In my study of innovation, I find it useful to look to a variety of sources. It occurred to me that innovation is no more important anywhere than in the military, where competition can be lethal. This article titled Staff Colonels Are Army’s Innovation Engines has some fascinating insights that are relevant to civilian organizations as well.
Thoughts on career path
Having no military experience myself (there’s only so much you can learn from Rambo) this article brought to my attention the difference between staff positions and command positions within the army. Staff positions are responsible for logistics and communication – they support the fighting force.
The authors have a concise definition of innovation: “… Innovation is the process of creating decisive value from change to gain competitive advantage.”
They argue that staff colonels are in the best position to propel innovation within the army as they have the mandate and resources to take inventive practices from within their units and test them at scale to establish their effectiveness.
The authors contend that the reward structure within the army does not encourage the best candidates (and presumably those skilled in identifying and promoting innovation) to become staff colonels, as likely any positions above will be filled by their peers with command experience. Or put another way, commanders are the tip of the spear, while staff colonels get the shaft.
A counterpoint to this line of thinking is that army staff can become isolated from combatant commanders and even grow to think of themselves as the civilian leadership of the military, undermining true government control. Nevertheless, the authors have a thought provoking position.
My day job is at a university. Consider the careers of tenured faculty members. Some further their careers with teaching and research. Some further their careers in administrative roles, like chairing a department or as dean of a school.
One could imagine the pendulum swinging either way. In one direction, senior-most administrative roles are only granted to academics with the strongest academic achievements. In the other, those plum assignments are given to academics who have toiled in more junior administrative roles.
In the first case, taking on a junior administrative role could be career limiting, as it would interfere with the progress in your academic work and yet you could not count on more senior positions later on. In the second case, those administrative academics could lose touch with the core mission of the organization, teaching and research.
A problem to solve
Innovators love a problem to solve, and this one is very meta – how do you solve the problem of not being fast solving problems. This is where the authors say the US Army finds itself, and they posit a solution is to value staff colonels more.
The authors make a strong case for innovation being more critical than ever as the Army is no longer in a time of “clear adversaries and a manageable pace of change.”
Neither, I contend, are the rest of us.