NPS & AU Grassroots Distributed Innovation Sprint: An Interview with TSgt Daniel Hulter

NPS & AU Grassroots Distributed Innovation Sprint: An Interview with TSgt Daniel Hulter

Written by SSgt Austin Wiggins

To accelerate change within the Air Force and Space Force, we must be able to equip potential innovators with education that promotes innovation at the lowest levels. Recently, CyberWorx had the fortune of hosting representatives of; Air University (AU), Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), Army 75th Innovation Command, Defense Innovation Unit, Army Space and Missile Defense Command, U.S. Navy, MIT Lincoln Laboratory, Tecolote Research, and Lokahi LLC. Despite being from disparate groups, they had the common goal of fostering grassroots and distributed innovation through education and connecting academic initiatives to address operational problems. The common understanding in the group; something had to change.

To uncover what made this session interesting and to highlight some hopes for the future of this project, I interviewed the facilitator of the event, CyberWorx member TSgt Daniel Hulter.

What were your expectations for the group going in?

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this group. It was clear they had a lot of topics they wanted to address regarding educational institutions’ role and needs as part of the defense innovation ecosystem. What wasn’t entirely clear was which of these topics were universally felt or what the priorities were. So, I knew that one of the first things we had to accomplish was getting on the same page about what needs were shared and which were more confined to a particular group.

One thing I did expect was that the conversation needed to be driven forward in order to move from observation and analysis to action. We generally have a high appetite for exploratory discussion, especially those in academic circles, and that can make the transition to concrete action challenging. Some participants advocated for less structure to the session so that loose discussion was allowed to happen freely for longer periods while they were together, something we attempted to balance against the desire for clear courses of action. 

In what ways were those expectations positively subverted?

The group performed very well with the more structured portion of the workshop, which I won’t say subverted my expectations, but one of the things I was nervous about was whether they would appreciate being time-boxed and asked to perform very specific analytical tasks.

There were particular exercises that the group took to extremely well, for example their exploration of the defense innovation ecosystem through the lens of analogous systems. I remember feeling relieved that I wasn’t having to goad or micromanage them to do the exercises, which can be the case with certain groups.

What were your thoughts about the group’s objective to enable grassroots innovation through education?

I was slightly caught off guard by the inclusion of the “grass roots innovation” language in their problem statement. I realized that had I been more involved in the crafting of that problem statement, I might have been better prepared to speak to it. Instead I simply put it in front of participants and saw how they chose to interpret and include it in their exploration of the topics that came up.

I do think that the inclusion of that language speaks to the motivation of some of the organizers of this event to try and approach innovation education from a new angle, looking at distributed effects rather than targeted, exclusive, role-based impacts. But one thing we did run into there was that some of the individuals who helped craft that language did not join us for the session itself, which further limited the degree to which that problem statement guided participants in the direction they took.

I think there’s an opportunity in the motivation within this community to do a bit more to try and reimagine what innovation education could look like. It feels like what we accomplished in this day and a half was some broad scoping and a picture of some of the primary systemic mental models that are driving the current shape of the education system. One of the NPS hosts mentioned a paradigm shift around how we even think about innovation education and that’s really interesting.

But this wasn’t a workshop with a precise focus, it was much more exploratory. That question of how we might subvert or mutate or evolve the existing model to create something that is more aligned with the need for ground-level, grass-roots innovation is something that I think deserves significant time and attention and might be an interesting next step.

What are some outcomes you think that the group came to?

This group first achieved a few rough sketches of the current perceptual foundations of innovation education development and delivery for AU and NPS. Using that as an anchor, they thought about ailments within that existing system. They also arrived at a few measures that might surmount impediments to their primary value being delivered to more of the force. The proposed measures they came to at the end of day one can serve as launching points for experiments for these organizations to run, either together or separately.

Much of the time spent together in this session was also spent in discussions. I am confident that these interactions had a positive impact on the participants as they navigated the issues that came up during exercises on day 2, which was almost entirely unstructured. One of the common themes I heard come out was that this exact type of thing–coming together in one place and attempting to make sense of disparate and shared experiences across the defense education community–was something that ought to happen more frequently and perhaps with an even wider variety of participants. I think this may turn out to be one of the more significant outcomes, as it has the potential for continued delivery of insights, increased alignment, and sense-making, and increasing the likelihood of success for experiments that emerge from engagements like this.

What would you like to see from the organizations in this group in the future?

In the future, I would like to see these organizations do a few things:

Come together more frequently and invite more participants in, both with the type of forum that we created with this event and with more continuous connection mechanisms facilitated by platform selection/development, community building, and community management.

Spend more time thinking about and critiquing the perceptual foundations of their current organizational structures and strategies and put some dedicated time into seeing how those structures might be reimagined and redesigned.

Move forward with the experiments identified in the session as potentially high-value by giving them time and space in their own design efforts.

For those organizations who are seeking to empower grassroots innovation, do you have any recommendations?

My number one recommendation is to identify what is within the adjacent-possible for those you are expecting to innovate, for your particular context.

Every organization, unit, and team in the military has its own set of unique conditions and constraints that mean that the approach to enabling innovation and the form that that innovation takes has to be adapted to that level, a task which requires significant time and skill. Rather than seeking to identify standardized adaptations that might work for every circumstance, or even focusing on primary constraints of the larger system, I think it makes more sense to widely teach the very few underlying principles and practices that are universal. To try and affect a culture of acceptance, safety, and experimentation, and spend your remaining energy and resources on enabling that discovery and adaptation to happen in all the places it needs to happen. 

If we are talking about true ground-level innovation, speaking as someone who has spent a majority of my career at the tactical level, I think that means enabling people to be sense-makers and practitioners within their own context. Those practitioners can be plugged into more strategic and operational-level scaling and implementation efforts, so creating systems that transition and scale outcomes should be a priority for organizations as well. In my opinion, empowerment of grass-roots innovation doesn’t start with the question of “are we getting things across the finish line” from a top-level perspective. It starts with creating the opportunity for individuals to contribute and have actual impact on their immediate environment.

Another recommendation that I have is to tell more stories of failure. One thing that came up during our workshop was the fact that shame is a powerful motivator. We are never so innovative as when we are ashamed because we allowed a terrible disaster to occur. The most incredible transformations are possible when we actually reflect on the current state of things and the ways in which we are failing (either by choice or when forced by some kind of incident).

A mistake I see a lot of organizations making right now is telling too few stories about failure. We regularly identify the need to normalize and embrace failure within our culture in order to spur innovation, but we still don’t talk about it enough, especially in the context of innovation (I think largely because we feel the need to say we’re succeeding in order to keep getting funding and support from our organizations and leaders). Lots of efforts at enabling innovation are failing, and we need to be open and honest about that in order to create space and energy for the next pivot.

For the record I am guilty of this exact thing. Storytelling and marketing are crucial components of success in all ventures, especially innovation. Building coalitions requires that we convince others of our likelihood of future success, and claiming present or past success is a potential pathway to that, but it suppresses stories of failure that might allow us to be ashamed enough of the status quo enough to drive the change we need.

Do you have any closing thoughts?

It was wonderful to see disparate players from across the innovation ecosystem come together and navigate these difficult topics together, in both structured and unstructured ways, and I hope to see this exact type of thing happen more often.

Thank you Daniel Hulter, for taking your insights into the session. With your participation, we are one step closer to delivering real qualitative change to grassroots and distributed innovators throughout the Air Force.

For more information on this project, visit the NPS & AU Grassroots Distributed Innovation project webpage.

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