How to Become a Master Innovator

Contributor: William Cohen, Ph.D.
Posted: June 17, 2017

team work

One of the most important and useful competencies that I learned as General of the Air Force was how to innovate and how to implement innovation. Both are essential and this knowledge and ability helped me to become and perform as a general, and in the civilian world as a senior executive and CEO as well. 

I also learned that unless you can do both, innovation by itself is a waste of time 

Marketing and Innovation

Peter Drucker, the genius that contributed so much to management, reasoned that because the purpose of a business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two, and only two, basic functions: marketing and innovation. 

Jack Trout, the author of several business classics, wrote an interesting article on the marketing function. He offered a four step-process for getting it right. Central to the process is to find the differentiating Idea. 

Finding and implementing the differentiating idea frequently requires innovation. This may be technological or something entirely different but it is an important part of the marketing function in addition to being considered one of two basic functions on its own. Moreover, innovation is critical for success of the military or corporate general. 

Innovation Is Critical for a Military or a Corporate General

Well-known military strategist B.H. Liddell Hart demonstrated this universal truth in the proof of his innovation of what he titled “the indirect approach.” 

Liddell Hart was a WWI veteran in which troops were flung directly against an enemy’s defenses in an attempt to overwhelm them by shear force. This resulted in enormous casualties. Liddell Hart’s innovative theory was that it was always better to avoid an enemy’s heaviest defenses and to attack from an unexpected direction where an enemy was generally weaker. 

In other words, it was far more effective in performance and efficient in limiting casualties to attack in an unexpected and indirect manner rather than to attempt to overcome an adversary by brute force. He maintained that this was a universal law of nature and to prove this he turned to other human endeavors outside of warfare. 

He wrote: “the indirect approach is as fundamental in the realm of politics as it is in the realm of sex. In commerce, the suggestion that there is a bargain to be secured is far more potent than any direct appeal to buy.” 

How Innovation can be Immediately Critical for a General

More than 2000 years ago, Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, crossed the Alps with an army to confront Rome and found himself engaged in Southeast Italy by a Roman Army which some say was as much as four times the size of his own. 

If Hannibal had employed the common tactical formations and strategy in common use, he would have directly faced a superior force. Instead, he deployed his troops in an unusual formation with a weak center but with exceptionally strong flanks. The Romans rushed forward with superior numbers and Hannibal’s much weaker center was forced back as he had known it would be. 

Hannibal’s strong flanks didn’t engage the enemy until the Romans had forced Hannibal’s center to withdraw sufficiently that the Roman force was trapped by Hannibal’s two strong flanks. 

They surrounded the Romans completely. This type of maneuver had never been tried before. It was decisive. Historians and military analysts regard this ancient battle, the Battle of Cannae, as one of the greatest tactical feats in military history. 

Certainly, it was one of the worst defeats for the Roman Army. One estimate is that 80% of the numerically superior Roman troops were left dead on the field of battle. Hannibal’s innovation was made on the spot, and he had the power to implement it immediately. His Army knew that it was their only hope and didn’t resist implementing it. 

However, most innovations in and out of the military require a good deal more to overcome internal resistance to implementation. I learned this the hard way. 

How I Became an Innovator, but Almost Ruined My Career

The first innovation on my career path in the Air Force had to do with aerial navigation. As a recent graduate of aerial navigation radar bombing school, I was assigned as a navigator on a B-52 nuclear bomber. Through long flights lasting twenty-four hours or more, I had plenty of time to think about improved methods of navigation. 

I wrote a short article describing my ideas and innovations and thought that my article might be published in a quarterly magazine for U.S. Air Force navigators called Navigator

I was told by a senior navigator in my squadron that the article must first be presented to higher headquarters through the “wing navigation committee” for approval to submit my article.  

The committee met every four months. At the appropriate time, I went and made my presentation before the committee. I was surprised by the hostile reception that I received. 

It was made up of several very senior navigators who apparently considered the notion that a new navigator might have ideas for improvement an affront. They rejected my article and agreed only to discuss my proposed article further at their next meeting four months hence. 

Should I Drop the Article or Try Again in Four Months?

I considered dropping any thought of publication and innovation, but, re-reading Navigator, I noted that it mentioned submitting suggested articles directly to the editor. That was an approved method. 

There was no mention of unit navigation committees. It was the editor and his advisory board, which had the authority, not any navigation committees set up locally. I immediately sent my article directly to the editor. 

My Article Gets Published but there are Negative Consequences

Two weeks later I received a congratulatory letter from editor. Not only was my submission accepted for publication and would appear in the very next issue being published that month, but the editor who had once been a B-52 navigator himself commented very favorably on my ideas and personally called me by telephone to inquire if I had any other ideas which I would care to submit. 

I did and immediately sent him a second article. Several months later, a representative of the committee called me and asked whether I would like to appeal the decision of the committee, which was not to approve submitting my article. 

I responded that the article had already been submitted, accepted, and published -- and that a second one had been submitted and was under consideration for publication. 

The committee was upset. This was a direct challenge to their authority. I was threatened with a variety of actions, which would have negatively affected my career. 

While the way that I handled this was far from ideal, I succeeded in introducing my innovations by getting published. Fortunately, none of the threats came into fruition. However, I had unnecessarily made enemies of powerful influencers within my organization. 

Having these five senior navigators against me was not a good thing even though my innovative ideas may have been good and by Air Force policy, I was in the right in my actions. I managed to overcome this over the next few years, but it was a close call.

New Ideas Will Usually be Resisted, Especially if the Innovator is New

So the first thing I learned about innovation, maybe even the most important thing, is that innovations will usually be resisted and that this resistance should be anticipated and overcome before you pitch for the innovation.

This is true whether you are the one in charge, or like me in this instance, are just a man or woman with a few good ideas. If I were smarter then, I might have found out who each committee member was and asked for a personal meeting and got his ideas before the official committee meeting. I would have asked for the support of every member before the meeting. 

You can do the same thing if you are the decision maker for an organization. You can also survey your entire group by e-mail.

If you want to get your organization to adopt your ideas, and to gain a positive reputation, you must not only be an innovator. You must also recognize that there will be opposition to your innovation and that gaining the support of this opposition may be very important part of your success. 

*Adapted from a forthcoming book, To Be a General – Learn more about author William A. Cohen, author of more than 20 books (and published in 23 languages) about leadership