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The People Element in DoD Innovation


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The People Element in DoD Innovation

by Arthur Trevethan

DoD innovation has been an integral part of achieving and maintaining the U.S. global strategic edge. Our current defense challenges are complex and diverse, requiring a vibrant and adaptive innovative culture. The heart of that culture is the workforce, the people who provide the creative and intellectual capacities necessary for innovation.

People are the keystone of DoD innovation. The recommendations in this article provide a pathway to further foster this culture and nurture such an environment as a foundation for sustained, long-term innovation.

DoD’s Innovation Background

The role of innovation within the DoD has evolved significantly over time. Its roots can be traced back to World War II, which highlighted the profound role of technology and innovation on the battlefield.

Post-World War II and the Cold War

In the aftermath of World War II, the importance of scientific and technological advancements became evident. This led to the establishment of organizations like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1958. DARPA was created in response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite during the Cold War, a significant technological and psychological victory against the United States.

The Cold War era saw a rapid rise in defense innovation, predominantly driven by an arms race between the superpowers. The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, the precursor to the internet, and the Global Positioning System (GPS) were notable examples of this period’s technological advancements. However, the primary focus then was on large-scale, capital-intensive projects, with an extensive time horizon. The workforce’s role often was rigidly defined within the hierarchies and bureaucratic structures, potentially limiting individual creativity and spontaneity.

Post-Cold War

With the end of the Cold War, the landscape of defense innovation began shifting. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the rise of nonstate actors necessitated a more flexible and agile approach. The DoD increasingly recognized that effective responses to new defense and security threats required not only technology but also the innovative use of this technology. Thus, there was a focus on people—their skills, creativity, and adaptability.

A series of initiatives were launched to streamline defense procurement and accelerate innovation. The Quadrennial Defense Review, initiated in 1997, aimed to assess the DoD’s strategies and priorities over a 20-year period, incorporating lessons learned into a dynamic defense planning process. However, these initiatives often faced resistance within the DoD bureaucracy.

21st Century and Present

The 21st century has seen increased emphasis on people-driven innovation. The DoD now seeks to blend its traditional strengths with the speed, agility, and innovative culture often seen in small startups. Efforts such as the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), the Army Futures Command (AFC), and the Air Force’s AFWERX program represent this shift. These initiatives emphasize collaboration—with academia, industry, and international partners—and value the diversity of thought brought in by a varied workforce.

U.S. Army Paratroopers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division take a design thinking class at the Airborne Innovation Lab on Fort Bragg, N.C., Dec. 6, 2022. The design thinking class was led by East Carolina University staff and was centered around the process of identifying a problem and brainstorming creative solutions.  Source: U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Rognie Ortiz Vega Photo cropped to show detail.

U.S. Army Paratroopers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division take a design thinking class at the Airborne Innovation Lab on Fort Bragg, N.C., Dec. 6, 2022. The design thinking class was led by East Carolina University staff and was centered around the process of identifying a problem and brainstorming creative solutions.

Source: U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Rognie Ortiz Vega
Photo cropped to show detail.

Smaller, more agile teams now work on shorter timelines. There is a focus on greater collaboration with industry and academia, while leveraging external innovation ecosystems to accelerate technology development. In essence, these programs acknowledge the vital importance of the workforce in driving innovation.

Historically, innovation within the DoD centered largely on technological advancement and a “top-down” model. The Cold War era’s large, capital-intensive projects required a high degree of coordination and control. The workforce role often was constrained by established hierarchies and procedures. These restrictions, while useful for managing complex projects, may have limited the scope for individual creativity and innovation. The outcome was a series of remarkable technological achievements, albeit often over extended timeframes.

The transition from a traditional, project-focused approach to a more flexible, people-centric approach has multiple implications:

  1. The modern approach recognizes that innovation is not purely a technological endeavor. Instead, it requires a diverse mixture of skills, including creativity, critical thinking, and adaptability. It fosters a culture of openness, allowing for collaboration and sharing of ideas.
  2. The modern approach places a high value on learning and continuous improvement. It encourages experimentation and risk-taking, with an understanding that failure is often a necessary step toward innovation.
  3. Modern approaches have shifted toward a more flexible, people-centric innovation process. The DoD has recognized that, while technology is crucial, it is the creative application of technology by people that often provides the cutting edge in defense.

Traditionally, DoD innovation often was a linear process, proceeding from idea to development to implementation. This could result in lengthy development times and inflexible responses to strategic landscape changes. By contrast, modern programs like the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) and the Army Futures Command (AFC) promote a more iterative approach. This allows for continual testing, feedback, and refinement of ideas, aligning more closely with the agility of modern tech companies and startups.

Much of DoD’s past innovation was achieved in-house or by large defense contractors. In contrast, today’s DoD increasingly collaborates with a wide range of external partners, including academia, private industry, and international allies. These partnerships bring diverse perspectives, skills, and ideas into the innovation process, potentially accelerating development and implementation of new technologies and strategies.

Traditional DoD innovation processes also were often risk-averse, favoring proven technologies and strategies. The modern approach recognizes that innovation frequently involves uncertainty and failure. Programs like AFWERX explicitly encourage risk-taking and experimentation, with the understanding that not all ideas will succeed but those that do may provide a significant advantage.

DoD’s traditional hierarchical and bureaucratic structures could stifle innovation by impeding communication, collaboration, and the free exchange of ideas. Modern programs often feature flatter and more flexible organizational structures that foster a more open and collaborative culture.

Despite these changes, challenges persist. DoD’s bureaucratic structure still can slow innovation. Moreover, there’s the complex task of balancing the need for discipline and structure with the desire for creativity and flexibility.


To further enhance the people element of innovation within the DoD, the following steps are suggested:

Emphasize Leadership. Actively champion a culture of innovation, fostering an environment that encourages curiosity, creativity, and calculated risk-taking.

Enhance Collaboration. Increase DoD partnerships with academia, industry, and international allies. This can broaden the range of ideas and skills within the DoD and accelerate the innovation process.

Promote Continuous Learning and Training. Implement programs to develop and refine the skills necessary for innovation, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and technological literacy.

Provide Rewards and Recognition. Establish mechanisms to acknowledge and reward innovative efforts, even those that fail. This can encourage more people to take risks and pursue novel ideas

Streamline Bureaucratic Processes. Simplify approval and procurement processes to enable faster, more flexible responses to emerging technologies and ideas.

Promote Diversity and Inclusion. Actively seek out and value diverse perspectives. A diverse workforce can drive innovation by offering a broader range of ideas and approaches. This includes diversity in race, gender, background, and thought.

Provide Employee Autonomy. Empower employees to make decisions about their work and have greater autonomy in their roles. This can increase employees’ motivation and creativity and allow them to take ownership of their projects.

Encourage Intrapreneurship. Provide resources for intrapreneurship, a process similar to entrepreneurship that occurs within an organization where employees develop innovative ideas. This will foster an internal culture of innovation.

Invest in Mental Health. Recognize that mental health plays a critical role in creativity and innovation. Create supportive work environments that promote mental wellbeing; offer resources such as counseling services and encourage better balance between work and personal life.

Foster a Fail-forward Mindset: Emphasize learning from failure. Fear of failure can inhibit innovation. Reduce that fear and promote a culture that sees failure as an opportunity to learn and grow, not as a setback.

Encourage Cross-Departmental Teams: Encourage collaboration across different departments and teams within the DoD. This approach can lead to more diverse ideas and perspectives and can drive innovation.

Implement a Mentorship Program: Leverage the experience of senior employees to guide and foster innovation in less experienced employees. A mentorship program can help develop a culture of continuous learning and improvement.


The people element is the keystone of innovation within the DoD. By focusing on the people element of innovation, the DoD can not only drive technological advancements but also foster a culture of continuous improvement and resilience. By embracing a more flexible, collaborative, and people-focused approach, the DoD can enhance its ability to adapt and innovate in a rapidly changing world.

The proposed recommendations provide a pathway to further foster this culture and aim to nurture such an environment that can provide a foundation for sustained, long-term innovation. 

Trevethan is Entrepreneur in Residence for the Army Applications Laboratory in Austin, Texas. He joined the cause with Army Futures Command in 2020 after more than 30 years as an entrepreneur. His goal, based on his experience in several industries, is to make the Army a better business partner.

The author can be contacted at [email protected] or [email protected].

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Department of Defense. Reproduction or reposting of articles from Defense Acquisition magazine should credit the authors and the magazine.