Organizational leaders be they public service managers or business executives, view innovation as a source of organizational change, growth, and effectiveness. Innovation in the Military, specifically the US Army is generally associated with weapon systems or a new strategic paradigm. Instead, innovation is much broader in scope and is defined as a complicated process of applying new ideas for gainful purpose.
Bureaucratic organizations, such as those in the Department of Defense often lose track of the idea that tiny improvements in a thousand places can lead to innovation in almost any service. This article suggests that these “tiny improvements” occur and have been occurring throughout the Army’s history due in no small part to the efforts of the Warrant Officer Corps. Yet this was not always the case; many internal and external factors have played a part in the evolution of how the Army uses its cadre of Warrant Officers. Technology and globalization have certainly been a significant part of this evolution, however, more than this the professional growth and cultural idiosyncrasies of the Corps itself and the dominant design that has been established in the Army are also noteworthy factors.
Evolution of an Innovative Force
What makes the Warrant Officer such a powerful instrument of innovation and change? While there are many answers to the query, I argue that there are three primary areas that allow the Warrant Officer to be a positive agent for innovation; dominant design, empowerment, and a unique approach to leadership. Each of these will be addressed in more detail, however, it should be noted that, the emergence of a dominant design in an organization is potentially restrictive in many contexts, especially in the private sector. Interestingly, certain structural restrictions in the military sector are required if innovation is to occur. In other words, any attempt to innovate in the military sector first requires, perhaps paradoxically, a stable organizational design.
Dominant Design – The Bureaucracy
The process of moving from a dynamic organization to a static one, from a period of rapid organizational learning to a period of slow or no progress appears to be irreversible. It is well documented that the dominant design the military sector formulated is the bureaucracy. Stability, efficiency, and policies are established so that a sense of consistency can permeate the typically large organization. Such was the case in the early days of the Warrant Officer Corps, first established in 1918 when Congress established the Army Mine Planter Service as part of the coast Artillery. This action assured that exclusively Army personnel manned their vessels.
This design served the institution well for many decades; through World Wars I and II, the Vietnam period, and even the first gulf war. However, technological advancements, demographic shifts, and the onset of globalization conspired against the stability seeking organization. The organization could no longer operate under the traditional assumptions that the environment was rational. Therefore, the main goal of standardizing and controlling subunits had ceased in providing efficient services. The military sector discovered that the rational pursuit of efficiency denies the very existence of innovation, thus change was necessary and occurring although not necessarily in a way that the system was originally designed to handle.
Innovation through Empowerment
By the mid-1990s it was clear the mechanistic approach of the Army bureaucracy was beginning to take a toll on the individuals within its walls; stagnation of purpose and performance were rampant. At the same time the Warrant Officer Corps evolved into more than a cadre of specialists and in 1996 the Army developed a clear and concise formal definition of the Warrant Officer. Thus, whether by design or a happenstance of decades of cultural adaptation, Warrant Officers were now formally empowered to use their combined expertise to innovate across the entire Army enterprise. The definition states that the:
“Warrant Officer is a highly specialized expert and trainer
who, by gaining progressive levels of expertise and
leadership, operates, maintains, administers, and
manages the Army’s equipment, support activities,
or technical systems for an entire career.”
While, this definition was not designed with any specific intention regarding innovation it served as a catalyst for the Warrant Officer to pursue improvements in products or services within the confines of the system. This empowerment served as the catalyst for “bottom-up” and mid-level innovations to permeate the organization. Innovations in Soldier career development processes, organizational design, and technology adoption occurred through an informal network of professionals seeking improvement in the provision of services to internal stakeholders. The realization that internal stakeholders were vital to the success of the organization was perhaps the most significant innovation for the Army during that period; and it was the Warrant Officer who provided this realization.
By 2005, the external landscape changed drastically, the Army was in a state of persistent conflict coupled with an ambiguous global environment. Seeking efficiency and control as a method of dealing with complex and “sticky” problem was no longer even a consideration. Warrant Officers having been fully integrated into the organizational culture of the Army by this date created an informal or sometimes alternative leadership structure that sought after innovative practices. This leadership approach might best be termed adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership is in essence the flexible switching between innovation requirements, leadership behaviors, and follower behaviors. This may seem like an impossible requirement however, most Warrant Officers are not only capable of serving in this capacity, the organization itself is designed and has an expectation for this to occur. Interestingly, the Army has evolved from tolerating “positive deviants,” to expecting positive deviants, in the form of Warrant Officers, to propel change and innovation.
I am not suggesting that the only innovation occurring in the Army comes from Warrant Officers; however, their adaptive ability and sanctioned flexibility allow them to pursue innovative efforts that often lead to unique solutions to complex problems. Moreover, with every successful endeavor and sometimes unsuccessful one, the credibility of the Warrant Officer role increases and thus ensures others within the organization will either seek to fill this role themselves or be compelled to support those who are. Thus creating a cycle of not only innovation acceptance but a process for ensuring creative and innovative ideas and behaviors permeated the entire enterprise.
The Way Ahead
The Warrant Officer position was originally created to ensure efficiency and predictability and has evolved from a technical expert into an adaptive leader and positive force for change and innovation. The challenges ahead; downsizing, continued conflict, and unforeseeable problems will require even more from the Warrant Officer role. An attempt to predict what the next innovation may be is beyond the scope of this article yet it is safe to suggest it is most likely already upon us. To deal with this ambiguity requires innovation itself and leaders who are supportive rather than directive, enabling creative ideas early on and then providing the resources necessary to ensure implementation of these ideas. Innovation requires both critical and creative thinkers; fortunately the Army has plenty in the form of the Warrant officer.
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