Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Junior Military Leader Hackathon

Over the past few weeks, this blog and others have been asking a lot of questions pertaining to the relevance of our current military system, and the path forward.  We've started discussions, and occasionally raised the ire of more experienced warriors.  Questions are good, but more needs to be done by the questioners, myself included.  We need to be constructive and put forth actionable solutions.

Part of the problem is that many of us who want to see change, or have a good idea, are occupied with our daily jobs.  For those of us in the military, it is what we are paid to do, and hours spent daydreaming about new solutions can potentially take away from combat readiness. The latter should be the priority, especially in time of war, but there has to be some way to flesh out good ideas in detail without sacrificing the requirements of a competent operator.

A way to start would be considering the implementation of an idea used by companies such as 3M or Google.  Employees are allowed to use up to 20 percent of their work hours on individual projects not related to their job.  In doing so, they pursue those areas they are most passionate about, and usually create some pretty neat products.   When sharing them with other colleagues during random conversations, other sparks catch fire, and new innovations occur. 

Admittedly though, there is a vast difference in requirements between an engineer in a lab, and a company commander charged with the wellbeing of his troops.  Some other method, leveraging outside work free time, needs to be considered.

Collaborative Hacking
Fortunately, the private sector has an answer.  The past few years have seen the rise of weekend-long Hackathons and "Startup Weekends."  This is an opportunity to flesh out ideas in an unconstrained space that cannot be explored in the course of normal employment duties.

They are time intensive, but incredibly productive and swift.  It is a model Junior Military Leaders should embrace -- and the last part of this post will explain a formal proposal.  Indeed, this was first explained to me in a military context by a Marine innovator named Tony Hatala.  But first, let's look at the conceptual models further.

Hackathons are usually a gathering of programmers designed with a focused goal in mind:  Develop a specific app, create a new piece of software using a specific type of coding language, or even create a website for a certain cause.  They begin with a presentation about the goal at hand, and the formation of ad hoc teams of any size.  These teams develop their own internal hierarchy and divide up tasks.  Over the next 48 hours (usually on a weekend), each team creates a fully developed product that they present to the group at the end.  Some are sponsored within established companies, others are simply offered openly to the public. 

After the weekend, the projects are taken to full scale launch, or discarded.  But the ideas generated help inform future projects and strengthen the relational ties between people who wouldnt normally work together.  Ultimately, it is a way to rapidly get ideas and solutions generated in a concentrated, unconstrained way.

Startup Weekends are similar, except an entire business and its associated model are created.  Within each group, roles are assigned: CEO, CFO, Operational Strategist, Marketing, etc.  They create a pitch for potential investors, and at the end of the weekend, try to get funding from angel investors in the audience.  Many don't make it, but some do.  At the very least, it links entrepreneurs with like-minded people, creating networks where none previously existed.

Now to the proposal.

A Face of Things to Come
On Wednesday, June 6th, the Naval Warfare Development Center is hosting a Junior Leader Innovation Symposium entitled Engaging and Empowering Junior Leaders to Regain our Innovative Advantage.  A large part of this Symposium is a forum where Junior Military Leaders will be able to discuss problems and solutions, with the possibility of them being acted upon by Senior Leadership.  It is a superb example of innovative thought being incubated and supported by two and three-star leaders. 

One day in one space is a great start, but more can be done to develop whatever ideas are proposed.  Thus, Disruptive Thinkers will be hosting a cross-service Military Leaders Hackathon in San Diego on the weekend of June 9-10.  We want this to happen in other cities as well.  We encourage entrepreneurial military leaders of any rank to take part.

The session will begin with an explanation of the specific problem to be tackled.  Rank will be irrelevant, and first name exchanges will be highly encouraged.  We will then form teams of 8-10 people, and break off for two 8 hour sessions on Saturday and Sunday to come up with a comprehensive solution to the problem. Each team will create their own assignments, and determine the best way to move forward with solving the given issue. 

These problems will be culled from those assembled at the Innovation Symposium the Wednesday before, as well as bigger issues like Creating a 21st Century Career Model, Reforming Military Procurement, and Military Pension Reform.  By the end of the Sunday session, a fully referenced white paper with the proposals will be submitted and reviewed.  Even better, individual cells can propose more innovative ways like new websites or products that would be more accessible than the traditional document.  The best solutions will be posted on the DT blog and sent up for action to senior leaders.

We want max participation from junior officers and junior enlisted across the services.  Senior leaders are welcome to participate, with the understanding that it is a grassroots, non-military endorsed venture.  Civilians of all stripes are encouraged to take part, both the get a feel for the military culture, and add their valuable outside insights to the issues being tackled. 

Please email if you are interested in taking part or leading a Hackathon cell in your city.  Additionally, please pass this along to any and all of your networks -- lets leverage the networking tools our generation utilizes anyway for the good of the services we love.

I've been inundated by requests from junior personnel who want to make a difference.  This is our first shot at making it work, and we will learn from our failures and successes.  Many of us have discussed the same problems over and over -- now is our chance to truly push for change in a constructive, collaborative and meaningful way.  Perhaps none of our proposals will be accepted, but the act of taking part will be valuable, and get some new ideas into the increasingly open-sourced square of military thought.


  1. I just sent an email and it was sent back to sender. I'm interested in assisting in NYC.

  2. Stuart -- Thanks for the email address in the blog should work better now. Sorry for the broken link...