May 15, 2022

From an innovator’s perspective, the war in Ukraine is a masterclass on the best and worst practices in competitive maneuvering. We are witnessing a larger, more powerful force become stymied and frustrated by its resourceful, agile, proactive adversary, an adversary with a single mission driving every collective move it makes. Startups and scaleups take note: there is much to learn from the battlefield. 

I spoke with Matt Brown, who hosts a podcast for innovators and entrepreneurs, about this topic recently. As CEO of BMNT and a retired Army colonel, it has been my mission for many years to take lessons learned on the battlefield and apply them to solving real-world problems, both for defense and commercial markets. Together Matt and I distilled six key lessons entrepreneurs can take away from the war in Ukraine. Listen to the full interview here, or skip to the time stamps highlighted below. 

1. Recognizing and articulating a problem is half the battle (15:00)

We’re challenged regularly by how long it takes to recognize that there’s a new problem or new opportunity on the battlefield of business. Then, we’re challenged by how long it takes us to articulate it to the right people. If we can't explain it and we can't get people excited about it, we can’t draw the right people into the effort of solving it. And if you let something move forward in your pipeline without the right team ready and without understanding the problem, you are just clogging your own pipeline and impeding your progress.

2. Technology is overrated (22:48)

Technology itself isn’t an issue. The real challenge is figuring out how to apply technology effectively. The Ukrainian military is taking on technologies they could never afford to have developed, getting them from other countries, learning how to use them, and employing them directly into the fight, rapidly. They're able to accomplish in weeks and months what has sometimes taken 10 years for the U.S. to accomplish. This is because we lack the business model agility of how to apply the tech into our organizations and into our operating plans effectively.

3. The first, fastest, most adequate solution wins (17:15)

Until you deliver something into someone's hands, you can’t have an honest discussion about what problem you need to solve. If you are not fast enough, your problem – and the dynamic surrounding it – will change and you’ll never catch up. Or you will deliver solutions that are obsolete the day they are deployed. That happens to businesses all the time. Having an entrepreneur's mindset makes all the difference. Entrepreneurs know how to manage risk. They know the potential for catastrophic failure, and they have the personal fortitude and the mindset to deal with the stress that comes with that.

4. Always have a plan B (26:08)

Companies that aren’t willing to disrupt themselves when an opportunity presents itself are at a disadvantage, whether it’s due to sustaining legacy systems or not realizing when a system is no longer a good fit. This is currently the case with Russia which is reeling from SWIFT banking sanctions it wasn’t prepared to address. If your organization isn’t studying and working on alternatives to even your flagship concept, you don’t have an alternative, which gives others the opportunity to leap ahead of you.

5. The mission is everything (31:00)

Being mission-driven is a key takeaway because that mission focus will color everything in a successful venture. In a war, if you have a leadership job and you stumble or get hurt, you are replaced by someone who is just as qualified as you to do the job. It’s not personal; it’s about the mission. If the entire organization is focused on achieving its mission, then decisions like staffing come down to putting the smartest, best people forward to do something. The corporate world suffers from an inability to retain that level of focus on the mission. 

6. Why we need to train future innovators (32:33)

One priority for us at BMNT is providing the military and other government agencies with the tools to nurture that entrepreneurial spirit as a profession and retain people who possess that talent. An entrepreneurial mindset has been a part of the military forever, but has never been nurtured as a profession nor is it ingrained in military doctrine. Whether it’s military or business, if you don't recognize that part of your job as a leader is to harness the passion of young people and ascertain who is an entrepreneur and who isn’t, you’re going to lose them. Unfortunately, the military loses great innovators in droves. They get tired of fighting the bureaucracy and not receiving the tools they need, so they quit, they go to the corporate world and do great things. We see the same sort of talent gap happen in the corporate world and are working to address this by developing a professional development pathway to help intrapreneurs build ecosystems of like-minded people to solve critical challenges and accelerate change.

Other great parts of the conversation: 

  • Agility is key to the entrepreneurial process: (19:54)
  • Good leaders are champions of the mission and the people (33:30)
  • How to find the world-class entrepreneurs in your organization (36:53)
  • What separates entrepreneurs from everyone else? Risk. (38:00)
  • A real pivot in a startup is going to hurt (41:04)
  • Genesis of H4XLabs and Hacking4Allies (50:00)


Photo credit: AUSA