Looking for innovation lessons in the strangest places
There are certain words—words I love—where a simple definition just escapes. Words like leadership, strategy, and innovation. There are a myriad of really cool and creative definitions out there, but honestly if we asked 10 people for their definition for one of these terms we would probably get 6 to 8 different answers. I say 6 to 8 as it depends on how many soldiers are in the group—soldiers can all recite the Army definition of leadership at the drop of a hat.
What is innovation? Many might say it’s just a buzz word or a word when playing senior leader presentation bingo. Webster’ s dictionary defines innovation as a new idea, device, method or the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods. I’m sure most of us in the “innovation space” would find these definitions somewhat hollow and lacking in some sense. There is just something missing. Maybe it is the human interaction required for successful innovation. There is an interaction, dare I say networking required for innovation to happen. If an idea is spawned in the woods and no one is around to see it, hear it, play with it—did the innovation happen? What spurs on innovation? Why would one even attempt to innovate?
Innovations in the music industry have always fascinated me. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time studying the emergence of rock and roll and find it amazing. It’s not just the music, it’s the culture, it’s the myriad of personalities and talent coming together to create something new and exciting. Ponder some of the subsets of rock and roll—progressive rock, blues rock, southern rock, indie rock, alternative rock, acid rock, folk rock—the list goes on, but there is a personal favorite, Punk Rock.
Punk and innovation is something we have discussed here at the m100Group several times. Punk emerged in the mid-1970s yet it was rooted in 1960s garage rock. An innovation if you will—punk bands rejected the perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock. Punk bands typically produced short, fast-paced songs with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often shouted political, anti-establishment lyrics. Punk embraced a DIY ethic; many bands self-produce recordings and distribute them through independent record labels. Punk bands operated outside the mainstream recording industry to create something new. In todays bureaucratic monstrosity that is the US Department of Defense–we are witnessing something akin to this punk emergence. Small groups of innovators are beginning to try new things and plugging them back into the DoD through side doors if you will.
According to Ramones drummer Tommy Ramone, “In its initial form, a lot of [1960s] stuff was innovative and exciting. Unfortunately, what happens is that people who could not hold a candle to the likes of Hendrix started noodling away. Soon you had endless solos that went nowhere. By 1973, I knew that what was needed was some pure, stripped down, no bullshit rock ‘n’ roll.”
John Holmstrom, founding editor of Punk magazine, recalls feeling “punk rock had to come along because the rock scene had become so tame that [acts] like Billy Joel and Simon and Garfunkel were being called rock and roll, when to me and other fans, rock and roll meant this wild and rebellious music.” According to Robert Christgau, punk “scornfully rejected the political idealism and Californian flower-power silliness of hippie myth.” Simply there was a desire for something new, simple, with a message and it could not be found in the mainstream. Innovators in the defense world can relate—think back to what it must have been “innovating” in the 1950s or 60s with the Century Series Fighters, ICBMs, and other new and exciting innovations–like the internet.
There was definitely a do it yourself (DIY) spirit in punk rock that is no emerging in out of the way corners of the DoD. UK pub rock from 1972 to 1975 contributed to the emergence of punk rock by developing a network of small venues, such as pubs, where non-mainstream bands could play. Pub rock also introduced the idea of independent record labels, such as Stiff Records, which put out basic, low-cost records. Pub rock bands organized their own small venue tours and put out small pressings of their records. In the early days of punk rock, this DIY ethic stood in marked contrast to what those in the scene regarded as the ostentatious musical effects and technological demands of many mainstream rock bands. Musical virtuosity was often looked on with suspicion. According to Holmstrom, punk rock was “rock and roll by people who didn’t have very many skills as musicians but still felt the need to express themselves through music“. In December 1976, the English fanzine Sideburns published a now-famous illustration of three chords, captioned “This is a chord, this is another, this is a third. Now form a band“.
There appears to be a similar sense in the defense innovation space. There is a dissatisfaction with the status quo. Relying on big contractors to take over a decade to field solutions that no longer fit in the second decade of the 21st century. Many organizations are creating their own innovation shops and/or innovation venues. Also—as witnessed with the Pub bands in the UK—there is a network of innovation organizations. These organizations are gathering to exchange ideas in places like Austin TX, Colorado Springs, Orlando Florida, and even out of the way places like Montgomery AL.
In the punk subculture—authenticity has always been important and the same holds true in the innovation space. The pejorative term “poseur” is applied to those who adopt punk’s stylistic attributes but do not to share or understand its underlying values and philosophy. Scholar Daniel S. Traber argues that “attaining authenticity in the punk identity can be difficult“; as the punk scene matured, he observes, eventually “everyone got called a poseur.” In the innovation space the poseur exists as does “innovation theater.” Innovation theater is any initiative undertaken with the promise of innovation, but that doesn’t create real impact—all show and no-go.
Networks are of the utmost importance in the punk and the defense innovation space. There were definitely nodes in the punk scene starting in unlikely places like Ann Arbor Michigan with Iggy Pop and the Stooges. There was no such thing as instant success as critic Greil Marcus, reviewed Iggy’s band, stating they had “the sound of Chuck Berry’s Airmobile—after thieves stripped it for parts“. Other early nodes included New York’s experimental music scene and the Velvet Underground, who inspired many of those involved in the creation of punk rock. In Boston, the Modern Lovers minimalistic style gained attention. In Detroit Death—made up of three African-American brothers. In Ohio, a small but influential underground rock scene emerged, led by Devo in Akron and Kent and by Cleveland’s Electric Eels, Mirrors and Rocket from the Tombs.
Other nodes developed in West Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, but none really bigger than the nodes in the UK.
There were strange and unique connections like Briton Malcolm McLaren who returned from the States to London in May 1975, inspired by the new scene he had witnessed at CBGB. The King’s Road clothing store he co-owned, recently renamed Sex, was building a reputation with its outrageous “anti-fashion”. Among those who frequented the shop were members of a band called the Strand, which McLaren had been managing. In August, the group was seeking a new lead singer. Another Sex habitué, Johnny Rotten, auditioned for and won the job. Adopting a new name, the group played its first gig as the Sex Pistols on 6 November 1975, at Saint Martin’s School of Art, and soon attracted a small but dedicated following. In February 1976, the band received its first significant press coverage; guitarist Steve Jones declared that the Sex Pistols were not so much into music as they were “chaos“.
Bernard Rhodes, an associate of McLaren, similarly aimed to make stars of the band London SS, who became the Clash, which was joined by Joe Strummer. On 4 June 1976, the Sex Pistols played Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in what became one of the most influential rock shows ever. Among the approximately forty audience members were the two locals who organised the gig—they had formed Buzzcocks after seeing the Sex Pistols in February. Others in the small crowd went on to form Joy Division, the Fall, and—in the 1980s—the Smiths. In July, the Ramones played two London shows that helped spark the nascent UK punk scene. Over the next several months, many new punk rock bands formed, often directly inspired by the Sex Pistols.
One cant help but notice all the connections in the punk community. We are beginning to see a similar connection in the Defense Innovation space. Air University is working with the Singaporean Air Force in partnership with the University of Michigan. AFWERX is working with international partners to include the UK, Germany, and Japan. Entities like Cyberwerx who partners with USAFA is hosting Air University groups like Project Mercury who in turn are connected with a myriad of DoD innovators and to include NATO partners.
Of course the original wave of punk led to a second wave in 1977 brining in the California scene from San Francisco to LA. In 1979 the punk scene further diversified and then had a schism. In California punk began a split as a rivalry developed between adherents of the new sound and the older punk rock crowd. Hardcore punk appealed to a younger, more suburban audience, was perceived by some as anti-intellectual, overly violent, and perhaps musically limited. In Los Angeles, the opposing factions were often described as “Hollywood punks” and “beach punks”, referring to Hollywood’s central position in the original L.A. punk rock scene and to hardcore’s popularity in the shoreline communities of South Bay and Orange County
In 1976—first in London, then in the United States—”New Wave” was introduced as a complementary label for the formative scenes and groups also known as “punk”; the two terms were essentially interchangeable. Over time, “new wave” acquired a distinct meaning: bands such as Blondie and Talking Heads from the CBGB scene; the Cars, who emerged from the Rat in Boston; the Go-Go’s in Los Angeles; and the Police in London that were broadening their instrumental palette, incorporating dance-oriented rhythms, and working with more polished production were specifically designated “new wave” and no longer called “punk”.
For the DoD Innovation space—diversification and schisms are beginning to be seen. This is to be expected and should be welcomed. At times it seems individuals and groups are vying to be THE innovation group or to have the innovation curriculum —not only is this limiting it is detrimental to the innovation space and innovative capability and capacity. Just a quick glance at the music innovation space above, there were several interactions, several successful bands, and a myriad of new and interesting sounds. What does innovation look like in the defense space? Well it could look a lot like the punk music scene in the 1970s and early 80s—I guess we can hope so.