The Reimagining Defence Interview
By The Army Leader
What are the most important ideas and trends that every military leader must understand? Grey Zone conflict? Information warfare? The evolution of urban conflict in megacities? Right now there are plenty of contenders for ‘most important trend in defence’.
Last week I spoke to two military officers who think there is another concept that every leader – military or civilian – needs to understand: the exponential rate of change cause by information technology and how it will shape the future of defence and society. Flight Lieutenant James Kuht and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Willi originally worked together in the JHub, the secretive innovation hub that is part of the UK’s Strategic Command. They have come together again to write and host the seven-part Reimagining Defence podcast (iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud), a series a short, focussed podcasts examining the technological trends that military and civilian leaders need to understand today.
The podcast is an ideal 15-20 minute listen that will force you to question the future of Defence and leadership. In their first episode Henry discusses the problem we humans have with estimating exponential tech growth. If you fold a sheet of paper in half 42 times, how thick would the paper be? As thick as the distance from London to Manchester? From London to Manhattan? The answer will surprise you: it would be as thick as the distance from London to the moon. After 42 folds of a single sheet of paper. If you find that hard to believe, that is because the human brain is terrible at estimating anything other than linear progress.
In addition to the subject of exponential thinking, James and Henry have released four other episodes covering topics such as cloud computing, big data, automation and AI. The last two, on the Internet of Things and quantum computing, are still to come. Each episode explains technology in the kind of simple terms you would never find in a staff officer’s briefing. It then considers the military applications of the tech and the effect it will have on how leaders go about their work.
I spoke with Henry and James to find out more about how the podcast came about, their favourite episodes and what might appear in Series 2.
The Army Leader: How did you both meet and how did the podcast come about?
James Kuht: I was just about to start my specialty training as a Doctor when I was invited to come and check out the jHub, Strategic Command’s Innovation hub. I was absolutely blown away by what they were doing there – repurposing cutting-edge technology from the private sector then getting it into the hands of military users at pace – and really bought into Henry’s way of working. Henry interviewed me that day and thankfully I was hired. I spent 18-months working there, learning an awful lot from Henry and others, most of which is documented in my articles on The Army Leader. Over time we’ve become good friends and are always bouncing ideas off each other – the latest of which was this podcast!
Henry Willi: JK deserves all the credit for the Reimagining Defence podcast. He pitched me the idea just before Christmas. At that stage, the idea was fairly true to the podcast’s title: how might we reimagine Defence in light of the significant technological changes that are underway? As we co-designed it over the coming months, the structure and style began to take shape. One of our key learnings as we iterated on the episodes was the use of concrete examples to bring the topics to life, stress-tested by that Einstein line, “if you can’t explain it simply, you probably don’t understand it well enough”. So as well as wanting to increase others’ understanding, the podcast was also a great forcing function in crystallizing our own. I don’t think you can aspire to lead in the Information-Age without putting some skin-in-the-game – the podcast was one of the ways we’ve tried to do this.
JK: Another one of the greatest aims of the podcast was demystifying buzzwords. If I had a penny for the number of times I heard the term “information advantage”, “RPA” or “cloud” I would be a rich man – but truthfully, until the last couple of years, I didn’t really know what they were. I’m probably not alone in this – so we hope this podcast really brings to light why the senior leadership are excited about these buzzwords, what they mean in real terms for soldiers/sailors/airmen of all ranks – and how they can actually get their hands on them!
People, ideas, technology – in that order
AL: Of all the episodes, I took the most from Episode 6 on the Internet of Things. Do you have a favourite episode or lesson that you want people to take away?
JK: The key thing I would like people to take away is a sense of urgency. We badly need to level-up our digital skills across Defence, so that we can create great teams that build a world-leading Information Age Defence.
To dig into this a little – we’re not saying that everyone needs to learn to code, but we are saying that everyone needs to be bilingual in the languages of Defence and technology. Commercial Officers being sufficiently tech-bilingual to construct procurement frameworks that maximally exploit tech trends such as predictive maintenance (Episode 6), Logistics Officers building infrastructure that can easily switch to allow autonomous resupply when these capabilities come online (Episode 3) and, perhaps most importantly, centres of expertise that allow centralisation of best practices and governance for all software development, but decentralisation of product creation (Episodes 3-6). A team of teams approach that puts the impetus to innovate on every soldier/sailor/airman without digital chaos resulting!
H: For me, it is always the simple stuff that is most thought provoking. In the first episode on exponential thinking, we talk about the fact that success is sequential: great teams build great technology. So getting the people right is the first priority. I think John Boyd, the pioneer of the OODA loop summed this up neatly with his mantra of, “People, ideas, technology – in that order”. This is common sense – we see the design principle applied to all our high-performing teams. But, here’s the rub: just because it’s common sense, doesn’t mean it is common practice.
JK: So, building on this the question is ‘how do we make it common practice?’. This is why the outro of every episode gives listeners a clear steer on some follow-on options – where they can learn to code (the jHub coding scheme) and where they can submit innovative ideas (on the MOD’s ARIEL system). We don’t just want to be thought provoking, we want to provoke action too – a movement of inspired and tech-bilingual personnel who know how to take the next steps to Reimagine Defence.
AL: Are there any ideas you didn’t get around to exploring? Any thoughts on a second series?
JK: Truly, so many ideas! We’re well aware we have left a lot of stones unturned but we purposefully omitted detail as a trade-off for making an accessible and engaging listen for the widest possible audience.
Both Henry and I have a variety of ideas for a second series – perhaps interviews with leaders who have taken their organisations through digital transformations similar to the one we’re embarking on in Defence, or perhaps interviews with personnel in Defence who have already created teams that are already making some of the ideas we outlined in the podcast into reality – that could be quite inspiring.
AL: What reception has the podcast had?
H: We’ve been humbled by the response. In mid-June, we were the fourth most downloaded technology podcast in the UK – which is not bad for our first gig together. Moreover, we are hugely grateful to those in our network who have been energetic champions of pushing the Podcast wider, such as Colonel Amanda Hassell and Brigadier Bill Wright, Lieutenant Colonel Pete Williams, Major General Tom Copinger-Symes and Charlie Forte. Ultimately, regardless of how good the content may or may not be, you need support from others in getting the message out there via different mediums, so we’re hugely grateful to the Army Leader in that respect too. Establishing a small following on Twitter has also proved useful. Check us out at @ReDefPod! Our experience has been that it is these informal networks that often have the potential to create value in unexpected ways.
AL: Our audience is obviously focused on leadership. Given that Boyd’s mantra was ‘People, ideas, technology – in that order’ what advice do you have on creating great teams that can build great technology?
JK: First of all you might need to invest in yourself and your people. You could do this by exploring why digital transformation is important, before getting into the ‘what’ and ‘how’. This podcast might be a good starting place for exploring ‘why’, followed by debates or workshops with your team in which you might re-imagine your workplace in 5 years – the ‘what’.
In terms of executing – the ‘how’ – this might need some of your team to re-skill or upskill in digital technologies. Junior personnel might take coding or data-science courses and leaders might consider taking the agile project management course – both can be found on the jHub Coding Scheme. In essence you might want to follow that mantra of ‘start small, think big, scale fast’. If you go down this path, please get in touch with your experiences of delivering a reimagined defence – perhaps we’ll be interviewing you in series 2!
Listen to Reimagining Defence
AL: What can people do to support the podcast?
JK: Of course, we’d be delighted if people would subscribe on iTunes or Spotify and leave a 5* review – after word of mouth, this is probably the single biggest driver of uptake as people tend to listen to that which others have rated highly. Most of all though, we would love it if you shared the podcast and used it as a vehicle for conversation. We do not have all the answers, but those who do will be out there, perhaps reading this article right now! What would be great is if this podcast stimulates discussion in your workplace as to how you could invest in your team so that it better uses technology to contribute to how we do Defence.
That could be at the tactical level of a junior soldier/sailor/airman/civil servant learning to code through the jHub Coding Scheme and building a simple automation of time-consuming process. It could be through to reimagining the entire way your unit delivers effect. Whatever it is, we hope that the podcast inspires you to look at Defence with fresh eyes and unlock the potential in the some of the technology that is already around us.
You can listen to the Reimagining Defence Podcast on iTunes Spotify or Soundcloud. If you subscribe you will get the remaining episodes immediately on their release. If you want to read James Kuht’s four articles about his time in the jHub you can find them here.