Why the most valuable people in a command might be those that are just reporting
The Naval Officer Career is structured to be naturally innovative… by accident. This career path has a deep historical background and has changed many times over the years. The current version requires naval officers to change jobs every two to three years. This constant shuffle allows officers to gain experience in different areas so that they can be best prepared to reach the pinnacle of the naval career, assuming command at sea. This shuffle also can fuel a valuable side affect, which is rarely taken advantage of. This unintended result is innovation.
The company 3M is an innovation giant that is often put on par with Apple and Google for their innovative process. Fred J. Palensky, the Chief Technology Officer at 3M, was recently interviewed by Strategy and Business about what made 3M an innovative success. One of the major reasons he cited was “cross pollination”. He said:
We believe that no one business has everything it needs to conduct business in its marketplace without leveraging the rest of the company. So every single technical employee in the company has dual citizenship — they’re part of a particular business, lab, or country, and part of the 3M global technical community. We don’t restrict people from moving from one business to another, from one industry to another, or across country boundaries. Most of the people who run the businesses, the country offices, and the labs have been in five or six or 10 different parts of the company before. They’ve grown up inside the 3M culture. I myself have been at 3M for 34 years, and I’ve had 14 different jobs in five different industries and three different countries. I like to think of it as a movement of people and ideas that’s not mandated but officially endorsed.
Cross-pollination happens when people with different backgrounds and expertise come together, share ideas, and provide fresh ways of looking at challenging problems. That is when revolutionary thought occurs.
Getting new People Onboard
14 jobs in 34 years sounds about right. In the Navy we already have this rotation in place that 3M put so much value on. Our officers regularly move to different jobs, and countries. When a new officer reports onboard, whether it is a good situation or not, they most likely arrive, assess the situation, and see the position in a way that no one has probably ever seen it before. Each officer has been formed by a unique series of life experiences that have shaped the way they see the world.
As a service we have mixed feelings about getting new personnel onboard. When we look at our manning documents and try to figure how we can spread the workload out, we get excited about these new arrivals. When we think about the training and frustration of getting a new person up to speed that excitement wanes. In those first couple weeks of having someone onboard we try to impart so much command knowledge on them that we hardly ever ask them for their thoughts and impressions. We might be missing a valuable opportunity.
Granted, there is nothing more annoying than someone coming to a new command and saying… “well that is all jacked up, at USS Last Ship we did it this way”. No one wants to become “that guy”. Instead, if a couple weeks after they arrive, the new command says “shipmate, let me pick your brain. What have you seen that is different from how you have done it before? Is there anything that you have seen that you think could change for the better?”. If you ask the question, be open to receive feedback. There will probably be some.
Innovate the small things
Through this constant movement of people from one command to another, we can refine our practices and improve our systems. Innovations do no have to be Revolutions in Military Affairs. Innovations can be a new way to hook up an IPOD to the 1MC, a better XO tickler, an easier way to clean a P-way, or a better way to execute the daily schedule. The little things add up.
This is about changing a mindset, which costs nothing. To be more efficient in how we proceed we need to cherry pick the best practices from every ship, squadron and boat. People are the best source of institutional knowledge that we have. By being more aware of our new arrivals, while taking advantage of the career paths that are already in place, we can harness the innovative nature of our people and our service.
LT Rob McFall is a proud Surface Warrior. He is currently the Editorial Board Vice Chairman for the United States Naval Institute and is on the Board of Directors at the Surface Navy Association.