Who said large organizations move too slowly? In a remarkable 16 months, from its inception in January 2015, Department of the Navy efforts to reinvigorate innovation in the Naval Services captured the attention of bold thinkers and ignited excitement across the deck plates, academia and industry. By the end of April 2016, Task Force Innovation, the team charged with promoting DON creativity, included 170 participants of ranks from E-5 to 0-8, representing 78 organizations, submitting more than 300 ideas and best practices.
Why the Urgency?
Due to the rapidly changing security environment, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus saw the need in reinvigorating innovation in the department and so established a very ambitious timeline for the task force. Recognizing that the Naval Services may be losing their technological edge, and with such threats emanating from a revanchist Russia, to global terrorism, to continuous cybersecurity intrusions on government networks, Mabus made cultivating innovation a DON priority.
In April 2015, Mr. Mabus announced the DON Innovation Vision in his presentation at the Sea-Air-Space Exposition. A key component of the SECNAV’s speech was to challenge the DON workforce to share their great ideas to improve the department. This event kicked-off a busy summer of innovation and served as a catalyst to begin implementing the Innovation Vision.
To spearhead the effort, Secretary Mabus, established Task Force Innovation (TFI) on Jan. 22, 2015. TFI was specifically charged with developing a cohesive agenda for the DON and accelerating innovative opportunities in three specific areas: the adaptive workforce, information as an asset, and emerging operational capabilities.
A short year later, on April 21, 2016, the SECNAV Innovation Awards ceremony marked the culmination of Task Force Innovation, with the Secretary taking this opportunity to recognize Task Force Innovation, its leadership and its remarkable accomplishments. To highlight the successful sprint of TFI, the complete DON Innovation Vision is available for review.
This article summarizes Task Force Innovation efforts, findings and the tools it established to keep the momentum going to achieve the DON’s Innovation Vision.
Task Force Innovation — Results Focused
The implementation of the DON Vision took a five-pronged approach: publish the SECNAV Innovation Memos, highlight best practices, provide thought leadership, identify barriers to innovation, and fund small-scale innovation projects.
To ensure the diversity of participants, a TFI web portal was created to capture the ideas of the workforce and connect innovators from across the fleet. From the beginning, Mabus provided Innovation Vision guidance to ensure TFI effort included Sailors, Marines, and civilians of all ranks and rates, both inside and outside of the Pentagon. Junior officers, in particular, were encouraged to share their ideas.
The TFI efforts were led by Tom Hicks, Under Secretary of the Navy for Management (DUSN (Management)), Vice Adm. Phil Cullom, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Fleet Readiness and Logistics (OPNAV N4), and now retired Lt. Gen. Ken Glueck, former head of Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC). They served as tri-chairs while Dr. Maura Sullivan, Chief of Strategy and Innovation, served as its Executive Director.
Three sub-working groups were formed around the focus areas. Mr. Dennis Biddick, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Reserve Affairs/Total Force Integration (ASN M&RA), Ms. Wendy Kay, DON Assistant for Administration (DON/AA), and Dr. Larry Schuette, director of Office of Research in the Office of Naval Research (ONR), led the working groups while Mr. Robert Marshall, in the office of Strategy and Innovation, led a cross-functional support and implementation group to ensure overarching TFI requirements were met among all focus areas.
By April 2015, SECNAV endorsed the recommendations made by the sub-working groups and work began on the five innovation elements which eventually formed the nucleus of the DON Innovation Vision. The five elements are: Build the Naval Innovation Network; Manage the Talent of the DON Workforce; Transform How the DON uses Information; Accelerate New Capabilities to the Fleet; and Develop Game Changing Warfighting Concepts.
Several proposed innovation projects were ready for implementation, but lacked funding. Throughout the TFI timeline, SECNAV funded these to help support his innovation vision and energize the DON workforce. Projects that received funding included:
- Computer Tablets for Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) School
- Innovation History Fellows at the United States Naval Academy
- DON Additive Manufacturing Roadmap
- Expansion of nine new Fabrication Laboratories (Fab Labs)
- DON Tracker Information and Records Management System
At the same time, Secretary Mabus recognized that innovation was already occurring within the DON, so the TFI began highlighting local projects and processes in an effort to scale them beyond their local commands. Some best practices identified include:
- Athena Project – an initiative to make the Navy better through ideas unique solutions and intellectual courage founded in the Surface Community in early 2013.
- Tech Solutions sponsored by ONR.
- Commander’s Innovation Award sponsored by Naval Sea Systems Command.
- Navy Fab Lab.
- Katalyst-21 sponsored by Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.
- Security Environment Forecast 2030-2045 sponsored by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.
Thought Leadership/Diversity of Thought
Throughout the TFI endeavor, SECNAV called for bold ideas from the workforce. Responding with thought-provoking essays, more than 20 thought leaders within the DON provided concepts and designs for naval improvements.
Innovation requires the ability to question norms, blend different views, and collaborate to develop unique and powerful solutions, Secretary Mabus advised. Cognitive diversity is the DNA of innovation. Fully using cognitive diversity inside and outside the DON requires embracing the unique traits of individuals, and rethinking how to bring people together to collaborate and solve tough problems. This method promotes cooperation, and often avoids group-think, a condition which has created past national security failures, Mabus wrote in his guidance.
Breaking Down Barriers
Task Force Innovation worked to identify and remove policy, process, or cultural barriers that prevented innovation from thriving within the DON. Several barriers were identified, including: risk aversion, fear of failure, and poor information sharing.
In response, Secretary Mabus published: “The Characteristics of an Innovative DON” encouraging the development of an innovation culture that includes: Comfort with Risk and Uncertainty; Diversity of Thought; Measure what Matters; Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation; Emphasize Information Sharing; and Agile Decision Making.
Secretary Mabus pointed to the rich history of naval innovation to encourage judicious risk. Uncertainty can provide opportunity, both in the battlespace and business enterprise, Mabus wrote. If organizational leaders stifle or neglect creativity and innovation, they may discourage bold thinkers who may leave the department, and importantly, may jeopardize the DON’s future success.
Commanders must cultivate an environment which allows for challenging assumptions, the creation of fresh ideas and strategies — and the ability to see these strategies through execution. Prudent risk-takers and failure that occurs in a learning environment ultimately benefits the organization, Secretary Mabus advised.
The secretary urged DON leaders to align the interests of their workforce to those of mission requirements to best promote workforce talents to solve the most pressing problems facing the department. At the same time, personnel should be encouraged to learn and develop their professional interests in response to mission requirements, Mabus wrote.
Historically, the DON has focused on safeguarding information. But this mindset can prevent cross-organizational knowledge sharing, the secretary cautioned. “We must evolve from the industrial age culture of ‘need-to-know’ to one of need to share,” Mabus wrote in his guidance. Every command should foster better information sharing internally and with other DON organizations.
An Agile DON
Agility is critical to the success and survivability of an organization, Mabus advised. Many of the DON bureaucratic processes trace back to the Cold War, an era when stability and preserving a symmetrical balance of power were paramount to preventing a nuclear catastrophe. In today’s environment, these same processes are now detrimental to innovation. Departmental decisions are mired by endless layers of process, while our adversaries, freed from such constraints, are outpacing and outmaneuvering us in the innovation cycle, Mabus wrote.
Enabling and empowering the DON workforce is crucial in today’s fast-paced technology cycle and security environment.
Pointing to the past decade of combat operations, Mr. Mabus noted that enlisted Sailors and Marines are making life or death decisions every day; similarly, mid-level military officers are entrusted with commanding multimillion-dollar warfighting platforms, forward deployed around the globe. “The same level of trust, empowerment and agile decision-making needs to spread throughout the naval enterprise, and we must work together to streamline bureaucratic processes, remove unnecessary levels of review, and decentralize decision-making to increase agility,” Secretary Mabus wrote.
Task Force Innovation Tools
In addition to implementing the DON Innovation Vision, Task Force Innovation accomplished several significant projects designed to further advance information sharing and foster diversity of thought:
-- The Hatch: To support the SECNAV’s guidance for bold, innovative ideas from the workforce, a DON-wide ideation platform called “The Hatch” was established. The Hatch allows authorized users to submit ideas, comment on one another’s ideas, and participate in topic-specific ideation challenges. Since it opened on May 20, 2015, approximately 2,350 new users registered, over 600 ideas were submitted, and ideation challenges were conducted on the following topics: Rewards and Incentives; Artificial Intelligence and Robotics; Virtual and Simulated Environments; Additive Manufacturing and Fab Labs; Naval STEM; Small Business Programs; USS Iwo Jima (Deployed Unit Challenge); Inspector General; Knowledge Transfer; Innovation Jam (San Diego); Project Apollo; Hatch Improvements; D3 Innovation Summit; Reserve Policy Issues; and Open Idea Forum.
-- SECNAV Innovation Awards: ALNAV 064/15 announced the SECNAV Innovation Awards. There are several categories of innovation awards including: Leadership, Scholarship, Additive Manufacturing, Analytics, Robotics, Enlisted Innovator, Innovation Catalyst, and Out of the Box. On 21 April 2016, Mr. Mabus presided over the 2015 Innovation Awards Ceremony, giving nine awards and a variety of SECNAV-approved prizes such as orders to preferred duty stations or innovation training.
-- Naval Innovation Advisors: ALNAV 012/16 provided guidance for the new Naval Innovation
Advisory Council and the creation of the SECNAV Innovation Advisors program to begin in
FY16. Qualified Sailors, Marines, and DON civilians are eligible to compete for this unique opportunity to advance innovation on a specific topic selected annually by SECNAV.
-- Naval Innovation Network: TFI brought together innovators and problem-solving organizations from across the DON. This must be an enduring connection. The NIN Hub was launched to maintain connections between naval innovation communities of practice. This will facilitate information exchange and sharing of tradecraft.
What’s Next in DON Innovation
No matter how successful, task forces, by design, are meant to be temporary organizations. Critical TFI recommendations have been implemented and the DON must now ensure the initiatives are fully sustained to ensure a culture of innovation within the DON thrives for years to come.
Secretary Mabus created the Office of Strategy and Innovation (S&I) within DUSN (M) to identify opportunities for innovation within the DON. This office will continue to track the implementation of the 22 SECNAV innovation memos and identify any issues or barriers that might inhibit the DON’s vision from being fully implemented. Their status will be made available on the Naval Innovation Network Hub as well as through periodic reports to senior DON leadership.
Task Force Innovation found that the flexibility to fund small projects quickly proved integral to the success of meeting the SECNAV’s innovation goals and objectives. The Office of Strategy and Innovation will maintain small-scale resources to help kick-start or continue small, innovative projects that stimulate local innovation.
The newly revised and approved FY16 DON Strategic Objectives specifically calls for the implementation of a DON Innovation Vision. The Office of Strategy and Innovation office is tracking progress on the SECNAV Innovation Memos and other initiatives that underpin implementation of the Vision. This effort will help provide metrics for Senior Executive Service (SES) performance management.
To ensure funding is available to fully implement the initiatives developed through TFI and to ensure funds continue to be available to stimulate innovation; specific language will be included in the FY18 budget guidance which enables the organizations within the DON to provide resources for innovation.
“TFI was inspiring because of the diverse group of Sailors, marines, and civilians that volunteered their nights and weekends because they believed in the Secretary's vision and that their ideas would be heard,” said Dr. Maura Sullivan, TFI Executive Director.
TFI harnessed the ideas and talent of the workforce as an organization; it harnessed intellectual curiosity, boundless energy, and ingenuity to solve the DON’s most demanding challenge, according to the TFI assessment.
During the TFI stand-up, innovative thought leaders overturned outdated assumptions to remove the bureaucracy that can stifle groundbreaking ideas. TFI served as a catalyst to develop new capabilities and concepts which made the Department of the Navy more agile, resilient, and better prepared for the future.
Considering today's dynamic security environment, accelerated pace of technological change, and tightening fiscal constraints, innovation must remain at the forefront of the department. Much work remains to fully implement the goals and vision identified by TFI. The hard work, dedication, and bold thinking of the countless members of Task Force Innovation provides an excellent starting point to ensure success of the Naval Services in years to come.
View the complete DON Innovation Vision.
Join DON Innovation on Facebook and visit the SECNAV/DON Innovation website.