When Clayton Christensen first published The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997, he almost perfectly forecast today’s dynamic across the United States Department of Defense. His central warning—that private incumbents who fail to embrace disruption will seriously risk their positions of market leadership—now rings especially true for our most trusted national institutions. For example, the United States Army employs 1.2 million people and executes a budget that reached $178 billion in fiscal year 2023. It operates at a depth and breadth of verticals that no Fortune 500 could imagine—and its idiosyncratic culture predates the birth of our nation. And as we now face a new round of transformation, it wanders directly into the path of Christensen’s warning.

So what is the urgency for an Army that has talked about reorganizing and modernizing since the end of the Cold War brought the peace dividend? Simple—it is the uniqueness of today’s moment in time. Never before have we endured such unpredictable budgets and funding due to abysmally partisan politics at an unprecedented strategic crossroads while technology changes faster than our systems and processes can accommodate. Make no mistake—the situation is dire and each day we are charged with global leadership in an unforeseen crisis. The need to innovate and maximize the responsiveness of our Army is now. We can’t control the external dynamics but we can begin to identify the behavioral and structural challenges preventing us from innovating from within.

At the heart of Christensen’s findings was an observation that good companies unsuspectingly err by continuing to refine their businesses around customer needs while failing to recognize larger market disruptions until losing market share and confronting obsolescence. Obviously, the Army doesn’t have customers, per se. Much has been written about the effect of a lack of market forces in the public sector. However, it’s worthwhile to map the customer-like effect of certain Army-specific stakeholders. As an incredibly hierarchical and byzantine organization, those with the power to mandate change do not necessarily have the power to execute it. Consequently, even the esteemed leadership team of Secretary Christine Wormuth and General Randy George must still rely on those around them to articulate their guidance and monitor the necessary steps to evolution. Unfortunately, those who spend the most time with Army leaders are largely some of the least well-situated to recognize disruptive opportunities or soldier needs. Our leaders are left with “customer” insights from either a misaligned military industrial complex or aloof bureaucrats who are far removed from both ground truth and advances in technology. This is why the Army finds itself in such a dire place today—struggling to balance generational recruiting issues with an inability to modernize at a pace that keeps up with the modern economy. The institution has embraced a system that has effectively insulated its leaders from ground truth and, moreover from the ability to drive enterprise change—even when it’s sorely needed.

Those who rarely deal with the Army might be reading this and wondering, how could the Army face such criticism after sharpening its sword for the last twenty years of war? There is some validity to the premise here. Yes, the Army just put an entire generation through two wars. But the Army also received priority attention and funding for whatever it needed during that time. As geopolitics shift, it now plays a secondary role (at best) to the Air Force and Navy as the United States reevaluates its technological dominance, its supply chains, and its ability to project power. And therefore, the Army finds itself attempting to prioritize modernization with practices and personnel accustomed to being first to the trough for the past twenty years. It will take time to build an institution resilient enough to pounce on emerging opportunities given this new reality.

Leadership also plays a role in facilitating—or hindering—innovation, and the Army’s leadership lays at a crossroads. For years, the Army promoted its leaders based upon who demonstrated the very best combat effectiveness in war. Leaders who were the most battle-tested were prioritized above all else (and for good reason). However, as the landscape shifted faster than the institution could realize, it’s fair to question institutional shortcomings in the promotion systems and talent management of the Army’s leaders. Today’s general officers were largely promoted because of their tactical prowess, not because they were experts in emerging technologies, contracting, recruiting, or marketing. And although there are obviously exceptional leaders who can thrive in any vertical, many cannot, or at least should not, be our only choice for leadership in today’s Army. This talent and experience mismatch among the Army’s general officer corps has an outsized effect on its ability to recognize disruptive opportunities because they simply do not have the appropriate context to do so.

Risk aversion is yet another obstacle to innovation. You may also think that any organization built to win wars could not possibly be too risk averse. You would be wrong. The Army’s culture does not promote risk-taking. There are many reasons for this and most of them apply to almost any other public sector organization. But the Army’s risk tolerance is particularly unsettling because of such widespread recognition for the need to innovate. Invariably, innovation means messiness. Yet enterprise leaders cannot effectively underwrite the career risk for the rare leaders who do show entrepreneurial skills and take risk to meet emerging opportunities. Too often, leaders kowtow to planned innovation in which certain units or commanders are authorized the wherewithal to operate differently. To truly embrace innovation, we must make leaders more comfortable with disruption within the institution itself—not just in a combat setting.

The characteristics of the modern information environment also play a role. The Army’s centralized decision-making apparatus lacks true operating context or ground truth. There are several reasons for this. First, the flow of information today is overwhelming. At the Army’s scale, it’s impossible to effectively manage. Leaders are forced to constantly switch context or adjust to the tyranny of the day. Operating a “7,000-mile screwdriver”—senior leaders engaging with details at the tactical edge—has never proven optimal and today’s modern information environment makes such an approach entirely untenable. Second, Pentagon topic briefs and attention spans are short for the things that are different. It should be the other way around but this is due to the aforementioned cultural issues. Disruptive ideas rarely get senior leader follow-through during execution phases but that’s when it’s needed the most. This inverted pyramid effect perversely reinforces the inclination for conformity and risk aversion as senior leaders are simply not given the time to focus on the fledgling, different ideas that badly need their personal touches. Third, the chain of middle management is well-versed in these challenges and has professionalized an autoimmune response to change—something Bob Gates described very well in his book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. This layer is the source of continuity across administrations and it understands that there is a low probability that a senior leader will find the time to return to an issue (and even if he or she does return to it, that momentum can be reversed after time lapses). More institutionalized middle management will prey on the decision-makers’ good-natured expectations that follow-through was appropriately executed to presumably protect exciting new initiatives.

Finally, it is important to consider the impacts of turnover. The Army’s ideal leader is a generalist. It has institutionalized a massive enterprise education system to create and curate leaders who are exposed to a little of everything. Consequently, it moves its personnel around the world every 18–36 months. If a strategic goal is to better recognize and seize disruptive opportunities, this is problematic. First, the process and associated practices are prioritized well ahead of the influence any one individual can exert. This both solidifies the undercurrent of risk aversion and suppresses any sense of personal initiative. Second, the frequent moves make it difficult for one to recognize necessary and responsible change—especially when the role is outside of one’s core competency. Third, whether a vestige of the past or not, these frequent moves are at odds with the modern workforce’s expectations of predictability and inadvertently pushes away our most entrepreneurial and capable soldiers.

Looking ahead, the Army must confront these institutional and cultural barriers to innovation and disruption. To do so, we must encourage our leaders and our legislators to push for foundational change in our most trusted institutions. Today’s operational environment and the pace of change demand it. Key to national defense will be a versatile Army that can flexibly respond to any contingency and mix the full capacity of our military with modern problem-solving. Anything less risks our precious resources, the quality of our Army, and our national security.

Abdul Subhani is a career technologist and entrepreneur. He balances his role as the president and CEO of a tech company with several service‐oriented roles, such as the civilian aide to the secretary of the Army for the Texas capitol region and the distinguished innovation chair at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He also serves on the board of advisors for the Center for a New American Security as well as in several advisory roles across the country.

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: Spc. Nolan Brewer, US Army