Michigan National Guard think tank boosts Latvian partnership

Joint Terminal Attack Controllers from the Latvian National Armed Forces conduct close air support training with U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft assigned to the 107th Fighter Squadron, Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich., at Grayling Aerial Gunnery Range in Waters, Mich., October 29, 2019. Michigan and Latvia have been linked under the U.S. National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program since 1993. The collaboration between JTACs in the Latvian National Armed Forces and the Michigan Air National Guard has been one of the most productive examples of bilateral defense cooperation in the entire SPP (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Scott Thompson).

Michigan National Guard

Story by Bruce Huffman

LANSING, Mich.— The Michigan National Guard opened the Kelly Johnson Joint All-Domain Innovation Center (KJJADIC) at Selfridge Air National Guard Base near Detroit in Sept. 2020, to help military planners find innovative solutions to a variety of diverse and complex problems affecting the warfighter. Since January, a KJJADIC innovation working group has collaborated with the University of Michigan, and leaders from the Latvian National Armed Forces to find new ways to help strengthen Latvia’s defense and deterrence capabilities and grow the more than 25-year state partnership between the Latvian military and the Michigan National Guard.

In close coordination with strategy and multi-domain concept planners at the pentagon, a work group at the KJJADIC was formed in January to explore innovative possibilities to improve Latvia’s security profile. Guided by the innovation techniques of Dr. Jeff DeGraff, a professor from the University of Michigan, the think tank began the meticulous process of analyzing the situation in Latvia, and coming up with as many out-of-the-box solutions as they could fit on the dry erase boards.

DeGraff led the group through a series of exercises designed to identify the thinking-style, or personality traits of each participant. Then he broke them up into four smaller groups with specific tasks to inspire innovative thought.

Grouping the team members by personality types and having them list their ideas elicits imaginative and diverse thinking, according to DeGraff. In a larger mixed group, it’s possible for a few individuals to take control and hijack the thought process, he said.

While the groups filled the dry erase boards with their ideas, DeGraff floated thought-provoking encouragement around the room. “The solution already exists, we just have to find it,” he exclaimed. “What if the answer to our problem isn’t starting something new, but stopping something old? What is your innovation getting rid of,” asked DeGraff?

After the boards were filled with information, spokespersons from each small group reported their findings to the entire room. It was clear, a lot of questions still needed to be answered. “That’s okay,” said DeGraff. “That’s what the processes are for. What do we need to know that we don’t already know? And who knows it?”

The group listened intently and took notes as DeGraff dished-out his recipe for innovative success. “Now it’s time to get help from some deep and diverse experts,” he said. “The next step is to list areas of knowledge needed, and if no one in the room can answer those questions; go find the right person and get them in the room.” He also made clear that when enlisting the help of experts, utilize the “Two-Call Rule.” If a person can’t get you the answer in two calls, or two hours, you need someone else.

The group, made of personnel representing the Michigan Army and Air National Guard, Latvian National Armed Forces and Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Latvia, met a few more times at the Michigan National Guard Joint Forces Headquarters in Lansing throughout January and February, collaborating virtually with civilian officials from the Latvian Ministry of Defence, and senior Latvian military members who provided valuable contributions to the project.

At the conclusion, the KJJADIC working group and their Latvian counterparts devised all-domain solutions to strategic gaps that help enable Latvian success across the international relations continuum of competition, crisis, and conflict. The two countries plan to continue innovation collaboration and joint force all-domain training with Latvian joint terminal attack controllers and joint fire observers, and plan on expanding Latvian combat engineer and artillery capabilities.

“We came up with some actionable solutions for Latvia, but the real success is the way we were able to bring the innovation mindset to our Soldiers and Airmen to identify our blind spots and solve problems at the lowest level,” said U.S. Army Col. Raymond J. Stemitz, director of Strategy, Plans and Policy for the Michigan National Guard. “We were able to learn a new way to solve complex problems that leverages our diversity, maximizes the intellectual capital of our allies, and develops effective, regionally informed solutions to common problems.”

The Kelly Johnson Joint All-Domain Innovation Center provides opportunities (and a location) for all military members, government, and industry professionals to research, problem solve, and collaborate in direct support of state, national, international and Michigan leadership objectives. By leveraging a wide range of expertise, capabilities and the latest technologies across multiple domains; sea, land, air, space and cyber, the KJJADIC helps unify efforts, and facilitate innovation.

“We couldn’t have done this without the support of the University of Michigan and the Latvian Soldiers and Ministry of Defence personnel who participated in this non-traditional innovation project aimed at strengthening Baltic security,” said Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers, adjutant general and director of the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “This pilot project was successful in demonstrating the potential of our new innovation center and the ability of a small team to follow a proven innovation process.”

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