This week the Pentagon named billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg the chairman of the Defense Innovation Board. This advisory body advertises itself as a catalyst for adaptability within the Defense Department at a time when changes in technology and the threat environment are galloping along. It supplies top leadership with “independent advice and recommendations on innovative means to address future challenges through the prism of three focus areas: people and culture, technology and capabilities, and practices and operations.”
Culture ranks foremost among these. In fact, it stands above and rules them all. Bureaucratic culture shapes how people think and react to the events, opportunities, and stresses of the day, and it enforces preferred ways of doing things by levying a variety of career incentives and disincentives—promotions, raises, or awards for officially sanctioned behavior, punitive measures such as demotions or firings for going against accepted practice. It influences which technologies an institution seeks—or, just as important, opts not to seek—and how it incorporates them into the organization’s endeavors. And it molds the institution’s repertoire of practices and operations.
So Mayor Bloomberg and fellow board members should concentrate their efforts on Pentagon culture rather than yield to the temptation to make the Defense Innovation Board all about physical things like military technology. Get the culture right—bias it to favor innovation—and many good things will follow in the other focus areas. Shatter all barriers to free thought and experimentation. Or they can let cultural dysfunction persist and watch the Defense Department’s competitive edge over the Chinas and Russias of the world shrivel.
Switch gears now. I’ve been reading a quirky but entertaining and enlightening book about technological innovation—or rather, a decades-long slowdown in technological innovation—through the wonders of Kindle. Titled Where Is My Flying Car? and authored by engineer and futurist J. Storrs Hall, the book asks why the ultra-high-tech future confidently prophesied during the first two-thirds of the twentieth century—the future depicted in the popular 1960s cartoon The Jetsons, to use Hall’s metaphor—has never come to pass.
To set up the inquiry the author observes that the technology for flying cars has been feasible since the 1930s via innovations such as autogyros, contraptions fusing technology now used in rotary- and fixed-wing aviation. Yet no firm has successfully brought affordable flying cars to market. Private aviation from your family driveway remains out of reach except for those able to afford pricey, maintenance-intensive private helicopters along with supporting infrastructure such as helipads.
What stunted aviation entrepreneurship? Where Is My Flying Car? divulges a wealth of fascinating insights into aeronautical engineering, but it’s really about political, social, and, yes, cultural barriers to innovation. Hall catalogs factors that intervened in the process of fielding a family-friendly flying car. For instance, cataclysmic historical events such as the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War siphoned away resources that could have gone to bring about a Jetsons future. Chief among these factors, though, is American society. The author opines that the prevailing culture turned hostile to technology during the 1970s, crippling the scientific-technical enterprise. The “Great Slowdown” Hall perceives had manifold baneful effects, not just in aviation but in nanotechnology, space flight, you name it.
By what mechanism did a society grown ambivalent about technology inhibit technological innovation? Through obvious villains such as an excess of government regulation, to be sure, but Hall mostly blames something he dubs “the Machiavelli Effect.” By that he means that entrenched interests vested in the status quo fight furiously against challengers. They act as gatekeepers, directing funding and other professional incentives to initiatives that support the status quo, denying it to those that might upset the status quo—i.e., to innovators—and otherwise doing their damnedest to discredit would-be gatecrashers.
If Hall is right, the Machiavelli Effect works against a freewheeling, experimental, playful culture that celebrates and rewards tinkerers for trying out wacky ideas rather than punishing them for attempting to institute a paradigm shift.
But why look back to a Renaissance Florentine philosopher-statesman, Niccolò Machiavelli, for insight into gee-whiz technologies that never were? Because the dynamics Machiavelli saw at work in Italian city-states half a millennium ago are characteristic of all institutions. A city-state was a society made up of human beings, with rulers, nobles, and the multitude. A company is a society with top management, executives of various ranks, and workers. The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford is a society. And the Pentagon is a complex society in its own right, merging civilian with military folk in the common defense enterprise.
It’s no stretch to apply Machiavellian insights penned in the sixteenth century to understand defense innovation in the twenty-first.
In The Prince, his most renowned tract, Machiavelli maintains that contenders who make themselves princes acquire a state “with difficulty, but retain it with ease.” Difficulties “arise in part from the new order they are forced to introduce to set up their state and ensure their own security. Nothing is harder to do, more dubious to succeed at, or more dangerous to manage, than . . . introducing a new order.” That’s because the founder of a new order “makes enemies of all those who have done well under the old, and finds only halfhearted defenders” among those who would do well in the new regime. Instigators of change fear “adversaries who have the law on their side.” Also blameworthy is “the incredulity of man.” By that Machiavelli means that human beings “intrinsically do not trust new things that they have not experienced themselves.”
Hence, he foretells, beneficiaries of the old, familiar order will assault the prince “in full force,” while prospective beneficiaries of the new will take his side only tepidly. The philosopher advises the prince to trust to his own skill and to “use force to achieve his innovations.” After all, concludes Machiavelli, “all armed prophets were successful, while unarmed prophets came to ruin.”
The implications of this discourse for Michael Bloomberg, the Defense Innovation Board, and the Pentagon are bleak. Innovators within the military-industrial complex are not princes from Italian states of old, armed with the physical might to compel members of the society to accept a new paradigm of statecraft. In effect Machiavelli is pleading for the Pentagon’s prince, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, to deploy his power as the United States’ top defense official to reform an old order that stifles strategic, operational, and technological dexterity. But in his Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli insists that individuals do not readily embrace change. (He verges on saying they can’t change.) According to him, a state or institution that finds itself out of step with the times must change out leaders mired in the past for new leadership suited to the new normal. Only thus can a society prosper amid change.
One hopes Secretary Austin is that unicorn whose existence Machiavelli doubts: a guardian of the old order with the wisdom and resolve to usher in the new. Modify the culture to reward innovation, and watch a hundred flowers bloom.
A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.” The views voiced here are his alone”