The CO gathered a group of petty officers for a brainstorming session. He was looking for some new ideas, and to hear from them what they wanted and needed to do their jobs more effectively. A few ideas were put forward by the more outspoken sailors present, but ultimately nothing came of the session, and the CO shot down every idea with varied reasons why he couldn’t implement any of them. Morale following the meeting declined as sailors felt even more ignored by their chain of command.

Does this scenario sound familiar? It has been played out in similar form countless times throughout the Fleet. Our military, we hear, is not innovative. Yet, good leaders seem to understand there are great ideas brimming from their sailors. The difficulty lies in finding the proper tools to tap into that creativity.

This tool exists, and it has been used extensively in the private sector. Wait! I can almost hear the reader grumbling now that “the Navy isn’t a business”. Agreed-we should not run the Navy like a business, but we can learn some ways that businesses have encouraged innovation and creativity amongst their employees. Furthermore, the process, if done properly, can be very fun-described by one sailor who took part in it as one of the best and most unique experiences he has had in the Navy.

The method is called Design Thinking, and it was popularized by IDEO, a creativity and innovation company. Design Thinking involves a human centered approach to innovation. It begins with storytelling and brainstorming (with no devil’s advocate allowed early on) and continues with refinement and quick prototype development, often using cardboard cutouts and props.

Design Thinking has had at least one appearance in the Navy, and that was for the TANG a conference held in San Diego for JO’s and PO’s from the sub community. Submariners were given a goal: design the fire control system of the future. After that, there was a hands off approach while the watchstanders (all in civilian clothes-leave your rank at the door for the weekend) came up with a large number of ideas-many crazy-without shooting one another down and without negativity. After a period of time, they began to whittle down the best ideas and discuss how to make those happen. Finally, they showed their solution to the Commodore (sequestered with other CO’s in another room, able to observe over CCTV but not interfere), using hand drawn paper props and a skit mimicking an actual underway situation, as if in a simulator.

This sort of innovation from the deckplates is exactly what the Navy should be facilitating. It emphasizes the specific knowledge of the warfighter, who is most intimately involved with the technology, while creating the framework necessary to best tap into their minds-without negativity and cynicism taking over. A Fleet that asks its sailors how to improve (and what needs improvement) BEFORE talking to a corporation about what the Navy needs is a Fleet that cares about the well being of its personnel and its stewardship over taxpayer dollars.

Again, Design Thinking is merely a tool-let’s not get carried away at the possibilities-but one that could surely help the military. A CO with some familiarity with Design Thinking could hire an expert to run a weekend session with interested volunteers, increasing the esprit de corps and unit morale, and find out ways to innovate that may have been difficult or expensive with the traditional methods of iteration that are in use today. It sure beats replacing the one year old office furniture.

Posted by ET1 Jeff Anderson in Navy
Tags: ,

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

  • robert_k


    Great post until this:

    “A CO with some familiarity with Design Thinking could hire an expert to run a weekend session”

    Research the history of the navy spending on TQL, LSS and other forms of managerial snake oil. This type of facilitation is something that can and should be done by navy personnel – perhaps in the wheelhouse of NWDC.

    • xformed

      “Snake Oil” of TQM/TQL: While I think the implementation “IT’s ALL BRAND NEW!” was off the mark, the practice of much of what TQM called for had been in the Nuke/Engineering world for some time. It was time to bring the concept to the upper decks (and I speak from beginning life as a OPS guy drug kicking and screaming to CCS, and then got back in the sunlight to see CSOSS and other things that had more TQM/L like functionality, to the benefit of the system. It was not a golden cow to to worshiped, but a model to refine our work.

      I found the deck plates came up with great ideas…I also found taking off my collar devices and getting in rooms with other people who wanted to solve a problem got problems solved. Not only that, I saw the CS Dept of the SBR take my STGCs/Ms to school on using the OBT to conduct simulated team training in a much more realistic manner than my very smart team had come up with. We adopted that into CSMTT/CSTG operations and shared it with the fleet.

  • grandpabluewater

    It is not a bad idea to have the junior man present his analysis and recommendations first, and then the rest in reverse order of seniority.

    Some folks, long ago, considered the practice standard operating procedure.

    Also standard, long ago, was for the most senior to set the rules, more or less like this : ” I wish to have the analysis and recommendations of all present. I am fortunate that my senior officers are strong and forceful, and present their views ably. In order that this does make able junior people reluctant to provide their point of view, which I value because they are often closest to where the rubber meets the road, speak in reverse order of seniority, and just the facts, please. Positive criticism only of ideas, and no criticism of people, Present alternatives if you have thought them through. Thank you. Any questions? Seaman Newman? Petty Officer Young? PO2 Sharp? Chief Salt? Master Chief? Ens George, Ltjg Green? Department Heads? OK then, XO will preside and I’ll take notes or ask a question or two. Over to you, XO. Suppo, please pass the coffee.”

    I see no need of Boffins in the mix, myself.

  • You had me, ET1, until ‘hire an expert.’

    Na, keep it in-house. We need to earnestly suck at this for a while, make the mistakes and learn how to do this on our own.

    Consult with experts, surely. But, we don’t need to bring anyone in to facilitate. We need to learn the hard way how to do this, and thus change our culture.

    • Is it possible he meant to say “an expert at panel moderation”? Someone with no axe to grind and no career to sink would be a good panel moderator. It could be a retired Navy person….


    This sounds like an exercise as futile as the recurring Navy Crimes presentation of the fleet’s gripes to a senior flag officer who responds to each item with the time honored “we can’t do it because it’s proscribed by instruction.” An answer to which the obvious and never stated response is “no sh*t Sherlock, we’re asking to change the instruction, it’s not a physical law, it’s all made up.”

    Basically, once a bureaucracy reaches critical stupidity, which I will define as the point at which more time and effort is spent on satisfying internal requirements than performing the organization’s mission, functions, and tasks, nothing can get done and it only gets worse without a massive change agent (like a war with an enemy that has the capability to actually kick your head in).

    I submit without proof that if you were to add up every dollar spent on Navy salary from SECNAV on down, and every minute of each Navy active and civilian’s day were to be measured, there would be more Navy salary dollars spent on moving paper around to satisfy internal reporting requirements than is spent “operating forward,” our “number one” thing.

    Nice idea ET1, and keep at it, but realize that this is an enormous bureaucracy, resistant to change, driven by pettiness and politics at the top, and run by those who have quietly toed the line, done the right tours, worked for the right people, and kept the waves to a minimum.

    The Navy is a great organization as far as giant lumbering bureaucracies go, but it’s hard to get away from the nature of giant bureaucracies and we are one.

    • FouledAnchor

      As constructive as ET1 Anderson’s idea may be – and the spirit in which it’s presented is appreciated – I think GIMPGIMP sums up some of the reasons why this and other so-called innovative ideas fail to achieve the desired or expected results when applied to Navy and other military cultures. In particular, the penultimate paragraph describes much of what’s wrong today.

      And GIMPGIMP, your definition of critical stupidty at the organizational level is quite good. It describes well a situation that is all too common with and within every echelon.

      • Thanks for the comments!

        Most innovative initiatives work for a few situations but get applied to all situations via message traffic. We see a critical success with one application and it gets turned into a mandatory program.

        We need different tools available for those who want to innovate but might want a little direction. Design thinking is one method.

  • Thanks for the responses. Good points made about not hiring out: NWDC

    would be a great command to ask about this.

    I like the idea about having the junior person speak first, but the

    whole point using design thinking is free sharing of ideas, which can be

    difficult when the chain of command is present. Some junior sailors are

    going to feel held back, and while the chain of command is very good at

    running a warship, it is not designed to foster the kind of environment

    that design thinking requires.

    • Ben Kohlmann

      Using the resources of NWDC would be a great launching point for broader innovative ventures. Along with their waterfront initiative, they have numerous officers ready and willing to jump into the fray and facilitate ideation sessions for ships or squadrons. While a commercial expert may be useful, someone who knows the landscape of the Naval Service and has experience corralling disparate ideas would provide a valuable service for COs looking to harness the creativity of his subordinates.