Peacekeeping and Innovation

One exercise in creativity for an innovation practitioner consists of the cross-fertilization of ideas from one area of academic research to another.  Given my past studies in the field of international relations, I often stumble across interesting alignments between world politics and my current field of endeavor, innovation (for example, see my recent post “Streetcar Innovation”).

My peripatetic reading list revealed another parallel between the two fields in the form of Lord Paddy Ashdown’s Eight Principles of Peacekeeping for Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Ashdown, a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament from the United Kingdom who served as High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002 to 2007 and is currently the head of UNICEF UK, spoke to the International Rescue Committee in London in 2003 concerning the lessons learned from the transition from conflict to nation-building and peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia.  At the time he hoped to impress these lessons upon the endeavor in nation-building in Iraq by the United States.  From an innovation standpoint, Ashdown’s eight principles provide valuable insights into the way an innovation leader should approach his or her efforts to drive innovation across an enterprise.

Principle 1 – “[Have] a good plan and stick to it.  This plan needs to be drawn up, not as an after-thought, but well in advance, as an integral part of the planning for the military campaign.”

In this principle, Ashdown is highlighting the propensity of leaders to lay out high level plans for an overall campaign but to spend too much time on the military phase of a campaign and not enough on planning for the post-war transition, as observers often state was the case for the war in Iraq.  When we launch an innovation initiative, typically starting with an innovation workshop, our best intentions usually incline us to follow Ashdown’s maxim of intensively focusing on preparation.  Often times, though, we find ourselves wishing that we had been able to spend more time on detailed planning not only on the workshop itself but our plans for follow-up work resulting from the session.  In a world of limited cycles available for preparation, we tend to focus on the workshop session itself, possibly at the expense of the follow-on work.

The question for innovation leaders is whether there is value in spending more time thinking about what happens after the workshop so we can inject that into the workshop discussions.  In the peacekeeping example, there are clearly significant post-war ramifications to in-war decisions.  For instance, for a military force trying to impact the command and control capabilities of an enemy, destroying a power transmission tower has a much different post-war effect than destroying an entire power generation facility, which will require significant resources to rebuild.  The military commander making the targeting decisions is tasked to win the war as quickly as possible, though the larger campaign must take into account the post-war period.  Although this is an extreme example, it might be worthwhile for innovation leaders to invest more time upfront in thinking through the post-workshop steps of their innovation process, as those steps could influence the approach to the workshop itself.  The specific process that a certain innovation concept might have to follow after the workshop (such as a specific product development cycle) could influence the way that the workshop team discusses the concept in the session, such as spending more time on a particular product detail, knowing how critical that detail will be to the ultimate manufacture of the product.  For instance, a part for an aircraft that must meet very specific weight requirements as opposed to the core function of the part, like the lithium batteries on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Principle 2 – “[E]stablish the rule of law – and do so as quickly as possible. […] It is much more important to establish the rule of law quickly than to establish democracy quickly.  Because without the former, the latter is soon undermined.”

This principle, yet again, rings particularly true for observers of the post-Iraq war and post-Arab Spring chaos in Egypt.  Although the establishment of democracy is an eventual goal of the effort at regime change, the rule of law is a foundational element required for democracy to succeed.  The alternative, unfortunately, is chaos, sometimes echoing Thomas Hobbes’s anarchy in Leviathan.  Although I have yet to lead or participate in an innovation workshop that results in a war of “all against all,” I usually do not spend much time contemplating importance of the operational structure of workshop.  By operational structure, I mean the way the innovation workshop leader manages the interactions among participants in the session.

We often think of innovation sessions as necessarily “free-wheeling” or “wide-open” because we are trying to encourage creativity and new thinking to solve problems or generate novel ideas.  However, just as democracy requires the rule of law as a foundation, so too does the structure that drives discussion in an innovation session play an important role in determining the success of the session.  This could be something as simple as organizing set times for breaks to maximize the productivity of the team members, or something as complex as scripting time to focus on different workshop themes to make sure that all of the ideas are covered.  New idea generation and free-association is great, but there has to be some structure to keep the session on track.

Principle 3 – “[E]stablish your credibility straight away.  The more robustly a peacekeeping force deals with any initial challenges to its authority, the fewer challenges there will be in the future.”

The Iraq example proves instructive here, as many observers recall the looting that took place after the fall of the regime which contributed to a sense of disorder (trampling the rule of law mentioned in principle 2) and demonstrating the weakness of the Coalition Provisional Authority.  Though the stakes are significantly lower, the innovation leader faces a similar need to establish authority at the outset of a workshop session or innovation initiative.  In the case of innovation, credibility comes not in the form of demonstration of the use of force (thank goodness) but, rather, from demonstrating an understanding of what it takes to deliver successful innovation outcomes.

Expert public speakers often note that a presenter has to grab the attention of an audience in the first few minutes or even seconds of a presentation to be successful, likewise the innovation workshop leader faces the same challenge in starting a session, even if in the end most of the input for the session will come from the participants.  My preferred method involves focusing the attention of the audience on an innovation that was successful but in a counter-intuitive way, such as the Nest thermostat (fewer buttons – thus bucking the trend of more and more complexity in programmable thermostats – but more capabilities).  This forces the participants to start thinking differently about the challenges they are facing in the workshop.

Principle 4 – “[S]tart as quickly as possible on the major structural reforms – from putting in place a customs service or a reliable tax base, to reforming the police and the civil service, to restructuring and screening the judiciary, to transforming the armed forces.”

In this principle, Ashdown calls on the peacekeeper to dive quickly into areas of reform that can be seen by some as the most challenging because they are so sweeping in nature, such as a significant modification of a country’s armed forces or police.  This is in some ways counter-intuitive, as we often opt to invest time and energy studying the more challenging problems to devise the “perfect” solution as opposed to diving directly into the problem knowing that the problem will only get worse with time and become even more intractable.  In the case of corporate innovation, we tend to adhere to the same philosophy in which we see large-scale challenges as being worthy of genuine, lengthy investigation before we are willing to take action.  We want to build complete and thorough business cases and operational models before we are willing to take a chance on implementing a transformative change.

In the meantime, the business problem we are trying to solve continues to fester and, moreover, from an innovation standpoint, the team working on identifying creative solutions to business challenges sees a large time gap between the identification of their new ideas and the actual implementation of those ideas.  This gap leads to turnover among the team and a lack of institutional knowledge about the innovation time since the workshop grows and grows.

While I am not advocating blindly throwing changes into critical business processes as a result of innovation discussions, I do think Ashdown’s principle can help innovators think about the value of making immediate changes to complex processes to drive transformation.  My favorite example of this adding a Customs stoplight to a process.  Years ago on a trip to a Central American country, I was fascinated by a Customs stoplight that greeting arriving passengers.  After clearing passport control, each group of passengers (or individual passenger traveling alone) would press a button and get a green or red light (presumably assigned on a random basis) to determine if the passenger group or individual  warranted additional luggage screening or was free to proceed to ground transportation.  In the case of a business process with a number of control points that an innovation team identifies as unnecessary, a quick change could entail adding a stoplight to the process to start reducing the number of users of the process who have to go through that control point.  Thus immediate results can be observed (and presumably benefits can be derived by those who get to skip the control point) while still assuaging the fears of those who would prefer to maintain the control point.  Over time, as the process continues to function and is successful, the frequency of green lights can be increased until the point where it is removed completely as a step.

Principle 5 – “[E]nsure that the international community organizes itself in theatre in a manner that can work and take decisions.”

This Ashdown principle focuses on the importance of having onsite, organized involvement by the international community in the post-war theatre.  In the case of Bosnia, the international community would include the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well as numerous Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) such as the Red Cross.  Ashdown notes that not only does the international community need to be onsite, but it also needs to be well-organized and ready to work and make decisions.  A peacekeeper cannot afford to have extended delays for making decisions while waiting on word to come back from a chain of command that stretches across oceans and continents.  Another gem of wisdom in this principle lies in the realization that a group that is by definition not formally organized (the international community, consisting of dozens of sovereign countries with varying interests in the region as well as dozens of NGOs) must organize themselves and operate as conjoined entities to be able to perform key tasks and make critical decisions.

In the case of the innovator, the equivalent of the unorganized international community is the network of change agents across an enterprise that must be relied on to make sure an innovative idea is implemented successfully.  Typically we try to find a single sponsor of an innovation who we hope can push that change forward and overcome the obstacles that inevitably arise for visionaries.  Our ultimate success, however, lies in our ability to leverage a larger team with change agents spread throughout the enterprise who can help see our initiative through to success.  Because this larger team will consist of individuals who are not organizationally connected to each other, it will function similar to the way that the international community functions in peacekeeping, with each member having a different stake in the ultimate outcome.

Principle 6 – “[E]stablish an exceptionally close relationship between the military and civilian aspects of peace implementation.”

This principle is best exemplified by the organizational structure of the United States, where military aspects of peace implementation are handled by the Department of Defense whereas civilian aspects are managed by the Department of State.  The gulf between these two massive bureaucracies is much wider than the short distance between the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom in Washington, D.C.  In this case, Ashdown is citing the importance of ensuring that the mechanism that focuses on the use of force (in peacekeeping, this would be the military) remains closely aligned with the groups that define the civil society and governance for a country (civil servants).  The critical moment for this collaboration occurs with the handoff from military to civilian control, though this handoff is typically a long process more so than a single event.  Nonetheless, the smoothness of this transition from military control to civilian-led rebuilding, is of great importance in the success of a peacekeeping and nation-building effort.  This transition is the most relevant to the innovator, as the transition from military to civilian leadership is similar to the transition that occurs when a new idea moves from the innovation workshop to actual implementation.

The innovator must be in close coordination and communication with the individuals who will implement the new idea or develop the new product, and ideally the innovation team would include some of those individuals from the outset so they are intimately familiar with the innovation and have followed it throughout the ideation process.  For some innovators, the tendency may be to believe that their time is better spent on the front end of the ideation process working on new ideas rather than following previous ideas through to delivery.  The seamlessness of this handoff, and the continued involvement of the innovator in the entire process from start to finish, can help improve the success rate of an innovation.

Principle 7 – “[A]void setting deadlines, and settle in for the long haul.  […]Installing the software of a free and open society is a slow business.  It cannot be done [...] in a year or so. […] Peacekeeping needs to be measured not in months but decades. What we need here […] is the sheer stamina as an international community to see the job through to lasting success.  That means staying on, and sticking at it, long after the CNN effect has passed.”

The CNN effect is the concept that modern societies tend to focus intensively on a problem when they see televised images of suffering.  This external focus on a part of the world suffering from a catastrophe is interesting in that it can dissipate almost as quickly as it arises given the short attention span of the modern television audience.  For this principle, Ashdown notes that the work of the peacekeeper is slow and steady and although there will sometimes be quick wins, for the most part the process of transforming a country and installing, as Ashdown puts it, “the software of a free and open society” is not something that happens overnight.  For the innovator, the same challenge exists depending on the significance of the transformation the innovator is attempting to implement.

Innovators can sometimes find quick wins and small successes in building up to a more substantial transformation, but their larger work of truly changing the nature of an organization or enterprise is a much slow process.  The CNN effect in innovation is the immense attention paid to ideation during a workshop and the quick drop-off in focus that occurs when the participants walk out the door and resume their normal daily routines.  While few business leaders would be willing to measure innovation success in decades, Ashdown’s principle suggests that we should spend less time trying to measure innovation in months or quarters.  Like the peacekeeper, the innovator needs Ashdown’s “sheer stamina” to “see the job through to lasting success.”

Principle 8 – “[G]ive peace-building […] a political destination.  For Iraq, that may be a democratic and prosperous state in a peaceful and secure Middle East.  For Bosnia, it is Europe.”

Ashdown’s final principle is the most concise yet also the most powerful.  Peacekeepers and nation-builders should have a destination in mind for their efforts that can be described in a succinct manner to ease the communication of the idea to an entire country of individuals.  The Iraq example in his principle is less instructive given what we know about the Middle East in 2013 (Ashdown’s speech was given in 2003), but the Bosnia example speaks to the principle by establishing the very simply-stated target destination of “Europe,” with all of the attributes that such a destination would entail (free society, rule of law, international cooperation, common currency, etc.).  One word can contain many positive messages to many different people.  Although it is much more difficult for the innovator to encapsulate an innovation program into a single word, the concept itself should be instructive as a general goal.

The very nature of innovation suggests that we may not always know the destination before we start, otherwise the destination would be something we already know about and thus not necessarily innovative.  Nonetheless, we should consider painting a picture of our vision as to where an innovation effort should end up so that the participants in our workshop sessions or on our innovation teams share a common purpose and set of shared goals and objectives.  Ashdown’s principle points to the power of simplicity in defining that destination.


Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), pp. 225-226.

Paddy Ashdown, “Broken Communities, Shattered Lives: Winning the Savage War of Peace,” Speech by the Rt. Hon. Lord Ashdown, High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the International Rescue Committee, London (June 19, 2003).
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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

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