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.

Posted by LT Rob McFall in Navy

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  • Good post. At Boyd and Beyond 2011, General Al Gray said, “Thinking is free.” Great way to frame your conclusion, LT McFall.

  • LT Jon Paris

    Rob makes a great point here – our newly reported Shipmates are a great potential source for ideas on process improvement. In my opinion, though, tapping this resource doesn’t have to be a formalized process – ie, interviews, surveys, and the like. Rather, I think commands should strive to foster a climate that is receptive to “new” (not necessarily “good” or “better”) ideas. The “that guy” stigma that he speaks of is very real. Part of that comes from the Sailor. It’s all in the delivery… some people can become “that guy” by reporting aboard and proceeding to point out all the “jacked up” things, exactly in that manner. That’s not a winning game plan. Part of the stigma comes from the command climate – “I don’t care how LastShip did it. ThisShip does it this way.” That’s not to say that commands must simply roll over, but rather, they should be receptive to new approaches… from top to bottom. And for the Sailor, rather than pointing out “jacked-up’ness,” a more effective tactic may be to mesh past experiences with the current set and simply move out on a new approach. Chances are, if it’s really “better,” your practices are much more likely to be adopted if you use this method.

    Thinking is free – absolutely, and I applaud Rob on his motivation and dedication to make us better. We need more like him.

  • A.E. Steigelman,CAPT,SC, RET

    LT McFall makes an interesting point, but misses on one major factor why companies like 3M and others are hallmarks of innovation, that is getting market share to grow. New products open new markets, getting more efficient creates greater return for owners and shareholders, and creates the capital to innovate, a very costly process. The motivation to innovate is clear, quantifiable and traceable. What is the motivation for a CO with 20+ years to ask a newly arrived DIVO how to run HIS OR HER ship better? The CO does not really control budgets, manning, the costs of operation or the ‘return on the investment’ but they have that elusive “efficiency” mark, the COs of the fleet are not in the business to innovate.
    The DIVO is expected to lead their division, and get the job done, and learn. If they have learned something along the way that makes things better, gets things done faster or even is cheaper, great. If you can leave the job in a better position than whe you arrived, maybe you were innovating and just didn’t worry about what we call it. Some people call it leadership.

  • BJ Armstrong

    Rob, I like your thinking. Inside the lifelines of a naval unit is a unique micro-culture. Cultural change, especially change in large bureaucracies (which describes the Navy), is very difficult. The smaller the culture, the easier it will probably be to instill an innovative mindset. A “front office”, group of DH’s, and a Chiefs mess who come together to change the culture of a ship to embrace innovation is more likely to succeed. The more units do that, the quicker the cultural shift will spread across the bureaucracy. I think it is part of the reason Lieutenant Sims didn’t make his continuous-aim-fire procedures mandatory, but instead allowed each ship to modify and develop them further to continue to improve.

    CAPT Steigelman raises an important question about leadership. Junior Officers do need to start learning and demonstrating leadership. There’s another way to look at leadership as well. A Commanding Officer who empowers his subordinates, values their opinions, encourages them to work smarter as well as harder might be doing something called leadership as well. A Commanding Officer who tells his new DIVO “I’ve got 20+ years, I know more than you, you have nothing to offer me except being another cog in my machine” isn’t really leading, he’s administrating. He is unlikely to get the most out of his subordinates, or have a crew that is ready to excel in combat. The fact that Skippers don’t control manning, budgets, and costs of operations is all the more reason that new ideas need to be brought to the table as manning shrinks, budgets contract, and costs increase.

  • JD Kristenson


    Another great post. Too often we emphasize the traditional demographic markers of diversity–gender, ethnicity, etc. The connection that these traits have with the larger goal of diversity of thought has been lost or forgotten. It is this, the diversity of thought, that must be cultivated and nourished in any successful organization.

    Very Respectfully,

    JD Kristenson