FORT BELVOIR, Va. -- Thomas Edison once said that, "We don't know a millionth of one percent about anything."

Whether Edison is right or not, we probably don't share everything we know. That's why U.S. Army Cyber Command wants to pick your brain. Actually, everyone's brains.

Maj. Chris Cline is leading that effort at the helm of ARCYBER's Innovation program.

Cline is the program's project officer. He said Innovation is the result of ARCYBER leadership's desire to construct a process to tap into the wealth of individual and collective knowledge in the minds of members of the command and its affiliated organizations, to root out and share good ideas and bring them to life.

The program capitalizes on the collaborative, flexible and dynamic nature of the cyber profession, he said, to encourage an organizational mind-set and culture that supports creativity, innovation and experimentation. The ultimate goal, of course, is to capitalize on expertise and ideas that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, to create new capabilities and practices for ARCYBER.

The notion is not a new one. In 2013 Lt. Gen. Edward Cardon, ARCYBER commander, told Army Technology Magazine that "Given the dynamic nature of cyberspace, predicting future technologies, developing innovative approaches and solutions, and aligning limited resources with the most fruitful long-term investments is both an extraordinary challenge and enormous opportunity."

But as cyber has grown and become more vital and its challenges more complex, building structures to spark and capture innovative ways of approaching those challenges have moved closer to the military's front lines.

In April, on the heels of his announcement of a new Defense Department cyber strategy, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter unveiled an experimental DoD-Silicon Valley partnership called Defense Innovation Unit-X that is designed to build relationships that will enhance the military's ability to discover and capitalize on emerging and breakthrough technologies.

The hearts of ARCYBER's program are an innovation team, an online collaboration portal, and a four-phase incubation process.

The team's mission is to act as a catalyst to discover and encourage creativity and help to make good ideas reality. They support the "Idea Champions", as the program calls them, through the process of sharing, developing and -- hopefully -- seeing their ideas made real. They encourage people to visit the program's intranet sites and share their thoughts and support for ideas in progress, or add their own brainstorms. They arrange presentations by innovators and entrepreneurs who share their success stories and outline their strategies and tactics. And they seek out new concepts and collaboration from colleagues such as the Army Cyber Institute, the Cyber Center of Excellence, industry and academic partners, and other affiliated communities of interest -- pretty much everyone, Cline said.

The first two unclassified ideas accepted to move ahead -- the program has secure portals to take in classified suggestions as well -- are moving through the incubation process now.

They started at Phase 0, where they were submitted and socialized, discussed, voted on by site visitors and evaluated to determine whether they should continue through the process. At Phase 0 idea champions can campaign for support and votes, though Cline said it's analysis and discussion -- not just votes -- that determines what goes on to Phase 1 or beyond.

Anyone can, and should be encouraged to submit their ideas, the major said. "There's nothing wrong with people sharing their ideas and seeing if they can be adopted," he said.

And there's nothing wrong with failing, he added. That's actually one of the program's central messages -- that failure is OK, that ideas that fail initially can be relooked and tried again, and that sometimes failure simply shows that ideas should take different directions or offer pathways to other, more viable ideas. As Edison put it: "Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless."

Or, as Ronald Pontius, deputy to the ARCYBER commander, put it during a recent discussion of the program: "If we're having all successes, we're not pushing the envelope."

"That's a part of this culture -- to know that it's OK to fail, and you can come back from that failure. A lot of successful entrepreneurs have learned from failure," Cline said.

Another key event at Phase 0 is the assignment of mentors to help guide idea champions through the phases, helping to package ideas that get the nod to move ahead for pitching to a resource investment panel and to prepare working prototypes of innovations that are ultimately accepted for full development.

In addition to being charged with evaluating and supporting individual ideas, Cline said, mentors will be expected to help seek out and encourage ideas from other internal and external sources.

Currently the program's mentors are volunteers, but Cline said he hopes to eventually have four full-time mentors on the innovation team, and to establish fellowship and exchange programs with outside agencies to train and develop mentors and support each other's innovation processes.

"NSA [the National Security Agency] is already developing a plan for an exchange program, because they want their people to get experience, too," he said.

The remaining phases essentially consist of further development of the idea. During the process the idea is continually socialized, reviewed and pitched. At each stage the resource panel can approve the idea to move along, recycle it for further development, or fail the plan, Cline said.

Maj. Jeff Mackinnon is an ARCYBER strategist whose idea -- creation of an intern program for the command -- is one of those first two moving through the incubation process now. To succeed it must survive those repeated pitches, but Mackinnon seems optimistic about its chances, and the program overall.

"I am very excited that command is initiating the innovation program, and I am proud that I was chosen to contribute," he said. "I hope that the innovation I championed is well received as I move into the resourcing and testing phases, and … can benefit the command for years to come."

Ideas that reach Phase 3 will face the ultimate pitch, to a strategic panel that can OK them to go into production or practice, or send them "into the field" for further experimentation. Cline said he expects the first ideas to reach Phase 3 around November, and to be approved and integrated at the start of 2016.

In the innovation process the pitch is king, the One Ring That Rules Them All. Because the developers of ARCYBER's program understood that, and understood that just getting started can be one of the toughest hurdles, the program includes a speaker series that enlists some outside help.

"The speaker series is designed to encourage people to share their ideas, as well as to get successful innovators to share their tactics for pitching ideas; to get people to believe that, 'I should embrace that creativity and not try to keep it in,'" Cline said.

The first speakers in the series may have seemed an unusual choice to discuss strategy with an Army audience, but they actually embody both military values and the Innovation program's think-outside-the-box sensibility. Sisters Ashley Jung and Paige Dellavalle are West Point graduates who turned their Army backgrounds into gold when they launched Stella Valle jewelry.

Jung and Dellaville visited ARCYBER in May and talked about how their hunt for backers for Stella Valle took them to the ABC TV program "Shark Tank", where their winning pitch brought investors Lori Greiner and Mark Cuban on board and set Stella Valle on the road to success.

Military people know how to execute, Jung told the ARCYBER audience, so when preparing for a pitch it helps to treat it like an Army mission. Thinking of every angle and preparing thoroughly are the keys to success. The sisters said that before their pitch on "Shark Tank" they watched every episode, noted every question presenters were asked, and answered them all themselves.

Tackling that mission was just the start, they added. Then they had to get their creative minds thinking -- to get innovative. But they said over time the process gets more intuitive.

"Innovation is something you can train your mind to do," Dellavalle said. She said it's important to know you can fail, but to not start the process by thinking about constraints.

Stella Valle now incorporates innovation into its day-to-day business, the sisters said. The process Jung outlined is not unlike ARCYBER's: capture ideas; sort ideas and choose winners; fully develop ideas; determine resourcing and funding; develop prototypes; test; release to market.

The Innovation speaker series continues with presentations by Alex Gorsky, chairman and CEO of Johnson and Johnson, July 22 at 10 a.m. at the Thurman Auditorium at 5500 21st Street on Fort Belvoir (open to all members of the Fort Belvoir and Fort Meade, Md. communities) and Robert Chumley, senior vice president for Innovation for 7-Eleven, on Aug. 20 (time and location to be announced at a later date).

In addition to the speaker series, Cline said there's much more ahead for Innovation. There are plans to establish senior innovator -- or "Innovator in Residence" -- positions at ARCYBER organizations; to develop fellowship and exchange programs with outside agencies to train and develop mentors and support each other's innovation processes; and to establish innovation education programs such as Red Team training at Fort Leavenworth's University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies and innovation training at leading schools such as Stanford, MIT and the University of Virginia.

Putting it all together, it seems the tenets of innovation -- getting people to think creatively, to socialize ideas, to collaborate and feel empowered to share, to believe it's OK to fail and try again -- are as important a product as the ideas the ARCYBER program hopes to harvest.

If those principles become part of its culture as hoped, ARCYBER might soon find out, as Edison said, that "If we did all the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves."

For more information or to participate in the program, visit the ARCYBER Innovation portal at the link above (Common Access Card required).


About us: Army Cyber Command and Second Army directs and conducts cyberspace operations as authorized or directed, to ensure freedom of action in and through cyberspace, and to deny the same to our adversaries.