Does America Need More Innovators?

  • Published

Does America Need More Innovators? edited by Matthew Wisnioski, Eric S. Hintz, and Marie Stettler Kleine. The MIT Press, 2019, 399 pp.

For several years, the Department of the Defense has essentially elevated the term “innovation” from buzzword to directive, with the Air Force gladly in tow. The resulting fervor of senior civilians and officers alike has bred a generation of junior officers and enlisted personnel hungry to innovate. However, the underlying issue remains whether or not the DOD is organizing, training, and equipping personnel appropriately to achieve the desired results. The commercial sector and academia have been tackling this issue from their perspectives; many of those viewpoints are captured in Does America Need More Innovators?, a collection of 15 essays edited by Matthew Wisnioski, Eric Hintz, and Marie Kleine—a professor, Smithsonian Institution historian, and PhD candidate, respectively. The book stands out in the ever-growing field of literature focusing on innovation in two respects: (1) the editors give equal white space to innovation champions, critics, and reformers alike, and (2) the essays are centered on innovators rather than the concept of innovation itself.

The title of the book is the central argument: does American society need more people to be innovators? However, the deeper level of that theme attempts to answer key questions about what are the key traits of innovators, how effective are innovators’ programs and tools, and who exactly does and does not benefit by their innovation. The thesis is framed by three distinct groupings. First, the “champions” argue that the intangible results fielded by micro and macro innovators alike are a testament to their efforts and that their methods should be utilized to foster continued growth. Next, naturally come the “critics” questioning the social equality of innovation initiatives, the lack of diversity specifically in the tech sector, and the failure rate or underwhelming results of so many costly ventures. Lastly, the book reaches the logical conclusion of taking criticism to the next level by focusing on “reformers” who propose various changes to innovation factors—namely, recruitment, training, and program deployment.

The section regarding champions of innovation reiterates common themes in existing literature, and for the military reader chapter 4 written by Mickey McManus and Dutch MacDonald is the highlight. While not written for the military audience specifically, the authors focus on themes that will resonate nonetheless as they discuss innovation in terms of personnel, talent management, and setting conditions for an innovative culture to thrive, rather than emphasizing advanced technology as the central point. Readers will find that Air Force leaders of high-performing organizations composed of numerous, disparate career fields are actually primed to innovate successfully, even without vast, dedicated resources.

While the section on critics is thought-provoking because it challenges existing paradigms, the last section of the book on innovation reformers has the most implications because it offers solutions to key issues such as ensuring diversity and being ethically responsible. The standout of this section is chapter 17, “Confronting the Absence of Women in Technology Innovation,” written by Lucinda M. Sanders and Catherine Ashcraft. Going beyond the simplistic solutions of merely increasing the number of women in organizations, Air Force leaders would do well to take heed to the authors’ efforts to uncover cognitive biases and bureaucratic obstacles that discourage women’s participation in the innovation industry. Shifting focus to more deliberate recruiting and mentorship practices invites a deeper approach to increasing diversity rather than invoking Band-Aid quotas.

The tone of each section reflects the varied biases of the essays’ authors; however, to mitigate this limitation, these biases are acknowledged explicitly by the editors as a way of framing each grouping of essays under the three main categories. Further, by providing balance (five essays per group), the editors structure the book to allow readers to come to their own conclusions. The editors strive to maintain this balance by including a variety of contributors but fall short in this effort. While policy makers and business executives provide some essays, scholars and academics—whether educators, psychologists, or historians—are the primary contributors. More contributions from philanthropists, venture capitalists, and “titans of industry” could offer input, criticism, and valuable lessons to pass on across all three aspects of this book. Further, while it is thoroughly researched, the collection is void of perspectives from defense-related innovators or practitioners of the methods and techniques discussed. A future edition of the book would do well to include these perspectives to widen the aperture. For the military reader, a natural addendum to this essay collection would be the perspectives of champions, critics, and reformers from throughout the DOD who have an appreciation of the defense industry’s unique innovation ecosystem and the advantages and limitations that come with it, such as command structures, security requirements, funding appropriation, and high turnover of personnel.

Still, the book comes highly recommended for military leadership or those otherwise responsible for developing an ecosystem for innovation in their organizations. While the essays are strictly focused on civilian (both government and private) and commercial industries, the core lessons can still somewhat be distilled for military application, so long as military readers do not simply “cut and paste” the methods presented without appreciating the nuances of their operating environments. The essays are easily digestible, and the á la carte style layout of the chapters allows the book to be used as a reference document of sorts, making arguments and key points easy to parse out. There are certainly implications for Air Force leaders in particular, from flight commanders to major command staff officers. Air Force senior leaders have not been subtle in their desires to be leaders in innovation, which plays nicely into a service culture that has always prided itself on being technologically forward-thinking. However, when it comes to the execution phase, the commander’s intent can easily get distilled down to vague directives to “go innovate.” The essays in this book challenge readers to examine why it is necessary to innovate in the first place, and then explore the most effective way to do so while avoiding common pitfalls. Essentially, the collection can help leaders to apply critical thinking to the buzzword of “innovation” and to deliberate before jumping headfirst into initiatives for the sake of being active.

Maj Caesar Nafrada, AFR



"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."