Since the turn of the century, the US Military has been continually disrupted. Traditionally it was designed to fight conventional wars against great adversaries. Yet since 9/11 it has found itself fighting networks of loosely connected small groups that are able to continually evolve their tactics. That’s a very different kind of battle.
It’s a situation that most executives at major companies will recognize. Today, as the tempo and pace of technological change seems to be ever-increasing, a competitive threat can come from anywhere. As you ponder the competitive landscape, somebody at a kitchen table somewhere may be getting ready to eat your lunch.
Colonel Pete Newell is at the nexus of both worlds. As Director of the Rapid Equipping Force, he transformed how the Army was able to collaborate with external resources and reduce development time from years to months. He then helped develop the highly acclaimed Hacking 4 Defense program. Now, he’s bringing his innovation program to private industry.
Learning To Lead
Like a lot of kids who came of age in the 1970s, Pete Newell was unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. Lacking any better ideas, he entered Kansas State university and joined the National Guard to pay for it. Upon graduation, he went to fulfill his four-year commitment to Uncle Sam and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the US Army.
In the Army, Newell began to gain traction. He went through the six-month Basic Training course at Fort Benning without a hitch. He then went on to Ranger School and passed on his first try, which only about 40% of soldiers are able to do. He was then placed with the legendary 82nd Airborne unit at Fort Bragg.
It was at Fort Bragg that he met John Vines, who commanded the unit. “I learned a lot about leadership, trust, accountability and how to handle complex tasks from John Vines.” Newel told me. “When I had to apply these things during combat in Panama I learned that I had a talent for sustaining work and focus to solve problems quickly.”
After Panama, Newell knew he wanted to make the Army his career and his ability to focus on solving problems became his hallmark. He rose to the rank of Colonel and served two combat tours in Iraq. Yet it was an unexpected — and mostly unwanted — assignment where he would make his mark.
The Rapid Equipping Force (REF) got its start when Bruce Jette, an Army Colonel with a PhD in solid state physics from MIT, was in the office of the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army (VCSA) and saw a photo of a soldier clearing a cave in Afghanistan. The VCSA said “Look, Bruce, brave soldier,” to which Jette retorted, “Yes, sir. Brave soldier, stupid army.”
The interchange led to a bet. Jette would have to devise, build and deploy a better solution within 90 days. Jette found a small robot in the private sector, adapted it to the combat task, tested it in Afghanistan, got it deployed and won the bet. His success led to a new mission. “You’re going to do this for the entire army, and anything that needs to get done for the soldier, you’ll do it,” the VCSA told Jette and the REF was born.
Newell was named Director of the REF in 2010. “When I first was posted at the REF, I thought ‘what the hell did I do to get assigned here,’ Newell remembers. “I had no idea what the unit did. I’m not a scientist and didn’t have a degree from MIT like Bruce Jette. I just had a Bachelors degree from an agricultural university. But what I did understand was the problems that needed to be solved on the battlefield.”
At the REF, he began to realize that while there were plenty of good ideas floating around, what was missing was a focus on identifying the right problems. So he leveraged his network of combat officers to articulate problems soldiers were encountering clearly. He then built a network of technology firms and academics to devise solutions.
What made the REF distinctly different was its emphasis on speed. Normally, the military insists that stringent requirements are met before it deploys new equipment. The REF, however, would deploy technology that was maybe 60% or 70% effective, get feedback from soldiers on the ground and iterate a better solution.
Due to his work at the REF, in 2012 Newell was the only colonel named to Defense News prestigious list of the 100 most influential people in US defense, which included admirals, generals, senators, congressman and top civilian officials.
Developing Innovation Doctrine
Newell retired from the Army in 2013 and continued his work running pilot projects at the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. It was also around this time that he started collaborating with two professors at Stanford’s business school, Huggy Rao and Bob Sutton, on a case study based on his time at the REF.
He began to see that the challenges he saw in the Army were more widespread than he had imagined. “I started to realize that the way large organizations get stuck was that they failed to articulate problems correctly and then validate them in such a way that they become actionable,” Newell told me.
At Stanford he also met Steve Blank, who pioneered the Lean Startup movement. A meeting that was scheduled for 20 minutes ending up lasting four hours as the two men realized that there was a synergy between their ideas and experiences. They began to join forces to develop an innovation doctrine for large enterprises that would combine Blank’s Lean Startup ideas with the practices that Newell had honed at the REF.
That’s what led them to design Hacking 4 Defense, a program that takes problems from government and tasks university students with finding solutions using methods Newell and Blank devised. It has since gone from a pilot course at Stanford to one offered at 22 universities. Out of 71 teams that have gone through the program since 2016, nine companies have launched and six have attracted financing through venture funding or government contracts.
Invading The Private Sector
Today, Newell has consolidated his activities into a consulting company, BMNT, which has grown to 40 employees and was named by Forbes as one of the top 25 veteran-founded startups in America. He has also expanded his work to private sector firms, like Lockheed Martin and Booz Allen Hamilton and begun working on pilot programs for healthcare organizations, local municipalities and nonprofits.
He told me that although things seem to be moving fast today, they will never be as slow as they are now and businesses need to adapt to survive. Much like at the REF, they need to build much more active collaboration across the organization to identify important problems, connect those problems with expertise and resources that can solve them and continually iterate and validate solutions.
“I’ve learned that it is possible to design a process that can accelerate innovation in any large enterprise,” Newell told me. “However, leaders need to be proactive and take an empowering role to make sure there are enough meaningful problems moving through the pipeline, remove blockages and make the organization accountable for driving change.”
Today a competitive threat can come from anywhere and to meet and overcome these new challenges, change needs to start at the top. As Newell’s former colleague, General Stanley McChrystal has put it, the role of a senior leader can no longer be “that of a controlling puppet master, but rather an empathetic crafter of culture.”
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com
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Greg Satell is a popular author, keynote speaker, and trusted adviser whose new book, Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change, will be published by McGraw-Hill in April, 2019. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, GregSatell.com and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto.