What’s your innovation’s value?

commentary innovation

Maj. Neal Wall, 50th Contracting Squadron commander. (U.S. Air Force photo)


Innovation is a hot topic in today’s Department of Defense and it’s a critical element needed to increase readiness and lethality with limited resources. On Oct. 5, 2017, the Secretary of Defense published the Defense Department’s three lines of effort which include:

1) Restore military readiness to build a more lethal force.

2) Strengthen alliances and attract new partners.

3) Bring business reforms to the DoD. 

All three lines of effort require rapid and meaningful innovation to achieve success. The mission, vision and priorities of our Air Force senior leaders, from the Chief of Staff of the Air Force to the 50th Space Wing commander, demand innovation. The 50th SW is even offering Financial Year 2019 funds to turn innovative ideas into reality as part of the wing’s Innovative Warfighters Advancing Readiness program.    

However, innovation is not easy. While Air Force Space Command, 14th Air Force and 50th SW commanders’ strategic intents, strategic plans and implementation plans lay out key initiatives, priorities and lines of effort to focus your innovative efforts, how do you maximize your return on investment in order to create and sustain a high level of organizational innovation that supports leaderships’ priorities?  When answering these questions, you may feel overwhelmed and ask yourself where you should focus your efforts to maximize innovation success. 

A recent Harvard Business Review article discusses two types of innovation that will help you think about how to focus and prioritize your innovation efforts when answering these questions.

These two types of innovations include innovation capacity and innovation ability. Both types of innovation are necessary to achieve innovation, but focusing more of your efforts on one of these innovation types may lead to sustained long term innovation success, while solely focusing all of your efforts on the other may not lead to any innovation at all. 

The HBR article’s authors, Peder Furseth and Richard Cuthbertson, define innovation capacity as the organization’s potential for innovation and classify assets and resources as part of an organization’s innovation capacity.

It is easier for an organization to focus and invest limited resources on innovation capacity by funding new technologies and increasing personnel as those items are low hanging fruits that appear to increase innovation efforts. It’s simple to say you will be more innovative if you only had this new piece of equipment, this new facility, or these additional funded positions. Innovation capacity by itself, however, has no vision. It is only a tactical level attempt at innovation and may not result in any increased innovation within your organization.    

This is where the second type, innovation ability, comes in. It’s more difficult to achieve because it requires thinking strategically versus tactically. The HBR article’s authors define innovation ability as new ways to create value for stakeholders.

This may include innovations such as revising or expanding a current weapon system’s capabilities, building a new or improving a current operations model, or developing a new or improving a current process all in an effort to provide new or enhanced experiences, capabilities and value for stakeholders that aligns with leadership’s priorities. 

While innovation capacity is one type of innovation and there may be a need for increased innovation capacity to support your organization’s innovation. True innovation occurs when you focus your innovation efforts and capacity on creating value for your organization, your customers, your mission partners and your leadership.

When you think about your answer to the title of this commentary, think in terms of innovation capacity and innovation ability. Don’t simply think about innovation value in terms of the cost to increase innovation capacity. 

Think about the value your innovation can provide to your organization’s stakeholders by creating value in the form of new capabilities and experiences.

Focus on the innovation ability. Ask yourself how your innovative ability truly provides value to evolve integrated operations and drives space and cyberspace warfighting superiority by changing your stakeholder’s experiences, ways of doing business, or mission and weapon systems.