Mindless habitual behavior is the enemy of innovation… Rosabeth Moss Kanter
Innovation is back! There is an undeniable renewal of interest and forward momentum in innovative thought in the United States Navy today. Why is this? What is driving the renewed attention to innovation?
Several factors influence innovation in both a positive and a negative way. Stephen Rosen discusses many of these factors in his book, “Winning the Next War: Innovation in the Modern Military.” Rosen talks about “technology push,” which occurs when new and disruptive technologies are discovered and sometimes reluctantly incorporated into our warfighting platforms. Though not immediately embraced, over time these technologies can – and often do – revolutionize how we fight. The triumph of steam over sail in the United States Navy is a good example, but one that was hard fought to incorporate or inculcate into the minds of naval officers of that era. Likewise, Rosen’s “demand pull” (or mission pull) stimulates innovation when there is a critical warfighting need and no platform or technology currently available to meet that need. Brave men fought the first and second Battle of the Atlantic in diesel submarines that were cold, cramped, noisy and vulnerable. The need to remain submerged and undetected for long periods of time created a mission pull for nuclear propulsion which contributed to our modern day fleet of highly capable nuclear powered submarines.
While we would have eventually figured out how to put an atomic pile inside a submarine, I think it is fair to say it would not have happened as fast without the contribution of a “maverick” like Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. He drove this process relentlessly and against much opposition, eventually putting to sea the modern SSN. Rickover was unconventional in his methods but he got results. Nowadays, mavericks must learn to work within an even more complex rule set and hierarchy which can stifle innovation. Today’s acquisition process is rather burdensome and although we make the best weapon systems in the world, we must be more responsive in pacing or better yet, exceeding adversary threat capabilities. This of course puts incredible pressure on traditional timelines in research, development and acquisition. Our ongoing efforts to introduce agility and speed into this process must continue if we are to remain a dominant power.
Beyond traditional red-tape, another factor driving – or inhibiting – innovation is money. With competing priorities in the President’s budget, some savings have been realized through reductions in defense spending. Budget reductions and periods of fiscal austerity invariably serve to stimulate critical thought and innovative ways of warfighting. Admiral Jim Stavridis, Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), often quotes a well-known figure in the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Jackie Fisher who said at the beginning of the twentieth century, “Now that the money has run out we must start to think!” SACEUR’s reference is poignant, as Fisher is primarily celebrated as an innovator, strategist and developer of the Royal Navy of the First World War era. When appointed First Sea Lord in 1904, he recapitalized older vessels still in active service but no longer useful and set about constructing modern replacements. Fisher is rightly credited with creating a battle fleet well prepared to fight Germany at sea during World War I.
By any account, our Navy budget is not insignificant, but we must continue to adapt to potential changes. Following Fisher’s suggestion to “think” may provide the catalyst to innovating our way past many of the challenges we face today. This may seem too obvious, for how else does one find an answer, except to think. But how frequently do any of us commit to the type of thinking required to fully understand issues and then devise possible solutions? Rear Admiral Terry Kraft, Commander of the Naval Warfare Development Center (NWDC) recently published The Innovators Guide which dedicates a full four pages to creative thought and generation of ideas. Thinking may not be as simple as it sounds, but we must commit to it in order to find the right solutions.
Recognizing these constraints, the CNO has challenged us to facilitate innovation across the Navy, and several organizations have taken great strides towards this end. The NWDC is a key stakeholder, and its mission is to “link tomorrow’s ideas to today’s warfighter through the rapid generation and development of innovative solutions to operational challenges.” This is done by operating at the speed of the Fleet and maintaining a focus on non-material solutions for the future. In this way, the NWDC serves as a “think tank” for how we fight tomorrow’s battles.
So why NWDC? I would offer that there are many lessons we must learn from history, and one of my favorites is examined by Barry Posen in The Sources of Military Doctrine, in his study of the German doctrine. He notes that Germany “won the battle of France and lost the Battle of Britain. She won the battle for which she had prepared and lost the one for which she had not. Her military doctrine had long envisioned major land campaigns on the European continent. Operations beyond its shores had been given little thought.” The doctrine worked well, until the context of the battle changed to exceed its design. In operating at the “speed of the Fleet”, the NWDC is positioned to look forward and adapt to the changing battlefield and its dynamic conditions.
I recently read RADM Kraft’s NWDC post entitled “Naval Innovation Reboot”, which provides thought-provoking messages about the rapid pace of communications facilitated by social networks where ideas are transformed into reality at a very high rate. He argues that the Navy has yet to capitalize on the benefits of these advancements, and suggests that we better empower our Sailors – already more than comfortable with this technology – to use it to our advantage. To more directly engage these junior leaders, last summer, the NWDC hosted a “Junior Leader Innovation Symposium.” The symposium was designed to educate these leaders on the importance of innovation, empower them to contribute new ideas, facilitate connected discussion and start to harvest their ideas. In keeping with their broad-based approach, NWDC also brings together leadership from industry, military and academia to ensure an awareness and openness to innovative solutions and ideas. In other words, Kraft knows that the water’s edge for innovation is NOT at the water’s edge.
One of the most recent efforts from NWDC examines the establishment of a Rapid Innovation Cell. In broad terms, the cell is envisioned as a mechanism to transform disruptive ideas into solutions and as an alternative path to fielding solutions.
The Office of Naval Research (ONR) is another highly-valuable player in this endeavor. As the Department of the Navy’s Science and Technology (S&T) provider, ONR leads the cutting edge of S&T solutions to address Navy and Marine Corps needs. This effort is developed within and among three directorates, one of which is committed to innovation. ONR’s Directorate of Innovation “cultivates innovative science and technology approaches that support the Department of the Navy and facilitate rapid and agile responses to our changing national security environment.”
Armed with state-of-the-art test facilities and a team of world-class scientists and engineers from a variety of fields, they are well-equipped to advance innovative solutions for the most challenging issues. ONR supports a number of programs aimed to streamline the fielding of technology to the Fleet and Forces. When urgent needs are identified through the Urgent Operational Needs Statement (UONS), Joint UONS (JUONS) and Joint Emergent Operational Needs (JEONs) programs, ONR experts are called upon to ensure available technologies are leveraged in solutions for the fleet. As a complementary process ONR also manages CNO’s Speed to Fleet program, which aims to provide quick-reaction mature and new technologies to deliver working prototypes to warfighters in high-risk or high-threat areas within 12-24 months.
Also within ONR’s quick-reaction S&T portfolio, the Tech Solutions program is a transformational business process created by the Chief of Naval Research to provide Sailors and Marines with a web-based tool for bringing warfighter needs to the Naval Research Enterprise for rapid response and delivery. The program accepts recommendations and suggestions, via an on-line submission form, from Navy and Marine Corps personnel working at the ground level on ways to improve mission effectiveness through the application of technology. It is solely focused on delivering needed technology to the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, within 12-18 months, and moving the sea services toward more effective and efficient use of personnel. The program has a proven track record too, resulting in technology to the fleet including a Catapult Capacity Selector Valve Calculator (CSV) – a hand-held Flight Deck Ops Assistant which eliminates a laborious process of referencing paper manuals to determine catapult settings.
With NWDC and ONR working as partners, the Navy has an infrastructure which is well-postured to support innovation. Just a thought before I move on… One of our S&T scientists recently e-mailed me a link to the U.S. Coast Guard Innovation Program. It’s a five-page document which formally establishes the Coast Guard Innovation Program. There may be a risk of institutionalizing innovation, but we might also benefit from having a written plan which supports innovative thought. The Coast Guard has an Innovation Council not unlike the current effort undertaken by NWDC. It also recognizes innovation in the ranks with an annual award and incentive program and sponsors an annual USCG Innovation Expo in partnership with industry. Perhaps we should follow suit?
Innovation has been described as having several forms. These range from technological to strategic, and I’ll give a more detailed outline of my thoughts on some of these later, but we suggest we must also contemplate the nature of innovation we aim to achieve.
In a recent Proceedings article entitled Payloads over Platforms, the CNO calls for the “decoupling of payload development from platform development (to) take advantage of a set of emerging trends in precision weapons, stealth, ship and aircraft construction, economics, and warfare.” By tracing a timeline of successful payload shifts across the service of the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), his article illustrates some innovative success the Navy has enjoyed, but these successes were a result of coincidence, and perhaps a dose of good luck, rather than initial design. And, even if the blueprints were drawn up to facilitate payload changes, this approach to design is not pervasive enough to support the CNO’s goals. NWDC and ONR have both adopted or structured approaches to facilitate significant changes like this. If we can successfully tap the ideas of our junior leaders on the deck plates, I believe we are well-suited to develop solutions to propel us in the direction the CNO is pointing.
We face difficult challenges, and innovation provides us one path to solving many of them. I encourage all of our Sailors to discuss ideas and contribute thoughts to this blog or any others I have referenced. We need solutions, and we must be open in our search for them. Is the Navy, as an institution best optimized to innovate? How can we do better? I yield to the “wisdom of the crowd” on this matter, and I am confident that many of you have outstanding ideas that we haven’t yet heard. Get ‘em out there!
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- On Midrats 22 March 2015 – Episode 272: Naval Professionalism; up, down, and back again – with Will Beasley
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- On Midrats 3/15/15 – Episode 271: “Red Flag and the Development USAF Fighter “
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