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News | March 17, 2021

Michigan National Guard think tank boosts Latvian partnership

By Bruce Huffman Michigan National Guard

The Michigan National Guard opened the Kelly Johnson Joint All-Domain Innovation Center at Selfridge Air National Guard Base near Detroit in September to help military planners find innovative solutions to 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 ways to 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 coordination with 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 Jeff DeGraff, a University of Michigan professor, the think tank began analyzing the situation in Latvia and coming up with as many out-of-the-box solutions as they could fit on dry erase boards.

DeGraff led the group through exercises to identify the thinking style or personality traits of each participant. Then he broke them 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 whiteboards with their ideas, DeGraff floated thought-provoking encouragement around the room. “The solution already exists; we just have to find it,” he said. “What if the answer to our problem isn’t starting something new, but stopping something old? What is your innovation getting rid of?”

After the boards were filled, each group reported its findings to the entire room. It was clear a lot of questions still needed to be answered. “That’s OK,” 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 told participants to use the “Two-Call Rule” when enlisting experts' help: If a person can’t get you the answer in two calls, or two hours, you need someone else.

The group, including representatives of 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 in January and February. They collaborated virtually with civilian officials from the Latvian Ministry of Defence and senior Latvian military members who provided valuable contributions to the project.

Members of the 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 expand 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 KJJADIC provides opportunities (and a location) for the military, government and industry to research, collaborate and solve problems in support of state, national and international objectives.

“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.”

The Michigan National Guard and Latvia have been partners under the National Guard Bureau's State Partnership Program since 1993.