The innovation dilemma
Silicon Valley tech companies are often heralded as examples of how best to achieve success through innovation. While there are many lessons to be learned from the likes of Apple or Google, the analogy is far from watertight when applied to defence and security. The commercial tech sector has the unique opportunity to shape consumer needs. The iPad was not conceived in response to a specific customer challenge – it was the result of unconstrained innovation, followed by a marketing strategy to generate demand.
Demand in defence and security is not just created by the sectors’ innovators as the needs are often dictated by geopolitical factors outside of their control. The success of a product is not measured by sales or profit, but by its ability to rise to the specific threats presented by adversaries. In defence and security, the mission always comes first.
Innovation (like agility) is becoming something of a hollow buzzword. Everyone claims to be innovating. But a so-called innovation may not be an intrinsically positive thing – a new product in defence is worthless if it does not save lives, protect people and infrastructure, or safeguard national security. For innovation to be useful it requires focus and direction. This is why the mission must remain at the heart of innovation in defence and security, and steps are needed to overcome the innovation challenges in today’s fast-changing world.
Challenges of innovation
Innovation brings challenges of its own against the background of today’s geopolitical environment:
1) The mission keeps changing
Twenty years ago a slower pace of conflict meant a ‘mission’ was a fairly static thing. Today, the tactics used by adversaries change constantly and therefore so does the mission. This means traditional innovation processes may deliver results that are defunct by the time they come to fruition. They may be mission-led at the outset, but process-led when they complete – by which time the mission has moved on to something else.
2) Moving threats, static budgets
Defence and security budgets in many nations are staying flat or in decline, leading to a need to do more with less. The innovation process must therefore be cost effective, seeking to minimise wasted time, effort and resource. This is especially difficult when the mission keeps changing, as the problem for which the solution was developed may no longer exist by the time the innovation process is complete. Avoiding such dead ends will be critical.
3) Innovation overload
Innovation builds companies, drives economies, and keeps nations’ militaries ahead of adversaries. These strong incentives to innovate can create an overabundance of ideas and solutions, making it hard to determine which of the solutions best meets the specific mission requirements. There must be processes in place to quickly identify and prioritise the most relevant innovations, discarding those which are not appropriate.
4) Who owns the mission?
The mission is in a constant state of flux. As an example, the threat may begin as a cyber-security issue but quickly evolve into a physical threat to people and property. Responsibility may shift between security agencies, defence and police. Who takes ownership for monitoring the mission’s progress over time, determines its nature at any given moment, and decides the nature of the response?
Innovating to stay ahead in the modern world
Keeping innovation focused on the mission is vital in ensuring the military forces, security services and operators of critical infrastructure stay ahead of adversaries through technological superiority. We have identified a series of principles which we believe can help to ensure success:
1) Understand the changing mission
The need to understand the nature of the mission before seeking innovative solutions is not a new concept in defence and security, or any other sector. What is new is the need to adapt quickly in response to fast-changing missions. Circumstances change so quickly that just long-term horizon scanning can be a fool’s errand in isolation. It is better to continually reassess present and emerging threats, and to build an acquisition system that makes provision for the rapid introduction of relevant countermeasures into service. Consideration should also be given to adapting long-service assets for multiple mission types, enabled by open architectures and greater interoperability between systems.
2) Accelerate the innovation cycle
It is no longer enough to periodically buy a single expensive asset to defend against an unchanging threat. Nobody can wait ten years until the start of the next procurement cycle to obtain the tools they need to fight today’s adversaries.
Accelerating the pace of innovation and understanding the changing mission are inseparable – the end user understands the mission from the point of view of the front line, the innovator understands how technology can be applied to the greatest effect, and the operational support organisation understands how to ensure that the environment can be made ready to use it (including training, logistics, integration with platforms, etc).
The end user, and those who help operationalise the innovation, must therefore be involved from the start of development and throughout the cycle. Meanwhile, the developer of the solution and the those who lead the procurement have a duty to get those solutions into the hands of the end user as soon as possible, so the user can experiment with them in the real world and provide feedback for use in a cycle of iterative improvement.
3) Be more agile
Innovators tend to like the certainty of having a specific problem to work toward solving, which in the modern defence environment cannot be guaranteed. The absence of a fixed objective makes innovation difficult – how do you solve a problem if you cannot be certain what the problem is? The key is taking a portfolio approach – consider what can be achieved in the short, medium and longer term. Innovators need to be agile, they need to be unafraid to start down a path without knowing exactly where they will end up and be prepared to stop if it looks like the mission has changed in way that the innovation cannot address. Innovators need to build resilience into their development processes, able to learn quick, fail fast rather than fail late.
4) Combine skills
Successful innovation requires a mix of skills and capabilities, such as research and development, customer engagement, and the means to link these together to deliver the assured solution. An integrated approach to innovation that factors in expertise beyond the core technical skills is the key to success. This principle extends to diversity of people and personality types – for instance, some individuals are meticulous planners, while others are adept at reacting when a plan falls apart. A combination of both covers all eventualities.
5) Coordinate multiple lines of development
Innovation could be quite wasteful if not carefully managed. There is potential for multiple lines of attack to exist concurrently, all pursuing the same outcome, resulting in inefficient duplication of effort. An idea could be ruled out in pursuit of one objective that may be the answer to achieving another, but it lays undiscovered. Connecting disparate lines of development through open collaboration and communication will be vital in avoiding these pitfalls and maximising the value of the innovation effort. There should be an owner of the problem to oversee and coordinate the innovation process at a macro, multi-agency level.
6) Determine how the innovation will be operationalised
Innovations can also fail if consideration is not given early enough to how they will be used in the operational context. New capabilities require training and support, or possibly organisational or policy/doctrine changes to enable the solution to fulfil its potential.
The end result should be a faster route to a more optimal outcome while maintaining value for money. Because the innovation activity is always tracking the evolving customer mission, the output will end up delivering the anticipated benefit.
Mike Sewart, QinetiQ’s Chief Technology Officer, answers the question 'What is Mission-Led Innovation?' in the short video below.