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Pierce Speaks to USJFCOM Leadership on Disruptive Innovation

Pierce Speaks to USJFCOM Leadership on Disruptive Innovation

One of the Navy's top thinkers on how new ideas develop in military organizations recently spent time with the senior members of the command leading the transformation of the U.S. military. By JO1(SW/AW) Chris Hoffpauir, USJFCOM Public Affairs.

Norfolk, Virginia -- (USJFCOM) December 22, 2004 -- U.S. Joint Forces Command hosted a visit by one of the Navy's foremost scholars on innovation here Dec. 17.

Capt. Terry Pierce, PhD., associate dean for the School of International Graduate Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, Calif., discussed disruptive innovation from a senior military leader's perspective. His recent book, "Warfighting and Disruptive Technologies: Disguising Innovation," addresses how senior military leaders can recognize and manage innovation.

His theory, called disruption innovation theory, holds that leaders must first recognize the type of innovation they are working with, evaluate the current circumstances and then develop a suitable strategy to implement the innovation.

  • According to Pierce, there are two types of innovation, sustaining and disruptive, which must be managed differently to be successful.

Sustaining innovations follow a traditionally valued path, such as refinements on existing technology, or new technologies that compliment or improve on existing processes. While the technology involved may be something completely new, the way it is used does not make for a radical change in doctrine.

An example of a sustaining innovation would be the evolution from diesel powered to nuclear powered submarines. While nuclear power was a major technological breakthrough, the overall operation of submarines was not radically changed by it.

Disruptive innovations, however, follow paths that are not traditionally valued. They are the result of architectural changes, or the way different parts of processes are linked together. Disruptive innovations do not always involve new technology, but they do involve radical changes to processes and doctrine.

"The components often essentially stay the same," Pierce said. "But the linkages between them change in novel ways."

One example Pierce used to illustrate the difference between the two was post-World War I France. When the French invested heavily in new technology to build the state-of-the-art fortifications in the Maginot Line as a barrier to invasion, they followed the established military doctrine of the day.

Germany, however, took "off the shelf" technologies (aircraft, armor and radio) and developed new ways to exploit them (motorized infantry and decentralized command and control). Blitzkrieg was a disruptive innovation, representing a radical change in doctrine.

German forces didn't directly assault the Maginot Line. They instead relied on mobility and air power to bypass it and strike at the heart of the country. The French, unprepared to defend against fast-moving aggressors in their own backyard, surrendered six weeks after the invasion started.

"The Maginot Line, from a technology point of view, performed as designed," Pierce said. "The Germans never penetrated it. They simply went around it."

  • "A disruptive innovation has new measures of effectiveness."

According to Pierce, a technology's inventor does not always exploit disruptive innovations that depend on the new technology.

"The British invented the tank, but they didn't invent blitzkrieg type armored warfare."

He compared those examples with how terrorists are using Internet technology today.

"Today, we look an awful lot like the British (before World War II)," he said. "We're inventing new technologies that are being used by our opponents to create a new way of warfighting. We have an enemy who's taken something we built, and is disrupting the way we fight."

Pierce found through his research that disruptive innovations most often fail when leadership tries to manage them like sustaining innovations. He contends that senior military leaders must nurture and protect disruptive innovations until they can become accepted and exploited.

To do this, disruptive innovations must sometimes be disguised as sustaining ones to protect them from those who see the innovation as a threat to the status quo. According to Pierce, disruptive innovations are allowed to mature as long as they're perceived to be inferior.

"Does the innovation have a different measure of performance that competes with the one we have now?" he asked. "That's how disruptive innovations go along. As long as the innovators are telling the establishment 'we're not here to put you out of business,' the innovation is allowed to survive."

According to Pierce, one of the greatest challenges facing USJFCOM is to recognize what new technologies being developed today are potentially disruptive innovations and properly managing them.

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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).