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The Case for Innovation

In 2016 the announcement of the Defence Innovation Initiative by the Secretary of State for Defence placed renewed emphasis on innovation as a way of maintaining our military edge.  Since then, the term innovation has been incorporated into almost every vision statement, seniors’ speech or commentary detailing how the British Army can maintain its competitive edge.  Simply put, we have inadvertently made innovation a defence buzz-word, and in doing so have diluted its meaning to such an extent that we no longer understand what it represents and, more importantly, the impact it could have on the British Army. 

Sir Michael Fallon argued that “British brains gave the world the tank, the fighter aircraft, the Dreadnought battleship, radar and the jump jet” and,[1] as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, it is important to acknowledge that novel solutions to specific problems have been at the heart of how the British Army has functioned at the tactical level for decades.  Hobart’s ‘funnies’ are a great D-Day example,[2]a novel and innovative design of armour to try and resolve the most significant D-Day problem for the British Army – how do you advance off a defended beach?

So, is the British Army an organisation that is struggling to innovate? Have the halcyon days of good ideas gone?  Do we only innovate and start to adapt when our soldiers are in physical danger? 

When the British Army identifies a specific problem, its people have demonstrated repeatedly that they can solve them in novel and interesting ways. A combination of an ‘adapt and overcome’ mentality supported by an interest in emerging technology has had an impact on operations and how we train.  However, a more centralised approach has distorted and channelled our thinking about what innovation is, focusing predominantly on technological solutions.  

This fixation on the application of technology is not solely a British Army problem.  A cursory glance at the US Army’s lethality programme, where modernization focuses on improving range, precision and speed has similar issues.  More of the same, or making it ‘better’, is continuous improvement rather than innovation. Technology should be considered as a means to an end, not an end in itself, whilst not forgetting that armies equip soldiers to give them a decisive battlefield advantage.  We must not forget the human nature of land combat. 

With the announcement of the Innovation Fund (2016) and Transformation Fund (2019) Defence has committed £960M to pursue innovation.  But what is ‘innovation’?  In its simplest form it is “The successful exploitation of new ideas”[3].  Critically, this should include ideas ‘new to us’ as well as the genuinely groundbreaking. We must recognise that innovation is a continuum that runs from continuous improvement (CI) to transformation; CI provides the foundation, the fertile ground essential for truly transformational innovation to grow. 

The challenge for the Army is how we can develop innovation as a capability in its own right and realise the benefits of becoming an organisation which is ‘innovative by instinct’.  If we are to inculcate a spirit of innovation we need to focus on our most important asset, our people.  To reap the benefits provided by an innovative culture we need to invest in them – they are our culture.

The Army is the archetypal hierarchical organisation, but it is now commonly acknowledged that hierarchies do little to encourage and nurture the behaviours we seek – allowing innovation and innovators to flourish.  The British Army invests a great deal of resource, on training and educating soldiers at all levels, but does it invest sufficient resource on training our soldiers how to think? Training our soldiers to be inquisitive, to ask why and question what is the art of the possible?  Disruptive thinking and challenging allassumptions – described as a  “rebellious mindset” – and creating “good trouble” is how we begin this change.[4][5]  The Chilcott enquiry demonstrated the importance of the “reasonable challenge” in how we approach operations, but we must be cognisant that challenge is critical to “highlighting and exploring alternative options”.[6]  There is no doubt that these behaviours are alive and well in pockets throughout the Army, but generally operationally focused; in an era of constant competition this approach must become business as usual and not be limited to the deployed environment, including back office functions.

It is not enough to espouse the merits of mission command and think we have this in hand. Like any other skill, innovation needs to be practiced and that means we need to take risks.  Like in any other form of training the most effective learning comes from our mistakes.  Failure is also an essential factor in innovation; but do we recognise and value failure as a contributor to future success?  We must ensure that effective systems are in place to reward creativity and risk-taking at all levels of the organisation, taking advantage of the relatively benign environment in the Home Base to take risks, make mistakes and grow as an organisation.

Process can be a frustrating element of the modern western army.  How can we meet expected standards of accountability and value for money whilst nurturing an innovation culture?  The two are seemingly at odds, making investing in truly novel, creative approaches and risky ventures slow, bureaucratic and unattractive.  All too often we tie ourselves up with processes and create an environment that is the anthesis of one that encourages innovation, creating frictions and restricting the flow of ideas.  However, to ensure we collate good ideas, taking the best innovative solutions forward and delivering an effect to the end user efficient processes are key.  We need to harness the initiative and creativity of our people and modify our processes to enable rapid delivery into the hands of the user.  Leveraging the network effects we could generate within the Army, wider Defence, Accademia and Industry, we have the potential to unlock exponential performance.

 The most effective way of generating an innovation culture is demonstrating commitment.  Cultural change directed from the top down is little more than aspiration; our soldiers need to see that their ideas are developed and used.  The best way to promote innovative thinking to our soldiers is to demonstrate to them that it works.  It is worth noting that to be recommended for promotion in the Royal Navy an individual needs to have demonstrated “the ability to make things happen, especially through innovation.”[7]

So, having focused on the challenges, how can we make it right?  The British Army is already working to become innovative by instinct.  Projects on empowerment, training to fail and our commitment to experimentation and development of prototype warfare are just some of the areas where we are embracing an innovative approach.  However, investment is still key.  Commitment of financial resources provides an excellent start, but this needs to be matched by similar commitment of leadership and time, genuinely prioritising innovation as core activity, inherent in all we do.

Winston Churchill’s comments are as valid today as they were 100 years ago – “inventors who know what they could invent, if they only knew what was wanted and…soldiers who know, or ought to know, what they want, and would ask for it if they only knew how much science could do for them.  We have never really bridged that gap yet”.

The Army has the ability to be a world class innovative organisation, it has all the parts but it needs tuning. Considering innovation in three specific areas – people, process, and technology – provides a multi-dimensional approach which can be applied across the entire organisation.  Of these, people are the most important; our people are the Army, and it is only through them that we can generate the agility, resilience and adaptability we seek.

British Army Innovation Team (@InnovationArmy)


[1]Advantage through Innovation.  The Defence Innovation Initiative. Innovation Initiative Brochure,2016. 

[2]7 Clever Innovations Used on D-Day. The Imperial War Museum Staff, 8 Jan 2018 

[3]ISIS Enterprise, Oxford University.

[4]Ibid. 

[5]Conniff, Sam. Be more pirate: How to take on the modern world and win. 2018. 

[6]The Good Operation. A handbook for those involved in operational policy and its implementation. 2017.

[7]JSP 757 Pt 2 Vol 1(V.2.3 Nov 18) Selection for Promotion on Merit. 

About the author

British Army Innovation Team

The British Army's Innovation team is focused on how innovation can deliver a decisive advantage today.

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