Too Important To Fail: Why innovation matters more to the military than in business

Image courtesy of Amazon. Image courtesy of Amazon.

I watched Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos the other night on 60 Minutes – and, at the end of the interview, he said something that caught my attention.  Maybe even more so than the tiny flying drones that he’s interested in using to deliver a significant portion of his inventory to us in 2015.  Actually, this comment pertained to the long term viability of his company. He said this to his interviewer, Charlie Rose:

“Companies have short life spans, Charlie, and Amazon will be disrupted one day.”

[Charlie Rose: “Then you worry about that?”]

“I don’t worry about that because I know it’s inevitable. Companies come and go. And the companies that are the shiniest and most important of any era, wait a few decades and they’re gone.”

[Charlie Rose: “And your job is to delay that date?”]

“I’d certainly love for it to be after I’m dead.”

At roughly the same time, there was an awfully good radio Freakonomics podcast which addressed a question about the U.S. Post Office’s business model.  [Which, as an aside, I recently went to see Jerry Seinfeld and he crushed the USPS with this question: “Did they come up with this business plan in 1630…one centered on licking, walking, and a random number of pennies?”]  Anyhow, at about 20 minutes in to the Freakonomics program, there’s a dialogue between Steven Dubner and Steven Levitt.  They talk about how hard it is to survive and thrive over time, particularly as a big company.

Dubner brings up Sears, and likens their contemporary business model to a lumbering dinosaur, ambling along, and wonders when it will have the sense to just lay down it’s head and pass away.  Levitt mentions that he has written about the “so called” Good to Great companies – and that when you look at them over time – they actually go from Good to Great to Below Average.  Levitt posits two reasons why it big companies are bad at massive changes: #1: the culture recognizes that to get big you have to be very good at something, so why change?  #2: the business culture does not want to rethink everything.

So how does this business analysis apply to the military?  Well, start with an assumption – the opposite one that Jeff Bezos made.  Assume that the U.S. will always need a military force; it will be around in perpetuity.  Some don’t like that assumption, but that’s where we’ll start.

Now, innovation matters greatly to those in business, right?  At least that’s what Bezos, Dubner, and Levitt have been talking about above.  So if innovation matters greatly to those in businesses where they’ll get consumed (or, a la Bezos, “disrupted”) in 10, 20, or 40 years – how much must innovation matter to a military force that will never be disbanded?  By my simple analysis, that would suggest that innovation is an even greater imperative for the military than for cutting edge businesses.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.