Hammers smash innovation


If your only tool is a hammer, you will treat everything like it is a nail.


In the military we have an overabundance of hammers in our leadership toolbox which makes every problem look like a nail. Hammers are policy and regulation. While policy and regulation are great for uniformity and structure, these hammers smash innovation, creativity, and create a culture where people are unprepared to operate in uncertainty.


Though I would love to, I can’t take credit for the hammer, policy, and regulation analogy. Richard Culatta shared this idea in his talk at TEDxProvidence. Culatta is Rhode Island’s Chief Innovation Officer a job I find quite odd because innovation and government is quite an oxymoron. As I listened to his talk it resonated with me because I have lived the hammer and nail for most of my military career and I see the inherent dangers in developing leaders who are adept at developing and following policy and regulation but unskilled at creating cultures of innovation and developing leaders who remain potent operating in uncertainty.


Hammers hinder thinking.


Policy and regulation spell out the specifics of what to do in a situation. It is a paint by numbers approach, where every step must be followed. This is excellent for preventive maintenance of vehicles and equipment but in situations of complexity there are multiple variables. In order for policies and regulations to work they must account for and define every possible scenario and outcome, which of course is unrealistic.


In the military if you grow up having policy give you paint by number instructions for everything you do, you will stop looking for alternative and better ways to do things. When you stop thinking of alternative approaches and better ways creativity is left to the policy makers, collaboration is frowned upon, and innovation ceases to exist.


The hammers we create also help develop people who are ill prepared to operate in uncertainty. People will look to the policy to define their actions and behaviors and when things go awry the fault is put on the policy. I say instead if we develop leaders who practice operating in less defined situations. They will develop the skills and resilience to deal with uncertainty when things do not go as planned.


We may have forgotten the dangers of a lack of creativity, innovation, and operating in uncertainty, but 15 years ago lack of imagination was one of the culprits the 9/11 Commission cited as contributing to the attacks on 9/11. As we stray further from that date, will we continue to weaken the most lethal weapon we have in the military- a creative, innovative, thinker?

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