What traits define an innovator? It depends whom you ask, but most will say innovation requires leadership, teamwork, creative thinking, and determination and grit to push until you find a solution to a complex challenge.
Incidentally, these are the very traits common in military veterans, so it's no wonder many venture into innovative startups.
"Since 2012 we've had about 550 veterans and military service members come through the Patriot Boot Camp program," said Charlotte Creech, executive director of Patriot Boot Camp. "When you look at the demographic we work with, we can say we're seeing a larger concentration on high-tech, scalable growth ventures."
And if the number of startup boot camps and accelerator programs that have sprung up over the years geared towards veterans is any indication of their propensity for innovation, there's a lot civilians can learn from our amazing military service members.
1. Adapt and overcome
"What I found in my own experience being in the military, is innovation is something that ends up being perpetuated just as a function of people having to think on their feet," said Ed Borromeo, partner and COO at Tallwave and former military officer.
One belief that runs deep in the military, is "there is always a way." And according to Ed, this was particularly apparent among elite military teams who were put high-stress environments in which they had to negotiate a particular obstacle to get the mission done inside of the time frame and constraints given.
"The military builds in this structure around presenting you with really difficult problems and requiring you to be creative, inventive, and decisive to do those things in environments that are unpredictable, uncomfortable and ambiguous with a high sense of urgency," said Josh Anderson, director of development for Patriot Boot Camp. "This sounds a lot like building a technology startup."
2. Champion collaboration
Of course hierarchy and rank exists in the military. It creates structure. However, in overcoming an audacious obstacle, it's the collective that ultimately creates the victory.
"When it comes to executing a mission, there's a strong adherence to relying heavily on the collective creativity of the team," Borromeo said. "As a result, groups tend to be flatter, there's little rank, it's just collectively working together and a focus on high reliability."
For Scott Thomas, a captain military veteran and VP of SmartFusion at Harris Computer Systems, collaboration and relying on a team of experts has proven key throughout his time in the military and now in the business world.
"You have to be able to trust your experts and not think you have all the answers," he said. "The military culture is one in which you rely on your team. There's no individual success. There's unit success."
3. Become a disciplined leader
Every team requires a great leader though, particularly when that team is focused on high-performance and innovation. And whether the military attracts natural born leaders or shapes them, or both, one strong byproduct of military service that supports innovation is leadership.
"I think there is a lot of correlation between innovation and military service," Scott said. "And probably more so on the officer side just based on the level of responsibility, empowerment and autonomy we get as an officer and how that translates to a business leader."
The trademarks of a great entrepreneurial and innovative leader tend run parallel with the traits inherent in military veterans: self motivated, risk tolerant, and having a healthy level of defiance.
"The type of person who goes into military service is looking to do something wild, difficult and elite," Josh Anderson said. "There's a sense of defiance in the military and a spirit of don't tread on me or tell me I can't do something. I think those are hallmarks of entrepreneurs."
4. Challenge the status quo, then move, move, move
Innovating in any industry requires a certain level of intrepidness, propensity to continually challenge the status quo, and ability to move quick. As such, you have to get comfortable with adversity and ambiguity.
"When you're on a mission, you often don't know what's around the next corner and you have to improvise and innovate," Scott Thomas said. "Standing still you won't succeed as an officer and in business, if you're not evolving, you're dying."
Innovators have to prepare as best they can for the unexpected, but remain nimble enough to adapt to new challenges. But once the target is acquired, be ready to move...quick.
5. Adopt a service-first mentality
By most standards, innovation is the creation of a better solution that meets new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing market needs. In essence, it's solving a unique set of pain points for a particular group. And veterans tend to have a natural disposition for this.
"One thing I've observed in working with this population is that so many of the businesses they start are based on problems they recognized during their military service or social problems," Charlotte Creed said. "Even though they're technology growth ventures, a lot of them have a social impact mission. Veterans have a really strong desire to give first and want to better the world."
And that's what all innovation should do - make a real impact for a community or individual.