U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Marisol Walker

Every leader at the Pentagon likes to talk about “innovation,” but it sometimes also feels like every leader has their own definition of that idea. In the following op-ed, Andrew Metrick of the Center for a New American Security argues that DoD should come up with a rubric that allows the department to get on the same page.

The Department of Defense has an innovation problem, and it’s not the one you are probably thinking about.

Certainly, the Department needs to improve its ability to move with speed and scale to field new capabilities and deter increasingly sophisticated adversaries. However, it is not always clear what “innovation” means, or who should do it. Is innovation some revolutionary technology that will change the face of battle? Is it a process change that nets the DoD a half percent savings a year? Or is it a new warfighting concept that improves the performance of existing systems?

Plausibly, and problematically, this is all “innovation” — and today’s innovation miasma makes it incredibly difficult for organizations charged with “innovating” to build focus and expertise. Achieving anything in the Department requires purpose-built teams and organizations, not one size fits all solutions. Put another way, if innovation means all things to all people, it no longer is a useful term.

With this in mind, DoD should adapt a framework with three broad categories of innovation — capability, concept, and process — that will impact the critical task focus of the specific organizations and groups charged with pursuing each type. While there can be considerable overlap between each category, the key differences should be traced back to the problems to be solved and the solutions to be pursued.

Such a framework achieves a “goldilocks” level of specificity, enough to be useful but not too much to be unwieldy. By being more specific about the type of innovation an organization is tasked to achieve, the Department can ensure the right resources are matched against the right problems. This “innovation to tasks” approach will lead to innovation successes becoming more of a natural DoD outcome, requiring less direct senior leader intervention.

Innovation cannot simply be about achieving the next “revolution in military affairs” or even delivering timely capabilities to warfighters in the field. It must include concept and process innovations that change the very fabric of both how the Joint Force fights and how the Department conducts business.

Capability innovation is about delivering new technological solutions to solve a warfighting problem. Most of the organizations that come to mind across DoD that are charged with innovation are pursuing this technologically driven approach: DIU, SCO, and BIG SAFARI all fit into this model. Vastly different parts of the defense industry, from storied contractors such as Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works to new players like Anduril, all focus on capability innovation. This is the type of innovation that the Department is often most comfortable with.

Concept innovation is about taking existing capabilities and combining them with new forms of doctrine and training to achieve better combat outcomes. It can include new technological widgets but is driven by changes in how military forces operate rather than the forces themselves. TOPGUN, initiated after the US Navy’s poor air-to-air performance in the Vietnam War, can be seen as a form of concept innovation. Almost always, concept innovation is driven from within the DoD, although outside players can be “brought along” by those inside. Furthermore, the explicit and implicit bureaucratic and cultural hurdles to concept innovation can be much higher than capability innovations that fit within existing combat architectures.

Both of these forms of innovation are likely to be quite familiar, and are both explicitly tied to warfighting and are measured in improvements to combat outcomes. However, process innovation may simultaneously be the most important, and most overlooked.

Process innovation is about changing the way the DoD operates everything from force development and requirements to payroll and facility management. The recently released PPBE Commission Final Report lays out numerous process innovations to overhaul the way the DoD plans, budgets, and acquires its forces. This type of innovation is often overlooked and can require significant and widespread organizational effort to achieve.

As a thought experiment, assume that these processes innovations could net half a percent savings per year with respect to the total DoD budget, but would cost $700 million to implement. This seems like a bad deal until you realize that savings would net out to $4.4 billion per year, over a 6x return on investment. This $4.4 billion could be immediately reinvested into combat forces, underscoring the importance of process innovation despite its seeming disconnect from warfighting.

It’s not just about cost savings either. Process innovations can allow the Department to focus more appropriately on speed. Creating metrics that center acquisition practices around a timeliness goal would create the agility and speed that is so often lacking in defense procurement. In addition, these new measurement metrics could help prevent an explicit focus on decreasing risk in procurement from implicitly increasing warfighting risk by slowing time to field. Whether process innovation saves money or improves speed to field, the silent partner in defense innovation must be silent no more.

Ultimately, organizations charged with pursuing one of these types of innovation are going to need to be structured and resourced differently. In a recent op-ed, the chairs of the CNAS Defense Technology Task Force outlined six factors crucial for innovation success. These factors demonstrate why innovation differentiation is so important. An organization tasked with capability innovation is going to define its problem and build an empowered program team differently than an organization focused on process innovation.

Similarly, the types of leadership support needed for concept innovation are going to differ in kind, scale, and duration from those needed for process innovation. Practically, overhauling peacetime supply chain and payroll functions can achieve transformative savings but requires a very different type of organization than conducting a crash missile development program during a war.

The creation of innovation organizations that are fit for purpose and possess a clearly defined mission is already underway. By being more concrete about what type of innovation the Department and its components are attempting to achieve, the DoD can move innovation from a niche activity to the reality of transforming latent national strength into military power.

Andrew Metrick is a Fellow with the Defense Program at CNAS and the Executive Director of their Defense Technology Task Force. Prior to joining CNAS, he was a campaign analyst and wargamer at Northrop Grumman.