Given humans’ inherent resistance to change, innovation is often a long and lonely journey for those who want to disrupt the status quo. So what drives them? How do they overcome the many obstacles in their way to solve problems that others can’t even identify? Those were the questions posed by Think Differently moderator Dr. Marina Theodotou during the recent episode on “Disruptors and Innovators in National Security.”
Three pioneers in their respective fields were on the receiving end of Dr. Theodotou’s questions: Bryon Kroger, the founder of Rise8; Molly Cain, the CEO of GovCity; and Jonathan Springer, the CEO and founder of Tactical NAV. Each shared their background and its influence on their decision to become entrepreneurs, as well as what they hope to achieve as business owners and change agents.
For Kroger, it was the years spent using “really bad software” as an intelligence officer that served as the inspiration for Rise8, which delivers custom software that uses agile software development and DevOps processes and technology. He explained that what makes the company truly innovative is that it doesn’t just propose a solution to help organizations overcome bureaucracy, it provides it.
“We have a lot of things under the banner of innovation right now that are ideas, but innovation means ‘in operation.’ Users have to be using it,” Kroger said. “I can use my money for some cool-sounding idea far out in the future, and I’ll never be accountable for doing it or I can do something small and iterative that makes a big difference.”
Cain also has first-hand experience with the government’s legendary bureaucratic red tape, referring to the process of trying to push change as “a hellish nightmare.” But rather than continue to fight alone as a GS-15, she decided to create GovCity to “send a bat signal” to other disrupters who could help effect change.
“The environment introduces people to ideas and willingness and curiosity they don’t have access to otherwise, especially if they’ve spent their entire career in the government,” she said.
Like Kroger, she chooses to focus on attainable goals.
“The best wins are the ones we don’t really talk about because they’re just so small, but they’re huge accomplishments that took a lot of cultural change, care, and struggle,” she said. “But you don’t submit them for awards because that’s not what anyone who is truly in the business does it for.”
That’s not to say the “infinite journey,” as Cain referred to the innovation process, is stress free.
“Within hours it changes from highs to lows—and the lows are more devastating than you can imagine," she said, further adding that those who are resilient are "on the right path, from an innovation perspective."
Springer is more than familiar with staying the course, in large part because his motivation is as personal as it is professional. Thirty days into his third combat deployment with the 101st Airborne to the Pech River Valley, Afghanistan, in 2010, several Soldiers were killed in action.
“Following the memorial service for them, I prayed to God and asked what I could do to further help prevent a situation like that from happening again,” he said. “I had an epiphany a few days later when I saw Soldiers using smart phones, which were just becoming ubiquitous then. I saw them as a force multiplier.”
Enter Tactical NAV, which provides military-grade navigation on handheld devices.
“I decided to develop TacNAV using feedback from other soldiers, so I could acquire an accurate coordinate to any location and accurately deliver material,” he said. “I saw smart phones as that platform rather than the cumbersome antiquated technology we were using.”
Like Kroger, Springer keeps the Warfighter’s needs at the front and center of everything he does.
“You’re at the Pentagon behind the desk. We’re in the fight every day,” he said. “You want to empower the Warfighter on the battlefield to make decisions that will ensure mission success, and honor the men who died on my deployments and in uniform still serving today.”
Springer’s ultimate goal is to have the DoD adopt and deploy the technology he is providing, which thus far has been an uphill battle. But he refuses to be deterred.
“The journey is lonely, but if you’re doing it for the right reasons, then it’s worth it,” he said.
It helps that he also has some pretty powerful boosters in his corner to keep him moving forward—his fellow Warfighters.
“They’ve help propped me up when I was down and doors were shut in my face,” he said.
By the end of the webcast, the session’s 600 or so attendees were left with several pieces of advice to help them learn how to think differently.
First, they should “always question and challenge the status quo,” Springer said. “Not accept things as they are because it’s the way it’s always been done.”
They also should be supportive of others’ ideas. “A lot of the barrier to innovation is not bureaucracy, but other innovators putting people down saying they’re not innovative enough,” Kroger said.
What they should not do is resign themselves to doing things a particular way because that’s the way they’ve always been done.
“Why are we not questioning these things?” Cain asked. “Some were created before any of us were born, and that’s ridiculous! If something is no longer working for anyone, we can fix it and together we can create that movement.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they should never give up. As the Japanese proverb that inspired the name of Kroger’s company wisely counsels, “fall down seven times, stand up eight.”
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