What I Learned at DEF2013

October 15, 2013 — 2 Comments

As someone who sits on the DEF board, I have a little confession to make: I wasn’t sure this would work.

Ben Kohlmann and his colleagues were already hard at work planning DEF2013 when they invited me onto the board, and I don’t think they knew what they were getting. If they’re the passionate idealists, I’m the detail-minded critic who questions assumptions, pokes holes in plans, and makes himself an all-around pain in the ass. I loved what the DEF board was doing, but I also had real concerns about strategy and execution. We had many discussions about these subjects over the past few months, all the way up through the final morning of the conference itself. All that to say, this has been a journey for me.

Now that DEF2013 is over, I’m delighted to call it a success. I’m convinced some of my concerns were valid, but I also need to admit that I was wrong about a lot of things too. DEF2013 stretched me past my limits; it defied almost all military best practices for strategic planning, but it worked amazingly well for precisely that reason.

DEF2013 introduced me to an entirely new way of operating. I’m still sifting through the wreckage of some of my prior beliefs, and trying to figure out what to build in their place. In the meantime, I’d like to share some tentative thoughts about what I learned at DEF2013.

Sometimes the best strategy is anarchy. This principle feels so dangerous to me that I’m having trouble even typing it, but I’m now convinced it’s true. If you want to stimulate creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, a clearly articulated strategy with well-defined goals can be fatal. An ambiguous strategy means flexibility, intensive experimentation, and rapid learning. You don’t want to run an organization that way forever, but during the “discovery” phase or for an organization that requires a creative culture, anarchy can be vital. When Gordon MacKenzie was brought onto Hallmark management to foster innovation, he insisted on the job title “Creative Paradox” and had no formalized list of job responsibilities. He drove senior management crazy, but the very ambiguity about his role is what made him so successful. We need creative paradoxes.

Success can be intangible. Traditional business says, “Show me the return on investment” and traditional military thinking says, “Show me the mission impact.” I can’t do that for DEF2013. I have no idea what the impact will be. What I can tell you is that every single DEF attendee is fired up to do great things in his or her organization, and each of them is now better equipped with tools, experience, and relationships to do that. DEF2013 also ignited a spirit among its attendees. Anyone who has experienced that elusive phenomenon called “morale” should understand what I mean.

Effective leadership takes a diverse team. Most of us know this in the abstract, but it can be challenging when you’re up against hard decisions, the stakes are high, and you have fundamentally different viewpoints and approaches. Still, that negotiation among diverse viewpoints is essential. The bottom line is that teams typically produce better work if they include diverse types of individuals. You need visionaries and critics. You need analysts and artists. You need hammers and you need goofballs. Major kudos to Ben Kohlmann for assembling a diverse team in the DEF board.

Innovation needs the right conditions. Innovation does not happen on its own; studies are clear that creative thinking occurs best in a semi-structured environment. The challenge is knowing what that environment should be. I’m still struggling with that. In one sense, DEF2013 itself created the right conditions for creative thinking on a large scale. Within our small groups, each group differed. We saw failures where the topic was too open-ended or too narrowly tailored. There seems to be a sweet spot in the middle, where the team is focused on a specific topic with specific constraints, but has unlimited freedom within those constraints.

Trust is scary but worth it. DEF2013 was an experiment, and we had to put a lot of trust in our attendees and speakers. A few of us were concerned about the possibility that somebody show up with an axe to grind, who would poison the atmosphere with bitterness or ranting. We didn’t have a single case of that. Without fail, our attendees and speakers were professional, courteous, and interested in positive, collaborative solutions. I also was worried about the Ideation groups, because we didn’t have a clear model for how the groups would work, and I questioned the viability of certain topics. We had to let go of control, and at each stage I was amazed at the teams’ creative problem solving. Some teams spontaneously dissolved and recombined; others took their topics in totally unplanned directions. The results were not at all what I expected, but everybody came through with results that were quite impressive for the compressed timescale.

Diversity is powerful. The military will always be a hierarchical organization for good reason, and subordinates should always respect superiors. But there is a time and a place for setting rank aside (we do it in crew aircraft all the time). DEF attendees wore civilian clothes and their name tags did not indicate rank. Our attendees included Cadet through Brigadier General, a few enlisted, business professors, veterans who became entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs who later commissioned, government civilians, defense contractors, and more. We let those people sit down together in a variety of settings to exchange knowledge and hammer out ideas. That was pretty remarkable to watch.

People thrive when empowered. I’m convinced one main reason people attended DEF2013 is that they feel disempowered. They are frustrated because their voices aren’t being heard. DEF2013 extended the promise that every attendee would have a voice, and it’s amazing how people responded to that promise. Maybe your idea will be a good one, maybe not. Maybe it will see the light of day, maybe it won’t. But the simple knowledge that somebody is respectfully listening to you, and treating you as a valuable source of ideas for the organization, can be life-changing. One of DEF2013’s greatest successes was creating an environment where that held true, and I hope our attendees will spread that culture back to their home units.

Rapid failure, adaptation, and iteration is extremely hard. I wish I could tell you that it was fun leading a small Ideation group, but it mostly wasn’t. My team members themselves were great, but nothing went as I expected. I spent weeks beforehand developing what I thought was a perfect topic for Ideation, and it was a spectacular failure. After an hour, we were gridlocked. We took a break, tried again, and hit another dead end. The next morning, I talked offline with another member about when we should admit failure. We kept at it that afternoon, trying new directions, and finally we found a little gold and started digging. Within the final hour, we developed two actionable ideas that will likely become part of DEF’s future. These ideas had almost nothing to do with our starting place. I’ve never before experienced this degree of failure, iteration, and learning on such a fast timescale. This stuff sounds great in the innovation literature, but actually doing it is hard work. It is emotionally and mentally taxing for somebody accustomed to careful planning processes aimed at clearly defined ends.

Nothing motivates self-starters like relationships. Because of the high barrier to entry, our attendees were all self-starters. It takes a lot of intrinsic motivation to give up a three-day weekend and pay for a trip to Chicago. These are people who will innovate because it’s in their blood, not because someone is dangling an OPR bullet or a quarterly award in front of them. So how do you reward those people? Can you show that you value them, in ways that satisfy their intrinsic motivations? Our Ideation group realized that self-starters are largely motivated by relationships. They want to make a difference in the lives of others, they like to meet other people who appreciate their work, and they like to meet people who can lead them to new opportunities. That is why attendees loved DEF2013; it offered no tangible “reward”, but it connected them with like-minded people and created new opportunities for collaboration. This is not just about “networking” in some pejorative sense of the word; it is about the joy that comes with being part of a living community.

Informality is fun and liberating. One of my favorite moments of the weekend came at the start of our small group presentations. We had a very impressive judging panel, and I was worried about setting poor-quality products in front of them. At the very least, I was expecting some real awkwardness. But then, before the presentations started, a fellow DEF board member showed the audience the prizes: cases of cheap beer with Doctrine Man cartoons taped to them. My fears dissolved in the uproar of laughter. Genius! I thought. It was the perfect way to set the right tone for our presentations. The pressure was off, and we could have fun showing off our half-baked creations and sharing what we’d learned. That is just one small example of the fun we were able to have at a tiny conference on a shoestring budget. And if you’ve never been to a Twitter-enabled conference, the freewheeling audience interaction and sidebar conversations totally transforms the conference experience.

It’s often hard to predict what will succeed and what will fail. It’s kind of amazing; I’ve been studying strategy both informally and formally for years, and I’ve never grasped this fundamental principle until this weekend. We all know von Moltke’s quote that “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”, but that took on a new meaning for me at DEF2013. If you’re doing something that’s never been done before, you simply don’t know if it will work. Carefully planned and executed ideas may crash and burn, and some absurd sketch on a bar napkin may evolve into a major success. So you need to think on your feet, watch for feedback, adapt quickly, and continually try new things. Practicing this in the safe laboratory of DEF2013 probably did as much to prepare me for high-level strategy jobs as any formal strategy course I’ve taken.

For other reflections on DEF2013 see Peter Munson, Joe Byerly and Kristen Rouse.

Mark Jacobsen

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A U.S. Air Force officer, C-17 pilot, Middle East specialist, and writer... a lifelong student dedicated to building a better world.

2 responses to What I Learned at DEF2013

  1. I wish I had been there. After 45 mins scanning posts about the conference, I am down for the next iteration, wherever/whenever!

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