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CHIPS Articles: Operationalizing Innovation

Operationalizing Innovation
By Cmdr. Christopher Angelopoulos, Head of PCU Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78)’s Innovation Cell - May 18, 2016
What? We’ve all heard it. We’ve all been confronted with the same reactions when introduced to new ways of doing business: “Been there, done that.” “We don’t have time.” It is possible to overcome resistance to change and provide tremendous value to the Navy by giving the Sailor an easily accessible avenue to actualize their ideas. With this in mind, I offer the following essential precursors for operationalizing innovation.

Passion. This is the driving force; it’s what propels us to excel.

Experience. Layers of experience can actually inhibit innovation, and yet it is an essential component to formulate innovative ideas. Furthermore, on the job experience and capability exposure are fundamental for effective innovation. Capability exposure highlights the possible. For example – head mounted displays, like Samsung VR, can demonstrate total immersion in a virtual environment for a wide host of applications; iPads can showcase augmented reality uses for maintenance; and innovative 3D displays, like zSpace, can reveal advanced training options.

The Innovation Center on PCU Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) demonstrates capabilities and usage of these technologies, which, in turn, opens the mind of the Sailor to new possibilities. So, what’s missing? Even a passionate person who has the requisite experience is confronted with development hurdles, which brings us to opportunity.

Opportunity. One must be able to recognize and leverage the opportunities that exist in all endeavors. However, without latitude and resources, the right person, with the right experience, will still be unable to innovate. This concept of latitude encompasses time, manpower, and the boundaries set by the entire chain of command. Additionally, opportunity is structurally inhibited in the military for valid reasons, such as financial constraints. Furthermore, innovation is inherently risky. Those that have served for some time know the corrosive effect of conceptualizing an idea, attempting to breathe life into it only to have it deteriorate in a lesson learned pile. This erodes critical buy-in from those whose seasoned experience is needed most. There has to be a better way.

The Ford was able, at minimal cost, to set up the Innovation Center, which focuses on mixed reality technologies from the deckplate perspective for solving naval problems. We have already produced dozens of viable uses for this technology, ranging from cooperative virtual reality flight deck training to the multi-faceted use of carrier-based, low-cost drones. Although the center currently focuses on mixed reality technologies, it has recently broadened its scope to include any innovative idea.

The journey to create this Innovation Center highlighted an institutional deficiency within the Navy: connecting the untapped intellectual capital of the Sailor and the acquisition community in a symbiotic way.

Can we do more? Yes.

  1. Formalize and create an avenue to scale the method of innovation realized aboard Ford. Each unit should not have an innovation center, it would be cost prohibitive. Nor should we designate innovation officers in every command. Instead, open a brick and mortar innovation center at every naval concentration. (It’s probably not a closet and most likely not a stadium.)
  2. Provide an avenue for industry to showcase capabilities, further broadening the Sailor’s appreciation of the possible.
  3. Enable these centers to interface with the other Services to harmonize effort or highlight common interest.
  4. Enable and encourage acquisition, training and sustainment entities access to the Sailor through this center, to tap into creativity on their terms.
  5. Act and resource, in a timely way, viable ideas while returning to the originator for design feedback.
  6. Lastly, and most importantly, inform the fleet of the advances and progress in an engaging way.

Our Sailors must know we not only acknowledge both their problems and ideas, but also leverage their intellectual capital for the design and production of solutions. If we do this, deckplate innovation will thrive and fuel the much desired engine of improvement.

Editor’s note: Follow the Navy innovation conversation on social media using #NavyInnovates.

Image courtesy of U.S. Navy.
Image courtesy of U.S. Navy.

Image courtesy of U.S. Navy.
Image courtesy of U.S. Navy.
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