Monday, October 14, 2013

The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum

I spent this weekend in Chicago with a great collection of serving and former military officers and enlisted at the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. This was a unique defense conference put together by a group of young, like-minded officers who found each other through social networking and their writing in a number of forums. Ben Kohlmann, the mastermind, provided the spark for this group with his article published last year in the Small Wars Journal entitled "The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers." This article and its title was one that people either loved, or loved to hate. Despite the criticism some heaped on the disruptive title, it served as an inspiration to frustrated, but still motivated young officers. What is more, the tagline stuck in the way that something less edgy would not have. It created a buzz and that buzz turned into some very positive relationships that will ultimately be good for the military as a whole.

I did see some sniping on Twitter from people who weren't there, things about it being a collection of empty buzzwords and about the people there "shouting innovation" but missing the bigger problem, but that criticism missed what was really going on there. In the main, the people at DEF were very smart, very tactically and technically proficient, and very involved in making a tangible difference within and outside their organizations. This was not a collection of company grade officers with only complaints to offer as they walk out the door, as you see at some big name blogs. These were people with MOS credibility by every definition of the term, combat experience, and moving into assignments in the field grade ranks that are allowing them to make significant positive impacts in the organization. They are well educated and well read. And while, yes, they use buzzwords, they largely surround those buzzwords with nuance that doesn't always come through in 140-characters.

What is more, they have surrounded themselves with both mentors and skeptics that helped to make this much more of a learning experience than a self-congratulatory echo chamber session. Attendees and speakers included one very historically grounded officer who is a deep skeptic of the "disruptive thinking" term and argues that junior officer innovation is nothing new under the sun, as well as a Marine general officer, a post-battalion command Army colonel select, an Air Force colonel who has held significant command and operational staff billets, and a host of other highly accomplished private sector innovators and entrepreneurs both with and without military experience. As one who is a natural cynic, I was impressed with the quality of the people and the quality of the discussion. This was no lightweight gab-fest.

I feel strongly that there is much that needs disrupting in today's DoD and in America more generally, but as attendee Mark Jacobs pointed out, none of us were encouraging renegades. "What I really appreciated about these guys was their class and their professionalism; they are not trying to unleash renegades, but thoughtful and effective professionals who can get things done." For all the seeming buzzwords about innovation, entrepreneurism, and disruption, it was really about getting things done. We discussed those buzzwords, some of the literature behind them, and what they mean in a narrow sense, but this wasn't some pie-in-the-sky discussion of how young officers could somehow make breakthroughs in DoD-wide disruptive technological innovation, but rather how those concepts could be used to inform "intrapreneurism," or creating change within a large organization or sub-units therein. Really, it was about getting things done.

You can see much of the conference at the DEF YouTube channel and judge for yourself. I was honored to give the keynote on day one, entitled, "Meat-Eaters and Leaf-Eaters: The Messy and Dangerous Art of Doing Something Meaningful." You can see the video here. I start at 57:50.

You can also follow attendees live-tweeting the event here. I had to leave early, but they're still going strong on Monday 14 October.

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