Bootleg Innovation in the Military–or what happens when Punk Rock goes Mainstream

The massive military bureaucracy is daunting to any junior or mid level solider, marine, airman, sailor dare we say—any person working in a bureaucracy—giving way to an entirely different form of innovation.  If an Airman on a flight-line has a problem or a solider in field finds or discovers a new tool—it can take years for the bureaucratic system to adopt the solution or the tool. People are adaptive—they will find a more effective way to do their work.

Many feel senior leaders dont’ have a “line of sight” or perhaps even lack interest in solving individual pain-points, problems or sponsoring innovation and we find young military members going “underground” for innovation. 

There is a term in the innovation space for this—bootlegging.

GNLeePetty54Bootlegging has an interesting place in U.S. history—the term originated with illegal trafficking in liquor in violation of legislative restrictions on its manufacture, sale, or transportation. The word apparently came into general use in the Midwest in the 1880s to denote the practice of concealing flasks of illicit liquor in boot tops when going to trade with Native Americans. The term became part of the American vocabulary when the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution effected the national prohibition of alcohol from 1920 until its repeal in 1933.

Bootlegging helped lead to the establishment of American organized crime. The distribution of liquor was necessarily more complex than other types of criminal activity, and organized gangs eventually arose that could control an entire local chain of bootlegging operations, from concealed distilleries and breweries through storage and transport channels to speakeasies, restaurants, nightclubs, and other retail outlets. These gangs tried to secure and enlarge territories in which they had a monopoly of distribution. Gradually the gangs in different cities began to cooperate with each other, extending and expanding their influence. 65464047_bugsyguns

Innovation bootlegging has many similarities—circles of military members organizing around specific problems and producing innovative answers utilizing “user” innovation methodology. 

In economics and business administration literature, David A. Schon introduced the notion of bootlegging to innovation in 1963. Innovation bootlegging is defined as research in which motivated individuals secretly organize the innovation process. It usually is a bottom-up, non-programmed activity, without the official permission of the responsible management or leaders, but for the benefit of the organization. It is not in the department’s action plan nor are there any formal resources allocated towards it.

The main reason for the occurrence of bootlegging is the lack of ‘free space’ for creativity. In particular rigid planning processes ignore the nature of experimental trial and error research. Bootlegging, as a kind of self-regulating element, bridges the mechanistic world of organization with the chaotic world of creativity and innovation. 

The theory of path dependency explains why bootleg innovations are (most often) in line with the strategic objectives of the organization: corporate competencies define the search paths for its future. In this respect the learning processes, beside the tangible output of bootlegging, are beneficial for the department.

Skunkworks_Cheap_RoundelBootlegging should not be confused with skunk works: skunk work is defined as a sort of elite, working officially on a given project alongside the formal organization to solve problems more efficiently. In fact the Pacific tech’s Graphing Calculator project, NuCalc, at Apple Computer was not a skunk works project but a bootleg project.

When military members undertake bootleg innovation they are usually engaging in user innovation.  User innovation refers to new product and/or service development by individual users for themselves, without the assistance or involvement of producers. Innovation by individual users is perhaps the most important change in the innovation process since the Industrial Revolution.

Eric von Hippel is the American economist and MIT professor best known for his work in developing the concept of user innovation – that end-users, rather than manufacturers, are responsible for a large amount of innovation. In order to describe this phenomenon, in 1986 he introduced the term lead user. Hippel’s work has applications in business strategy and free/open source software (FOSS), and he is one of the most highly cited social scientists writing on FOSS.

Eric von Hippel and others observed that many products and services are actually developed or at least refined, by users, at the site of implementation and use. These ideas are then moved back into the supply network. This is because products are developed to meet the widest possible need; when individual users face problems that the majority of consumers do not, they have no choice but to develop their own modifications to existing products, or entirely new products, to solve their issues. Often, user innovators will share their ideas with manufacturers in hopes of having them produce the product, a process called free revealing.

The user innovation approach offers advantages over the producer-centered innovation development systems that have been the mainstay for hundreds of years. Notably, when users innovate for themselves, they develop exactly what they need or want, rather than having to rely on manufacturers to act as their (often very imperfect) agents.  In the case of military innovation the case is clear—bootlegging user innovation avoids the bureaucratic traps laid in military life and ensures end users attain the rewards of innovation away from the spotlight.

IMG_0386The military case studies on bootlegging and user innovation are legion—from placing machine guns on airplanes, to the internet, to most recently—coffee pot handles in the galley of large transport and tanker aircraft.

The question is—does this insurgent, rebel, rogue concept of bootleg user-innovation have a place in today’s military?  If so—can we help train and educate individuals in the methodology?  Or would the concept of such education and even calling it a methodology destroy the very eco-system we are trying to enhance? Is the concept of shaping bootleg innovation what happens when punk rock goes mainstream?  Thoughts? 

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