Want to innovate for DoD? Pay close attention to Ukraine

Efrem Lukatsky

The U.S. Defense Department, with its big budget, big plans and big oversight, can still learn from its agile, guerilla-minded friends defending Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine is a master class on the best and worst practices in competitive maneuvering. We are witnessing a larger, more powerful force repeatedly stymied and frustrated by its resourceful and proactive adversary — one with a single mission driving every collective move it makes.

For Pentagon employees mired in bureaucracy, there are five defining lessons from Ukraine on boosting innovation:

1. Getting innovative starts with recognizing and articulating the problem you’re trying to solve.

The Pentagon regularly gets stung by how long it takes to recognize a new problem or opportunity and quickly articulate it to the right people. If we can’t explain it and we can’t get people excited about it, we can’t draw the right people into solving it.

Ukrainian leaders made strides in mobilizing global support through genuine, regular and interactive communications with the right audiences, even when it wasn’t necessarily convenient or comfortable. Holding video chats from secret bunkers to share firsthand experience with global leaders, Ukraine’s president put communication first. This rallying of support led to drastic and game-changing collaboration from influential and wealthy nations, including the United States.

Being bold and upfront about what you need and why may sound obvious, but it is in short supply in the relationship between the DoD and innovative problem-solvers.

2. Don’t rely on technology alone.

Figuring out how to apply technology effectively will generate more success than the tech itself.

The Ukrainian military is acquiring technologies from other countries they could never afford to have developed. It’s rapidly learning how to employ them directly into the fight and, in some cases, giving donor countries new insight into their own capabilities under fire.

Government employees must learn to step outside of the default setting a bureaucracy promotes and learn to stretch beyond the obvious. This may mean applying existing tech to solve unique problems effectively and quickly. Otherwise, we risk continuing to stagnate while surrounded by a dusty mosaic of unused toys.

3. In war and beyond, the first, fastest, most adequate solution wins.

Until you deliver something into someone’s hands, you can’t have an honest discussion about the problem you need to solve. If you aren’t fast enough, your problem — and the dynamic surrounding it — will change and you’ll never catch up, or you will deliver solutions that are obsolete the day they are deployed.

The Ukrainian military’s leadership has an entrepreneur’s mindset, getting solutions to operators immediately for testing and evaluation. They also measure technology opportunity against their ability to employ operating concepts to optimally harness a tech advantage. They experiment, tweak, and experiment some more to fill tactical gaps or address emergent challenges.

4. Always have a backup plan

Organizations that aren’t willing to disrupt themselves when an opportunity arises are at a disadvantage. Successful innovation comes from recognizing when a legacy system or method is broken or a capability is decaying faster than a solution is being built.

Part of what makes Ukraine so successful is its agility in pivoting off a single method or solution the moment it no longer brings results, and having the ingenuity and fortitude to leap into a new, better response. Conversely, Russia showed us what happens when leaders aren’t prepared or willing to address antiquated systems. In the case of Russian President Vladimir Putin, this failure played out in the casualties of untold Russian troops sent into battle poorly trained, ill equipped and under the illusion they would experience no combat.

5. Train future innovators.

For leaders at all levels within the DoD, accessing tools to nurture an entrepreneurial spirit and retain people who possess that talent must become a top priority. An entrepreneurial mindset has been a part of the military forever, but has never been nurtured as a profession or ingrained in military doctrine.

It’s time to change that. Fast thinking on the front lines in Ukraine has bent the war in its favor repeatedly. It can do the same in our own competitive efforts. If managers and the chain of command cannot recognize that part of their job is to harness the passion of young people and ascertain who is an innovator and who isn’t, they’re going to lose smart people.

Unfortunately, the military loses innovative thinkers in droves. They get tired of fighting the bureaucracy and not receiving the tools they need, so they quit, go to the private sector and do great things. We can address this by building professional development pathways to help intrapreneurs build like-minded ecosystems to solve critical challenges and accelerate change.

Pete Newell is a retired U.S. Army colonel and chief executive of BMNT, an advisory company focused on getting innovation to the government.