An innovation mindset is not only for the technologist and tactician—it’s for the policymaker and strategist as well, and, it seems, people in Washington are beginning to recognize that fact.

As the independent National Defense Strategy Commission readies its report, it is likely to call for the Defense Department to bolster its analytical tools to better think through and simulate potential scenarios envisioned by the authors of the National Defense Strategy.

Fortunately, an analytical methodology for just such an endeavor exists through creation of government-focused innovation pipelines.

Increasing the military’s analytical capabilities is critical given the fundamental shift that the 2018 National Defense Strategy sets forth: “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security”—a paradigm change that the Defense Department has not focused on since before 9/11.

And although the National Defense Strategy appropriately contemplates the gravest future for interstate competition, it fails to provide sufficient attention to the way in which such competition can and most likely will continue to unfold: irregular warfare, asymmetric proxies, and state-sponsored terrorism.

Russia’s mercenaries attacking US troops in Syria; Iran’s special operations forces and Lebanese Hizballah supporting the Houthis in Yemen against the US-Saudi coalition; China’s fishing and coast guard vessels working in concert with China’s military forces to undermine freedom of navigation and other international rules and norms in the South China Sea; Russia’s undeclared forces leading the aggressive annexation of Crimea, redrawing international borders and challenging the resolve of Western institutions to respond. Going forward, these are just some of the asymmetric ways interstate competition will continue to unfold.

It is due to this fluid, asymmetric, and competitive global security context that further strengthening the Defense Department’s analytical tools for both policy and strategy formulation must occur through an evidence-based, data-driven process that can be held accountable for delivering real impacts. Applying the same theory that drives innovation pipelines to deliver solutions to technological problems is a way to achieve this goal.

An innovation pipeline begins with problem sourcing and curation. It then leverages the “Lean Startup” methodology developed by Steve Blank in Silicon Valley to rapidly validate the problem and search for potential solutions. Minimum viable products are used to test hypotheses about potential solutions and gather evidence to support their use. At the back end of the pipeline, solutions are incubated before finally integrating them into larger organizational systems.

An innovation pipeline that is embedded within a policymaking and strategy process looks like this:

Innovation Sourcing: Sourcing starts with a policy team “generating a list of problems and ideas,” capabilities, and partners and allies to foster an initial assessment of both the nature and strategic landscape of potential policy or strategy problems.

Curation of Policy Problems: The next step, policy curation, begins with policymakers and strategists getting out of their offices in the White House, the Pentagon, and Foggy Bottom and going to where a potential problem is unfolding. This step includes both an internal and external survey with the goal of finding out where a given problem may already exist in a slightly different form—thereby identifying related policy approaches and then finding and leveraging existing policy tools. This step also seeks to identify legal issues such as gaps in congressional legal authorities or executive branch policy guidance, security issues such as the permissiveness of the operating environment, and support issues such as the capability and capacity to resource and sustain any potential policy effort. This process also identifies the internal stakeholders and the ecosystems of associated entities that might be impacted by the policy.

Prioritization of Potential Policies: Once potential policy options have been refined, such options need to be prioritized. An approach to organize potential policy solutions is the McKinsey Three Horizons Model—illustrated below by overlaying it on the United States’ early approaches to the emergent ISIS problem set in 2014.

  • In Horizon 1, new policy ideas begin by leveraging the existing policy tools and core capabilities, but through new approaches and towards an emergent problem set. This is not unlike what the United States did in the early days of Operation Inherent Resolve in 2014—leveraging existing military and diplomatic capabilities and capacity in the region oriented on the defense of the Arabian Gulf and Afghanistan missions towards the new counter-ISIS mission, initially undertaken in Iraq.
  • In Horizon 2, new policy ideas extend the existing policy tools and core capabilities to new aspects of the problem set. The United States took this approach within the counter-ISIS mission by utilizing existing military and diplomatic capabilities in the region towards countering ISIS in a completely new theater—Syria.
  • In Horizon 3, new capabilities are created to take advantage of disruptive opportunities. We observed such an innovation in policy tools and approaches within the counter-ISIS campaign in 2015 (which continues to be the core policy approach in both Syria and Iraq) via the US military’s train-and-equip and advise/accompany approaches with indigenous Syrian and Iraqi forces.
  • Once policy innovation options have been assessed, the policy team prioritizes them by asking whether the nascent policy is worth pursing across a longer time horizon. This prioritization should not be done by a committee of interagency principals in Washington, DC but by military commanders, diplomats, and intelligence professionals who are closest to the problem set.

Policy Solution Exploration and Hypothesis Testing: Following prioritization, new innovative policy ideas enter a process of iterative discovery. There are existing models to leverage, which could be applied to policy and strategy formulation such as the Lean Startup–based I-Corps program used by the National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency, or the Hacking for Defense program used by a number of DoD agencies. For instance, I-Corps is a system adopted by all US government federal research agencies to turn ideas into products. By leveraging an I-Corps-type approach, the policy team can deliver evidence for defensible, data-based decision-making. For each new policy idea, the team outlines the policy challenge and the potential policy solution in a mission model canvas. Everything on the canvas is an assumption that must be tested—a step that our national security and defense policymakers would do well to employ more robustly (and which we hope will be highlighted in the National Defense Strategy Commission recommendations). Included in this approach is the question: Does this new policy tool or approach support our strategic vision for the problem set? It also captures the “gotchas” that policymakers often seem to forget. Further, this step forces the policymaker to think through scalability and deployment long before it goes to those in the military or diplomatic corps who would have to implement the national security policy innovation. At this point, the policy innovation team has to aggregate the evidence and organize it into a compelling narrative that explains why the new policy now deserves new authority and funding—this is where the interagency principals and the relevant national security committees of jurisdiction come into play.

Incubation: Once hypothesis testing is completed, new policy innovations require an additional period of incubation as policy innovation teams gather additional data and build out the “minimum viable product“ policy solution. Incubation requires principal-level oversight from Horizon 1 to ensure that the fledgling policy has resources and does not become an “orphan” with no champion leading it within each bureaucracy and the interagency.

Integration and Refactoring: At this point, if the policy innovation is in Horizon 1 or 2, it can be integrated into the larger bureaucracy and policy effort with partners and allies. Trying to integrate new, unfunded, and unauthorized policy innovation projects into a national security organization often results in chaos and unbounded political risk. Therefore, it is incumbent on senior national security leaders to locate and advocate for flexible authorities and funds to support policy innovation efforts.

Such an analytical method would bring a multi-dimensional, innovative mindset to policymaking and strategy formulation at all levels of government—from the policymaking level to the military units operating within these complex, strategic environments.

It is the actor who identifies and refines the problem, rapidly iterates and innovates, and then brings a coalition of partners together against the entirety of the problem who will gain the strategic upper hand.

And the necessity to start thinking differently about our policy and strategy problems has been recognized on the Hill. Congress continues to support new analytical methodologies to review and assess our national security policy and strategy challenges and has taken legislative action within the National Defense Authorization Act by both authorizing new analytical tools such as the Hacking for Defense innovation pipeline as well as calling on the Defense Department to expand such tools.

Twenty-first-century policy and strategy formulation requires both twenty-first-century problem-solving methods as well as a forward-thinking, innovation mindset.

Otherwise, we risk continuing to fall further and further behind in this long-term strategic competition that the National Defense Strategy lays out—emboldening national security threats to our country and eroding our strategic position in the world.


Alex Gallo is a principal with BMNT and senior advisor with Hacking for Defense.

Peter Newell is managing partner of BMNT and co-creator of Hacking for Defense.


Image credit: Ryan Blanding (adapted by MWI)