Bridging Divides: Thoughts on a Startup Conference

A good sign of a successful gathering is not only the interaction that takes place at the event itself, but more importantly the conversation that occurs following. In this respect the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum has been blessed; one of the reasons I’ve been remiss in reporting out on the event is the rapidity and thoroughness that some of the participants have written on salient points from the weekend. They have covered topics such as the lessons on how to manage an inclusive conferencethe surprising results of a crowd-sourced and distributed planning effort, the innovations and unique methods employed at#DEF2013perspectives on the event through a civilian’s eyes, and the importance of action through publication. If the quantity of hyperlinks less than a week after the event isn’t a testament to the excitement, then I assure you the quality of their thought is…I encourage you to read each of them.

As for me, I’m surprised the event came off. It may be disingenuous to say that, but after almost a year of planning in an unorthodox manner and depending on others to ensure major aspects of the event were a success, I’m equal parts thrilled and exhausted. The team not only volunteered their time and money (the event was funded entirely by the board and a small event fee), but their expertise and energy, as well. I’m impressed with the success that a few mid-grade and junior military members can accomplish when they have a powerful idea.

For me, the planning and execution of this event was an experiment. When I was originally approached to become a member of the board I was in intense discussions with peers and superiors about mentorship in the military; specifically, how most senior officers didn’t take the time to mentor their subordinates and (more importantly to me) how younger officers were unable to ASK for mentorship. From my perspective, most younger officers simply thought they deserved mentorship and it should come to them. This discussion provided fertile planting ground for an idea that would support younger military leaders to generate and implement ideas that could improve their military services. I relished the idea of empowering people that are self-starting, energetic, and smart. I have very few of those tendencies myself — and certainly not many original ideas — and felt I could at least help by providing my own energy. Plus, I figured another person’s network of friends and acquaintances could only help the effort. But as a military officer, the prospect of a decentralized planning process with no leader seemed heresy; since I’m not above a little heresy now and again, I of course jumped in with both feet.

As a nascent Army strategist and self-proclaimed acolyte of Colin Gray, I came at the problem DEF hoped to address with the metaphor of a bridge in mind. Gray’s concept, and I’m paraphrasing a much smarter man here, is that strategy acts as a bridge, providing the connection between the policy a political entity desires with the tactical action on the ground that will create it. On that bridge is the notional strategist, facilitating and translating the negotiation between the two sides of an otherwise difficult chasm. What I saw in DEF was the ability to act as a bridge…between smart and energetic military members on one side and the slow-changing and justifiably (in some ways) rigid bureaucracy on the other. The members of DEF could play the role of Gray’s strategist, acting as a translator and connector by empowering individuals through each other’s collective networks. While the Department of Defense can seem like a monolithic entity, it is instead made up of other individuals that can be leveraged and supported to implement ideas. All it takes is relationships.

As one of the few non-techies on the board, I also saw my personal role as a bridge between those that envisioned every problem having a technological solution and those that worked toward process or systemic solutions…or those solutions that affect the human domain, as it were. Roxanne Bras covered this dichotomy well this weekend when she discussed high-end and low-end innovation. As it turns out, this role was rarely employed, particularly at the event itself. After decades of war that has shown the limits of technology, most of those that participated in DEF seem to understand there needs to be a balance between technology and the human dimension.

I think DEF lived up to my personal hopes. Over Columbus Weekend over 100 people gathered to share ideas, think through some of our military’s most intractable problems, and come up with the beginnings of some viable solutions. There were participants from the enlisted ranks to general officer, military to civilian, young to old(er). Each came with a healthy dose of enthusiasm and energy, ready to participate. Not once did I see or hear any divides between them. Frequently I saw or participated in a conversation that ended with a task to be accomplished…many outside of the “bounds” of the conference itself, spurred simply by a speaker or the conversation itself. Everyone seemed to part reluctantly and with an eye toward the future.

If DEF is to be a bridge, a connection for others to leverage, than I think the keystone was placed at the banks of Lake Michigan. Well done, ladies and gentlemen. Now get to work…

Nathan K. Finney is an officer in the U.S. Army. He is also the the founder of The Bridge, founder and Managing Director of the Military Fellowship at the Project on International Peace & Security, a member of the Infinity Journal's Editorial Advisory Board, a founding board member of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, a founding member of the Military Writers Guild, and a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations.  He tweets at @NKFinney. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect any official organization.

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