Archive for the 'Innovation' Category

America and her partners stand astride the greatest alliance in world history. Thanks to globalization, massive coalitions, and cutting edge science and technology, we appear to be the drivers of global events. Nevertheless, present influence is often a poor predictor of future performance in the wars of nations. Technological advantage has never been more crucial in warfare, nor has it ever been so easy and quick to displace, or be displaced by, another power. The lethality and decentralization of military technology have risen in tandem, allowing renegade sects to acquire deadly missiles and advanced cyber technology for sums that wouldn’t fund a coffee mess at the Pentagon. This paradigm shift is largely due to the computing revolution’s conquest of the dark corners of the world. Distance, time, and even vast quantities of money are no longer the essential components of a military campaign. Today’s geopolitical security environment requires us not only to out-develop our opponents, but also to find immediate defenses to their latest and greatest while operating within a fiscally constrained environment.

With these constraints, and our desire to protect the world system that has allowed billions to thrive, we must find a method that realistically and consistently produces optimal outcomes. With cost as one of our primary problems, more money shall certainly not be the solution: there will not, nor should there, be a massive increase in defense spending. Cost can render even the most revolutionary technology useless, and if we continue to simply throw money at the problem rather than dramatically altering the acquisition process, we cannot be surprised when we do not get dramatically different results. Innovation is as much about making great products as it is about making them at reasonable prices. In order to foster such innovation we must leverage our often overlooked strengths and avoid becoming the victim of our greatest fear: failure. We are a nation of innovators and pioneers, why should our military not emulate, even proselytize innovation? The rigid hierarchies and structures from our foundation were necessary in an age of lawless sailors and high seas high jinks, but today’s service members are not petty criminals. In fact, they are the best and brightest we have ever had. In a rapidly changing developmental and operational environmental we must also rapidly change.

F-35B training aboard MCAS BeaufortTo overhaul the Department of Defense (DoD) and bring it into the twenty-first century, we must not rely on gadgets and whiz-bangs. Cautionary tales such as the F-35 and the DDG-1000 have shown us the perils of trying to produce cutting edge assets with a flawed acquisition process. Instead of focusing on the end product, we must focus on how we proceed from idea to proof of concept. In order to achieve this we must increase the efficacy of our greatest resource: our human capital. This should not be conflated with pushing people harder or working more. It’s about having the right people doing the right work on the right projects, the sort of deft management that is nearly impossible from a centrally-planned organization.

The millions of patriotic Americans that serve in or assist our armed forces care deeply for both our future and their profession. In order to manage these teeming masses we have developed the world’s largest bureaucracy. We have attempted to rein in its excesses and raise its efficacy with strict accountability, both within our respective chains of command and by our civilian overseers. Regrettably, as Francis Fukuyama so insightfully explains through his study of the U.S. Forest Service, such endless reporting and micromanagement breed a navel-gazing, inward-facing culture so caught up in fulfilling requirements that it is unable to do much else. This culture does not adapt, innovate, or improve under the weight of daily paperwork drills. That is not to say that there are not hundreds of thousands of superb sub-organizations and heroes within the DoD, or that determined individuals cannot overcome its strictures, they certainly can. Rather, it is that they should not have to overcome barriers in the first place. Accountability is important, but not when it is taken to the point of sapping initiative, flexibility, and risk-taking. It is a trite cliché to bemoan the burdens of bureaucracy, so we must not focus on the problem and produce another tome of a study that few will read. Instead, we must start implementing the solution, one that is as simple as it is difficult: embrace failure.

Our fear of failure is so colossal, so in-grown that we are unable to see what a culture unhindered by such paranoia could accomplish. Fearing failure discourages risk-taking, experimentation, and ultimately innovation, the essential elements of technological advancement today. The key to innovation is opening an organization up to failure and breeding a culture of creative destruction wherein from the ashes of experimentation rises the phoenix of ingenuity. To determine how we can best incubate such low-cost, high-efficiency systems we need look no further than the golden shores of California. In teams that are often no larger than a minesweeper’s crew, Silicon Valley has produced some of the defining technologies of our age. Their model of innovation is a high-risk, high-reward system characterized by extremely high human capital, independence, room for failure, and divergent thinking. While the DoD’s sprawling size, security concerns, operational requirements, and Congress make it difficult to perfectly emulate Silicon Valley, that does not mean that we cannot adapt our organization with their model as a guide. From cyber warfare to manpower-reducing automation, the possibilities are striking. However, the technology itself is not the solution; it is the process, the organization that undergirds technological development, which will best allow us to continue our mission as a global force for good. The ideas that follow are but a few of the limitless possibilities we have before us if we embrace this Silicon Valley-inspired spirit of decentralization, experimentation, and innovation.

Devolving Development

Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Robert Kennedy, a member of the CNO Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) at Navy Warfare Development Command, demonstrates his proposal for a scan-to-issue system designed to accurately track and issue material to customers. CRIC was established to empower innovators to develop prototypes that can be rapidly transitioned to the fleet. US Navy Photo.

Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Robert Kennedy, a member of the CNO Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) at Navy Warfare Development Command, demonstrates his proposal for a scan-to-issue system designed to accurately track and issue material to customers. CRIC was established to empower innovators to develop prototypes that can be rapidly transitioned to the fleet. US Navy.

The most crucial change must be to our centralized structure. In traditional combat, where one commander was able to gather the disparate elements of warfare into one chain of command, centralization was crucial. However, warfare and the nature of the national security apparatus have changed. For the development of breakthrough ideas and technologies we need to loosen this centralization. We need small, agile teams rather than sprawling commands with 15 layers of reporting. By the time an innovative idea runs from a peripheral command to the Pentagon it has been a decade and the opportunity is lost. We must acknowledge that admirals make great leaders but are often decades removed from deckplate leadership. We must trust our O-5s and O-6s to lead teams of junior officers in developing ideas and technologies. They will partner with scientists, developers, and contractors to take the seeds of invention and cultivate them into the saplings that admirals can grow into mighty oaks. Too often a seed is not given a chance to grow and is killed in development, or a seed is seen as so great, so interesting, that it is given far too much, killed by overmanagement. Instead, let us step back and allow these small “innovation pods” the chance to incubate and experiment with these new seeds, then take those successes to the admirals for fertilization and replication. This devolved style is necessary if we are to remain on the cutting edge. No matter how great a single idea appears, it is impossible to pick the best ideas at such early stages.

Venture Capitalism Repurposed

Of course the mechanism to determine how these nimble “pods” will be funded and their ideas advanced is just as important as their mission. Here again we can borrow from Silicon Valley. By cultivating a network of internal venture capitalists (VCs) we can revitalize the DoD and inject it with the creativity and passion that so enrich our nation’s private technology firms. Initially there would only be a few teams as the model’s kinks were worked out and its nuances adapted to the Pentagon. These teams would be composed of a mix of DoD acquisition experts and Silicon Valley VCs. The basic framework would be:

  1. The DoD issues a general call for a perceived requirement.
  2. Relevant innovation pods brainstorm ideas and submit proposed solutions.
  3. Pods are given a small amount of money to test their ideas.
  4. VC angel investors read the proposals and the results of initial testing.
  5. Top tier ideas receive additional seed capital and advance.
  6. As the ideas become increasingly mature, the most efficacious design is advanced to the highest levels.
  7. The official program then begins with the leadership of the winning pod, taking into account the lessons learned from all of the pods involved.

The pods would be highly fluid and project-based, much like those of management consultants who frequently rotate through teams and tackle extraordinarily diverse problems yet still produce outstanding results. An officer would be assigned a billet as a general innovation pod member, then apply to the pods whose goals most interest him or her or where his or her skills would be most valuable. These general pod members would be able to rotate through pods as projects and proposals come and go, sticking with those pods that best align with their interests and capabilities. Again, this is a rough framework, what matters is the spirit: the idea of having the best ideas selected through an objective and creative experimentation process. We would learn lessons faster, break barriers, eschew vested interests, and find flaws much earlier in the process, saving us untold billions. One billion dollars on 1,000 programs that lead to fifty breakthrough technologies is better than one billion dollars lost to a forced idea such as the Arsenal ship or the Army’s Crusader self-propelled howitzer. Good ideas cannot be made; they must be proven and cultivated. With an internal VC system we would find the good ideas first, before development. The Pentagon would become a market place of ideas rather than a centrally-planned laboratory and our military would thrive.

The Right to Fail

080723-N-0000X-001All of this comes back to fighting our fear of failure, of doing away with a zero-defects culture. Junior officers will mess up. Mistakes shall be made. However, these are necessary, for there is no greater teacher than failure. Instead of giving progress reports to every inquirer at every step, teams must be allowed to tinker, to have room to breathe, to have time to fail, learn from it, and improve it on a small scale. It is much simpler to fail early and fix it than it is to keep passing the buck until we end up with a useless billion dollar program and can’t even figure out the core problem because it’s so buried in paperwork, complexity, and band-aid fixes. These runaway costs and delays are endemic to our current system. “A 2009 Government Accountability Office study of 96 major defense acquisition programs found that almost two-thirds of them suffered major cost overruns — forty percent above contract prices — with average delays of nearly two years. Those overruns totaled close to $300 billion.A rigorous, specialized, small team-driven approach will help us weed out which seeds need to be developed and which must be discarded, keeping us from ending up with billion dollar lemons. We love to champion a project from start to finish, but we must switch to championing them at the mid-course stage. As what we want and what is possible often diverge significantly, nothing should be sacrosanct in the development stages.

Reinvigorating Basic Research

All of these organizational changes and small teams still require the great tools and breakthroughs that made atom bombs, supersonic missiles, and strike drones possible. We must return to our rich World War II heritage and rekindle the DoD’s role as the ultimate benefactor of basic research: research done to advance scientific understanding without being directed at specific problem. These funds will come from the savings reaped by our organizational restructuring and will be distributed to America’s world-renowned research universities and organizations. Their discoveries will further fuel the opportunities and advances achieved by the innovation pods and DoD VCs.

 Scaling Up Modularity and Allied Partnerships

160130-N-ZZ999-001Basic research will pay off in time and allow us to continue pushing the frontiers of warfighting, but we must also find innovative and evolutionary ways to get breakthrough technologies to our service members quickly and consistently. One of the most promising means of achieving this is through modularity. Despite the challenges the Navy has encountered with the Littoral Combat Ship’s (LCS) modules, the principle remains one of our most promising ideas going forward. The increased versatility, upgradability, and specialization provided by modularity drastically increase the effectiveness of a single vessel. Our guiding light should be to create platforms that can be specialized and re-specialized as is operationally necessary, rather than trying to design a Swiss Army knife today to fight tomorrow’s wars. In order to further augment these modules, and the Fleet in general, we also need to open ourselves up to more allied and off-the-shelf technology. Increasing partnerships and technology sharing with our allies, along with licensing the production of foreign designs in America – with appropriate security – would save us billions in R&D, strengthen our ties, and encourage our more reluctant allies, especially in NATO, to get more involved in the defense sector.

Extending Tours on Key Projects

On the personnel front, we must allow those who embark on long-term projects to stay longer than a typical 18-36 month billet allows. Our relatively short-term billets, especially on long-term projects, mean that there is little true ownership for programs like the F-35, which has had so many program managers and developers over the years that no one has ever been truly responsible for the results. We preach immediate accountability constantly, but pay less heed to the perils of long-term gaps in responsibility and follow-through. Just as being the head of Nuclear Reactors is a ten year job, so should more billets be of a length commensurate to the task at hand. This ownership would incentivize passion, dedication, and follow-through by giving our leaders real skin in the game and bonding with their product and team. In our innovation pod model this would kick-in when a pod “wins” and gets the green-light to go into full-scale production. Their key leadership would stay with the project and continue working on it until completion.

Seizing Opportunities & Accelerating Careers

150513-N-LV331-003In the spirit of SECNAV’s much-lauded changes from May of last year, we must continue the process of providing ever greater opportunities and career development for our best officers. Successful innovation pods should be rewarded with promotions, bonuses, and other accolades, showing our officer corps that exceptional successes and hard work have immediate and tangible benefits. These rewards will further motivate and empower our innovation pods to dare greatly and push the frontiers of the possible. Similarly, we must provide them with extensive flexibility in using the Career Intermission Pilot Program (CIPP) to pursue developmental opportunities, including those that arise suddenly. Much like then-Lieutenant Nimitz’s 1913 study in Germany to become the Navy’s foremost expert on Rudolf Diesel’s revolutionary new engines, so should officers be strongly encouraged to seize learning opportunities that benefit the Navy’s intellectual and innovative vitality. Foreign exchanges, elite graduate programs, Fortune 500 fellowships, and other external opportunities should be highly sought after and advantageous for promotion since they cultivate the diversity of ideas and perspectives that will be so crucial in twenty-first century warfare and technological development.

Ultimately, what is most important about these changes is not the organizational details or the funding mechanisms, but their spirit. It is a new cultural paradigm that will bring the DoD into the brave new world of the information age. The organizational changes will reinforce and perpetuate this spirit, but as leaders we must lead from the front and push our military to become the agile, effective organization that our country needs and the American people deserve. To do this we must embrace risk and reap the rewards of creative destruction. We must cast our zero-defects mentality asunder and implement creative development and funding mechanisms such as those of Silicon Valley. We must tinker with and cultivate great ideas, allowing fluid innovation pods to create, fail, and thrive in pursuit of cutting edge developments and technologies that will keep us at the forefront of modern warfare. We must trust our junior officers and allow them to experience opportunities throughout the Fleet and the civilian world. We must increase basic research, modularity, and partnerships and technology sharing with our allies in order to retain the technological tools necessary for our innovators and DoD VCs to pioneer novel and effective applications. These solutions are budget neutral and potentially quite cost-saving; all they require is faith. We must have faith in our government and in our officer corps, for there are none better. If we are able to rise to this occasion, embracing failure, decentralization, and the pioneering spirit that made our country great, then there will be no foe we cannot vanquish.


Ten Seconds

March 2016


Arleigh Burke was a hard-charger by nature, never content to rest on his laurels.

Thus at the Battle of Blackett Strait–a victory for the United States–Burke was unhappy. Commanding a Destroyer Squadron, he was on the bridge of his flagship, looking out for the Japanese destroyers Murasame and Minegumo. When his radar operator picked up a ship close to shore, Burke hesitated to fire at first.

Sure enough, the contact had been one of the Japanese ships, and Burke’s hesitation allowed them to get within weapons range. A battle ensued, thankfully resulting in the sinking of both enemy destroyers.

Burke, frustrated with himself, asked one of the Ensigns standing watch what the difference was between a good officer and a poor one. After listening to the young man’s response, Burke offered his own:

“The difference between a good officer and a poor one,” he said, “is about ten seconds.”

The Pacific Theatre of World War II tested the United States Navy’s resolve like no other conflict before or since. We look back on the battles memorialized as part of our culture and hold them as the gold standard for naval operations today.

But luminaries like Arleigh Burke knew those engagements could have been better. The same bug that struck him at Blackett Strait–hesitation–cost the United States many other opportunities throughout the theater.

If he were alive today, pacing the bridge wing, Burke might regard the culture of hesitation we seem to have built in our Navy with a more acute displeasure than he did 83 years ago. And he would demand we improve.

Simpler Times

Burke and his crews were successful, in part, due to their understanding of the strategic calculus of World War II: kill or be killed. In a war of attrition, the goal is to inflict as much damage on the enemy as possible while staying afloat, or, in the immortal words of General George Patton, “to make the other bastard die for his” country.

Though the tasks of major war at sea, on land, and in the air were gargantuan, the strategic environment may have been a bit easier. It was the ability of every Sailor to understand this paradigm–down to the mess halls and deck plates–and their commitment to see it through that would catalyze American victory in the 1940s.

Today, the United States still maintains the most capable naval force in the world. We still operate at sea, on land, and in the air, in addition to the realms of space and the broader electromagnetic spectrum. Capitalizing on the ingenuity of our people, we have incorporated technological advances into our platforms that enhance our tactics, techniques, and procedures.

These accelerations in technology have led to a commensurate quickening of decision-making in the battlespace. Colonel John Boyd’s “Observe-Orient-Decide-Act,” or “OODA Loop” describes the process that each individual or unit must go through to learn and succeed. As Colonel Boyd famously proved, the ability to operate inside an adversary’s OODA Loop is often the difference between victory and defeat.

Yet, as we increase the pace of our tactics and decisions, we are doing so at the expense of the strategic proficiency of our junior sailors and officers. Worse, senior officers often exhort to subordinates to “focus on your tactics,” implying that the understanding of strategy and policy should be left to those with “experience.”

This growing lethargy in learning and understanding brings with it a creeping risk–a hesitation–that should be untenable to us as warfighters. We are doing a disservice to our service when we develop aviators who can “center the dot,” but cannot describe the geopolitical diversity surrounding their Carrier Operating Area (CVOA); when we develop submariners who can maintain a reactor within checklist specifications, but cannot debate the merits of improving personnel policy in the service; when we develop surface warfare officers who can stand on their feet for hours on the bridge, but cannot fathom how the position of their ship in the ocean impacts the global economy. We develop this risk across both our Restricted and Unrestricted Line communities.

Sometimes, this risk manifests itself in mistake: the bombing of a hospital instead of a legitimate military target, or confrontation with a tenuous regional actor. Often, however, the risk is in unmeasured opportunity cost: the option or consideration no one in the room brought to attention; the detail that goes unchecked because it wasn’t part of our rigid formula; the stakeholder we do not consider but whose reaction will impact our long-term success or failure. We build in a culture of hesitation to our systems when we make such a clear distinction between tactical execution and strategic understanding. Just as in Burke’s time, it is costing us opportunities.

Shared Consciousness

In his book Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal describes the concept of “shared consciousness” by saying, “our entire force needed to share a fundamental, holistic understanding of the operating environment and of our own organization, and we also needed to preserve each team’s distinct skill sets.” Rather than developing bland generalists, McChrystal remarks that the goal for his organization was “to fuse generalized awareness with specialized expertise.”

We are a Navy full of essential skills and experts; we need these to fight. But in order to win, shared consciousness among all ranks and at all levels is required.

Above all, this is a leadership issue. Our service has no place for those who tell their subordinates to “focus on tactics” at the expense of strategy. We may win the battle, but we will surely lose the war. To increase the pace of our various OODA Loops–and mitigate a culture of hesitation– we must develop sailors who are both tactically lethal and strategically aware.

Discussion of strategy and policy should be encouraged at all levels. Many good commanding officers, both past and present, have fostered an atmosphere of questioning and discussion in wardrooms and ready rooms. This should not be mere serendipity; we should select officers for these positions who are capable of engendering this environment, and continue to promote those who have proven they can do so in a respectful, constructive manner.

These discussions should lead to action and writing–to white papers, articles, blog posts–that are read and in turn debated, rebutted, and written about. Moreover, we should not limit this activity to individual ships and units; this environment should exist at the Pentagon, at our Fleet Replacement Squadrons and Afloat Training Groups, with our peers on the Joint Staff and in classroom settings, and with our multinational partners around the world.

Separately, we must not allow our reliance on technology to institutionalize a culture of hesitation. With more information being consumed and analyzed at a much quicker pace than ever before, it is easy to simply complete the blocks in our checklist and make a voice or chat report, rather than developing a system of communication and execution that capitalizes on shared consciousness. We must return to our uniquely naval roots of the Composite Warfare Commander Concept and command by negation in order to build a better system, or else we will be doomed to repeat the kind of hesitation that Arleigh Burke so desperately wanted to avoid.

In the final analysis, we are not compartmentalized into separate tactical officers and strategic officers. We are naval officers and warfighters; there should be no difference.

Admiral Burke’s experience at Blackett Strait played out between ten and twenty knots. Our experiences today demand that, while our ships may still travel at that speed, our decision-making and understanding scales exponentially faster.

For this generation of naval warfighters and decision-makers, the difference between a good officer and a poor one may be ten microseconds. And we must make every one count.

Please join us at 5pm (remember Eastern Daylight Time) on 13 March 2016 for Midrats Episode 323: Building a Navy in Peace That Wins at War

The wartime record of the US Navy in under four years of combat from late 1941’s low point to the September 1945 anchoring in Tokyo Bay did not happen by chance. It did not happen through luck, or through quick thinking. It happened through a process of dedicated, deliberate, disciplined and driven effort over two decades in the intra-war period.

What were the mindset, process, leadership, and framework of the 1920s and 1930s that was used to build the fleet and the concepts that brought it to victory in the 1940s?

This week we are going to dive deep in this subject for the full hour with Captain C.C. Felker, USN, Professor of History at the US Naval Academy and author of, Testing American Sea Power: U.S. Navy Strategic Exercises, 1923–1940.

Listen live if you can or pick the show up later by clicking here or later from our iTunes page


Bunker Burst 2016

February 2016


I always look forward to attending the U.S. Naval Institute/AFCEA WEST conference. It’s an energizing time to listen to speakers who have strategic influence and insights, meet dynamic leaders who are getting it done at the deck-plates, and gain exposure to new technologies, products and services that help keep us on the cutting-edge of national defense capability. Each year I’m entirely impressed with this event and I walk away smarter. Thanks to a unique addition to this year’s line-up, this go around was the best yet.

Bunker Labs – a wildly cool company that incubates veteran startups – co-hosted “Bunker Burst” with the U.S. Naval Institute. The intent was to engage participants through workshops to curate catalytic insights, big idea thinking, and exciting engagement for workshop participants. The mission was well accomplished.

I walked into the San Diego convention center not knowing what to expect. Having moved up to the Bay Area last year to launch a technology company with my partners, I’ve attending dozens of workshops and entrepreneur oriented technology and networking events in Silicon Valley and San Francisco with varying degrees of utility. I was excited to be apart of Bunker Burst and hoping it would deliver.

When VADM Daly, USN (Ret.) gave the opening remarks and articulated the reasons why the U.S. Naval Institute was partnering with Bunker Labs to sponsor a “big blue arrow” problem solving workshop a light bulb went off: of course the institution dedicated to promoting disruptive thinking and change advocacy among officers and enlisted leaders in our sea services would be involved in leveraging the proven techniques and processes used to solve some of the greatest problems facing technology companies in design to solve some of the greatest problems facing our sea services in how we fight our wars and maintain readiness and retention.

IMG_7979That morning we learned about Bunker Labs from their energetic and passionate CEO, Todd Conner, who explained his organization’s goal: launch and accelerating veteran-owned businesses, channeling the energy among veterans to become entrepreneurs and business owners and create a new forum for high-performing veterans to meet and collaborate. This story and message resonated deeply among a diverse audience of active duty, reservists, industry professionals and businessmen and women. We were divided into small groups and immediately jumped into the cold pool of learning with both feet and spent the morning learning about design thinking and applying the process to a sample use case.

At around lunch we used what we learned that morning to address key questions posed by the CNO, Marine Corps Commandant, SECDEF, Undersecretary for Personnel and 8 other senior leaders. Because the first step of the process is reframing the broader question to achieve an outcome based question, some of what we arrived at looked wildly different than what we expected – which was absolutely part of the enjoyment of discovery.

Each team worked throughout the afternoon on solving 1-2 questions and at the end of the day we pitched our solution concept to the group. This was one of the most enjoyable part of the day with some groups resembling a professional pitch team asking for money on Sand Hill Road, to others offering what looked like a short one act play. I was really impressed with the responses, the originality of the presentations and the very different approaches each group took to solving the problem. These solutions are going to be sent back to those that posed them, and I’m excited to see their responses.

The afternoon closed with a networking event atop a beautiful hotel in downtown San Diego and the conversations from the day played out past sun down. In the end, I was very impressed with the first ever Bunker Labs and think that it should be an event that remains a part of WEST in the years to come. Not only did we break down barriers, learn new problem solving techniques, and expand our professional network, we also had fun. Which as we know is a big part of the culture of any high performing problem solving team.

The hallmark of the Naval Institute is that it provides a forum to make us better – to try things out of the box and to explore ideas that challenge the norm. It also serves to remind us about the importance of the lessons of our own naval history so that we may be better leaders, thinkers, innovators and citizens. To that end, Bunker Burst was absolutely consistent with this legacy and I hope it continues in the years to come.


The Mountain

February 2016


This is a call for direction, to give focus to the avalanche of innovation asked for, by, and delivered to our Navy. I started this essay a dozen times. Every time a new anecdote or angle occurred to me, I would set out again to describe something on the tip of my tongue and it always fizzled out. I have come at it swinging; I have sidled up to it sideways.The truth is, every officer that I know has seen the same systemic inadequacies and has had many brilliant ideas to move the Navy forward. I am woefully underqualified to present the catch-all solution for the Navy’s problems; I lack the experience and expertise. So when I examine the heap of possibilities I wish to engage, I have trouble finding a place to start.

It is a mountain of Everest proportions and geared-up officers at the bottom are still puzzling the path that will move them forward. The bureaucracy has become so large, so complicated, so obscured that every start seems to simply tire and thin the herd. With this many people all looking in the same direction, seeing the same issues, it is incredible that we seem to still be at base camp. Then, I start this essay over again and realize, I too am stuck at base camp with just an essay, not even an actual proposal or policy! Progress proves to be as difficult to define as to execute.

The Problem is the Problems

A foundational issue with trying to see a way forward is that we have a system akin to pre-WWI Europe, one of secret alliances and tensions in which to change one small thing could bring an unending avalanche of consequences. Every time a brave officer comes forward with a solution and attacks the mountain, they dislodge a myriad of other issues which force them back to the safety of the ranks. Even those who have climbed their way to positions of authority, look back on the path they took and can hardly recognize it, with policy and technology changes obscuring and isolating them from bringing others along. The Navy is at the foot of an impossibly high pile of interrelated and cascading issues with no clear path to the top and all of our training and motivation seems to mean nothing when we are not sure how to stabilize the stack to make passage possible.

There is a beacon of hope to guide our efforts, however. Those with the depth of knowledge and experience to see the full set of obstacles are of highest value. Yet with so many people energetic to climb the mountain, it seems that those with the perspective to guide them may be tired from the climb, entrenched in the system which they navigated or bound by the intricacies of bureaucracy. Those of us just beginning our ascent cannot follow their paths, and they aren’t calling down the mountain. The entire way we have been trying to innovate is flawed because we are pulling pieces out from the already unstable bottom, without any guidance from those with a much broader, more mature vantage point.

The Conditions are Right

Anyone who has begun a precarious climb knows that without the right equipment, angle, and direction you are just asking for the ground to crumble beneath you. This is, at best, comical, as you struggle without making any progress and, at worst, dangerous. We, as aspiring innovators, are not navigating the treacherous path of change as well as we should. Yet there are many of us, trained up and passionately ready, to build a navigable trail so that we can tame the mountain.

We must begin. We have tools. We have ideas. We have experts. We have the time. All we are waiting for is the right people to give us the go ahead, and to guide us from their elevated positions. We need those fearless enough to reach great heights to call again upon that fortitude and communicate with us.

The greatest barriers to innovation are feelings of being overwhelmed, thinking in isolated terms, and failure to launch. The time is right, with motivated innovators ready to start who understand the complexity of the issues and are eager for support and guidance. It is time to begin.

The Solution is Perspective

This last piece of the puzzle is one that our enthusiasm and creativity cannot overcome. We know the value of climbing the mountain; we know the programs, incentives and awards meant to entice us to attack the mountain. We know the bemoaned complaints and the fiery desire for improvement that pushes from behind us. Neither of these are new phenomena and yet relatively little progress is attempted. Every time one problem is fixed, it tugs at the thousand other things to which it is tied and the system rejects the amendment or absorbs it with little appreciation for the intent of the improvement.

Junior leaders simply can’t see a way to conquer it all with our limited experience and perspective. We need senior leaders to take a risk and trust that given a problem, we can provide creative solutions. Then we need them to use that position to properly define the problem, so that we are not solving it from our too-close vantage point, but with proper respect for the breadth and depth of the systems we may impact. There is a broad call out for improvements and passionate leaders giving us broad directions. This is simply not working – the paths they took no longer exist, and the workable way ahead is difficult to distinguish. The mountain is ever more treacherous, precariously balanced and threatening.

Solutions seem easy to come by, and there are many smart, innovative people seeking them with reckless abandon. Yet these are simple solutions to simple problems. No problem in the Navy exists in a truly simple form, or in a vacuum. An entire generation is waiting for their moment, but is unable to see the tangled infrastructure supported by that rock they seek to demolish. We are waiting for the opportunity to marry our education and enthusiasm. Many of the best and brightest spend a lot of time working on wonderful, well thought out solutions. Those who have worked hard and attained the rank and authority to enact change are constantly looking for creative solutions, or those who can help them craft them. With so many people putting forth so much time and effort, there is no shortage of solutions.

Without a clearly defined problem, we can’t know if brilliant solutions are hitting the mark. No amount of innovation or hard work can overcome a poorly defined problem. We need to not only be more enthusiastic in our creative problem solving efforts, but deliberate in defining our problem defining. The accuracy of the definition of the parameters of a problem will directly correlate to the effectiveness of the solution, and when there is no clearly defined problem at all, the solutions are bound to cause more harm than good. The Navy has some of the most innovative minds at all levels of leadership. Junior officers are ready to craft solutions, anxiously anticipating and even creating problems. The youngest members of the wardroom may see many of the problems, but without the scope and clear direction that could be provided by senior leaders, we are bound to waste precious time and effort building paths in the wrong direction. Senior leaders need only shine light down the mountain and give us permission to build.

We have a need, as a Navy, to be better stewards of our own system. We have a responsibility to tackle the mountain of outdated policies and known shortcomings. We need well-defined targets, measured perspective, and large-scale cooperation to manage the secondary and tertiary effects of change. We need not run up the gravel bottom only to backslide, tired and frustrated. There are great leaders along the path; there are many more ready to band together for the trek to the top. Define a problem clearly, give us permission to upset norms, and we will eagerly bring ideas to make the mountain more manageable.

The Navy is at a tipping point. With the rapid rise of advanced technologies in the commercial sector and shrinking defense budgets, the Navy is being forced to modernize at the same time that it is contracting. Near peer adversaries like Russia and China, regional actors like Iran and North Korea, and even terrorist forces are able to take advantage of social networks and personal communications devices to organize, communicate and provide command and control of their forces.

In many cases, the tools they are using to communicate – iPhones, Twitter, and Facebook- are superior in some ways to the tools our Navy uses to communicate. Our potential adversaries can leverage the power of social media and collaboration in ways the Navy has not mastered. They do it cheaper, faster, and with more agility than the US Navy. The Navy seems to be frozen in time.

Technology is the simple part. The existence of the right technology is not the problem. Low-cost computer systems are powerful enough to run nearly any software we like. The exponential development of microprocessors and storage has driven the cost of commercial software and hardware to the point of making these essentially disposable. Software designers can program vehicles to drive autonomously and coordinate over the air communications for hundreds of millions of people every day.

The problem is, the Navy as a business enterprise is not able to take advantage of low cost, disposable solutions. The Navy enterprise is made up of people and people make decisions. In the aggregate, the decisions the Navy makes are not leading to a leaner, more lethal force. The current culture of the Navy is designed to reinforce maintenance of the status quo.

The Navy has a culture problem. The CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell tried to fix that problem.

The Chief of Naval Operation’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) had two missions. The first was to rapidly bring new concepts and technologies into the Navy. The second was to build a culture of innovation within the Navy. For the first mission, the CRIC was wildly successful. The CRIC, in three years, brought additive manufacturing to ships, highlighted augmented reality in the workplace, and used data analytics and machine learning in new ways to drastically reduce the time and cost of integrating systems of maintaining aircraft. Two CRIC projects, a cyber security project and a project on rapidly reconfigurable mission packages, shifted over $1 billion in Navy investment. None of these projects cost the Navy more than $2 million and most took fewer than two years to complete.

The second mission, building a culture of innovation, has been harder.

CRIC was founded in the middle of sequestration and as a result has had a prejudicial mark against it from Congress since its beginning. As a result, CRIC was unable to grow and accept additional funding from outside sources. The mark against the CRIC was a procedural step, likely meant to set a firm stand against small, pet projects. It was an easy cut for a staffer in Congress to make.

CRIC members have included Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard personnel in the ranks of E-5, E-6, O-2, O-3, and O-4. Despite the direct relationship to the Chief of Naval Operations, CRIC members universally received strong resistance to their implementing their ideas. This resistance came from a single group.

The people who were barriers to innovation for CRIC members were E-7 to E-9, O-5 and O-6, and GS-15 in the civilian ranks. Without exception, those who have a tendency to resist innovation, and the power to do something about it, are the senior managers in the Navy. This group is the “frozen middle” of the Navy. It is both the group that is most resistant to change, and also the group that is most needed to carry forward change.

The enlisted sailors had it the worst. There were several enlisted CRIC members who were unable to continue in the CRIC simply due to the pressure they felt from the Chief’s Mess at their parent commands. In some cases, enlisted sailor’s careers were only salvaged when they transferred out of their commands. The success of many of our enlisted CRIC members was only because of influence from our CRIC director, and in some cases, intervention by the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy himself. The CRIC was often toxic for enlisted sailors. It gave them hope they could change things in the Navy.

The culture of the Navy does not support enlisted innovators. It is not clear that has changed.

On the officer side, life was only marginally better. The Navy has a culture that supports officers speaking their ideas. Essays in Proceedings and USNI Blog are evidence this culture is strong. It is a different thing altogether for junior officers to implement their ideas.

Resources for innovation are only held at the flag officer and senior executive level. The O-5, O-6, and GS-15 of the Navy are the gatekeepers. Those resources are hotly contested and subject to large councils of stakeholders, who make decisions on if and when the resources will be allocated. For the senior officer on the council, their ability to maintain funding and support for their project portfolio is paramount. New ideas, injected in the council, especially from those twenty years their junior, may disrupt projects that span decades. As a result, those people responsible for maintaining those programs are resistant to, if not openly hostile to CRIC ideas.

The problem comes in when the new idea is actually better than the old idea. There is little opportunity to supplant the old idea because the gatekeepers knowingly or unknowingly block access to the meetings and resources. When ideas are considered, the administrative requirements to present an idea from the junior lieutenant level up to the decision-maker provide additional barriers to innovation beyond what the senior manager is required to provide.

Despite it all, the CRIC was successful in getting projects completed faster, cheaper, and more effectively than the rest of the Navy. The CRIC accomplished this in part by recognizing the importance of the “golden triangle.”

For any successful enterprise, three roles are critical. First is the junior-minded individual with an idea. This person is important because they provide fresh perspective to problems and youthful energy. The second is the mentor. That is the senior person who provides wisdom, experience, guidance, and often resources. The third is the technical expert. This is the person who has the technical acumen to actually take the idea into reality. The technical expert could be an engineer, policy maker, or acquisitions professional.

In the CRIC, the Chief of Naval Operations played the role of senior mentor, providing the ultimate top cover. Each successful member of the CRIC had more than one senior mentor. The CRIC developed strong working relationships with many of the other flag officers and senior executives throughout the Navy.

The CRIC member played the role of the junior-minded individual. Junior-minded is key because the role is tied to a mindset, not an actual age or rank. CRIC was able to develop strong relationships with senior mentors because CRIC provided raw, unfiltered opinions and ideas directly to the leaders. Both groups were reminded that not only were there ways to do things better, but the senior leader had the ability to make consequential changes to remove barriers to innovation.

Technical experts varied. Arranged groupings between subject matter experts for a CRIC member’s project and the CRIC member usually ended in failure. The better way was when the CRIC member and the technical expert met each other and discovered a shared passion. The CRIC member often brought with them top cover and resourcing from the senior mentor.

There is another group critical in the CRIC’s success. There were key individuals in the ranks of the “frozen middle” that were not frozen. They may not have all been innovators themselves, but they were enablers. They provided top cover and process development for the CRIC member. They were the ones who took the initial CRIC idea and turned it into doctrine and policy. They were the ones physically removing language in the policy documents, and standing in those rooms fighting for resourcing for the CRIC projects.

Those Chiefs, Commanders, Captains, and Senior civilians became a part of the “golden triangle.” They embraced change and innovation and shepherded the Navy on a new course. There are small pockets of hope within the “frozen middle.”

The CRIC built a culture of innovation for junior sailors and officers and for a generation of senior leaders. The CRIC is fading away under its congressional mark, but its work is not over. It is time to unfreeze the middle in order to build the future Navy … even in today’s constrained fiscal reality.

The time for the CRIC to change the culture is over. The Navy needs to take the culture of innovation developed by the CRIC and transition it. That is a job for the newly unfrozen middle.


Innovation Buzzkill

February 2016


I am concerned that the Navy will soon be mandated to innovate. Even worse, that the process will be bureaucratized. In a memo dated 31 Jul 2015, Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) Ash Carter directed the Defense Business Board (DBB) to “provide recommendations on how the Department can establish ‘virtual consultancies’ that engage our internal talent.” Six months later, the DBB approved a recommendation to designate an entity within the Office of the Secretary of Defense to champion innovation efforts and to serve as a forcing function for cultural change within the organization. While I agree with the spirit of the recommendation, I believe the Navy can – and will – be more successful by innovating through internal channels.

That being said, I still believe the number one barrier to innovation is organizational culture, in which individual leaders do not invite – or support – their subordinates to challenge the status quo. It’s easy to understand why. To invite change into an organization requires courage and effort. Courage to listen, disrupt, and possibly fail. Effort to mentor, follow-through, and champion. It also takes precious time away from the daily routine and more “pressing” matters.

The Secretary of Defense has certainly reinvigorated the innovative spirit within DoD, and many efforts are afoot to facilitate innovation initiatives. Examples include: CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC), SECDEF’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), ATHENA, and Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF) just to name a few. Innovative efforts, however, are not just restricted to the upper echelons. Enlisted members, Junior Officers (JOs), and DoD civilian are getting involved too – in big ways. Under their own initiative, they are self-organizing, collaborating, and making things happen across the Fleet. DoN should take note.

Good ideas have no rank

For example, Surface Warfare detailing (PERS-41) championed three JO innovation cells to undertake a broad series of initiatives to lead the Navy in recruiting and retaining top talent. In March 2016, a DC symposium – organized by JOs, for JOs – will tackle the challenge of how to better evaluate our officers. Later that month, a team of operators and domain experts will gather in Hawaii to develop human-centered solutions to the challenges of Integrated Air Missile Defense Mission coordination. Stakeholders – even very senior ones – are paying attention.

In a message dated 08 Feb 2016, Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Ray Mabus announced his 2015 innovation award winners – ranging from Third Class Petty Officers, Midshipmen, PhD civilians, and senior officers. These winners tackled a wide-variety of challenges to include robotics/autonomous systems, data analytics, additive manufacturing, energy, weapons, decision aide, and many others. Of particular note were the categories of innovation leadership and innovation catalyst. What can be learned from these innovation leaders? More importantly, what is their formula – or process – for inspiring a culture of innovation success?

Opportunities for Innovation

According to the Department of the Navy’s innovation vision, “the [Navy] must anticipate, adapt, and thrive in a rapidly changing environment, which requires freedom, the flexibility to innovate at all levels, and the ability to flatten the organization, break-down silos, and create cross-disciplinary synergies.”

Perhaps SECNAV’s guidance says it best:

  • Commanders at every level must create an environment which allows for the challenging of assumptions, the creation of novel ideas and strategies, and the support to follow-through and make an impact.
  • Commanders at all levels must identify the appropriate conditions for taking risks.
  • Prudent risk takers, and the failures which result in learning, must be recognized and rewarded.
  • Zero-Defect thinking must not permeate promotion boards or performance assessments. Failure that occurs in a learning environment ultimately benefits the organization.

The key to DoN’s innovation success will be a collection of individual leaders who inspire trust in their people – willing to listen, provide feedback, and champion good ideas wherever they may come from. Our DoN members are already partnering with internal Navy circles, industry, small businesses, and academia to organize projects, symposiums, innovation forums, and task groups. I urge Navy leadership to leverage the enthusiasm and creativity already resident inside our organization today. Innovation success relies on relationships and empowerment, not mandates and directives.

c5db817c565459e739af64f9cd6c617a9189b9eaLack of self-awareness. We all know people who suffer from this problem. Can organizations suffer from the same?

Let’s look at the basics of looking for problems and fixing them and see where it takes us.

As a firm believer in continuous improvement, no organization can remain excellent over time without clear, and often cutting, self-examination. Good, regular “preventative maintenance” is just solid leadership. When all is well, you want to make sure all is well. You inspect, measure, compare and report. If something is not what it should be, you correct and move on.

Sometimes, problems come to you before you can find them. At sea, in the air, or even in a car – you can often “feel” something is not quite right well before a light or alarm goes off. Sometimes it is obvious like a subtle shimmy or noise, other times obvious – but you never just ignore it, you investigate.

As is often the case, you may not find the cause of your unease on the first path you take in trouble-shooting. You try one thing for a certain period of time, and if that is not productive, you move on to another possibility. What you don’t do is to double down on an area of investigation that, in a reasonable period of time, shows you nothing that is wrong.

Most can agree with this. So, let’s move away from the practical area of trouble shooting to the other side of the brain, the bureaucratic method.

What if an organization created to fix a problem finds nothing, but in its search, exemplifies a greater problem that is infecting the entire organization?

Well, we may have that.

Behold, the Pentagon’s Office of the Senior Adviser for Military Professionalism;

(RADM Peg) Klein has spent nearly two years helping the services sharpen their professional development and leadership training. Her office was created in March 2014 by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel amid a spate of scandals involving senior officers and mounting concerns of a systemic or cultural problem in the ranks. Those fears may have been overblown, she said.

“We’re not in a crisis. But this subject of human behavior requires constant attention,”

What have we found?

The slew of scandals that emerged a few years ago made for stunning headlines. A Navy corruption scandal. An Air Force major general who oversaw nuclear missiles was fired after his drunken bender on a visit to Moscow offended both his Russian hosts and his own staff. An Army four-star general was reprimanded for spending lavishly on official trips.

But Klein said those are anecdotal and she’s found no systemic or deeply rooted cultural problem. “We’re seeing numbers within historic norms,” she said.

OK. No crisis. Good intentions here though;

“We always want to be shooting for a target that decreases the incident rate.”

“We think the right answer is a little different for each service based on their heritage.”

Improvement. Good. What other subjective ideas have come up in two years? I say subjective, as I don’t see any metrics. What we know is that they like the Marines and the Army and all their schools. They think, ahem, that the Navy and USAF officers spend too much time … well … not going to school, I guess;

During the past two years, Klein and her seven-member staff have helped the Navy and Air Force set up their own centers: the Navy Leadership and Ethics Center at the Naval War College in Rhode Island and the Air Force’s Profession of Arms Center of Excellence at Joint Base San Antonio.

“Those two organizations are helping airmen and sailors to understand the importance of trust, humility, integrity, empathy. They are helping them understand those very important virtues of command,”

Let’s take a moment and let that soak in. Based on a staff of seven’s subjective service envy, we have set up schools that won’t touch but a few officers, to understand “trust, humility, integrity, empathy.”

If you have made it through the selection process for an officer program, OCS, NROTC, USNA, and go through at least one sea tour – and we as an organization do not know at a minimum that you are a trustworthy person with integrity – what are we doing? As for humility and empathy, neither one of those things can be taught, they can only be demonstrated.

I’ve worked a lot with Marines, Army, and Air Force personnel, and have served in their units as well. Do they have different cultures? Sure do. But …

“The Army and the Marine Corps have a very mature profession of arms,”

“The ground forces, they send really junior people into leadership positions. They have company command, they have O-3s going into command, and their professional identity is learned very early on,” Klein said, referring to the paygrade for captains in the Army, Marines and Air Force. Navy O-3s are lieutenants. Yet the Navy and the Air Force, historically, “are very technically focused,” she said.

That is an incredibly broad brush. I’m not sure what she is actually going for here. Is the implication that our Navy is “immature” in its professionalism? That your standard issue Navy O3 has no “professional identity?”

That might be true in isolation, but I don’t see that in any general way in the Navy than other services. A LTjg flying a EA-18G? A LTjg XO of a PC? A LT SEAL?

Do we need more LT and LCDR commands? Of course, and to our great shame we don’t, but I don’t think that is what her team is focused on.

… Klein found that the Army and Marine Corps created “centers of excellence” for commanders’ professional development, but the Navy and Air Force had not. These organizations develop training programs for current and future leaders that focus on the intangible virtues of leadership as well as more mundane matters like travel regulations, restrictions on accepting gifts and using official vehicles — issues that can cause headaches for some leaders and their staffs.

I’ll stop there. You can read the rest Andrew Tilghman’s bit over at MilitaryTimes. But after two years, the answer for the Navy and the Air Force is less time leading Sailors, forward deployed, honing their craft – but busy work ashore to make sure they don’t have issues with,

travel regulations, restrictions on accepting gifts and using official vehicles

This has nothing to do with “warfighting first” or building leaders, this has everything to do with trying to prevent bad news stories that evolve from fallen beings in an imperfect world making leadership read embarrassing stories like Fat Leonard in … MilitaryTimes.

Goodness knows we don’t want “some leaders” having headaches or their staff’s dealing with problems.

Shipmate, I’ve got news for you – the job of “some leaders” and their staff is just that – dealing with headaches. That is why they exist.

I am not impressed. We have no uptick in human failings, by her own admission, and are not in crisis, but we are acting as if we are in crisis. It begs the question, why?

If we are concerned about people with personality defects being promoted, then we need to stop promoting them. Do the regression analysis. More schooling is not going to make an adult suddenly have more empathy or humility. Look deeper in to a culture that promotes people with these problems. If we actually have one.

Do we have things in our Navy culture that needs improving? We sure do, but I don’t see anything in RADM Klein’s report that would do that except more LT commands.

Another thing we need to do is to know when we have dug a dry hole. Let’s go back to part of an earlier quote;

RADM (Peg) Klein has spent nearly two years helping the services sharpen their professional development and leadership training. Her office was created in March 2014 …

Wait for it;

She has asked Defense Secretary Ash Carter to extend its life through January 2017. “A little bit more time is a really inexpensive investment in getting traction in these ideas that we’re trying to institutionalize,” she said.

A few years ago, I tried to create a measure of time that would give proper context to the programs we keep shoveling money borrowed from our grandchildren in to. I called it a WorldWar, or WW.

A WW is the length of time it took to fight WWII. 1,366 days = 1 WW.

From March 2014 to Jan 2017, that is roughly .76 WW.

In ~3/4 the time it took us to fight WWII, we are going to have a 2-star and a staff of 7 look in to the cause of,

a spate of scandals involving senior officers and mounting concerns of a systemic or cultural problem in the ranks.

~.5 WW in to that investigation, the group realized that concerns were unfounded, but they liked their little exercise and wanted to extend its life by another 50% to see if they could find any more happys that needed to be put in to glads. Any light grey that needed to be dark grey.

If you are looking for cultural problems, you can start here. In a time where the US Navy is facing,

… a $7 billion reduction in fiscal 2017 funding – about 3.5 percent over last year’s plan … The Navy is planning on a uniformed force of 322,900 sailors in 2017, down from 327,300 authorized in 2016 and last year’s forecast of 326,500 for 2017. … the permanent elimination of a tenth carrier air wing and four aviation squadrons, and a new request to take seven cruisers out of service in 2017 …

… and we are trying to keep a Flag Officer project alive another year that, after two years, determined that the purpose for which it was created was unfounded, nothing is systemically broken, but they found some things they personally found interesting that they want to spend unknown millions of dollars to tinker with.

This staff has done its job. It has some recommendations – some that one could argue could have been discovered in a much quicker time. It is time to let it submit its report and to recode the manning document.

It has been .5 MM.

The Tamarians may have had, “Shaka, when the walls fell,” perhaps we can have, “Klein and Hagel on leadership.”

Over the past several months, senior naval leaders have highlighted the importance of organizational learning to accelerate innovation and adapt to future challenges. For instance, the SECNAV noted the confluence of people, ideas and information as the foundation of the DON’s Innovation Vision; Admiral Richardson introduced his concept of “accelerated learning” in A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority; and LtGen Walsh unveiled the Marine’s “campaign of learning” in a speech at CSIS. However, many internal barriers must be addressed to fully implement their vision.

The concept of a learning organization has been discussed in management circles for several decades. Yet there is no consensus on a standard definition nor are the steps to build one clear. A 1993 Harvard Business Review article by Professor David Garvin serves as a useful starting point for the Naval Services to consider.

Garvin defines a learning organization as, “…an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.” Garvin also identifies five building blocks to create such an organization. They are:

Systemic Problem Solving: This first activity rests heavily on the scientific method, wide use of data and statistical tools. Most training programs focus primarily on problem-solving techniques, using exercises and practical examples. Accuracy and precision are essential for learning. Employees must therefore become more disciplined in their thinking and more attentive to details. They must continually ask, “How do we know that’s true?”, recognizing that close enough is not good enough if real learning is to take place. They must push beyond obvious symptoms to assess underlying causes, often collecting evidence when conventional wisdom says it is unnecessary. Otherwise, the organization will remain a prisoner of “gut facts” and sloppy reasoning, and learning will be stifled.

Experimentation: This activity involves the systematic searching for and testing of new knowledge. Experimentation is usually motivated by opportunity and expanding horizons, not by current difficulties. It takes two main forms: ongoing programs and one-of-a-kind demonstration projects. Ongoing programs normally involve a continuing series of small experiments, designed to produce incremental gains in knowledge. Demonstration projects are usually larger and more complex than ongoing experiments. They involve holistic, system-wide changes, introduced at a single site, and are often undertaken with the goal of developing new organizational capabilities. Because these projects represent a sharp break from the past, they are usually designed from scratch, using a “clean slate” approach.

Learning from past Experience: Companies must review their successes and failures, assess them systematically, and record the lessons in a form that employees find open and accessible. Unfortunately, too many managers today are indifferent, even hostile, to the past, and by failing to reflect on it, they let valuable knowledge escape. A study of more than 150 new products concluded that “the knowledge gained from failures [is] often instrumental in achieving subsequent successes… In the simplest terms, failure is the ultimate teacher.”

Learning from Others: Not all learning comes from reflection and self-analysis. Sometimes the most powerful insights come from looking outside one’s immediate environment to gain a new perspective. Enlightened managers know that even companies in completely different businesses can be fertile sources of ideas and catalysts for creative thinking. At these organizations, enthusiastic borrowing is replacing the “not invented here” syndrome.

Transferring Knowledge: For learning to be more than a local affair, knowledge must spread quickly and efficiently throughout the organization. Ideas carry maximum impact when they are shared broadly rather than held in a few hands. A variety of mechanisms spur this process, including written, oral, and visual reports, site visits and tours, personnel rotation programs, education and training programs, and standardization programs.

To some extent the naval services are already engaged in these activities but significant improvement is needed if we are to turn these efforts into a real competitive advantage. Several internal challenges need to be addressed to become the learning organization envisioned by our senior leaders. Here is a short list:

Culture: Dr. Frank Hoffman recently noted that the Navy’s learning culture was essential for overcoming the challenges of countering German U-Boats in WWII. According to Hoffman, “Brutally candid post-exercise critiques occurred in open forums in which junior and senior officers examined moves and countermoves. These reflected the Navy’s culture of tackling operational problems in an intellectual, honest, and transparent manner.” To regain this learning culture, two issues must be addressed: fostering an environment of candor and preventing organizational hubris, often buttressed by questionable models or rhetoric intended to defend programs of record, from lulling leaders into a false sense of security. Learning cannot begin if we cannot have candid conversations about what is working and what needs to be fixed. The best agile organizations today continually use stress-testing of plans and strategies to identify areas for improvement.

Incentives: Many individuals and organizations view knowledge as a source of power. Therefore, the more knowledge one collects and retains, the more one’s standing and influence increases. In Team of Teams, General McChrystal examines this issue through a game-theory lens. In a “knowledge-is-power” environment, those who share knowledge are considered the losers, while those who receive knowledge are winners. We must create the right incentives to change this behavior by rewarding those who put effort in to sharing knowledge and penalize those who hoard knowledge or prevent information from being shared.

Outdated Tools and Policies: Since the advent of the internet, senior leaders have called for shifting from a “need-to-know” approach to a “need-to-share”. Unfortunately, this shift is difficult to achieve because of outdated information-centric policies, exaggerated treats, and risk-averse leaders. The workforce must have the proper tools and effective policies so knowledge transfer can occur easily and risk is realistically considered. Further, we must resolve how to capture the great ideas of our talented workforce and share our problems with public. Our naval culture and our desire to solve problems internally often prevent us from sharing our complex problems with “outsiders”. This practice prevents novel solutions from entering our decision making cycle.

Undefined Learning Ecosystem: Pockets on knowledge and learning exist across the DON but sharing is often stove-piped by organizational boundaries. Many organizations created the position of Knowledge Managers but their effectiveness is inconsistent and there is no strategy to create a “knowledge CO-OP” across the organization. Having an enterprise-wide strategy would prevent duplication of effort in knowledge generation and permit learning from other’s experience. The DON must create a learning ecosystem, with the appropriate infrastructure, tools, and practices that enables us to become an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.

Having senior leaders champion these issues today is an important first step to develop this important capability. However, the organization needs to move with a sense of urgency and not treat learning as another passing fad or simply leave organizational learning to happenstance. The digital natives entering the workforce today are knowledge sharers by nature. If no improvements are made to the issues discussed above, they will go “outside the wire” to collaborate on work related issues. This will increase risk and detract from organizational learning.

The Department of Navy possesses an incomprehensible amount of data, information, knowledge and practical experience; all are underpinned by a wealth of naval history from which to learn. We must place a priority on creating a learning organization and turn this concept into a true competitive advantage for the future.

Please join us at 5pm (EST) on 17 Jan 2016 for Midrats Episode 315: “Where Next for our Ground Forces?” with Paul Scharre:

With a decade and a half of ongoing ground combat under our belt, what are the hard-won lessons we need to keep, and what should be left behind? Looking forward, what are the challenges our ground forces need to make sure they are prepared to meet?

From growing conventional strength from nations who desire to challenge our nation’s global position, to the unending requirements for Counter Insurgency excellence, what is the balance?

Our guest to discuss this and more will be Paul Scharre, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former Army Ranger with service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You can download a copy of his CNAS report, “Uncertain Ground: Emerging Challenges in Land Warfare,” from the CNAS site here.

Join us live if you can, or pick the show up later, by clicking here. Or you will find the show later at our iTunes pages here

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