In September 1999, Secretary of Defense William Cohen announced a change in the unified command plan that re-designated US Atlantic Command as US Joint Forces Command. Although the National Defense Panel that proposed Joint Forces Command’s creation in 1997 did not elaborate extensively on many of the details of this new headquarters, the panel stated that such a command would be:

the common force provider of combat-ready forces to all other commands for joint and combined operations. This command would be responsible for the force readiness and training of all active and reserve components based in the United States. This command would be responsible for developing and validating joint doctrine for the approval of the Joint Chiefs; conducting joint experimentation; directing joint battle laboratories; and overseeing other joint innovation and experimentation efforts.

Yet only twelve years later, the Department of Defense chose to kill the new headquarters. In closing the command, the Defense Department transferred many of the functions to the Joint Staff. Speaking in August 2011 as the he furled the colors at Joint Forces Command headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia, Gen. Ray Odierno celebrated the unit’s success in a classic example of Pentagon double-speak: “We’re not walking away from jointness, but rather we’re adapting to a new reality. . . . We no longer require a separate four-star command to oversee joint warfighting. We have progressed far enough and inculcated jointness deeply enough to realize an efficiency while simultaneously refining our efforts.” In reality, the department had determined that in light of fiscal constraints an annual budget of $1 billion for jointness was no longer justified and that although the unit’s functions were still needed, the four-star command had created an unneeded extra layer in the force management process.

One year ago, the Army renamed the 75th Training Command—an Army Reserve unit headquartered in Houston, Texas—as the 75th Innovation Command. This new unit is charged with “driv[ing] operational innovation, concepts and capabilities to enhance the readiness and lethality of the Future Force by leveraging the unique skills, agility and private sector connectivity of America’s Army Reserve.” It’s a sweeping mandate and a greater focus on military innovation is certainly needed. It is concerning though that the 75th Innovation Command looks set to mirror the Joint Forces Command experience in the worst ways.

In seeking to address a broad cultural problem, the military bureaucracy is again doing the only thing that it knows to do: creating a command structure and a new spot on an organizational chart. To succeed in the long term, the 75th Innovation Command should learn from the Joint Forces Command experience and focus on small wins from enhancing the existing network. To do this, the unit must undergo its own internal changes that will adapt the organization and the culture in ways that prevent it from becoming the office of good ideas and just another layer of bureaucracy.

Innovation is a Culture, Not an Act

A primary reason that Joint Forces Command failed was that it compounded the bureaucracy. Avoiding this mistake will be an exceptionally difficult challenge for Maj. Gen. James V. Young, the 75th Innovation Command’s commanding general. The Army’s default system is a bureaucracy because it is intentionally designed to be resilient, which is a vital feature during a crisis. Moreover, military culture strongly rejects anomalies. Remember, the 75th Innovation Command is not a new unit—just a new name—and it takes far more than updating nomenclature and changing the color of the unit flag to create lasting changes in organizational culture. Before the unit can even start making progress, it needs a massive organizational change and then the unit leadership at all levels must be dedicated to tending to the transformed culture. To get this right, Maj. Gen. Young and his leadership team need to focus on three elements: the organizational change process, the command’s mission, and the act of innovation. Within each element, the command’s leadership should learn from successful teams outside of the military and from Joint Forces Command’s recent failure.

The Organizational Change Process: Most organizational change efforts fail, and it is important to understand why they fail. The Army’s two-decade-long—and ongoing—effort to shift to mission command, for example, is arguably failing. Shifting a unit from focusing on training to something as alien and difficult as innovation will be exceptionally hard. If he hasn’t done so already, I strongly encourage Maj. Gen. Young and his key leaders to read John Kotter’s seminal work on leading organizational change (or at a minimum read the nine-page summary in Harvard Business Review) to better understand the challenges before them and how they might avert failure. All eight steps are important, but I want to stress two in particular: setting a vision for the change and creating short-term wins (for reasons that I will explain later).

The Mission: The military establishment is, sadly, notorious for devolving a specific term into a meaningless buzzword. Even before creating the new unit, “innovation”—like “joint(ness)”—was a word that already meant many different things to many different people. Without a clear definition, it is not possible for Maj. Gen. Young to set a vision, establish priorities, or measure success. Fortunately, the Army specifically charged the 75th Innovation Command with operational innovation, which gives stakeholders slightly clearer bounds.

Operational innovation is not the same as operational improvement or operational excellence—terms that refer to improving quality and performance similar to Lean Six Sigma. Instead, operational innovation means finding entirely new ways of doing existing activities. This is helpful in that it places incremental improvements out of scope, but “new ways” can easily lead people to focus on sexy new technology, a mandate that already exists in many other offices and is not something that the 75th Innovation Command should be focused on. In order to drive operational innovation successfully, Maj. Gen. Young needs to be precise about what his team should focus on.

The Act of Innovation: Like jointness, the military services cannot address innovation by adding a layer of bureaucracy or duplicating efforts, and therein lies the unit’s challenge: How do you create an innovation team within a massive bureaucracy? To paraphrase Will Durant (writing about Aristotelian philosophy): “We are what we repeatedly do. Innovation, then is not an act but a habit.” Maj. Gen. Young and his team cannot simply choose to innovate or to be innovative. Innovation is driven by relentlessly asking questions. What new threats are we facing? Does this system or process scale? What are our (customer’s) points of friction or failure and how might we fix them? How can we test this hypothesis? Here again, Maj. Gen. Young should learn from organizations that have built effective innovation teams.

First Steps: Small Wins and Existing Networks

Centralized innovation teams rarely work. They often try to work in isolation and become an office of good ideas which triggers an us-versus-them mindset. It is important to realize that innovation (especially within a bureaucracy) cannot be forced. Some stakeholders are comfortable, some are Luddites, and some are fearful that change will lower their status or even displace them completely. Instead of being the office of good ideas, successful models for innovation teams (both internal and external) focus on creating value for other organizations and allow the team’s brand to generate new projects. Successful teams focus on creating small wins and enhancing the existing network.

Creating Small Wins: As explained earlier, innovation is not a single act, but rather a combination of culture and a very rapid process of small tests. The 75th Innovation Command would do well to focus on creating small wins and creating a flywheel effect. Many small changes aggregate to a larger perception of dramatic change, but with much lower risk. The Joint Forces Command experience offers a poignant lesson here.

As Micah Zenko previously articulated, one of Joint Forces Command’s worst failures was the Millennium Challenge 2002 wargame exercise. At $250 million, it was the most elaborate and most expensive red-team event in history . Within the first days, the red-team commander had decimated the blue-team and the wargame’s leadership had to reset the game and follow a script to avoid canceling expensive maneuver exercises for actual soldiers and Marines. The episode unleashed an intense debate between advocates for Joint Forces Command and those who saw it as a self-licking ice cream cone.

In addition to the lower risk, small wins are often (as Kotter recommends) short-term wins that demonstrate the value and success of both the internal organizational change (within the 75th Innovation Command) and the new (or renamed) unit overall. Small wins come from pilot tests and small samples that can validate hypotheses with data. Looking for small wins also reduces the resistance from entrenched antibodies (often called the frozen middle) who have a weaker argument against trying something in a limited-scope, time-bound test.

Enhancing the Existing Network: The Defense Department dissolved Joint Forces Command because it was adding to the frustration rather than resolving it. As Joint Forces Command closed, senior leaders simply moved many of the functions to the Joint Staff and other organizations where related authorities and responsibilities already existed. A lesson here for the 75th Innovation Command is to avoid duplication and to leverage the existing network.

Unlike the new Army Futures Command, senior Army leaders did not give the 75th Innovation Command responsibility over an array of units. That’s a good thing if they can keep it that way. The military often equates higher budgets and headcount with success, so the incentive to stand up new offices is very strong. Instead, the 75th Innovation Command should prioritize supporting other organizations working to solve problems by connecting disparate nodes of the existing network.

In some ways, this has already started as the 75th Innovation Command aligned its three subordinate groups geographically to create bridges to private industry, academia, and non-traditional national security stakeholders. However, this can easily go sideways if those groups see themselves more like the Defense Innovation Unit—which focuses on investment and acquisition—and less like IDEO, Hacking for Defense, or the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum—which focus on problem solving, creativity, and network development.

Making the 75th Innovation Command a Success

It has only been a year since the Army created its first innovation command. The fact that the unit has mostly flown under the radar aside from recruitment efforts is a possible sign that the command’s leadership is taking the right approach and focusing efforts internally first and on small wins second. Nevertheless, it is far too early to claim success. Celebrating victory and failing to tend relentlessly to the organizational culture is how this experiment will rapidly go awry. The Defense Department’s dismal twelve-year experience with creating Joint Forces Command to address jointness should be ever-present in the minds of the 75th Innovation Command’s leadership. It is vitally important that the command’s leadership does not underestimate the myriad challenges the unit will face because the consequences of failure are severe.

Innovation is a culture, not an act, and the creation of an innovation command evidences deep cultural issues within the Army. Over the last thirty years, the US military has allowed its decisive advantage against near-peer threats to erode, has failed to secure victory in low-intensity conflicts, and has largely failed to respond effectively to gray-zone conflict. Collectively, these are the marks of a once-great institution on the edge of failure, akin to Blockbuster Video before going bankrupt. Unlike Blockbuster Video, the Defense Department is notably well funded and the disruptive innovators are national adversaries. The Army bet big on the 75th Innovation Command and if the unit fails the bureaucracy may not allow another reform effort until the US military faces a true crisis.


Maj. Jim Perkins is an Army Reservist assigned to the 75th Innovation Command in Seattle. Previously, he served on active duty for eleven years and was the executive director for the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, a registered 501(c)(3) not-for-profit network of national security innovators. He tweets at @jim_perkins1.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.


Image credit: Jhi Scott, Army Research Laboratory