Saturday, June 22, 2013

Ideas, Innovation, Disruption, and Experiential Learning

Innovation can be disruptive (Read more about disruptive innovation on Clayton Christensen's website)- to be innovative and disruptive, new insights and new viewpoints are critical to be successful. From new insights and new viewpoints more effective ideas are generated. On a side note, how disruptive a person,team or organization is depends on who they are, the makeup of the team, their experiences in life, education, etc....There is not a checklist for disruptive thinkers but research shows it is very dependent on the person and their experiences.
More effective ideas means more choices that can be created and increases the likelihood that the outcome is disruptive. Tim Brown writes about Convergent Thinking vs Divergent Thinking  and the connection to disruption in his book Change by Design.

“Convergent thinking is a practical way of deciding among existing alternatives. What convergent thinking is not so good at, however, is probing the future and creating new possibilities..... If the convergent phase of problem solving is what drives us toward solutions, the objective of divergent thinking is to multiply options to create choices....By testing competing ideas against one another , there is an increases likelihood that the outcome will be bolder, more creatively disruptive, and more compelling.”
From Change by Design by Tim Brown
Now I would like to shift to how ideas are generated. I offer the the Experiential Learning Cycle (Kolb,1984)  as a framework to generate innovative and disruptive ideas. 

Experience is the principal vehicle through which adults learn. The better they prepare for an experience and the more they make sense of it once they have had it, the more they learn.

From Experiential Learning: experience as a source of learning and development (Dr. David Kolb, 1984)

Following the Experiential Learning Cycle, after an individual or organization has an experience if they conduct focused reflection on the experience, they can learn from the experience. As they make sense of the experience they will form abstract concepts based on the experience and start pulling out new ideas. The new ideas are then tested in a new situation (next experience) and the cycle starts over again. Through this cycle new pathways are opened, new connections and insights are made which leads to new connections and ideas. This is where innovation can happen as your subordinate leaders are empowered to try new ideas. 


Kolb's model assumed an ordered, calm learning environment. In combat the environment is not ordered and calm, and there is a large incentive for soldiers to learn quickly and innovate. In highly dynamic, complex, and dangerous environments, like combat, this cycle can accelerate rapidly. This type of environment tends to be 'molten'. Molten experiences are chaotic, complex, volatile, and ambiguous. They are unpredictable, with threads from multiple, simultaneous, and overlapping experiences woven together. Nate Allen and D. Christopher Kayes   write about this in Chapter 5, Leader Development in Dynamic and Hazardous Environments: Company Commander Learning Through Combat”  in the book Learning Trajectories, Innovation and Identity for Professional Development.

  I provide an example of the experiential learning cycle generating innovative ideas in molten combat situations at the tactical level in an Article titled Light Cavalry Platoon-Armor Team Integration Procedures (Armor Magazine, August 2005) which I wrote after my tour as a Cavalry Scout Platoon Leader in Iraq.   In the article I describe how we made use of the M203 which was designed to be used against point and area targets but my platoon used it as an indirect fire weapon when traditional indirect fire support was not available due to the rules of engagement.  The implementation of this weapon system in this manner occurred through focused reflection and implementation of new ideas after numerous enemy engagements. There are numerous examples of leaders generating innovative ideas and disruptive ideas and using them against enemy forces in combat. I am knowledgeable of several of these instances and they came about through focused reflection on prior experiences which generated new ideas.

Innovation can be a result of more effective ideas on how to better use existing equipment, products etc… Through focused reflection and the practice of Divergent Thinking more choices can be created and the chances of an idea being innovative and disruptive are increased.

Leadership Counts!!!

Jonathan is an experienced leader and coach with a proven record of leading and developing others to perform at higher levels and improve their overall effectiveness. He has a passion for learning and developing others to improve as leaders. Jonathan brings lessons from over 25 years of experience leading in U.S. Army Infantry, Cavalry, and Armor units in a wide range of assignments, to include leading soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Korea. He is a decorated veteran and a recipient of the General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award. Jonathan served as a faculty member at the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY before transitioning from the Army in 2015. He is a certified Executive Coach and operates his own leadership coaching business. Check out his website here:

1 comment:

  1. (cross-posted from DEF FB page)
    Jon, really good stuff, but two comments:

    Is innovation always disruptive? Clay Christensen, who coined the term "disruptive innovation" stated that there can also be sustaining innovations that evolve existing networks with better value. So we need to be careful in equating innovation with disruption; there are some very powerful innovations that don't disrupt, but in fact reinforce the status quo.

    You note that Kolb's model assumes an ordered, calm learning environment - I don't think that's necessarily true. Models necessarily simplify the world around them, but I don't think that Kolb's experiential learning is intended to take single events in isolation. Similar to cultural-historical activity theory, Kolb's model assumes activity on multiple levels, and zooms in on specific elements to directly examine the dynamics of learning.