The Foundations of Innovation – A Model of Innovative Change (Part 2 of 7) By: Lt Col Dave “Sugar” Lyle

(Note – all bolded passages within quotes are highlights by the author of the post)

How should we scope and understand the dynamic processes behind innovation, in order to better set ourselves up for success?  How have other military thinkers done it in the past?

In his highly respected essay “An Imperfect Jewel: Military Theory and the Military Profession”, Harold R. Winton explained General George A. Patton’s affinity for Ardant Du Picq’s book Battle Studies, a military classic left incomplete with its author’s death in 1870 while fighting the Franco-Prussian War :

“Here was a practitioner-theorist after Patton’s own heart. Although DuPicq clearly argued that good arms, sound doctrine, and proper organization were necessary for success in battle, he emphasized the moral dimension of combat effectiveness.”

(From Harold R. Winton, “An Imperfect Jewel: Military Theory and the Military Profession” in Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower, Naval Institute Press, 2016, page. 46.

In his distillation of DuPicq’s theoretical construct, Winton uncovers a useful three element model that has consistently emerged in the literature of strategic studies multiple times, including use by General Curtis LeMay, Major General IB Holley, Colonel John Boyd, and the influential former head of the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment (ONA), Andrew Marshall.

 Gen Curtis E. LeMay – “At the very heart of warfare lies doctrine. It represents the central beliefs for waging war in order to achieve victory. Doctrine is of the mind, a network of faith and knowledge reinforced by experience which lays the pattern for the utilization of men, equipment, and tactics.”

(Curtis LeMay, America is in Danger, Funk & Wagnalls, 1968, page 23)

Maj Gen IB Holley – “In brief historical sketches the pages above have shown that the pace at which weapons develop is determined by the effectiveness of the procedures established to translate ideas into weapons. The prior acceptance and application of the thesis that superior arms favor victory, while essential, are insufficient unless the “superior arms” are accompanied by a military doctrine of strategic or tactical application which provides for full exploitation of the innovation. But even doctrine is inadequate without an organization to administer the tasks involved in selecting, testing, and evaluating ‘inventions’.”

(IB Holley, Ideas and Weapons, Air Force History and Museums Program, 1997, page 19.)

Ascribed to Col John Boyd – “People, Ideas, and Hardware…in that order!”

(See Greg Wilcox, “People, Ideas, and Things in that Order: Some Observations”, Boyd Symposium proceedings, 12 October 2012,

Mr. Andrew Marshall A Military-Technical Revolution occurs when the application of new technologies into military systems combines with innovative operational concepts and organizational adaptations to alter fundamentally the character and conduct of military operations.”

(As described by Krepenevich and Watts in The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy (Basic Books, 2015, pages. 200-205).

In all of these cases, innovation can be most elegantly described as a process, a three part coevolution between Ideas (doctrine, tactics, concepts), Groups (organization, procedures, people), and Tools (arms, equipment, hardware, technologies).

Four our model of the foundational processes of innovation, we’ll start by artificially separating the three basic categories, and simulate them evolving and interacting with each other on a left to right timeline, with people at the center of the model as our fundamental unit of analysis, since they’re the ones who have the ideas, form groups, and use tools.  


Figure 1. A General Model of Change and Innovation

Successful Innovation springs from the mutual evolution of ideas, groups, and tools, with each influencing the adaptation of the others in no particular order or precedence, but rather by building upon each other iteratively and simultaneously. Let’s look at each component in detail:

IDEAS – Ideas are both the reason groups are formed, and are the genesis of our tools. If the nature of warfare is constant, as most modern strategists advocate, it is because the basic ideas inherent to human nature (including many tacit ones) have stayed constant over the millennia. Ideas set the context for what we do with our tools, and drives the formation and modification of our groups.

TOOLS – Even as the nature of war stays constant, its character is constantly changing mostly due to advances in these.  Tools are born from ideas, but they also make new ideas and group social structures possible.

GROUPS – Groups define how we blend both ideas and tools in order to cooperate and adapt to the environment collectively.  The way groups are structured through norms, rules, and bureaucracy determines how easily some ideas and tools develop and flourish, and can alternately decide which ones attenuate or disappear. Groups effectively act as the “throttles” of human societal evolution through the predictability and synergy that they make possible by focusing the efforts of many individuals towards common purposes.  They also provoke conflict when the identities and aspirations of separate groups come in conflict with one another in ways that cannot be reconciled through compromise or toleration.

Engineering Innovation - How Strategic Agility is Created

We create strategic agility when we actively invest in improvements in all three of the areas mentioned above, and look for new possibilities in each specific area that will help us to release the full potential of the others. We also achieve agility by exploring multiple alternatives in each area, creating the adaptive variety needed to respond to emerging challenges that we won’t be able to fully anticipate.  Then when the future presents itself, we have invested in the ideas, groups, and tools we need to cope. To innovate successfully, you have to innovate in all three areas, not just the most familiar or tangible ones.

But there’s a catch…

What we imagine happens – We like to think that there’s a smooth interchange between innovations in the three areas, that Moore’s law will grant us continuous returns in speed and power, that progress will continue upwards on a steady slope, and that the exchange between the three areas will keep pace with each other.




What usually happens, and is happening right now - In truth, we often see advances in one area without a commensurate advance in the others, creating imbalances that often lead to unpredictable and undesirable results. In many ways we’ve designed “Tools 3.0”, but are still stuck with the old ways of thinking, and the old bureaucratic structures.




Innovation is optional, but change is not. As Williamson Murray admonishes us in Adaptation in War (With Fear of Change):

It is clear that we live in an era of increasingly rapid technological change. The historical lesson is equally clear: US military forces are going to have to place increasing emphasis on realistic innovation in peacetime and swift adaptation in combat. This will require leaders who understand war and its reality as well as the implications of technological change. Imagination and intellectual qualities will be as important as the specific technical and tactical details of war making. The great challenge here is how to inculcate those qualities widely in the officer corps.

We’ll use our examination of the three components of the innovation model to help determine what those qualities are, and how we can promote them within our own organizations, even as junior members in the corporate process.

Bottom line: Those who fail to innovate will be left in the dust cloud created by those who do.  It’s our duty as military leaders to be deliberate innovators – and advocates for the constructs and concepts that help groups innovate successfully - lest we forfeit the legacy of freedom and self-determination that those who came before us fought, bled, and died for.  You can’t just choose your favorite part of the model  and expect that your problems will be solved – if you’re not innovating in all three areas simultaneously, you’re setting yourself up for even more unpredictability, unanticipated systemic consequences and vulnerabilities, expensive projects with little return on investment, and an increased possibility of a catastrophic failure in some situations.


Stay Tuned.   

In part 3 of the 7 part series we’ll continue with a deep dive into each component of the model, starting with Ideas. 

Innovation starts with Ideas – the realization that something new is possible once old things are seen in new ways. 

If you missed The Foundations of Innovation Part 1, click here  

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