Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

A comment on the Army Futures Command: it's not enough to be innovative, the challenge is to implement and diffuse the innovation

This isn't exactly about urbanism, but the reality is that the overarching theme of the blog is about change management and how organizations function, this is still relevant.

There was a big competition between cities for landing the Army Futures Command, a new unit of the Army focused on innovation, technology, telcommunications etc., and bringing new ways of doing things to "The Big Army."

The Army chose Austin, Texas ("Why the Army picked Austin for Futures Command," Defense News), home to a big chunk of the IT industry, the University of Texas, and other forward firms and events like the South by Southwest Festival. From the article:
The Army focused on six major criteria to choose Austin: proximity to science, technology, engineering and mathematics workers and industries; proximity to private sector innovation; academic STEM and research and development investment; quality of life; cost; and civic support.

“I laid out the six variables. Austin scored the highest,” McCarthy said.

Additionally, the Army looked beyond those metrics and envisioned “how each city ecosystem would support our modernization efforts and priorities vertically from concept to capability to solution,” McCarthy said. “We do not have time to build this ecosystem; it needs to be ready immediately.”

The Army found Austin had access to academia, industry and mature entrepreneurial incubator hubs “to give our leaders placement and access to talent, ideas, collaboration and willingness to help us build the culture we need,” McCarthy said.
It's going to be a small unit, 500 people tops, led by a General.

But I wonder how effective can it be given that it will be so separated from the Defense Department establishment?

People argue that this is necessary so it can be innovative.

But at the same time, speaking of "the diffusion of innovations," they have to be in a position where the technologies and innovations can be introduced to, integrated within, and diffused throughout the organization.

Distant outposts of large organizations can be innovative.  But their ability to shape the future of the parent organization is limited.

Two counter-examples of (mostly) failure.  The first is the famous example of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.  This unit of Xerox pioneered the development of many computing technologies that we take for granted today, such as visual computing displays and the mouse (which has since mutated into the touchpad).

But none of these technologies were introduced into the market as successful products by Xerox, which was headquartered far away, in Rochester, New York, and where the corporation continued to be primarily focused on the copy machine ("Big Companies Can't Innovate Halfway," Harvard Business Review).

Ford Motor Company moves division headquarters to California.  In the late 1990s, to be more innovative and less hidebound by remaining based in Detroit, and in recognizing the value of big Western state markets, Ford moved the headquarters of Lincoln-Mercury from its Dearborn Michigan complex to Irvine, California ("Ford Moving Main Office of Lincoln Mercury to Irvine," Los Angeles Times).

Two years later, the "Premier Automotive Group" the division made up of recently acquired foreign manufacturers Aston-Martin, Volvo and Jaguar, joined them ("Ford to Move Luxury Lines Offices to Irvine," LAT).

Ford's PAG marques were sold off later, as plans and opportunities changed, the Mercury division was dissolved, and Lincoln's leadership moved back to Dearborn.

Although the design group stayed, and has developed some successful cars ("Irvine epicenter of auto design," Irvine City News), although now for the most part, Ford is abandoning the car part of the "car business" ("Ford is getting out of the car business: Here's what's behind the change," Autoweek).

Another example of one-off innovation.  Another example I frequently mention is the Carl English Botanical Gardens at the Chittenden (Ballard) Locks at Lake Washington in Seattle.  The locks connect the Lake and River system to the Puget Sound.  All locks in the US are run by the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Army doesn't create arboretums.  But because this installation is 2,400 miles from Washington, and was no priority for the Army generally, 20 years after the locks were built, a "groundskeeper," horticulturalist Carl English, Jr., was able to begin adding distinctive plantings because there wasn't close supervision to prevent him from doing so.

Now there's a great one-off arboretum there.  But it didn't influence or reshape the ACE going forward to add parks and botanical gardens to locks (although yes, it runs recreation areas as an incidental part of running dams and hydroelectric generation activities).

The challenge isn't just innovation, it's diffusion of the innovation.  And because of that, location and the ability to influence and shape the rest of the organization does matter.  How do you develop a feedback loop that connects into the parent organization?  Disconnected innovation becomes what I call "stranded best practice."

(Kroger's failure to systematically develop a subset of premium stores across their banners, or to make convenience stores be way better than a typical gas, beer, and tobacco store are examples.  See "Problem solvers versus possibility thinkers.")

This goes back to counter-insurgency units and "the Green Berets" and Ranger units developed in Vietnam, but not really integrated into Big Army thinking, much to the chagrin of the Army after they ran aground in Iraq, and rediscovered what was learned before.

While it will be great for the winning city, Austin, to have 500 more highly paid workers in a new high profile Army building, the challenge will be to make this move pay off for the Army and the Department of Defense.

The Layman approach to best practice development and diffusion: Indicate; Duplicate; Replicate; Communicate; Accelerate.  From "Revitalization planning vs. positive thinking* as planning" (2018) and "Helping Government Learn," (2009). My own take on innovation theory and the development, replication, and the diffusion of innovation is along these lines.

First develop a new practice and figure out if it works. Duplicate it to see if it is more than a one-off thing. Continue to scale it up and figure out all the elements. Once you've one that, communicate out so it can be and is successfully diffused.

1. Indicate -- identity the particulars of processes and structures of success and failure
2. Duplicate -- figure out how to duplicate (repeat) success.
3. Replicate -- develop the systems, structures, frameworks to apply programs to different situations and communicate them throughout innovation networks.
4. Communicate -- push out the final product to communities of practice for more widespread adoption, recognizing that other places will bring new elements to the model
5. Accelerate -- figure out how to speed up successful innovation and programs.

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