The war in Syria is a humanitarian disaster, as well as a place where Disruptive Innovation is taking place. Consider the screenshot below from YouTube. This image depicts smart munitions, built from a bunch of cheap, spare parts, designed to be disassembled quickly in order to move to another location. It also represents two principles of Disruptive Innovation at work in warfare: first, an asymmetry in resources, processes and priorities between modern militaries and local rebel groups; and second, a relentless drive to move “upmarket.”

Asymmetric resources, processes and priorities

Disruptive Innovation describes the process by which products and services, often less expensive and less sophisticated, move upmarket until they displace established competitors. One of the reasons this is made possible is that the leading firm’s resources, processes and priorities are not organized to take advantage of new opportunities.

Every organization is comprised of these three key things, collectively referred to as RPPs. Resources are the people, money, equipment, etc. held by an organization. Processes are the both the formal, and perhaps more importantly, the informal way that things are done. Priorities are the rank ordering of the things that an organization values, both stated and unstated. Processes are always tightly coupled to the priorities, whereas resources are relatively flexible and can be rearranged to achieve priorities by way of a set of processes.

Back in the 80s, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was one of the most powerful and successful tech firms in the world. Yet in spite of DEC’s heralded success, the PC proved its undoing. DEC’s booming business in powerful “minicomputers”—so called because they were much smaller than mainframe computers—didn’t fall to PCs because DEC couldn’t build such a device, but because making and selling PCs made absolutely no sense under the processes and priorities of the firm. This is the very same phenomenon we are seeing in Syria and other hot spots in the world.

A recurring problem facing the U.S. military and its allies is a shared fundamental priority to protect non-combatants. This results in costly safeguards both in process and technology. Many “rebel” groups—mostly proxies for other states in the region—and the Syrian government generally don’t distinguish combatants from noncombatants, and even actively target civilians. This asymmetry in priorities is something the U.S. military cannot and will not change. As a consequence, despite having far superior resources, victory over a seemingly weaker opponent is incredibly difficult.

Warfare moves upmarket

A second problem is that rebel groups are constantly moving “upmarket.” As is always the case with disruption, more sophisticated organizations (like Digital Equipment Corporation) underestimate the drive of a weaker enemy to move upmarket and become an actual threat. This is the core problem confronting all modern militaries.

In the early period of the conflict in Syria, rebels’ best approximation of artillery was a molotov cocktail. But the hodgepodge of materials shown above is a genuine smart munitions delivery system that uses Google Maps and a barometer to deliver a payload as large as a water heater to a precise location and height as far as a mile away. And the future is even scarier. The speed of technological advancement is enabling our enemies to more easily create weapons for which we have few or no countermeasures, such as biological agents, metal-free mines, etc.

Is all hope lost?

Of course not. Good theories—some from our own Institute and many from elsewhere—may stop deadly conflicts before they begin, or at least end them more swiftly and fairly. For instance, knowing that disruption works by establishing a foothold in simpler, cheaper applications, the U.S. can set up largely autonomous units that aren’t shackled to the same RPP as a way to handle such threats.

As explained in The Innovator’s Solution by Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor, such units are needed when an organization’s current RPP cannot address the incoming threat. The necessity for this independent unit stems from a general law of organizational nature. The organization’s existing structure will either starve the new model of necessary resources or force the new model to conform with the existing processes and values—resulting in mere incremental change and/or failure.

By setting up autonomous groups, the U.S. military can continue to use its existing RPP to do what it does best, while at the same time, creating new RPP in these autonomous groups that are better able to innovate and solve diverse and emerging threats across the globe. At the same time, these nimble units will be better able to match and anticipate opponents’ relentless upmarket march as threats become more advanced. In this way, the United States and its allies can make the world a much safer place.


  • David Sundahl
    David Sundahl