on stage into a personal dare. This post is about all the things I learned from this amazing group of people, not what they learned from me.

My day was full of coffees, lunches and tours with administration, leadership and their lead scientists. I learned something with every encounter.

Here are 9 things the US Army taught me about innovation:

Find the Intersection

Let’s start with the fact that the US Army Research Laboratory is an Open Campus Concept. That means they are striving towards being at the intersection of government, business and entrepreneurship. This puts them at the nexus of different perspectives, experiences and expertise. Great innovation happens at the intersection when all of these things collide. If you aren’t creating those intersections in your work, you are missing a big opportunity to let innovation thrive naturally.

Don’t be Tied to the Outcome

It’s not that the work of the US Army Research Laboratory doesn’t have to lead to something; it’s that they are open to exploring different possibilities. In business we tend to get so focused on immediate return on investment that we sometimes lose the patience and ability for blue skies innovation. You know, those ideas and discoveries that come out of just playing around with things. Our focus tends to be on the outcome, not the effort. Yes, they are trying to solve problems at the labs, big important problems (I’ll get to that later), but they are less tied to the outcome and more interested in the possibilities first. The outcomes present themselves in the process. Yes, in business we need some quick wins and immediate returns—but are you giving your team the chance to do longer-term exploration that could lead to those further-out ideas?

Be Emotionally Connected

So many things impressed me. But what impressed me the most was that each person, in each department, knew who they were working for – the soldiers on the ground. Whether they were building robots, solving waste issues or building weather predictors – they each talked about the people they were trying to save, the people whose jobs they were trying to make easier. Their goal wasn’t a target segment on an Excel spreadsheet or the 5-minute presentation schpeal they had memorized. It was woven into everything they talked about.

Being able to be that deeply connected and passionate for the “whom” is what keeps you coming to work with drive and commitment. It’s what helps you get through the tough times. It also ensures your ideas are meaningful to the ones you are solving for. They explained with very specific detail why with MREs (think portable meals in a pouch) are 8,000 calories. It’s because a soldier on the front lines doesn’t always know when they are eating next and they need all the calories they can get to sustain as long as possible. What can you do to be deeply, emotionally connected to your customer?

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Bureaucracy and Innovation Can Live Together

Being bureaucratic and being innovative don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

This is particularly important for all my colleagues and clients out there that work in large organizations. If the US Army Research Laboratory can navigate and be a part of a large bureaucracy and be innovative, so can you. Yes, they have their challenges, but they are proof that you can strive to be innovative within a system.

Be Annoyingly Curious

You can imagine how average I felt while meeting with scientists across this organization explaining things like thermo-to-electric energy and flexible electronics. I felt like I had to preface every question with, “This is a naïve question but….” But here is what I learned throughout the day. Those naïve questions led to new ideas and new thinking. This group of people, while deep experts in their fields, in many ways spend their day asking naïve questions. What happens if I add this sugar? If I change the frequency slightly what’s the outcome? Or, why can’t the material do this? Can you imagine the innovation that would happen if you stopped trying to have the answer and actually asked naïve questions all day?

Make it Real

One of my first stops on this rock star tour was with the Autonomous Systems Group. They actually house the group in a large building that was built with no nails. Yeah, I had to stop and explore that awesome fact for a while before I could even go inside the building. When I walked in I didn’t see a workshop with robot parts and computers everywhere. What I saw was a mock building and street. Something that represented a real-world scenario – a street in a war zone. Instead of innovating in theory, they are as close to real world as it gets without being there. They can test their robots on the street, in a building or flying around with obstacles to maneuver. You can bet that once these robots get out into the world they’ll actually be ready for what they encounter. If you want your ideas to work beyond the paper, start testing them in real world environments.

Cross-Pollinate

I was fortunate enough to have 2 hosts guide me through this amazing day. After we had visited a few labs one of my hosts got that “aha” look on her face. It occurred to her that even though she does projects for these labs and the people in them at various points during her work, she had never actually toured the labs to see in depth what they do and how they do it. She thought that everyone on her team should do a tour so they better understand what and more importantly why they are doing the work they do.

That look was a great reminder to me that in order for us to be connected to our work we need to experience what happens downstream and upstream from us. This allows us to understand our work in the greater context of the team and organization. When we walk in the shoes of other people and departments, we understand the threads and how they work together. What if you shadowed others on your team? What if you did someone else’s job for a day? Think how much more context and innovation you’d be able to bring to your work.

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Be Off-Center

This might seem to be a bit of a tangent but it was a moment that stayed with me. While exploring the thermo-to-energy lab, my host was explaining to me that the reason a particular element can create energy is because one of its molecules is off-center. Because it’s off-center it can be agitated into excitement. This concept got me thinking, maybe it’s good to be off-centered in our thinking too. Perhaps a little agitation would take us a little to the left or the right of our usual ideas.

Get Crystal Clear and Crazy Big

Each scientist and researcher I met with was very clear about a singular yet massive problem they were trying to solve. In-the-moment weather predictions, lighter gear, minimized waste. Nothing small about those challenges. But notice how they are hyper specific in their aim.

So where’s the innovation? In the process. How they solve those challenges is completely open. A big yet focused challenge in many ways removes ambiguity, which increases the blue skies. If anything is possible in one single pursuit, everything is worth trying. Think what would happen if you got crystal clear about what you were trying to solve and then removed the handcuffs on how you solve it.

 

Those are my face smacking lessons. Now, what did you learn from reading this post? Share in the comments section below.

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