Here's how to get your ideas noticed and avoid the dreaded Valley of Death as a DoD innovator.
There’s no denying how tough it is for innovators in the military to get ideas across the finish line. During my 30 years in the Air Force, I battled red tape, bureaucracy, and the Valley of Death more times than I can count. But in my last few years before retiring, I got a much clearer line of sight into DoD innovation than I’d ever had before. I saw that even in the face of an imperfect system, certain innovators had a magic touch that made their ideas WAY more likely to succeed. Based on my observations, here are a few tips for getting your ideas noticed and avoiding the dreaded Valley of Death. Let’s dive in.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
- Albert Einstein
There’s nothing wrong with getting excited about an idea (as long as it doesn’t become a toxic relationship). But considering that 95% of new product innovations fail, championing a single solution isn’t a great place to start. Some of the best military intrapreneurs I’ve worked with were those who had a real handle on the problem they were trying to solve. Instead of hitching their wagon to one idea, they used their operational experience, empathy, and deep understanding of a problem to weigh multiple solutions and move out on the best path forward.
Mastering your organization’s and its higher headquarters challenges will not only make your boss’s job easier but will also help you innovate faster over time. The alternative? A slow, frustrating process for everyone involved.
Here’s an example:
I once had an experience where my boss brought together cross-functional leaders and experts from across the organization and announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a Big Data problem.” In the moment, I remember thinking: yeah we do…but now what? We had several discussions that day (and in the following days/weeks) about the solution, but I would argue that we didn’t collectively hone in on a problem statement. This led to a lot of technical suggestions from connoisseurs of Wired, Verge, and TechCrunch, not to mention hardware and software vendors trying to make a sale. Needless to say, the conversation involved lots of emotion, politics, and posturing to get the boss’s approval and resources. In the end, the collective group finally derived the problem statement and developed some pretty creative solutions to get after the Big Data problem. But, it took longer than it needed to. To borrow a line from the great American philosopher Matthew McConaughey, “it’d be a lot cooler if you did” create a problem statement before solutioning.
Problem analysis doesn’t have to be complicated. All you have to do is explain (with data and examples) a problem your organization is facing, why it exists, why it matters, and steps you can take to turn things around. Bonus points if you communicate that information in a structured way. You’ll have an easier time getting leaders to invest in your work, even before you’ve found the right solution. Here’s a blueprint to help you out:
Within the DoD innovation ecosystem, I found that some people were just really good at making s*** happen. They knew what proof points they needed to get a “yes” from their boss — and they did this by taking the Commander’s Intent and providing the information the Commander needed to make a decision.
No matter what branch of service you’re a part of, Commander’s Intent gives you a clear picture of the boss’s desired outcomes. When a Commander provides their intent, they are providing what success looks like but not telling their people exactly how it should be done. This is gold for innovators because by nature, they are curious people who love to solve problems and prefer freedom to maneuver. In an ideal world, someone close to the Commander will be able to tell you what kind of information they need to make a decision and how they would like it to be presented. In lieu of that, the Military Decision Making Process can be helpful, especially for extremely complex issues.
I will put in a shameless plug that if you use Productable to innovate, you won’t have to resort to complex analog processes. The software does it for you in the form of what we call Decision Criteria. As mentioned previously, the Commander may have information requirements that are standard and some that are based on their personal needs and experiences. Simply put, these are the criteria your commander needs to make a decision on your project. This information is integrated into the software and not only provides a roadmap for the innovator but also shows progress to the Commander. When you build your innovation with the desired outcome in mind, you’ll get more eyes on your idea, accelerate your project velocity, and be more likely to lock in the resources you need, so you can meet the Commander’s Intent.
I’ll keep this section short and sweet to drive the point home. If you want to get blockers resolved, BE BRIEF. Your boss doesn’t have time to read a long-winded account of what’s holding your innovation project back. Throughout my time in the Air Force, I’ve noticed that the military intrapreneurs who really drive progress are the ones who can state the so what in a sentence or two. What action needs to happen? What will the impact be? Keep it simple. There’s no surefire way to keep you out of the Valley of Death, but I can tell you from experience, unclear asks and improper barrier resolution are definitely good ways to get stuck.
You may even find it helpful to use Productable to surface barriers to leadership on a regular cadence. That way, leaders can make quick decisions on multiple innovation projects in one place, without the need for manual reminders or extra meetings.
To sum up, it’s tough driving progress as a military intrapreneur, and there’s a lot working against you. But a few key behaviors can set you on a path to success. Some of the most impactful innovators I’ve come across are the ones who don’t wait for a campaign or competition to take action. They recognize problems and seize the opportunity to understand their root causes in-depth. From there, they use Commander’s Intent to line up their proposed solutions with their boss’s desired outcomes and report the right information at the right time. If and when they run into barriers along the way, they communicate what they need quickly and effectively so they can focus on the work at hand.
Even outside the military, intrapreneurs can follow these steps to build internal credibility and get the backing they need to solve organizational problems over and over again.
Questions about driving innovation progress as an intrapreneur? Let’s connect.
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I asked my LinkedIn network to ponder this: A company that would never make it past the idea phase at a corporate innovation lab is ______ because they ______.