Tags: Design Thinking, Jeff Anderson
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.