This is the second installment in my series of posts on William Sims and what his discovery and development of continuous aim fire a century ago can tell us about junior leaders and innovation. They are part of the remarks that I delivered at NWDC’s Junior Leader Innovation Symposium.

PREVIOUS: A Junior Officer and a Discovery.

Recently Jonah Lehrer, a writer for Wired and other magazines, wrote a book about the developing field of science that studies creativity and innovation titled Imagine: How Creativity Works. In his book, Lehrer tells us that researchers have “discovered that the ability to stick with it – the technical name for this trait is grit – is one of the most important predictors of success.” Whether talking about Bob Dylan taking years to get a song just right in order for it to become a classic, or J.K. Rowling sending her kids book about a wizard school to 12 publishers before it was accepted and we all got to read Harry Potter, that tenacity, never-give-up, never-say-die attitude is necessary for true creative or innovative success.

Lieutenant William Sims had plenty of grit. Even though he had heard nothing from Washington he continued to write reports to the Bureau, updating his findings, refining the techniques, and suggesting new tactics that could be developed. He still heard no response. Sims knew what was happening…he knew that the Bureau was ignoring him because he was simply a Lieutenant, and one that was deployed at that. He wasn’t even an expert on the Bureau’s staff. Sims wrote to a friend and fellow officer:

“With every fibre of my being I loathe indirection and shiftiness, and where it occurs in high place, and is used to save face at the expense of the vital interests of our great service (in which silly people place such a child-like trust), I want that man’s blood and I will have it no matter what it costs me personally.”

While Sims respected those who were senior to him, rank alone didn’t seem to impress him. Navy Staffs that stood on bureaucracy and focused on building bullets for their own fitness reports over the combat effectiveness of operating forces were his enemy. He apparently felt pretty strongly about it.

I’d say that Sims certainly had true grit in this case. He continued writing reports. However, his language became more dramatic as he pointed out the risks involved in ignoring the TTP’s he was developing. Besides sending his reports to the Bureau he began to send them to battleship Captains across the Fleet, on his own initiative. He got his Commanding Officer to endorse the reports, and the Admiral who headed the Asiatic Squadron on China Station. They had seen TERRIBLE and KENTUCKY in action and couldn’t deny the success.

As word spread in the Fleet the Bureau realized that they needed to do something. Captains were writing messages back to headquarters and asking questions. They developed a test to prove that continuous-aim-fire didn’t work. After the test, they wrote a report that said Sims’ claims were a mathematical impossibility. However, they conducted the test without making the modifications Sims suggested to the guns, and they completed the test on land…for a gunnery practice designed for a rolling ship. The Bureau of Ordnance submitted their report that continuous-aim-fire was impossible. Belief in Sims’ claims evaporated overnight.

Sims had submitted 13 reports in all, over the span of two years, each one continually improving his method and technique. When he heard that the Bureau of Ordnance had completed a test and proved that what he claimed was impossible, he finally had enough. He knew that if the United States Navy went up against a force that was using continuous aim fire it would be decimated. Destruction of the fleet would open up the U.S. coast to invasion, as the Brits had done in the War of 1812 (a war that was roughly as distant to him as World War I is to us). He believed that the nation’s security depended on his success.

Lieutenant William Sims did something that he later characterized as “the rankest kind of insubordination.” He wrote a letter to the President.

President Roosevelt had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt. He was a navalist in the truest sense of the word. He was the author of the seminal work “The Naval War of 1812” and friends with Alfred Thayer Mahan. He would become the inventor and deployer of The Great White Fleet. As Presidents sometimes did a century ago, he actually read the letter that the young Lieutenant on China Station sent him, and he was shocked. If Sims was right and continuous-aim-fire worked, then he was also right that it was an issue of the highest importance.

Roosevelt had ordered a gunnery exercise in order to demonstrate the existing state of naval skill. The results were worse than anyone predicted. Five ships from the Atlantic Fleet each fired for five minutes at a former light-ship, at a range of about a mile. After 25 minutes of firing, two shells had gone through the light-ship’s sails and none had struck the ship itself. Roosevelt ordered the Navy to bring Sims back from China Station, saying: “Give him entire charge of target practice for eighteen months; do exactly as he says. If he does not accomplish anything in that time, cut off his head and try someone else.”

Lieutenant Sims returned to the United States and assumed the responsibilities of the U.S. Navy’s “Inspector of Target Practice.” He held the position for six and a half years. He was given a small staff of two junior Lieutenants and was tasked with revolutionizing naval gunnery. Three Lieutenants, change the world…no sweat.

Sims re-circulated his reports to the Fleet and instituted annual practice requirements for gunnery. He didn’t make his method of continuous aim fire mandatory, he simply sent out the reports for gunnery officers to read. He established a yearly fleet wide gunnery competition. Every ship in the Navy would compete, and could use any system or technique that they wanted. They were all welcome to start with continuous aim fire. The winning ship would be identified to the Navy and the country, and the winning gunnery officer was responsible for writing a report on his TTPs. Each year, the gunnery officers across the Fleet would pour over that report, and the reports that came before, and make constant refinements and adjustments to gunnery TTP’s. They sent out their own reports out and wrote articles for the Naval Institute’s place for disruptive thinking, the journal Proceedings.The winning ship each year received a pennant that they could fly on their yardarm, a pennant with an E on it for gunnery excellence. This was the birth of “The Battle E.”

Sims was promoted to Lieutenant Commander, and he and his assistants Lieutenants Ridley McLean and Powers Symington were in constant demand to visit the ships of the Fleet. Here you can see an invitation to “The Gun Doctor” and his assistant’s “Ping” and “Pong” to visit the wardroom of the USS Missouri for a “silent dinner,” which was like a Dining-In, with rules like Vegas: what happened at a silent dinner stayed at a silent dinner.Toward the end of Sims’ years leading the gunnery revolution, one gunner on the winning ship made fifteen hits in one minute at a target 75 by 25 feet at the same range as the test ordered by President Roosevelt years before; half of the hits were in a bull’s eye 50 inches square.

The US Navy rapidly overtook the Royal Navy as the greatest gunners in the world…and it wasn’t until the US adopted continuous-aim-fire that the Brits realized that their own Gritty revolutionary Percy Scott had been onto something all that time, and they followed the American TTPs that had been developed from watching Scott. Even Admiral Newton Mason, the Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, admitted “The renaissance in gunnery which came about chiefly through the instrumentality of Commander Sims, has … led to great improvements in ordnance.” In the Fleet Lieutenant Commander Sims became known as “the man who taught us how to shoot.”

NEXT: Expertise, Voice, Grit, and Listening…A Look At The Possible.

Posted by LCDR Benjamin "BJ" Armstrong in Foreign Policy, From our Archive, Hard Power, History, Maritime Security, Naval Institute, Navy

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  • So, what is it in today’s Navy that would enable such an innovator to succeed? Will it take insubordinate action by some young Lieutenant to once again start a revolution, or has such opportunity passed us by with the growth of the bureaucracy?

  • ADM J. C. Harvey, Jr USN

    LCDR Armstrong, the example you gave us of a young and determined Sims taking upon himself the critical task to improve gunnery practices onboard KENTUCKY is an excellent one.

    The key to his ability to make a difference was not only his drive and imagination, but his technical knowledge – he knew his stuff and could turn the good idea into meaningful reality (improved gunnery results!).

    Sometimes we focus a great deal on the idea development piece of the innovation equation and not enough on the implementation piece – ie, developing the series of steps that are required to get from the starting point to the desired end-state.

    I also think that as important as tactical and technological innovation is to our future, the golden opportunity before us today is the decidely unsexy area of shipboard administration and material maintenance.

    Our bright, young enlisted and officers are “living the dream” every day and see the issues up close and personal; I’m convinced they could come up with better ways to do business, particularly with respect to the current cacophony of shipboard IT support systems, that will be more effective, more productive, and save us incredibly valuable time.
    Clausewitzian friction is nowhere better illustrated than in what we must overcome to get the day-to-day job done of running and fixing our ships.

    I’m banging away on this task from my end, but I’d like to see more coming from the junior ranks challenging the status quo – not just complaints from the “JO Jungle”, but well-thought out ideas on how to improve how we do business.

    Too many of our shipboard support systems were developed for the convenience of the program managers, without due regard for the effort required on the deckplates to use and maintain those systems. Can we do better, today?

    We’ve made much of our personnel and technical support accessible on “the web”, yet, still today, very few of our shipboard Sailors have routine access to “the web” in the course of their daily duties. What can we do, now, about that?
    The complexity of our current engineering and combat systems makes 24/7 technical support “reach-back” incredibly important to maintaining day-to-day combat readiness – is anyone satisfied with how we’re delivering that 24/7 technical support today? I know I’m not. How do you think we could improve in this critical area right now? What would it take to make a difference, however small, today?

    There’s no shortage of real and relevant issues to get after and they don’t all involve “re-inventing” an Aegis Baseline. The issues are ones where YOU are the deckplate experts and have the ability to make a REAL difference if you are willing to put your shoulders to the wheel.


    June 10th, 2012 at 10:07 AM

  • YN2(SW) H. Lucien Gauthier III

    Most Sailors do not know how to give feedback to those who need to hear it. It’s a common expression to hear that ‘a happy Sailor is a B*tching Sailor’ or that the ‘beatings will continue until morale improves’ but the proper way for one to be a ‘happy Sailor’ is not instructed directly. Rather, such training is done ad hoc. Those in this information age that are able to see results come from their words are those who have the grit to try, fall on their face, and try again; or that are naturally gifted at writing.

    My start came from emailing people who were anonymous and/or had blogs. Via email I was able to hone my ability to communicate, understand how I needed to say things for others to readily comprehend. Getting ideas out there is much more than just knowing how to structure a sentence. First one has to be able to balance their perspective and supporting details in their writing and conversations. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for a Sailor to allow their emotions to get caught up in what they see as being done wrong aboard ship. This sense stifles their ability to articulate beyond framing the problem.

    Additionally, the opportunities to learn in the Fleet with regard to something outside of one’s rate aren’t appreciated enough. In my experience, I would have to catch someone who knew something I wanted to know on the smoke deck or on watch, and begin a meandering conversation regarding ‘stuff’ I was interested in knowing–Yes I know that ESWS and SWO qualifications cover the full gambit of ship operations. But such knowledge isn’t complete, as it is technical know how and does not comprise forward thinking of how we might do something better. Social barriers (which LT Kohlmann spoke towards in a Twitter conversation we had) have to be broken down in such a way that casual conversations can lead to the opportunities that VADM Sims eventually found.

    What’s important is that I had a Chain of Command which did not put me down for wanting to know. CAPT (then CDR) Kastner on the SAN ANTONIO let me ask any question I wanted to anyone (within reason) after I asked two good questions to CDR SECOND Fleet when he came aboard. He attended my Sea Warrior’s Symposium and encouraged the Wardroom to as well–with LT Mowbray (Chaps) supporting me in allowing the use of the Ship’s Library. My DH LT Michalski read a powerpoint I put together describing the similarities between Nelsonian tactics and swarm tactics today, and he arranged for me to be able to give officer training in the Wardroom.

    Imagine if I were told to shut up and just type instructions.

    Had it not been for those men I wouldn’t be writing this.

    *Here is where I will go off the deep end a bit.*

    The opportunities to have conversations wich allow each of us to learn our profession and make off-hand remarks that spark a sense of innovation usually occur over drinks, or something similar that put a mind at ease. The link that LCDR Armstrong provides to “How Creativity Works” cites examples of such situations through out its hour length. It is the mind which is at ease, thinking back upon the stresses caused by inefficiency or anything else we may seek to improve, that leads to insight. There must be more opportunities for such situations to foster that type of thinking.

    My recommendations:

    Bring back the allure of Enlisted and Officer Clubs. Allow ranks to intermingle and share experiences–out of uniform on a first name basis. I can’t stress enough how seeing someone in uniform makes someone else not say something they probably should. At the very least, don’t have the Navy dissuade Sailors from talking to each other in a social setting.

    Spend more time mentoring junior Sailors in how to talk to their seniors. Do not formalize how to make recommendations, rather teach them how to speak respectfully while also critiquing programs and initiatives that whomever they are talking to owns.

    Chiefs run the workspace, but give them more clout in terms of actual tactics and war fighting, use the vital role they play between the deckplates and the wardroom and allow them to facilitate the ideas, better, that junior enlisted are brave enough to say to them.

    Embrase the anonymous person with ideas. I wouldn’t be typing this if I didn’t have a nom de plume for so long. My legs still shake when I ask questions at conferences, and I still feel dumb after I push to the ‘post’ button at any blog. Imagine how those who don’t get up to the mic feel.

    Create another innovation competition like Roosevelt did. The Battle E is old, and is no longer relevant in terms of innovation. So what’s next? Incentivize a CO to have their guys implement solutions that fit the challenges they face.

    After all, the X prize has gotten private industry into space. Where’s the Navy’s newest version of that?

  • LT Jon Paris

    YN2 – GREAT post – you beat me to it. First off, there is hope! Admiral Harvey is leading the charge to make this process easier; his post is another datapoint and we are truly lucky to have him in “our” (junior leaders’) corner. As you point out, though, in the Fleet, it’s still same sh**, different day. Most are not as persistent as you are. Not because they do not care, but, as you can relate, because they’re continually “beaten down” by the “man.” There’s little motivation to be the squeaky wheel, because new ideas so rarely get past the first rung in the chain of command. We need more junior leaders who are willing to step up, like you, and lead this charge from the bottom up. Admiral Harvey and others are reaching out – we need to complete the circuit. Most importantly, those in the Fleet need to be made aware of Admiral Harvey’s words and efforts.

  • There’s no substitute for getting the POTUS in your corner, and if he’s TR, your odds go up considerably 😎

    It’s extraordinary what CPT. George Bond was able to accomplish in the early days of saturation diving. It helped that he was a medical officer (rank) from a wealthy background (confidence) but it was the backing and leeway given him by his superiors that led to SEALAB and undersea ops.

  • ADM Harvey,

    At West 2011 ADM. Hunt tossed out the concept of the “X-box ship,” where shipboard systems possess integrated technical assistance. I think he’s on to something that addresses your concerns. Alan Kay, the scientist who invented the concept of the notebook computer, once quipped that the ideal intuitive interface was a globe — if you understand maps, a globe is instantly usable at first sight.

    Without creating an “AEGIS for Dummies,” it should be possible to reimagine shipboard systems from a user-friendly POV. As an example, Tesla Motors re-thought the car dashboard into a single gauge cluster – speed, charge and odometer.

  • Good news from deckplates is that silent majority are continuously innovating to answer “warfighting first, operate forward, be ready” – no small feat given fiscal environment, personnel distribution challenges, and mission-requirements driven by real-world events.

    Goatlocker feedback up TYCOM chain could be better but thanks to senior Flag Officers who listen, we’ve seen opportunities to fast-track some ideas (eg ATFP OPORD and OPNAV revisions) and even a gripe or two (eg Paint Floats ).

    NWDC’s Junior Leader Innovation symposium was a very encouraging forum for E5 – O4 to learn from one another – It was terrific to hear from guest speakers – was particularly encouraged by sea-stories on LT Sims & CAPT Sinclair. Also, found the videos from SUBFOR’s TANG initiative to be awe-inspiring. . Although not showcased in the symposium, recently read about similar initiatives from CNAF in latest hardcopy of AIRSPEED newsletter:

    Perhaps NWDC could be the portal for Innovation sea-stories and maybe serve as a clearinghouse for fast-tracking inputs from junior leaders through its leading role in the Navy’s Concept Generation Concept Development (CGCD) program

  • OldSchoolMC

    Every generation in each service as faced the same challenges and responded appropriately–until now. Where are today’s Sims, Billy Mitchell (AF), Rickover, and Boyd (again, AF)? If they exist, then why also do the F-22, LCS, DDG-1000 exist? It’s not enough to innovate, but to innovate for improvement. As has been said: All improvement involves change, not all change involves improvement.

  • Dave Schwind

    I relish the idea of being able to bring “big change” to how the Navy does business. However, “the system” is set up against change. I’m not talking about various aspects of shipboard systems; in my experience, unit-level innovation was rewarded by at least a pat on the back, and big, positive, changes were great FITREP bullets that gave a Sailor a leg up on their contemporaries for promotion and career milestone screenings. Beyond the unit, however, no matter how great the idea was there were three primary ways positive change and innovation die on the vine.

    First: For as many people out there who embrace change, there are those who are either: 1) stuck in the “mud” of doing things the same way they’ve always been done, or 2) eager to embrace _their_ vision of change. We’ve all met both types of people; the first ones are the ones who are happy doing the same thing they’ve always done, and their interest is in maintaining the status quo. This keeps life “easy” and consistent, and they will do everything in their power to stifle innovation. The second type of person is the one who doesn’t want to embrace someone else’s good idea…because, well, it wasn’t their idea! These are the people who scoff at the best practices put out by others, but are eager to create their own…because _they_ are the innovators–and they want to take the credit for it.

    Second: “We have a failure to communicate”. Let’s face it, communication of ideas is tough. I applaud the JO innovation symposium. That’s the first step in the right direction. There ARE a lot of great ideas across the waterfront, but those ideas never make it out of the ships, staffs, or squadrons where they were created. I can’t tell you how many times I saw units doing something (whether it ranged from a better way to do administrative paperwork to better shiphandling skills) and wondered how they were able to do what they were doing. Sometimes I’d ask, and often the answer was surprising. More importantly, what I tried to figure out was why that information wasn’t being promulgated to other potential beneficiaries. I had a vision when the CLASSRON concept was developed wherein they would be the ones to spread the “best practices” across the ship classes, creating a repository of the “best of the best” information and providing this information to their subordinate units. Sadly, this never happened.

    Third: This is perhaps the point most applicable (and counter) to the story of ADM Sims: today’s bureaucratic “enterprise” won’t allow it. While the tooth-to-tail ratio of Sailors has been a topic of conversation for several years, the burgeoning “tail” of civilian technical bureaucracy has been less visible, but certainly all the more potent, in stifling fleet innovation. I will likely no longer be on the SPAWAR holiday card mailing list with this opinion, but I can tell you from personal experience as a “waterfront warfighter” that plenty of our big-ticket innovations have never seen the light of day because of being stifled by bureaucracy, and yet seemingly useless (and most definitely outdated) technology has been forced on the fleet. I will not belabor my point with a series of sea stories, but suffice it to say, the stories and examples are manifold.

    What it boils down to is a cultural problem. On a local level, innovation is typically valued and encouraged from what I’ve seen. However, when it gets outside the unit or organization, innovation is either lost in the shuffle, not communicated, or stifled by someone who believes they know better than the Sailor on the “deckplates” (or conversely, is simply trying to justify the existence of their job…) Innovation needs to be encouraged by the upper chain of command and then broadcasted for action. Being a proponent of innovation is more than just encouraging people to think big. It’s ensuring those novel ideas have the broadest distribution possible to avoid being trapped in layers of “review” and “approval” by cubicle-bound bureaucrats, out of touch with the reality of the warfighter. Good ideas, fostered correctly, might take an investment of time and they may take money, but in the end, they may well create a ten-fold (or more) return on the initial investment and most importantly, encourage the creation of new and continuing innovation.

  • Admiral,

    Something that comes to mind is the support that is not-so-supportive, namely redundant non-training. The best example I can imagine is in the realm of weapons. An NKO will never train a sailor how to use a weapon, a practical course by a GM or MA almost always will… so why require the former? Next, if a sailor is given a gun qualification, it should be implicit that the command has invested its trust in that sailor. However, along with the NKO the sailor signs a form every year showing he acknowledges his responsibility when handling arms and munitions. We spend lots of times with NKOs, schools, and GMTs that are better taught through practicals (maintenance) or mentorship (safe living) or are merely redundant paper cover.

    Each individual paper and GMT may be small alone, and may give leadership a sense of security, but together they add up in time and subtract the sense of trust, ownership, and willingness to innovate.

    LTJG Hipple