In June and July of last year USNI published my series of posts on William Sims and the Gunnery Revolution. The discussion of innovation inside military has continued at a slow boil. I was recently invited to Tampa to speak at the U.S. Special Operations Command Innovation Conference. It was a great conference and the speakers included a number of luminaries from the innovation and technology sectors of the business world, including Tom Kelley of IDEO and Michael Jones of Google. The auditorium was filled will staff officers, DoD and contract civilians, and the front table was crowded with Senior Executive Service civilians and Flag and General Officers including Admiral McRaven.

The involvement of Junior Officers in innovation has certainly been highlighted in the past year. However, what is the role of the mid-grade or senior officer? And what about an officer’s peers? In my talk at SOCOM, I told the story of “The Gun Doctor” William Sims again, but with a slightly different focus at the end. The story I’ve told you here at USNI about the Gunnery Revolution is the story as Sims himself likely would have told it. It’s the story that appears in many history books. However, when you keep reading, and get into some of the letters and reports of the time, you realize that while William Sims was the driving force, the brains and the brawn behind this innovation, he wasn’t exactly alone. The Gunnery Revolution had an entire cast of supporting characters, including a number of Senior Officers and some staff officers who were Sims’ friends and peers.


Open Minded Seniors

When Lieutenant Sims was on China Station the Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic Squadron was Rear Admiral George Remy. Remy was a hero of the Spanish American War and was one of the most highly respected officers of the day. He held a position that is roughly equivalent to the Commander of PACOM today. Sims’ reports went through Admiral Remy on their way back to Washington. The Admiral always added an endorsement and it was always a positive endorsement. Sims’ time on China Station wasn’t entirely spent onboard KENTUCKY. After he forwarded the first couple reports to D.C. Admiral Remy ordered him onto his staff aboard the flagship USS BROOKLYN. Sims was given the position of “Special Intelligence Officer,” an invented job that wasn’t on the organizational chart. Remy told him that he had free reign to work on, study, and report on whatever he wanted; from the growing potential for military conflict between Japan and Russia, to comparisons of the designs of foreign warships on China Station, to gunnery tactics, techniques, and procedures. Remy was a key enabler by helping to create the time and space for Sims to do his work.

Rear Admiral Henry Clay Taylor, pictured as a CAPT

Rear Admiral Henry Clay Taylor, pictured as a CAPT

After he became aware of the Navy’s deficiencies in gunnery, President Roosevelt reportedly called for Sims to return to the United States. While he had the power of the Bully Pulpit, what he didn’t have was the technical ability to cut orders. That power resided with the Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, Rear Admiral Henry Taylor. Taylor was known as a reformer. Before taking over at the Bureau he was a member of The General Board, which at the time was sort of the Secretary of the Navy’s Red Team. When the President “suggested” that Sims be put in charge of gunnery, Taylor talked to his Senior Officers in the Bureau and asked their advice about giving Sims the job of Inspector of Target Practice. Almost to a man they advised him not to do it. They said that Sims was a loose cannon and too much of a trouble maker. Taylor, however, wasn’t done there. He started asking the junior members of his staff, the Lieutenants and Lieutenant Commanders, what they thought. Almost to a man they told Taylor to bring Sims in and give him the job. He was, in the words of one of his peers, “the real deal.” Taylor sided with the JO’s and cut orders for Sims to take the vital position. In the early years of Sims time as Inspector of Target Practice it was Taylor that provided him the breathing room and top cover needed to develop his program. It took time for him to circulate and teach his techniques, and even more time to demonstrate its success, and Admiral Taylor worked hard to keep the wolves at bay.

These Senior leaders recognized that innovation from the junior ranks is the lifeblood of a vibrant and combat effective military organization. They were on the lookout for the smart young officers, with new ideas, expertise, and Grit that needed protection and encouragement. While Sims’ personal knowledge and drive were the central reasons for the success of the gunnery reforms, the help of a select number of senior officers was important as well. This is just as important today as it was over a century ago. As General Mattis said:

“Take the mavericks in your service, the ones that wear rumpled uniforms and look like a bag of mud but whose ideas are so offsetting that they actually upset the people in the bureaucracy. One of your primary jobs is to take the risk and protect these people, because if they are not nurtured in your service, the enemy will bring their contrary ideas to you.”


Friends and Peers

It wasn’t just Flag Officers that helped make Sims’ Gunnery Revolution a success. His friends, peers, and staff officers from all over the globe helped as well. Sims had a wide network of friends, many of whom wanted to develop their own innovations and ideas. They all worked together, writing letters that traveled across the globe, passing ideas, support, and intelligence to each other. They advised each other on their plans for attacking the bureaucracy, helped with each other’s ideas and writing, and watched each other’s backs.

Rear Admiral Ridley McLean, pictured as a LCDR

Rear Admiral Ridley McLean, pictured as a LCDR

These men included Bradley Fiske. As a Lieutenant in the 1890’s Fiske invented the telescopic sight which played an important role in Sims new gunnery TTPs. While other navies adopted the new sight, the forces of conservatism in the U.S. Navy decided it was an unnecessary expense to fit every gun on every ship in the fleet with a new sight. It didn’t happen until after Sims took over as Inspector of Target Practice, with the President’s backing. Over the years Fiske wrote numerous articles for Proceedings. His articles supported Sims ideas and also put forward his own. He also continued inventing innovative new technologies and had more patents than any other line officer in the Navy. As he and Sims promoted up through the ranks he went on to help develop the very first concept of operations for dive-bombing and aerial torpedo attacks on ships, supported by Sims later work at the Naval War College.

Ridley McLean served with Sims on China Station and was called back to Washington to serve as his assistant in the Target Practice Office. It was McLean that wrote the procedures in the Navy’s gunnery manual, organizing and formatting Sims ideas in a useful way. He and Powers Symington ran the office for Sims, and took turns traveling with him as he moved around the fleet teaching the new gunnery TTPs. McLean authored “The Blue Jacket’s Manual,” the first guidebook for enlistedmen ever written, which is updated and still issued to Sailors today. He commanded a Battleship in World War I and was one of the first Commanders of the Submarine Force, fighting for the adoption and advancement of the important new weapon after the lessons of World War I. Both Mclean and Fiske became Admirals.

Another one of Sims’ supporters was Philip Alger. He was a brilliant and highly respected classmate of Sims from Annapolis who graduated first in their class. Alger left the Navy after a few years as a junior officer and went to work at Annapolis as a civilian gunnery and ordnance instructor. He earned a well known and highly regarded reputation in the field of naval ordnance and became a full Professor. He was frequently brought in at the Bureau of Ordnance as an expert consultant. During the years that Sims was writing his reports from China Station Alger was on the inside at the Bureau of Ordnance. He wrote letters to Sims telling of the internal discussions at the Bureau and identifying which officers or experts were out to get Sims and which were supporting him. Alger and Sims worked together on an article for Proceedings that Alger then published under his own name in order to reduce the heat on Sims. They were lifelong friends.

Military innovation commonly depends on new ideas from junior leaders, women and men with expertise and grit who are willing to challenge the system and fight the status quo. It needs the disruptive thinkers who also do the research and study to become the experts in their field. However, it also requires senior leaders who are willing to nurture those people and their new ideas, even if they border on the insubordinate or look like a bag of mud. It also requires staff officers, friends, and peers who are supportive. We can’t just sit at our desk and say no or sling arrows as “the devil’s advocate.” Even staff pukes can provide leadership by pushing constructive criticism and encouraging concept development rather than embracing and wielding our power to say no. It takes all of these men and women to successfully innovate in the Navy. As Sims later wrote in the pages of Proceedings:

“A navy to be successful must be guided not only by men of ability but by men of an intellectual honesty that is proof against personal ambition or any other influences whatsoever. Which of us will be quoted in the future as example of dangerous conservatism?”

Posted by LCDR Benjamin "BJ" Armstrong in Navy

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • grandpabluewater


  • “Intellectual honesty” is a great place to start. BZ!

  • The Navy’s Grade 36 Bureaucrat

    I still use William Sims as an example for my sailors, although I emphasize how he many of his ideas were already being used by smart enlisted sailors…just not very commonly. I point out to my officers that often times we don’t have to be the ones with good ideas, just the ones that put the good ideas in writing and promote them.

  • robert_k

    While the author identifies the role of junior and senior officers in innovation, he, through omission, also identities a gap. What role
    does the mid-grade officer play in innovation? This mid-level (O-4/0-6) is
    often considered the most significant barrier to change, and for good reason.

    I’ll offer a different historical perspective. Several years ago I had the good fortune of having some wisdom imparted to me from a CWO5 who
    entered the Marine Corps at the end of the Vietnam War. We discussed the leadership challenges of that generation – particularly dealing with the issue of draftees (or draft avoiders) during an era plagued with racial, drug, and discipline problems. He told me that something that is largely lost on service members in today’s AVF is the increased responsibility that comes with reenlisting and augmentation.

    Back in the day, at that critical point in a military career (whether 2 years or 30 years), a transition occurred from an individual doing a hitch in the military to becoming a true military professional/careerist (in the positive sense). And with that transition, one inherently assumed the increased responsibility of instilling the service/unit cultures, norms and values into those junior to him – in effect, he became a company man.

    This was a new perspective for me – what I witnessed early in my career was an effort to retain as many people as possible, regardless of
    their motivation for military service or performance level. Awards were even given to commands with highest reenlistment rates, etc. In large part, quality control was thrown out the window.

    I believe this concept of military careerist (again, in the positive sense) should still hold true today. Mid-grade officers and NCOs still have the responsibility of instilling the service values and enforcing standards for junior personnel. However, this creates a dilemma regarding innovation. How does one support the traditional values and time-tested practices of the service or unit, while at the same time fostering much needed disruptive thinking?

    Midgrade officers have the responsibility of protecting the institution from bad ideas and nefarious intent. Therefore, they must provide the first line of healthy skepticism for any radical change. In part, this involves determining the motivation for the disruptive idea – is it to undermine the organization? To self-promote a personal agenda? Or to actually benefit the unit/service? If its the latter, and the idea is tactically, technically and fiscally sound, the midgrade officer has the responsibility to push the initiative forward not only to do right by the disruptive thinker but more importantly, for the benefit of the entire organization.

    • Benjamin Armstrong

      Robert, thanks for the comment and insights. Personally, I place the O6’s in the Senior Officer group. In my mind the mid-grade is really the CDR’s and LCDR’s (LtCol and Majors). Not sure if your definition is the same or not. These mid-grade staff officers, as I say, are the ones who “can’t just sit at our desk and say no or sling arrows as “the devil’s advocate.” Even staff pukes can provide leadership by pushing constructive criticism and encouraging concept development rather than embracing and wielding our power to say no.”
      In Tom Kelley’s book “10 Faces of Innovation” he tells us that the “devil’s advocate” is useless because the devil doesn’t want to make things better. Even if an idea needs rethinking and redirection, the “devil’s advocate” won’t give that constructive criticism (won’t even look for the silver lining in the cloud of the “bad idea”) because he is all about shutting the idea down entirely. Yes, we need to ensure bad ideas are stopped, but stopping ideas isn’t exactly the weak point of the military bureaucracy.

      The only place that I would quibble with your wording is when you said “midgrade officers have the responsibility of protecting the institution from bad ideas and nefarious intent.” I think that “protecting the institution” is a dangerous phrase. What it frequently means is shielding the institution from embarassment (even when the institution should be embarassed) rather than fixing/solving problems. I think that you mean it in a more philosophical way, perhaps protecting the mission of the institution or the purpose of the institution.
      Sims warns in his writing about: “conservatism complicated not only by national conceit, but by personal interests and human passions, and too often, by a certain degree of dishonesty in the defense of reputations.” This includes not only reputations of individuals but also of the institution. While I think your meaning of the positive side of “careerism” aligns better with Sims own thinking, the language of “protecting the institution” leads dangerously toward the military conservatism he worked so hard to drive out of the Navy (unsuccessfully, it is admittedly a bit of a Quixotic quest) .

      • robert_k

        After a cup of joe, I see that my choice of words wasn’t the
        best and you make a very valid criticism of “protecting the institution” that I completely agree with. Ensuring actions
        or ideas benefit the institution more accurately represents what I was thinking.

        I find it interesting that you and other innovators are
        anti-“devil’s advocates”. You may be referring to obstructionist or defenders of the status quo who provide false
        arguments to prevent reform or progress from occurring. Over time, I think the constant naysayers soon find themselves irrelevant and marginalized.

        To me contrarian thinking is at the heart of any innovation
        or reform effort. Red teaming, devil’s advocacy, team B methods are accepted in the IC to challenge the current thinking on a topic. From the CIA’s tradecraft primer, “DEVIL’S ADVOCACY: Challenging a single, strongly held view or consensus by building the best possible case for an alternative explanation.” This method provides the following value:

        -Explicitly challenging key assumptions to see if they will
        not hold up under some circumstances.

        -Identifying any faulty logic or information that would
        undermine the key analytic judgments.

        -Presenting alternative hypotheses that would explain the
        current body of information available to analysts.

        You will find that Heuer’s “Structured Analytic Techniques
        for Intelligence Analysis” widely used in the IC provides a valuable framework for analysis that closely parallels structured innovation techniques. Contrarian analysis is an important part of that process.

        I’m not sure how one can fix existing problems, ie personnel
        reform, without first challenging the existing assumptions and conditions. But I get your point that if overused or used inappropriately, contrarian techniques quickly become counter productive.

        Good Stuff! Thanks!

      • Benjamin Armstrong

        You’re right, contrarianism is at the heart of innovation, and that’s why I put “devil’s advocate” in quotes. What Kelley is talking about in “10 Faces” is the obstructionist version of the devil’s advocate, not the red teaming version that is actually trying to provide a constructive and positive questioning of the idea or innovations.

        It’s also good to point out, as you have, that many “innovators” don’t like people to challenge their assumptions, setting up a pot/kettle issue. Once they latch on to their own bright idea they can become just as conservative in defense of that ideas. One of the interesting things about the Gunnery Revolution was how Sims, once he was made Inspector of Target Practice, decided to allow gunnery officers and crews throughout the Fleet to develop their own improvements of his system. In fact the structure he, McLean, and Symington built encouraged it. Constant question asking, constant improvement, was what they were after, not just recongition of their own “bright idea.”

        Thanks Robert, great discussion points.

  • Pingback: Writing in the Professional Military: I tried it and was not attacked by sea monsters | From the Green Notebook()

  • Pingback: Writing in the professional military: I tried it and I was not attacked by sea … | All topics()

  • Pingback: Innovation with a Lowercase “i” | From the Green Notebook()

  • Technology Submission – State of the Art – Novel InFlow Tech – Featured Project Development; / ·1; Rotary-Turbo-InFlow Tech / – GEARTURBINE PROJECT Have the similar basic system of the Aeolipilie Heron Steam Turbine device from Alexandria 10-70 AD * With Retrodynamic = DextroRPM VS LevoInFlow + Ying Yang Way Power Type – Non Waste Looses *8X/Y Thermodynamic CYCLE Way Steps. Higher efficient percent. No blade erosion by sand & very low heat target signature Pat:197187IMPI MX Dic1991 Atypical Motor Engine Type /·2; Imploturbocompressor; One Moving Part System Excellence Design – The InFlow Interaction comes from Macro-Flow and goes to Micro-Flow by Implossion – Only One Compression Step; Inflow, Compression and outflow at one simple circular dynamic motion / New Concept. To see a Imploturbocompressor animation, is possible on a simple way, just to check an Hurricane Satellite view, and is the same implo inflow way nature.