Innovators: Gadfly or Mongrel–DeMarco Banter

rwc_Garden_250x196I grew up just north of Silicon Valley on the San Francisco Peninsula—it always seemed that innovation was something everyone did.  At 18 years old—I left the area and joined the USAF only to return to the Valley to visit family, talk with friends, two tours at Travis AFB (about an hour from the Valley), and a tour as a fellow at Stanford.  Innovation is something that I believe many of us have in our DNA, it is just something certain people have to do.  It might be a personality type—something that comes natural to us or perhaps it is something that in nurtured in us—something we learn; either way—it simply has to come out or these people look for other place to work.  

When innovation or creativity is something in our being—there are times creatives can seem like a gadfly to some.  A gadfly is a word with two senses, the first is in regard to a particular type of insect behavior, the second is in regard to a particular type of behavior in people. In modern politics, a gadfly is someone who persistently challenges people in positions of power, the status quo or a popular position.  For example, Morris Kline wrote, “There is a function for the gadfly who poses questions that many specialists would like to overlook. Polemics is healthy.” The word may be uttered in a pejorative sense or be accepted as a description of honorable work or civic duty.

Some people or personality types simply have no desire to be creative or to innovate—and that’s okay, they don’t need to–try to imagine any large organization filled entirely with creatives/innovators–it would be a nightmare.  Some organizations, however, have cultures that shun innovation and the gadflies of creativity get the fly swatter.  Again–not healthy either.  

The USAF has had some gadflies—Gen Billy Mitchell who got the swatter, Gen Bernard Schriever had some success, and maybe we could offer a more recent case study in General Steve Kwast, but the organization does not always received gadflies well. 

The original gadfly was Socrates—obviously it did not go well for him.  

Socrates LouvreI am the gadfly of the Athenian people, given to them by God, and they will never have another, if they kill me. And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin against the God by condemning me, who am his gift to you. For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me.” -So

Bureaucracies need gadflies, but not many in the bureaucracy are not willing to take a shot of hemlock and die for creativity or innovation. Recall Socrates was a loyal and faithful soldier, a defender of Athens who had seen his Polis defeated by Sparta and that defeat summoned him to a deeper reflection on where things went wrong and how it could be prevented in the future.  There are many gadflies in the military that see the future and know we need innovators now.

Socrates was irritating in the way only gadflies can irritate.  A few words on gadflies—they are pesky creatures.  In Ancient Greek mythology—a gadfly knocked a guy off his horse who had been trying to fly all the way up to heaven to engage and take for himself 9ebee12a561dd53e785ff73df902facathe powers of the gods.  It was a small gadfly that Zeus sent to bite Pegasus which in turn unhorsed Bellerophon.  A gadfly innovator is not some busybody hanging in the agora, he is unseating the confident rider who believes he is on a flightpath to the truth.  One who believes he is on the pathway to heaven because he deserves to be there and the next thing he knows he is lying on the ground looking up at the stars (crippled and blinded and left alone to live out the rest of his life in misery, grieving and shunning the haunts of men.)—this may make the gadfly less than popular.  It also makes his mission a must when we are talking about the preservation of the State.

I’m not sure how many innovators are really waiting around to drink hemlock these days, but that is not to say there are not many people who see places to innovate and very much want to be creative. One only has to give a glance toward any of our current national strategic documents to see our most senior leaders from the POTUS all the way to our Chief of Staff of the Air Force—pleading with their organizations to be innovative. 

In the National Security Strategy published in December 2017—the President mentions innovation 19 times in 60 pages.  In the National Defense Strategy published in 2018—the Secratary of Defense calls for innovation 6 times in 12 pages.  Finally in the National Military Strategy (2018) the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs mentions innovation one time in a 4 page document.  

Using the Competitive Edge to Train How We Fight panelThe Chief of Staff of the Air Force can hardly finish a speech without mentioning innovation.  Gen Goldfein offered $64 million dollars to squadrons to innovate—and saw only marginal gains—why?  The Chief has said—“It’s time for us to give ideas an audience and incubate and integrate them for best effect. It is the honor of my life to serve with each of you. This is our time. Let’s get after it and don’t quit.”

So what’s happening—why have the ideas not been unleashed? I mentioned personality typology above.  Most creatives are “intuitives” in Carl Jung’s personality typology.  In the US population—there are about 27% intuitives.  And—I will admit we need more research—but if we norm for a military type lifestyle and mindset, let’s figure half of that 27% might consider life in the US Military—so we might have 13% in our military population that have a penchant for creativity.  Let’s be clear–we don’t need a lot of these folks, but we need to nurture the ones we have.  How are the 13% received?  Do they trust the organization? Is the culture one where they feel safe?

The 13% comes into play in another interesting way–as described by Geoffrey A. Moore in his excellent 1991 book Crossing the Chasm.  The technology adoption lifecycle or diffusion of innovation is a sociological model that describes the adoption or acceptance of a new product or innovation, according to the demographic and psychological characteristics of defined adopter groups. The process of adoption over time is typically illustrated as a classical normal distribution or “bell curve”. The model indicates that the first group of people to use a new product is called “innovators”, followed by “early adopters”. Next come the early majority and late majority, and the last group to eventually adopt a product are called “Laggards” or “phobics.”


The most difficult step in anything innovative is making the transition between visionaries (early adopters) and pragmatists (early majority). This is the chasm.  If a successful organization can create a bandwagon effect in which enough momentum builds, then the innovation becomes a de facto standard. The chasm or gap exists at about 13-17%–and of course the “intuitives” tend to live in that innovator or early adopter area on the chart above.

This is where the mongrel or stray dog comes in.  At 13%, how welcome do they feel in the institution?  They have been hearing for quite some time now—how their ideas won’t work, don’t make waves, just get your job done–or we don’t do those things here. These 13% have been starving to create and innovate and our senior leaders are offering the proverbial steak.  The issue comes when the creative takes the bait only to have local leaders say no.  Or, in the case of the CSAFs Squadron Innovation Funds—Wing Commanders and in some cases higher place restrictions on what the funds can be used for and hamstringing innovative efforts.  

This behavior is not surprising in the least—look at how many more senior leaders are removed from command for money issues.  Many of the case outcomes are held in secret—leaving other leaders to only speculate as to what the “money issue” was and of course playing it safe and preserving self is simply human nature.  It is a lack of trust up and down the chain—and creativity and innovation suffer as they both require immense cultural trust and a sense of safety to bring the best ideas forward.  To be clear–this is not the fault of senior leadership–it is simply organizational behavior.  

An interesting case happened recently with the firing of Major General William Cooley, the former commander of the Air Force Research Labs (AFRL).  There has been no reason given for his removal beyond—he was “relieved of command…for allegations of misconduct.”  Seeing as Cooley ran the Research Labs and AFRL is responsible for all the AFWERX and other USAF Innovation Funding—many leaders are quick to believe Cooley is being held responsible for mishandling innovation funds.  This may be very true or the removal might have been for something completely unrelated, but many high-level commanders would prefer to play it safe and not allow these creatives funding to innovate.  

images-48The mongrel, working hard for the steak now has it pulled away and in some cases slapped for even thinking this food might be eatable.  And so the culture continues to turn. Transparency and trust at the highest levels must be attained in order to innovate. Further—I am not implying that these “intuitives” are the only ones with ideas.  Innovation is a team sport and every typology has a role in the effort—it is simply the biggest ideas are usually generated from these “intuitives” but it takes everyone to actually move the idea from concept to product.  But, swatting the “intuitives” is one way to guarantee the ideas will not germinate.

The good new is Secretary of Defense Mark Esper understands:  The services are experimenting. That’s good, and we encourage that, but the thing we’ve really got to get at—and it takes time, and it’s probably the most difficult part and the hardest to change—is the culture,Esper said at a Jan. 24 Centerfor Strategic and International Studies event in Washington, D.C.

V6652RZNTBDEPM7KQA7XMS53RAYou have to get the culture right so that folks in the DOD, military, and civilian alike, are willing to put money down on something that may not be 100 percent, or 90 percent, or 80 percent. You’ve got to be able to take some risk and you’ve got to be able to accept some failure.”

This can not be an “us versus them” mentality.  Innovators need to understand the senior leader perspective as much as these senior leaders must understand the creatives, and then we begin to thaw the “frozen middle” (wherever or even if that really exists) and show leaders at all levels it is safe.  We need more transparency in disciplinary actions–more quickly—and we need to do it all before all the gadflies get swatted and the mongrels leave.


Quotes from current Strategic documents:

NSS: 19 times in 60 pages 

“The United States will pursue an economic strategy that rejuvenates the domestic economy, benefits the American worker, revitalizes the U.S. manufacturing base, creates middle-class jobs, encourages innovation, preserves technological advantage, safeguards the environment, and achieves energy dominance. Rebuilding economic strength at home and preserving a fair and reciprocal international economic system will enhance our security and advance prosperity and peace in the world.”

“Lead in Research, Technology, Invention, and Innovation

“The United States must continue to attract the innovative and the inventive, the brilliant and the bold. We will encourage scientists in government, academia, and the private sector to achieve advancements across the full spectrum of discovery, from incremental improvements to game-changing breakthroughs. We will nurture a healthy innovation economy that collaborates with allies and partners, improves STEM education, draws on an advanced technical workforce, and invests in early stage research and development (R&D).”

“RAPIDLY FIELD INVENTIONS AND INNOVATIONS: The United States must regain the element of surprise and field new technologies at the pace of modern industry. Government agencies must shift from an archaic R&D process to an approach that rewards rapid fielding and risk taking.”

“Promote and Protect the U.S. National Security Innovation Base”

“We must defend our National Security Innovation Base (NSIB) against competitors. The NSIB is the American network of knowledge, capabilities, and people—including academia, National Laboratories, and the private sector—that turns ideas into innovations, transforms discoveries into successful commercial products and companies, and protects and enhances the American way of life. The genius of creative Americans, and the free system that enables them, is critical to American security and prosperity.”

“Protecting the NSIB requires a domestic and international response beyond the scope of any individual company, industry, university, or government agency. The landscape of innovation does not divide neatly into sectors. Technologies that are part of most weapon systems often originate in diverse businesses as well as in universities and colleges. Losing our innovation and technological edge would have far-reaching negative implications for American prosperity and power.”

“Finally, the Nation’s long-term energy security future rests with our people. We must invest in our future by supporting innovation and R&D, including through the National Laboratories” 

MODERNIZATION: Ensuring that the U.S. military can defeat our adversaries requires weapon systems that clearly overmatch theirs in lethality. Where possible, we must improve existing systems to maximize returns on prior investments. In other areas we should seek new capabilities that create clear advantages for our military while 

“…posing costly dilemmas for our adversaries. We must eliminate bureaucratic impediments to innovation and embrace less expensive and time intensive commercial off the shelf solutions.  Departments and agencies must work with industry to experiment, prototype, and rapidly field new capabilities that can be a silly upgraded as new technologies come on line  

NDS:  6 times in 12 pages 

“Priority:  Establishing an unmatched twenty-first century National Security Innovation Base that effectively supports Department operations and sustains security and solvency.” 

“A more lethal force, of performance of strong alliances and partnerships, American technological innovation, and a culture of performance will generate decisive and sustained U.S. military advantages.”

“The current bureaucratic approach, centered on exacting thoroughness and minimizing risk above all else  is proving to be increasingly unresponsive. We must transition to a culture of performance where results and accountability matter.”

“Deliver performance at the speed of relevance. Success no longer goes to the country that develops a new fighting.”

Reform the Department for Greater Performance and Affordability

  • Deliver performance at the speed of relevance.
  • Organize for innovation.
  • Drive budget discipline and affordability to achieve solvency.
  • Streamline rapid, iterative approaches from development to fielding.
  • Harness and protect the National Security Innovation Base.

“Delivering performance means we will shed outdated management practices and structures while integrating insights from business innovation—how do we know what business is doing?”

NMS in 6 pages mentions  

Force Development and Force Design 

Force Development and Force Design are the expression of Joint Force adaptation and innovation under global integration to implement the NDS’s direction to build a more lethal force. Force Development adapts current planning, decision making, and force management processes to enable the Joint Force to do what it does better. Force Design enables the Joint Force to do what it does in fundamentally different and disruptive ways to ensure the Joint Force can deter or defeat future adversaries. 

CSAF mentions  

At AFA 2018 

“I am proud to announce that we are pushing out $64 million to wing commanders next week to kick start squadron innovation at the tactical edge,” said Goldfein. “This money is to let commanders, who know what their units need, to test, experiment and refine their best tactical ideas.”

“The Air Force’s continued push to remove innovation roadblocks is not solely based on the recently released NDS, but is also part of Wilson and Goldfein’s continued efforts to ensure Airmen are prepared to work closely with international and joint partners on the ground, at sea, in the air and also in space.”

Goldfein. “It’s time for us to give ideas an audience and incubate and integrate them for best effect. It is the honor of my life to serve with each of you. This is our time. Let’s get after it and don’t quit.”

CSAF reading list has 5 books on Innovation and a tab to locate innovation books 

RAND report—Innovation in the USAF:  Key Cross-Case Findings 

1: Air Force innovation begins with strategy:  Fostering innovation in the Air Force is therefore, first and foremost, about strategy—identifying, framing, and prioritizing strategically important operational problems to be solved by airmen. 

2: The Air Force innovates differently than other military organizations.  research suggests that Air Force innovation is more likely to be driven by decentralized efforts of individuals and operational units  

—Outside observers not intimately familiar with current operations are therefore likely to underestimate the scope and importance of Air Force innovation 

3:  Air Force innovation is a decentralized, diffuse, and diverse phenomenon 

Key Implications for the Air Force 

1. To drive innovation, the Air Force senior leadership requires a mechanism for deliberately identifying and framing strategically important operational problems. 

demands of running the service make it difficult to focus attention “outward” on national strategic challenges and their constituent operational problems. 

2: The Air Force should carefully preserve its capacity to foster short-cycle innovation 

The Air Force leadership should examine whether its current field experimentation capacity is sufficient and, more important, whether it is well suited to innovating in response to contemporary national strategic problems. 

3: Airpower innovation, as a distinct phenomenon, is poorly understood outside the Air Force. 

Very little scholarship has been published on USAF innovation, apart from early Cold War nuclear developments, and virtually nothing has been published in strategic studies on airpower innovation since 9/11. This compares with hundreds of books and articles published on ground force innovation in the last 15 years… much remains to be done to foster an informed conversation about airpower innovation in the broader defense community.  

2 Replies to “Innovators: Gadfly or Mongrel–DeMarco Banter”

  1. Bill:

    An excellent article, as always. It reminded me of the definition of innovation we in the private sector find most useful. Granted, we are very different from the uniformed services, but we do share similarities.

    Here’s the definition: Innovation provides unexpected value to customers who wish they had thought of that value themselves.

    Notice the key words:

    “Unexpected” places a burden on the innovator. It reminds him or her to expect the usual resistance to change.

    “Value” means return on investment. The return may be monetary, but it may also be seen in better leaders, better teams, or both.

    “Customers” reminds innovators they are different from those who do the important work of pure research. Innovators may provide new insights, but it is customers who determine if those will work or not.

    The phrase “wish they had thought of that value themselves” is the measure of goodness.

    Cell phones are a great example. Before we had them, we didn’t know we needed them. There were pay phones everywhere. There were comprehensive directories with the phones, or available to borrow at any store. There were no mobs of people brandishing flaming torches and scythes marching through the streets yelling: “We want cell phones!” And is there a user anywhere who doesn’t wish he or she had thought of it first.

    At first glance it seems a paradox. But innovation without practical value often is a day dream.

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