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BIX Talks


The Big Ideas Exchange (BIX) is an NPS initiative that brings forward new and potentially game-changing thinking developed by NPS faculty and students to address grand challenges in American national security. These fresh approaches can become the lifeblood of future innovations in military and naval organization, doctrine, and strategy. They reflect and augment larger changes emerging in the world from recent technological advances.

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This overview talk describes the game-changing nature of big ideas, and their sometimes surprising origins.  For example, a century ago the challenge of flight was mastered by bike mechanics, outpacing the efforts of the leading scientists and engineers of the day. A decade later, the assembly-line concept was advanced, revolutionizing manufacturing.  It was inspired by a machinist’s visit to a friend at a meat-processing plant, where he saw butchers lopping off portions of the carcasses that came by on a conveyor belt. The assembly line simply reversed the process, adding parts as the skeletal auto frame moved along the line. In military and security affairs, a particular theme in big ideas has to do with small things, from the introduction of cube satellites to the creation of much smaller Army and Marine combat units that will be far nimbler and more networked than current formations. Above all, the point is made that ideas “matter.” And big ideas matter even more. 

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A burning aluminum cube releases much more energy than a detonating TNT cube. What if we could force aluminum to burn very rapidly? Next generation weapons may pack a bigger bang in a smaller package by clever use of metal combustion.

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New distinctions between combatants and non-combatants and precision-guided munitions raise new questions in the ethical conduct of war.

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The Department of Defense and military services have all expressed grave concern over our ability to lead military innovations in the face of increasingly innovative adversaries. Innovativeness will come from individual leadership through all ranks, not from top-down initiatives. Future promotions will give increasing weight to demonstrated innovation leadership. This course defines a framework for innovation leadership, identifies its skill sets, and teaches them. We envision a military in which every service member is an innovation leader.

Our current common sense tells us that innovation is hard to achieve (about 4% of innovation projects succeed), requires prodigious effort (90% of the work is in achieving adoption), and takes a long time (often over 10 years). It tells us to focus on creativity to generate new ideas and careful planning to sell and implement our ideas within our fields of action. This story makes innovation leadership seem like hard, unsatisfying work performed by a few genius-hero leaders who were lucky enough to be in the right places a the right times.

We offer a new “common sense” grounded in the ideas that innovation is the adoption of a practice within a community and that there are discrete, learnable skills or practices for leading the innovation process. The innovation skill set consists of eight essential practices through which the leader intentionally generates innovations. Innovation leaders become navigators who find paths from the current world state to a new desired state, and mobilizers of networks of many contributors. Innovation leaders foster the conversations in which the requests, promises, offers, declarations, assessments, and assertions that contribute to adoption take place. This leadership is satisfying and rewarding.

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