A Culture of Innovation Drives Acceleration!

Rapid response to Corps’ modernization efforts

Innovation—the discovery of new ideas, methods, or technologies—is a necessary but insufficient condition to achieve the dominant warfighting capability edge needed to address both near-peer adversaries and other threats. Military history is replete with accounts of battles won not because of an advantage in the number of soldiers or platforms but rather by the side that employed a new technology—or a new combination of existing technologies—against an unwitting opponent.

At its heart, the Marine Corps’ Force Design initiative an innovation strategy that directs the entire Marine Corps, in a phased and organized way, to conduct innovation activities (experiments, tests) across technology and concepts of operations against current and anticipated threats.The acquisition community, fully engaged in responding to the Corps’ modernization efforts, often misses opportunities to adopt innovation. As this round of Force Design is funded, technology and capability acquisition must innovate at scale to ensure our Marines dominate across their multi-domain mission sets.

Today, we are engulfed—and at times overwhelmed—by the dizzying pace of technological change, spanning across known areas and extending into soon-to-be-known domains. The list is long. But mere discovery is useless unless those technologies or concepts are adopted, integrated, tested, fielded, and improved at the right speed, scale, and cost to support our warfighters. And nowhere is innovation more important than in the acquisition domain where new technologies are delivered at scale as new programs or capability improvements to existing programs. We know what side we want to be on in any conflict: the side that maintains a dominant advantage that will deter—and if necessary defeat—an adversary. To achieve this dominance, the Marine Corps’ acquisition community must develop a stronger innovation culture that can increase the pace of innovation adoption.

Most of the proposed solutions to improving the DOD’s innovation adoption are focused on broad organizational or authorities changes to the Defense Acquisition System and the Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution System. The recently issued report from the Atlantic Council’s Commission on Defense Innovation Adoption outlines many of these recommendations that the DOD is considering implementing.2 However, there is little attention on how we can improve innovation adoption at all echelons and formations within the Defense Acquisition System.

Oftentimes, the way we are organized, both the acquisition commands and military formations are byproducts of the way we won the last war and can frustrate the pace of implementing innovations. After all, traditional military organizational structures, and how they fight wars, are optimized for operational execution and not for innovation. Orders must be given and followed, and experimenting in combat is high risk. In fact, it is hard to find a requirement to innovate in any military doctrine, process, or procedure. One common approach to spurring innovation in organizations is to create a centralized innovation group or cell that interested organizations can leverage. While this approach has its advantages, a notable drawback is that it can lead the rest of the organization to rely exclusively on that one group for innovation, assuming that it is someone else’s mission.

The acquisition community has the mission focus and tools to be a full-fledged innovation partner in re-equipping the force for its 2030 (or sooner) posture. Acquisition professionals partnered closely with the requirements setters at the Deputy Commandant for Capability Development and Integration and funding managers at the Deputy Commandant for Programs and Resources are empowered to tailor acquisition strategies, plans, and schedules to deliver capabilities promptly. They are adept at finding new and creative ways to improve capability delivery within the resources they have. The attributes of an innovation culture are present to varying degrees across our acquisition community, but they often compete with a well-entrenched regulatory and compliance culture and a set of beliefs and behaviors wedded to traditions, habits, risk aversion, and a predisposition to assume that only marginal change is possible. In short, our latent innovation culture is often overshadowed by our compliance culture.

While the formal innovation ecosystem (e.g., Marine Innovation Unit, Office of Naval Research, Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, NavalX, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Strategic Capabilities Office, Defense Innovation Unit, etc.) is an important source of ideas (and of increasing resources), the acquisition community has huge opportunities to demonstrate the innovation it can contribute through the prototypes, programs, and capability that it is fielding to the fleet. We need to become full members of the innovation ecosystem.

Former Under Secretary of the Navy James “Hondo” Guerts said as much, noting, “When organizations don’t build in the ability to pivot quickly, they become very brittle.” A recent Gallup report identified eight factors as the building blocks of agile workplace culture, summarized by Guerts in his “4 D’s” to increase the Navy’s organizational pivot speed and agility.In short, decentralize, differentiate the work, maximize the power of the digit, and most importantly, develop talent. He believed that to truly empower innovation, one must first address infrastructure. Building a culture that values how we address failure and create spaces for psychological safety—knowing that the team is there to support their ideas and challenges in a non-confrontational way.A truly innovative organization needs to understand that changing a culture is not only driven by factors within our systems and processes but also by the mindset we foster in our workforce.

However, it is important to recognize the tensions between a culture of innovation and one oriented toward compliance. What are some indicators of an “innovation culture?” Of a “compliance culture?” How can we reconcile the two, keeping the best of both cultures? How do we resolve these contradictions that frustrate innovation adoption? How do we unleash our innate innovation energy to ensure we are key enablers and implementers of innovation adoption? How often is the acquisition community crowdsourced to help solve capability gaps, rather than for the fleet or Headquarters Marine Corps to assume that we are only focused on the program of record baselines?

One way to gauge readiness to innovate is to assess whether your team or formation exhibits yes-if versus no-because behaviors.A yes-if organization rises above process and procedural allegiance to find new ways to solve complex procurement and operational challenges. Yes-if teams anticipate, adapt, and thrive in dynamic environments. They take new approaches and test boundaries without fear of failure. Are we taking measured and deliberate risks, not only in executing our cost, schedule, and performance responsibilities but, in responding to fleet feedback and the need to keep the capability at an unfair advantage level? There are of course many occasions when programs need to say no, but that message is often best delivered to the fleet or others as a conversation about how to achieve the yes outcome. Other organizations that must anticipate, adapt, and thrive in rapidly changing environments have achieved great success in adopting a yes-if culture.6

There are five other areas that acquisition organizations should explore to gauge and improve their innovation culture.7

First, they should be tolerant of failure but not of poor workmanship or incompetence. Failures rooted in incompetence cost too much time or money to tolerate. We need to focus on achieving success while learning and avoid unnecessary repeated failures. Treat a failure as a “first attempt at learning” with the expectation that a professional, well-trained, and certified team will achieve success in its next attempt.

Second, be willing to experiment and take measured risks but be ruthless in establishing objective criteria to evaluate the results and take the next step or move on to the next effort. Continuous experimentation without a shared understanding of when to stop must be avoided.

Third, create an environment that fosters everyone’s engagement and participation so that candid and data-centered views can be shared without fear of professional embarrassment or ridicule. Focusing on objective measures and data-centered discussions keeps the team focused on getting all ideas and solutions out in the open and avoids negative emotions.

Fourth, foster collaboration while continuing to acknowledge individual contributions. For better or worse, our performance management systems are focused on individuals, not teams, and government civilians are evaluated for their individual performance and achievements. Team performance is usually only evaluated by boards screening award nominations. Find ways to reward team achievement and collaboration by holding individuals accountable for promoting that behavior.

Fifth, keep organizational structures and decision making as flat as possible by using commander’s intent and mission orders to encourage team-focused initiatives across the acquisition formation.

These are not necessarily easy contradictions to resolve or manage. Balancing a rising innovation culture with a compliance culture requires ambidextrous leadership at all levels to achieve seemingly incompatible objectives.This is the acquisition innovator’s dilemma: to ensure timely operational execution to deliver capability and capacity with enterprise processes, practices, and procedures while continually seeking novel technologies to improve what is in development or already fielded. In many ways, it is a smaller example of the competition between modernization and readiness that the Marine Corps is working its way through today via Force Design. And we know the seeds of success are present. Some program-specific examples below show what an innovation culture can achieve to increase capability delivery velocity through innovation adoption:

  • Medium Range Intercept Capability: An innovative acquisition strategy to stitch together three existing Marine Corps programs of record together (Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar, Common Aviation Command and Control System, Composite Tracking Network), adapt a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System launcher, and leverage an international partner (Israel) to provide the missile and other elements (Iron Dome). Open architecture, risk reduction, avoiding long development cycles and new production lines, and looking to leverage the Israeli’s tactical experience for test and evaluation purposes are all hallmarks of an innovative culture.
  • Amphibious Combat Vehicle mission role variants procurement strategy: Use an engineering change proposal approach vice individual full rate production contracts for each lot to avert delays during months-long continuing resolution “no new start” limitations.
  • Marine Air Defense Integrated System: Using existing commercial or military off-the-shelf systems (radars, effectors, vehicles) and a Navy warfare center to integrate greatly reduces risk by avoiding the development of new systems and all the work associated with a new procurement. Took risk in leveraging the warfare center as the lead system integrator and managing the technical baseline to ensure an open systems architecture approach for rapid tech insertions.
  • Integrated Air and Missile Defense Roadmap Synchronization: Innovation in partnering closely with the Missile Defense Agency and PEO-Integrated Weapons System to ensure integration of Marine Corps groundbased air defense assets and Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar with Navy and joint mission threads and kill chains. This effort has no dedicated program manager or large staff and is a great example of cross-enterprise collaboration, embracing experiments and an environment well aligned to specific, integration and interoperability objectives.

Improving the Marine Corps’ pace of innovation adoption will only be as successful as our innovation culture is strong. A weak culture will lapse into compliance and not creativity. Striving for a yes-if attitude towards our stakeholders sets the foundation for resolving the cultural contradictions we face in our day-to-day balance of leading execution with purposeful innovation to improve capability. Let us add some more stories to the few examples outlined here and become indispensable members of the innovation ecosystem.


1. Staff, “Force Design,” Marines.mil, n.d., https://www.marines.mil/Force-Design.

2. Whitney M. McNamara, Peter Modigliani, Matthew MacGregor, and Eric Lofgren, “Final Report of the Commission of Defense Innovation Adoption,” Atlantic Council, January 16, 2024, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/atlantic-council-commission-on-defense-innovation-adoption.

3. Marco Nink, “How to Weave Agility Throughout Your Corporate Culture,” Gallup, January 17, 2019, https://www.gallup.com/workplace/245999/weave-agility-throughout-corporate-culture.aspx.

4. Alison Escalante, “How the Navy Created a Culture of Innovation in Big Bureaucracy,” Forbes, May 4, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/alisonescalante/2021/05/04/how-the-navy-created-a-culture-of-innovation-in-big-bureaucracy/?sh=158e48f8766f.

5. Pankaj Srivastava, “The Power Of Yes: Why The Yes Mindset Leads To Innovation And Creates Great Leaders,” Forbes, May 17, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesbusinesscouncil/2021/05/17/the-power-of-yes-why-the-yes-mindset-leads-to-innovation-and-creates-great-leaders.

6. Information available at https://sma.nasaq.gov/sma-disciplines/safety-culture.

7. John Kamensky, “Five Paradoxes of an Innovation Culture,” Government Executive, January 30, 2019, https://www.govexec.com/management/2019/01/five-paradoxes-innovation-culture/154531.

8. Charles A. O’Reilly and Michael L. Tushman, Lead and Disrupt (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).