A look inside the Innovation Project Leaders class that teaches members of the military community lean innovation
May 11, 2023
Army Specialist Miranda Borrmann didn’t know what to expect when she walked into the classroom at the Innovation Project Leaders course last fall. Yet when she walked out of it four weeks later, she had gained a new way of tackling problems and the confidence needed to pursue her dreams.
The IPL course is sponsored by NC State’s Office of Research and Innovation/National Security and Special Research Initiatives and BMNT as a means of teaching members of the military community lean innovation and entrepreneurship while solving difficult defense and national security problems. Course participants learn how to use modern entrepreneurial tools and processes to solve mission-critical problems at speed.
We sat down with SPC Borrmann to discuss her experiences throughout the course, and how she changed as a result.
BMNT: How did you come into the IPL Course?
SPC Borrmann: My leadership placed me in the course as a way to gain new skills because at the time, I was pregnant and unable to do my usual work due to direct contact with chemicals. I didn’t know much about what I was getting into, and I didn’t technically meet the course requirements because I was more junior and didn’t have the right degree. I had to prove myself to the instructors, my military leadership, and to myself. It became a source of pride for me to accomplish this.
BMNT: What did you take away from the course?
SPC Borrmann: The IPL course changed the way I think about problems, and helped me learn to innovate with a wide variety of people and backgrounds. We were given a problem statement with the understanding that we should solve it. But the more we dug into the issue, and the more we spoke to the people it affected, the better we could approach the problem from the right angle. And that right angle wasn’t anywhere near where we thought it would be. We focused on thinking outside of the box and using business model thinking. We learned to go deeper in our questions to really understand the problem, not just the symptoms. I’ll take that thinking with me everywhere.
BMNT: Can you describe the problem you were asked to solve?
SPC Borrmann: The initial problem was with the weight of traditional 120 mm mortars for the 18th Airborne Corps, and the negative effects that weight had on their troops. This is a critical, actual problem, which came to us from the Maneuver Capabilities Development Integration Directorate (M-CDID). I had never even touched or seen a mortar, and didn’t know anything about the problem. We spoke to the people who knew the situation intimately. We uncovered that the main fault lay in the mortar tubes, which were breaking and too heavy, weighing over 300 lbs. The transport of these heavy mortars caused humvees to break down leaving troops vulnerable to attack. In addition, the size of these mortars took up to three minutes to set up and fire.
We also learned more about the goal of our problem sponsor. The 18th Airborne Corps is a light infantry unit based in high mobility. Their whole objective was to take the mortar system, set it up, fire off two rounds, and then move 500 meters within 5 minutes before enemy fire could locate them. Once we understood the problem better, the project took on a life of its own.
BMNT: What was your team’s solution?
SPC Borrmann: We created a concept for a first-ever mobile mortar system that is intended to improve safety while lightening the load on the soldier and vastly enhancing speed. We took a traditional infantry squad vehicle and removed all the unnecessary components, including armor, panels and backside, and left behind only the frame and seats so it could accomplish the basic mission: moving quickly to save lives. We added multiple ammunition casings for logistical ease. We also altered the mortar itself, making the tube lighter weight, at just 81 mm, and capable of 360-degree rotation with stabilizing feet to improve accuracy. Soldiers would be able to accomplish the mission in a fraction of the time and increase their personal safety and effectiveness.
BMNT: How did the course inspire this concept?
SPC Borrmann: Before this course, we would have probably focused on what was the most obvious: the tubes and their cracks. The course taught us to dig deeper to find the source of the problem and take the time and the initiative to dig deeper than just the surface issues. Tackling the weight of all equipment, including the humvees, was a less obvious, more effective solution.
BMNT: What happens next for your innovation?
SPC Borrmann: We received very positive feedback. The concept was briefed to the 18th Airborne Corps and it is on their list to look into and create. Just knowing I had a hand in creating it gives me pride. If we ever see one of our creations in use, it’s going to make me warm and fuzzy on the inside.
BMNT: So it would seem despite not being technically qualified for the course, you brought something special to the team. Do you feel that diversity of thought was helpful?
SPC Borrmann: Absolutely. Our team consisted of five people, all with the most unique and interesting experiences. We all brought something important to the table. During our problem discovery, the soldiers who knew the most about the problem were junior enlisted soldiers like me. They didn’t feel comfortable complaining to more senior soldiers, but they were willing to speak freely with me. We got to the heart of the issues that way. You have to gain access to the people who understand the problem best. We gathered different and unexpected material for thinking about and solving the problem. I believe that made a big difference in our solution.
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