Idealogues: An Innovative Approach to Growing Small Unit Creativity

Chaveso Cook, Rudolph Racine, and Mike Scott

Innovation is a powerful term in today’s defense lexicon. We desire a flexible and adaptable service member, enhanced and intuitive technology, and creative and niche-capable organizations. To make this happen, many military leaders have railed against the status quo with respect to problem-solving approaches and overall Department of Defense bureaucracy. With all the discussion about innovative change, one may question what it specifically looks like, especially down at the small  unit level within the military. With this question in mind, the purpose of this article is to describe what such an innovative change can look like in the form of junior leader engagement by introducing our concept of the idealogue. First we will explain why we chose to pursue this idea, then describe the concept from the creativity industry’s standpoint, and follow this up with specifics and examples of how we conduct our idealogues.

Why the Change?

At the very outset of innovating the meetings within our organization we looked for ways to take advantage of the talent of our junior leaders, but immediately faced some resistance. In “The Pentagon’s Virtuous Insurgency” we find this tendency to be somewhat of a trend, as authors David Barno and Nora Bensahel state that “the military neither recognizes nor leverages junior enlisted talent.” In a War On the Rocks piece, author Sean Atkins expanded upon this tendency through a real-world example of junior-level innovation and forward thinking that was almost overlooked. Additionally, the military seemingly reserves the right to craft ideas in the more senior ranks, who are creatures of the establishment they grew up in. If they did not grow up in a creative environment, one can make the assumption that those senior leaders did not pick up a lot of creativity along the way. This creates an inverse relationship; former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter remarked that the newer people to the system may have fresher ideas, but the ones judging their ideas are older “rank and file members” who have become protective of what made them successful—the system.

For our organization, we found that we needed to free ourselves from these limitations and fight against these tendencies. We wanted to be more inclusive of not only our junior military member’s ideas, but ideas that may come from all across our organization. In innovative terms we looked to foster the disruptive thinking needed to craft the adult learning experiences which in time beget collaboration and creativity. Lisa Bodel, CEO of the innovation research and training firm futurethink, explained in a Forbes article how disruptive thinking is a solutions-based process that crafts creative friction, which in turn moves us away from group-think—especially in meetings. The following paragraphs highlight an innovation centered on gatherings that first recognizes, fosters and leverages junior leaders, and second, highlights our example of innovation.

Meetings Driving Information or Gatherings Driving Innovation?

One place where professionals come together to cross-pollinate ideas are in meetings. Many times, however, we find that many meetings are unproductive and time consuming events that do not inspire creativity or innovation. Military meetings, in particular, often become more about color-coded slides and status reports than predicting and tackling the projected problem on the horizon. There are countless writers who have discussed various ways to make our meetings more efficient, effective and productive. We wanted to take this one step further and also make them more cognitively and creatively stimulating as well, because our unit in particular is populated by military and civilian graphic illustrators, video designers, and special operations members who produce a wide variety of audio, visual and print mediums to influence foreign audiences on behalf of US interests.  

In turn we introduced and new type of monthly meeting called an idealogue, combining the words idea and dialogue. These are collaborative sessions aimed at generating ideas from the ground up in our organization. Each session, held monthly, is geared toward a more working group feel than an agenda-based stat review. They are not specifically aimed at fixing problems or garnering specific outcomes; like the “channels of expression” modeled by Google, they are more of a scheduled open forum to foster discussion across our organization to recognize different ideas, different people and spark conversations. Idealogues seek to crowd-source ideas from across our unit as opposed to just focusing on the leadership alone. Instead of sending out surveys that typically elicit only reflective responses after actions occur, or extending the weekly synchronization meetings that we have to do to manage our work, we started idealogues as a separate opportunity geared more toward injecting proactivity and eliciting new ideas for the overall benefit of our organization.  

Industry is marked by innovative get-togethers, but Army leadership researcher Ray Kimball tells us that the military often tends to either stifle the creation of creativity in favor of cloning or we do not bring the right mix of people and ideas in the room to create an adaptive environment. Successful companies have modified their strategies on how they foster, collect, and action new ideas. There are creative firms like IDEO that focus on this process through human-centered approaches to innovation called design thinking, which “draws from the designer's perspective to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” For example, creative companies use techniques such as rooms with an idea or a few ideas on the wall in one room that have with them the requirement that at the end of the day employees must place a post-it with something on it relevant to the idea(s) on the wall. Eventually they coalesce these notes into bundles around each topic, breaking them down into either BART (Boundary, Authority, Role, Task) aspects or how they affect/contribute to the idea, i.e. these sticky notes all pertain to people, these others to organization, etc. These create idea webs. They then take these webs and have idealogues or take other actions to create a new project, technology, product, process, etc. Massing creative input and connecting ideas are the goals, and these are just some of the ways to do so.

A desire grew to bring these elements and a culture of design thinking to our organization. Our goal was to spark both proactivity and mental agility in our junior leaders. These monthly collaboration gatherings are meant to create an evolving dialogue focused on generating ideas and solutions to various problems our organization may face; work schedules, production timelines, family retreats, camaraderie activities, physical training plans, support to wartime requirements, amongst many other instances. There is no specified formality with respect to the meeting, but there are a few process-oriented elements that teams must focus on for success. To be clear, what is offered here is not just a concept, but also the science behind the concept.

The Elements of the Idealogue

First, the people you bring in matter, so the members of these monthly gatherings consistently rotate among our different sections, balanced with experts and novices, seniors and juniors, civilians and military. Constant rotation of the attendees ensures diversity of backgrounds, military skill sets, experiences and perceptions of the culture and climate of our organization. There are always more junior soldiers than senior leaders. The only consistent attendees are the commander and their second-in-command. The other leaders in the room are encouraged to participate, but the primary focus is on the rest of the group. We have created the environment to empower the younger soldiers by not allowing those senior leaders to completely dictate the direction of the conversation. This is an important but informal rule with respect to who you bring in. Once we have the right people, we quickly seek consensus on ground rules and what criteria defines the best ideas for that particular gathering.

Duke students attending the Art of Design seminar work together to brainstorm and research combat operation topics. (Staff Sgt. Michael Lemmon/U.S. Army Photo)

Second, the actual number of attendees needs to be small. We have good reason to think that the more people we include the less productive the gathering will be. Group dynamics and social psychology suggest groups larger than seven to nine members become less productive with respect to cohesion, attention, and identity. Of particular note, group satisfaction peaks around seven members, but starts to decrease to less than the satisfaction experienced by a pair of two between 15-20 people. More anecdotally, Jeff Bezos of Amazon came up with the Two-Pizza Rule: never have a meeting where two pizzas cannot feed the entire group. Our idealogues seek to prevail over groupthink. As such, the requirement to rotate amongst the sections does not need to include everyone within the section at their assigned time and never includes our whole organization. This tends to further prod the teamwork and openness of the gathering and ensures maximum diversity of thought.  

Third, location is important. One requirement that we put in place is that our gatherings are off-site, because the setting matters with respect to both sparking creativity and maintaining neutrality. Off-site simply means that it cannot be in our work facility, in someone’s office, or even in our greater work area for that matter. Off-site can mean a luncheon elsewhere on post, or a quick drive over to the library. These are scheduled monthly events, so we ensure to determine a location and reserve a space if need be. Many of our work places, like break areas, classrooms and conference rooms, double as an office or meeting place that embody an official capacity. This more often creates a dynamic that is less productive simply because of the subconscious task-orientation toward work. Even how the room is setup is just as important as the setting itself; who sits where, freedom of movement, and physical arrangement to maximize the exchange of ideas all matters. These gatherings cannot be seen as work and should even avoid seemingly like business as usual.

Lastly, how these gatherings are run ties everything together. This is the most important component. We decided to do these creative exercises once a month. We have encouraged the wear of civilian clothes, provide food, and meeting off-post as possibilities. We have a strict time boundary of 60 minutes, as adult learning theory suggests that time is generally the brain’s upper limit for productivity on a given task. There is no specific agenda or headline from where we start—we merely  open the floor to discussion. The commander takes on the role of discussion facilitator and we have one recorder. In this facilitative role the goal is to only prompt further discussion through open ended questions, reframes, and appreciative inquiries—tenets of executive coaching. He focuses on unpacking ideas and remaining neutral as to not drive the discussion. This is exceptionally difficult; one of the ways to do so is continually encouraging dialogue toward the group’s overall ideas and not just the most extroverted talkers.  We shape the discussion and follow-on answers toward the best ideas, as determined by both group consensus and set criteria. We also foster sharing through body language and simply backing up what people say, which happens to be one of the most important ways to ensure team effectiveness. Doing this greatly empowers the attendees to focus on the ideas more than the person generating them. We always capture the discussion points, either on a whiteboard or in notes. We also record who came up with the idea and if we decide to act upon it, assign it to the most capable person to champion the idea to completion. Finally, and most critical, we routinely follow-up on action items generated from the idealogues, ensuring the leadership chain is tasked with follow through on these action items. Through follow up from the idealogue sessions, we ensure the gatherings do not become a Sisyphean task of ideation without action.

The Possibilities: A Few Examples

All these details do not matter without results, so what have we come up with in these collaborative sessions? One of our first sessions crowd-sourced our organizational vision, mission statement, outcomes and even the commander’s leader philosophy in an effort to gain instantaneous buy-in. It proved immediately effective, as the members of the unit saw their own ideas on the documentation they were being held accountable to. Also, when we were losing multiple leaders from one section, an idealogue determined which junior soldiers would take over key jobs, how they would restructure personnel, shifts, and internal teams to accommodate the mission, who to laterally promote, and forecasted the training required to make it all come together. In another gathering we determined we needed to create pamphlets to describe the man-hours, personnel requirements, equipment specifications, and other capabilities for the various sections for both internal and external use. Additionally, at one point our mission required 24-hour operations stateside for an entire month; it was an idealogue that determined the outputs, goals, daily conditions checks, and plan of action for the way forward. We could mention many other unique solutions, but the bottom line is each of these solutions came from a group of junior soldiers in our formation. Of greatest value is that each meeting starts from scratch in an open dialogue forum, so both the problem and the solution are identified, defined, refined and addressed internally in true creative fashion.

This all did not happen overnight; it is important to note that it took us many months to cultivate the culture for our idealogues to take hold. There is no secret, but the best advice we could pass along would be to be present-minded and future-focused, both at the micro-level during creative problem solving and at the macro-level while crafting an innovative team. We must always recognize who we have around us and what processes we enact daily while actively cultivating our “horizon organization.”

Captain Frank Futcher explains display of 3D-printed objects during Navy Warfare Development Command–sponsored innovation workshop at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia (Jonathan E. Donnelly/U.S. Navy Photo)

Final Thoughts

This article focused more on the details of the how and the why behind these gatherings as opposed to focusing on what our specific outcomes were simply because individual military organizations differ so greatly, especially from many civilian institutions. We sought to highlight an idea with the reasons it can work elsewhere in the military. Remember the keys to crafting your own idealogues, consider: who is included, how many are included, where it is held, and how it is conducted are what matter most. This humble innovation can greatly empower your subordinates, so there is potential for our idealogue concept to seem almost leaderless because the ranking member should not command the meeting; instead the person with the best idea drives the direction. Remember, your facilitation of the gathering will allow the better ideas to fully develop, and the initial criteria you collectively set determines the best idea. Authority alone won’t always drive solutions, and it may not always be occupied by the most creative folk. Know that we must build both people and institutions for innovation to occur. Complex problems are solved in collaborative, disruptive, and adult-learning oriented sessions. Our idealogues are an example of what it can look like when you loosen the reigns and focus more on process than procedure and creativity rather than rigidity.

Chaveso Cook is an active duty officer and currently commands a company in the U.S. Army.  He is a co-founder of the non-profit Rudolph Racine is an active duty officer and the Executive Officer in a company of the U.S. Army. Mike Scott is also an active duty officer and is a Communications Officer at the battalion level in the U.S. Army. The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S Government.

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Header Image: "Kutuzov at the conference of Filii deciding to surrender Moscow to Napoleon" by Aleksey Danilovich Kivshenko (Wikimedia)