hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Allied Command Innovation?

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference”.

Robert Frost

Norfolk, Virginia. 4 April. Yesterday I had the honour of addressing NATO’s Allied Command Transformation as a guest of the Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, General Denis Mercier. The title of my talk was “The Innovation Game”, whilst the essence of my argument was that NATO must become a security and defence thinking machine if Allied defence and deterrence are to be credible in a non-linear age. How does NATO get from where it is today to where we need it to be? The Alliance must innovate with ‘ACT’ NATO’s great agent of change.

Nor did I pull my punches; if the Alliance is to prevail in its mission it must completely rethink its own role in security and defence and, indeed, the very way we think about security and defence. Through ACT the Alliance must reach out to innovators across many fields if it is to forge innovation and the best practice it fosters in pursuit of comparative strategic advantage. And, there is no question that ACT is doing some excellent work to foster such goals. After all, why bother inviting a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad like me to speak?

The other week, in the wake of a big conference in Budapest, I had roasted the political and diplomatic leadership of the Alliance for talking innovation, but not walking it. Which brings me to the anomaly of ACT. NATO has a command ready-made to think, to experiment, and to take innovative risk. What impressed me was the quality of the people at ACT, the first and most important battle any organisation must win if permanency of innovation is to be built into its DNA.

But there is a ‘but’. There are at least two barriers to ACT acting to effect as NATO’s innovation hub. The first barrier is NATO itself. ACT should be the elite think-tank of the Alliance, the experimenter, the simulator. And yet, the NATO system does not allow SACT to choose the best and the brightest from across the Alliance. Tellingly, one officer said to me that “eighty percent of the work is done by twenty percent of the people”.  

The other barrier was the cynicism of some ACT staff members. The civilians at ACT have no career progression beyond ACT and can become ‘parked’. Military officers come and go and, I suspect, many of them leave little creative turbulence in their wake. Now, having worked in my time at both NATO and the EU I know how easy it is to be crushed by the stultifying preponderance of lowest common denominator bureaucracy. After a time it is simply too easy to say, “oh well, I tried”. THAT is perhaps NATO’s biggest trap right now.

Why does ACT matter? If the Alliance cannot prove it adds value to US security it will fade. As I write this I am on the train from Norfolk to Washington DC for high-level discussions on the future of NATO. This week President Trump and his team are preparing for the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and considering what to do with a dangerously predictable North Korea.

NATO faces a crisis of ends, ways, and means. Innovation, with ACT in the lead, would not only demonstrate to an increasingly sceptical Washington that the Allies ‘get it’ and that Canadian and European security is as much about keeping America strong where it needs to be strong, as it is about American troops defending the NATO space. It is that implicit ‘contract’ that is the very essence of the twenty-first century Alliance.

If an ambitious innovation agenda is to be realised the whole command must become an innovator, established on an innovation culture. Innovation would thus become a vital component in NATO’s strategic communications to allies and adversaries alike about the ability of the Alliance to adapt.  However, for that messaging to be generated ACT needs to be systematic in its approach to innovation. That means ACT must build a development programme that can act as a vehicle for innovation, reach out to new partners in innovation, and establish a knowledge-led approach to the understanding of risks, challenges, and opportunities. That also means everyone at ACT buying into the effort. Innovation only ever works if people really believe in it.   

Innovation to what end? The Alliance must adopt what I call an outcomes-based approach to security and defence.  That means big and bold thinking about ends, ways and means, and what tools – both civil and military – the Alliance and its nations will need to generate such outcomes.  At the very least NATO will need to strike a radical new balance between efficiency and effectiveness.

NATO is at a fork in its long road, albeit deep in a dark wood called uncertainty. Innovation is where strategy meets practice to close the gap between ends, ways, and means and thus create clarity. To that end, ACT should be equipped with the tools, but above all the people to think radically about how NATO innovates. In other words, ACT must cut a new path through that dark wood because Allied Command Future Operations (for that is what ACT is) IS the future of NATO.

Allied Command Innovation?

Julian Lindley-French       


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