7 September 2015

How The Army Got Soldiers To Share Their Great Ideas

I write about leadership, corporate culture and how to change it. 

Successful leaders know that there are people at every level of their organization with great ideas. The challenge is how to find them.

I think Lt. Gen. Robert Brown of the U.S. Army may have figured it out.

Back in 2004, when Brown was a colonel leading a Stryker brigade in northern Iraq, his unit was one of the first to be issued its very own RQ-7 Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle. He was thrilled. Having a reconnaissance drone on call 24/7 was a boon for Brown and his brigade —when they could see what it saw.

But that was often not possible.

The drone’s feed was only viewable through a pair of secure display boxes. One of those was always down, and the other was usually in the wrong place. Brown’s brigade was patrolling a giant triangle that ran from the Syrian border in the west, to the Turkish border in the north, to the Iranian border in the east. He had more than 8,000 soldiers spread out across that vast area, and just two finicky boxes.

“We brought in experts —all the experts we could —to figure out how to get this feed to more systems,” Brown recalled. “None of the experts could figure it out.”

Then a young soldier, a signals specialist, remembered going to a baseball game back in the States where he had noticed that a live video feed was being broadcast to monitors in every hotdog stand in the stadium. He guessed that the same technology, known as VBrick, could be used to transmit the drone feed throughout the Stryker brigade. He was right.

“We were able to get the video to every computer in the tactical operations center and to every level that needed it,”Brown said, adding that another soldier figured out how to riff on that innovation and tie the video feed to the Army’s combat tactical chat program, allowing those monitoring the drone’s video feed to provide real-time guidance to soldiers in combat, steering them towards targets and away from harm.

“Now, when you were driving your Stryker through a city of 2 million, you had somebody watching the rooftops telling you where the bad guys were,” Brown explained. “It was a game-changer. And it was all bottom up.”

This made Brown realize that there were probably a lot of creative ideas just like these buried like veins of gold throughout his organization. To mine them, he ordered the creation of what became known as StrykerNet, a virtual community for exchanging ideas and insights throughout his brigade.

“I knew it was successful when I was on patrol on one end of my sector with a company commander and I said to him, ‘Wow! This is a really neat technique you’re employing. Where did you guys get this?’ And he said, ‘Oh, from another company commander over in Mosul. He posted it on StrykerNet. We’re sharing these ideas.’ That’s powerful!”

But StrykerNet was just the beginning.

A few years later, in 2008, Brown was one of two deputy commanding generals assigned to the 25th Infantry Division under Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen Jr. The other was deputy commanding general Craig Nixon and, together, they decided to create an even more robust idea network for the division of 20,000 that was responsible for most of northern Iraq

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