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More Innovation from Lessons Learned


Thomas Bøtker Mortensen – Captain-R, LO/S3/ST/IBTN/IBDE and PhD student in Business Strategy at University of Southern Denmark – recently deployed to Iraq on DANCON Iraq Team 5.

The present article is written in English as its content has been discussed with scholars/researchers at Stanford University at San Francisco, during a research stay in 2007. As the Danish Army is facing (1) new and diverse tasks, (2) a high level of change in these tasks, and (3) a high pace of new technologies, the Army is required to become a highly innovative organization. This is further substantiated by the fact that, unlike the old enemy, the new enemies have a much higher potential for innovation and thereby changing the rules of the game. Therefore the current situation demands of the Army that it becomes as innovative as possible. At universities, for decades, scholars/researchers have focused on research on strategy in competitive environments, and one of the resulting streams of literature, on evolutionary theory, is used in this article to provide some answers to how the Army can become more innovative. The identified strategies are: (1) creating a corporate culture that provides a wider variation of ideas and knowledge, (2) creating mechanisms that will allow ideas to travel to the right selectors and retainers, (3) shortening the time of retention, and (4) using strong change agents when collaborating with other armed forces. In order for the reader to develop more useful strategies, the underlying theoretical logic of the four strategies is presented in the article.

The pressure to become an innovative organization

In the past, the Danish Army faced the same type of threat and the same set of missions decade after decade. However, over the past 15 years the Army has been deploying significant contingents to former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan, and this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Thus, first of all, new tasks make it imperative for the Army become an innovative organization. Secondly, these new tasks and settings have a higher level of change, which, in turn, means a greater pressure to be an innovative organization. The scenario during the Cold War was relatively stable, as opposed to the new scenario which best can be described as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), for one reason because today’s enemies often are smaller entities with an ability to change fast and unpredictably. Here follows an example: In Iraq the insurgents were able to launch new types of severe challenges to the Danish Army in average every six months. Very shortly before the deployment of DANCON Iraq Team 5 it became apparent that roadside bombs posed a severe threat, with the Army left without any standard operating procedure to handle this threat. When DANCON Iraq Team 5 arrived in theatre, the insurgents had already gone from commandwired roadside bombs to wireless roadside bombs, and before DANCON Iraq Team 5 left Iraq – just 195 days later, the insurgents had introduced passive infrared triggers (PIR) and gone from conventional explosives to explosive formed projectiles (EFP). This high pace in new challenges makes it imperative for the Army to become an innovative organization. Thirdly, new technologies become available, i.e. the Leopard II, UAV, ECM, and the implementation of these demands changes to existing standard operation procedures (SOPs) and opens up possibilities for implementing new SOPs. Preferably, these changes need to be implemented fast and with as low costs as possible.

The complications for an army to become an innovative organization

The Danish Army has all the characteristics of a large organization, mainly because it has a high level of diversity; vertically, horizontally and spatially. Large organizations are usually considered good at standardization, respecting rules/regulations and achieving high output with low input. Walther W. Powell argues: “Large organizations are designed to do certain things well over and over again.” … “For certain kinds of activities, such practices are useful, but for others it can result in informal logjams and a serious mismatch between organizational outcomes and the demands of clients and customers in a changing environment”. (Powell, 1990). In order to stay as innovative and competitive as small firms, large private firms compensate for their innovative disadvantage by (1) recruiting new employees – either new employees with new education from schools and universities or new employees with experience from other firms or industries (2) merging or acquiring other firms with the relevant experience, (3) collaborating with other firms with the relevant experience, or (4) generating knowledge internally. However, with regards to the Army’s military missions, then the Army is the only legal organization in society, and, therefore, it can not hire people with relevant education or experience and is furthermore unable to merge with or acquire other organizations. Consequently, the Army has to learn from its collaboration partners or generate knowledge internally. Since internal knowledge generation has the largest potential, it will be the main focus of this article.

Innovative organizations

This article draws upon several research streams on innovation, but the structure of the article is shaped by the research area called Evolutionary Theory, that was established by Richard R. Nelson and Sidney G. Winter. The two researchers met while working at RAND Corporation, known for the application of strategic thinking to a wide range of security challenges facing USA and the world. The evolutionary theory argues that an organization’s knowledge is stored in the routines of the organization, which moreover are guidelines to the behavior of the members of the organization. Routines include forms, rules, procedures, conventions, strategies, and technologies (Nelson and Winter, 1982). The routines are transferred to new employees or to employees moved to new functions by two means: (1) intentionally communicated and taught or (2) unintentionally acquired by new employees copying behavior of their older colleagues. The Danish Army stores a significant part of its routines in the Field Manuals and in the SOPs of the individual subunits (e.g. battalions and companies). Innovation and changes in the routines happen in three steps: variation, selection and retention.


Variation in a routine happens when people work with the established routines. As early as 1776 Adam Smith described the effects of dividing labor in to different crafts. “[…] in consequence of the division of labour, the whole of every man’s attention comes naturally to be directed towards some one simple object. It is naturally to be expected, therefore, that some one or other of those employed in each particular branch of labour should soon find out easier and readier methods of performing their own work, wherever the nature of it admits of such improvement. A great part of the machines made use of in those manufactures in which labour is most subdivided, were originally the inventions common workmen, […]”. (Smith, 1776) Though users of a tool or a routine were already a significant driving force of innovation in the 1700s, this significance has increased, mainly because users have acquired access to a lot of information through focused TV programs and periodicals and through the internet. Therefore, users have access to almost the same amount of information as innovation-responsible employees. Additionally users have a higher level of motivation for innovation, as well as more experience about working with these matters than the innovation-responsible employees. Von Hippel and his colleagues have shown that this effect exists in many different industries and product categories. Furthermore, they have found that user networks can be more innovative than firms that focus on the same innovation – especially in the beginning of a new innovation. To illustrate this, here is a contemporary example: The camel back, which no Danish soldier in Iraq, Afghanistan or Sudan would like to be without, was not invented by a design company or an army’s institution with the same purpose. Rather, it was a paramedic from Texas who invented this useful piece of equipment back in 1988. The paramedic was an avid road biker and as the weather in Texas tend to be hot and dry, ”he fashioned a drinking system from surgical tubing and an IV bag that he sewed to his shirt [… to …] prevent dehydration during a summer bike race” (New York Times, 2003-07-14). Finally, it is worth emphasizing that the potential for innovation increases as the amount and the extent of variation in ideas and knowledge increases. James G. March’s research on organizational learning shows how the individual member’s knowledge differ from the organization’s knowledge, and how the organizational knowledge benefits from adopting ideas and knowledge from the individual’s knowledge (March, 1991). However, there needs to be a selecting and a retaining mechanism for the organization’s knowledge to select these ideas or this knowledge from the individuals and to distribute this to the organization members.


Variation of ideas and knowledge are not enough, as they need to be selected as well. Selection of a routine can happen when the routine is better adapted to the environment, which means that the routine needs to be superior relative to existing routines. However the routine also needs to be compatible in the environment (Everett M. Rogers, 2003). It needs to be compatible with both existing complementary routines and existing equipment. Back to the example with the camel back: The camel back was an idea that was superior to the bottle in the soldier’s personal load carrying equipment, and at the same time, it was compatible with the existing gear. Therefore the “workmen” selected it and started using it, as the vice president of Camel Bak’s marketing department explains: ''But we discovered that special forces were taking our basic black model and sneaking it into their equipment'' (New York Times, 2003-07-14).


When ideas or knowledge have been created through variation and have been selected, they also need to be retained in order for innovation to happen. The best way of retaining routines is when schools select the idea and store it in the Field Manuals. But in order for an idea or knowledge to influence the behavior of the Army, the idea or knowledge has to travel to the decision makers with the power to decide what goes into the Field Manuals. This process can be long and go through people with very different knowledge. Each person has to select the idea, and as they often have very different knowledge and experiences, they may choose not to select the idea and refrain from forwarding the idea for approval, because they do not evaluate it to be of the same quality. Or they may choose to prioritize other matters or may abandon the idea because it is no good for their carrier - the latter because employees do not only have one set of objectives. They both work for the objectives of the organization, and, at the same time, the objectives of their own career, which – when it comes to innovation – may well be contradictory, especially when the organization is large. Because “[…] in large hierarchical organizations” … like the Danish Army … “promotions up the career ladder are a key part of the reward structure. You have, then, little incentive to disagree with the operating decision made by people above your rank because they are the people who must decide on your promotion” (Argyris, 1977). Allow me to provide an example where retention did not happen: “In the early days of sea voyages, scurvy killed more sailors than did warfare, accidents and other causes. For instance, of Vasco da Gama’s crew of 160 men who sailed with him around the Cape of Good Hope in 1497, 100 died of scurvy. In 1601, an English sea captain, James Lancaster, conducted an experiment to evaluate the effectiveness of lemon juice in preventing scurvy” (Rogers, 2003). He served three teaspoons of lemon juice per person per day on one of his ships, but not on the remaining three ships, and the results were extremely convincing. Today we all know why. However, 150 years went by before, in 1747, testing of adding lemons and oranges to the diet on sea voyages was repeated. But scurvy was not eradicated in the British navy until 1795 and in the merchant marine not until 1865. In other words, it took 264 years for the acquired knowledge to travel to all corners of the British Navy. Even though James Lancaster had achieved impressive results and had the status of being a commander of four ships, he was too far away from the relevant decision makers – the navy physicians – and his idea was not compatible with existing ideas and prevailing knowledge of that time. This example of retention of selected ideas/knowledge serves as a clear example to show that even the most brilliant new ideas or knowledge are not necessarily implemented in an organization as these may have to travel through too many persons who may not find the ideas superior or compatible relative to their thinking, or may choose to prioritize other matters.

Strategies for making the Danish Army a more innovative organization

Drawing upon the described theory, one may identify and subsequently implement numerous strategies. However, as the purpose of this article is not to exhaust all the possible strategies, only four potential strategies will be highlighted, and as their logic is explained it ideally ought to be relatively easy to create other strategies following the same type of logic.

Creating a corporate culture that provides a wider variation of ideas and knowledge

A significant increase in the level of innovativeness of an organization can be attained by communicating the relevance to the employees. The aim of the strategy is to create an atmosphere where experimenting with existing ideas and knowledge is seen as an important activity for being an innovative organization, and where making unfortunate results is allowed at appropriate times, as long as it is in the effort to reach better results in the future. Google.com is an extremely innovative firm, which have lead Google.com to expand from 4000 employees to 13000 employees over two years. This extreme expansion is a result of google.com innovativeness, which has allowed them to move successfully into several markets on the internet. In order to be innovative, employees at google.com spend 20% of their working time on playing and experimenting with their existing ideas and knowledge, and for these 20% the managers expect to see innovative results from the employees.

Creating mechanisms that will allow ideas to travel to the right selectors and retainers

Lancaster’s way of curing scurvy did not persuade the key decision makers to include that type of knowledge into the routines of the organization. A possible reason is that he did not know how to target the right stake holders or decision makers, or he was too far away from the identified decision makers. The success of the Danish contingent in Iraq was very much dependent on access to actionable intelligence and being able to come down on insurgents or people helping insurgents by offering safe houses. However, halfway through Team 5’s deployment there was still no reliable tool for handling intelligence in a way thorough which it would be possible to retrieve it fast and use it on a daily basis, and in a way that would make it easy for new teams to deploy into the area of operations and execute operations based upon intelligence provided by previous teams. Therefore, only little intelligence from previous teams was used, and the overall intelligence picture was, at best, inadequate and could, at worst, have had fatal consequences. The fact there were still no reliable tools two years into a mission illustrates quite clearly that the previous teams had not been able to communicate this to the relevant people. Journals like Kentaur and Military Journal are well suited for this task, although the present level of ideas and knowledge that travel through these far from exhausts the potential of the media. In research environments all over the world, journals are widely used for distributing new ideas and knowledge. However to that end researchers also make use of conferences, which are also useful for (1) discussion and distributing new ideas, and (2) for directing the attention and the discussion of a community of relevant people towards special areas of current interest. Could such conferences be used to collect ideas and knowledge and to direct the focus of interest to most urgent areas? Could conferences create networks between people from schools and units? And could conferences motivate the members of the organization to generate variation in thoughts and action and come forward with these variations? Across an organization, people work with overlapping tasks and connecting these people provides a great potential for generating ideas and knowledge and discussing the advantages of new ideas and new knowledge. In the literature stream on organizational learning, such communities are known as communities of practice. New medium such as the internet and intranet technology make it very easy and inexpensive to connect communities of practice and makes it very easy for the members of these communities to engage in dialogue. For example sections at the Army Combat School or the Defense Acquisition and Logistics Organization can establish a blog and act as a catalyst for ongoing discussions with experts from different parts of the Army. The discussions can be more or less open depending on the purpose of the discussion and the matter being discussed. There are advantages and disadvantages to both models.

Shortening the time of retention

The previous example of scurvy furthermore showed that though the new innovation was understood by the top of the British Navy, it took a long time until it was used throughout the entire organization. A mechanism that is able to distribute new routines or changes in routines fast can possibly lead to reduced numbers of combat losses. The Field Manuals were perfect for a slowly developing organization where changes were rare, but for an innovative organization this way of communicating new ideas and knowledge is too slow. Firstly, the implementation time is slow, and, secondly, sending out new pages is slow and costly.

The use of an intranet makes online distribution of Field Manuals possible, enabling employees to read and print these holders of key information and knowledge. Today, printing is very cheap. Also producing videos has become less complicated and less expensive and the increasing popular medium such as Youtube.com clearly indicate, that video communication has evolved into a low cost easily done model available to most people. This model could also be used for communicating ideas and knowledge which is not easy or fast to read into, thereby substituting or complementing the Field Manuals. However, it can also be used for communicating new ideas and knowledge from deployed units and back to schools and be implemented for the training of the next unit which will be deployed to theater.

Using strong change agents when collaborating with other armed forces

Variation in present thinking can also be created by working together with other organizations. However, in order to benefit from that, the involved persons involved must be good change agents. A good change agent is a person who knows his field so well that (1) he is able to select new ideas and knowledge with high potentials, (2) he is able to choose the relevant persons and media to retain the new idea or knowledge, and finally (3) he can sell the idea or knowledge to the targeted audience. The amount of time spent by the change agent in the community also influences the changes of an idea to diffuse to the relevant decision makers for retaining the knowledge in Field Manuals. Since reserve officers often return to their civilian jobs following a deployment, the impact of innovation is therefore relatively insignificant compared to their full time colleagues. However this disadvantage can be reduced by having a period of service immediately following the deployment. That said, it is also worth noticing that since reserve officers have another background than their full time colleagues, they often have different perspectives and questions, and that in itself generates variation in thinking.


The Danish Army can become more innovative by focusing on the variation, selection and retention of routines; i.e. (1) creating a corporate culture that provides a wider variation of ideas and knowledge, (2) creating mechanisms that will allow ideas to travel to the right selectors and retainers, (3) shortening the time of retention, and (4) using strong change agents when collaborating with other armed forces. The four strategies far from exhaust the useful strategies and more can be identified by following the same logic.


Smith, A. (1776) “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations”, MetaLibri. Argyris, C. (1977) “Double loop learning in organizations”, Harvard Business Review. March, J.G. (1991) “Exploration and Exploitation in Organizational Learning”, Organization Science. Nelson, R.R. & Winter, S.G. (1982) ”An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change”, Harvard University Press. Powell, W.W. (1990) “Neither Market nor Hierarchy: Network Forms of Organization”, Research in Organizational Behavior. Rogers, E.M. (2003) “Diffusion of innovations”, Free Press.