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Larry LewisDavid KnollDiane VavrichekAlexander PowellBradley DickeyCiro Lopez
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Innovation is a key enabling concept in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). In this strategy, not only does the U.S. military need to continue to maintain effectiveness in military operations, but, in the face of a new competitive environment and the increasing importance of commercial technology, the U.S. will also need to practice innovation to maintain a military edge and meet national security goals. The critical role of innovation is repeated throughout the NDS. But what is innovation? And what can the U.S. do to pursue effective innovation?

We find there is not a consensus either inside or outside of DOD on the definition of military innovation. This means that individuals and organizations can do very different things and still claim they are pursuing innovation. To address this issue, we take a fundamental problemsolving approach, with the basic tenet: to solve a problem, we first need to define it. Hence, through consideration of DOD innovation efforts, academic literature, and past CNA publications, we develop a functional definition of innovation: “a significant change in an organization and its operational practice potentially resulting in greater military effectiveness.”

We find the primary focus of recent DOD initiatives on innovation is to accelerate the acquisition process. This is a narrower focus than the more comprehensive process we see in our definition of innovation. We conclude that DOD efforts today are necessary but not sufficient for advancing the successful innovation called for in the 2018 NDS. We also examine a number of case studies showing innovation in practice, which collectively illustrate both steps and challenges inherent in successful innovation. These examples show that military institutions do not naturally embrace many of the elements of innovation, and indeed can receive significant resistance that slows or stops needed progress. We provide a framework giving the steps needed for successful innovation and use that framework to provide recommendations for best practices and principles that DOD can apply in order to put innovation into practice, summarized in the figure below.

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DISTRIBUTION STATEMENT A. Approved for public release: distribution unlimited.


  • Pages: 76
  • Document Number: DOP-2020-U-027949-Final
  • Publication Date: 9/17/2020