Email this Article Email   

CHIPS Articles: Learning and Doing: Changing the Status Quo

Learning and Doing: Changing the Status Quo
Go to an illuminate Thinkshop
By U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Benjamin Gallo - March 8, 2017

It was mid-morning in Sasebo, Japan, as leadership from around the fleet activity filed in. An executive officer from a local command eyed me warily from the third row of the classroom. "So, are you guys a bunch of contractors that the Navy hired out to teach this course, or what?" It was a fair question. Admittedly, I would ask the same thing if I walked into a room that had been appointed as my place of duty, greeted by a group of facilitators wearing matching lighthouse logo t-shirts.

As one of these matching shirts, I was in Japan in early February 2017 for an illuminate Thinkshop — a unique opportunity to lead a challenge to disrupt the status quo of the naval service. My fellow facilitators and I began by discussing our process with a roomful of command triads, and encouraged them to provide the time, trust, and top cover for their subordinates to employ the methods learned and practiced over the next three days. Although unconventional, these methods resonated with junior warfighters and senior leadership alike, and encouraged the former to take ownership of a process while providing the latter with high-impact, feasible solutions to local problems.

Based in the concepts of design thinking, the illuminate Thinkshop seek to identify solutions through a process of divergent and convergent thinking, coupled with the critical thought and positive mindset vital to the process itself. One of the points we champion in our course is that the foundations, objectives, materials, and format are designed and taught by a small team of active duty Sailors and Marines.

Led by a passionate group of individuals with a no formal budget, the illuminate course has already begun making a difference across the Navy. These efforts have primed the pump of an ad-hoc network of like-minded Sailors and Marines that seek to collaborate and achieve results. With the right resources and an expanded inventory of design thinking and organizational learning methods at their disposal, this network could move from an ad-hoc group of facilitators to a connected group of command-sponsored representatives that will achieve tangible outcomes and results.


The theme of this year's Naval Innovation Advisory Council (NIAC), which I serve on, is organizational learning. In his groundbreaking classic The Fifth Discipline, Dr. Peter Senge describes a learning organization as one that shares a common vision, willingly challenges its own mental models, and encourages its members to seek personal mastery and engage in team learning.[1]

Through the combination of these ideas, an organization can leverage the knowledge and abilities of its constituents — or, as we like to say in our Thinkshops, leverage the tacit knowledge in the room to achieve results. I realized at the beginning of my tenure on the NIAC that I wanted to tailor my organizational learning project towards empowering the junior warfighter, and to develop methods and tools that would enable this effort. I was fortunate to find a group of like-minded individuals that felt the same way on the Fleet Forces Command illuminate team.

In "A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson outlined four lines of effort which address how the Navy will adapt to changes in the security environment and continue to fulfill its mission. The illuminate team takes its navigation from the Green line of effort, which challenges the Navy to "apply the best concepts, techniques and technologies to accelerate learning as individuals, teams and organizations." [2]

The illuminate team has taken the challenge to "set aspirational goals" and uses a combination of critical thinking, lessons from history, and methods of human-centered design to encourage creativity and innovation. Our mission is to help leaders and teams learn and adapt to pursue maximum possible performance. Though unconventional, our approach deeply resonates with today's young Sailors and Marines because we turn the traditional paradigm of learning on its head.

Instead of passively receiving top-down innovation initiatives, we encourage shrugging off bureaucracy, taking ownership, and focusing entirely on problem-solving and process improvement. We also encourage the collaboration and support of the participant’s leadership to promote the success of these young leaders by providing them with time, trust, and top cover.

Building on Success

Over the course of two weeks in Seventh Fleet, the Thinkshop team illuminated 130 senior leaders, more than 150 facilitators, and 2,000 rank and file Sailors from staffs and shore commands. Facilitator outbriefs were attended by fleet leadership and command triads from multiple ships. Feedback from all levels was very positive, and our focus now is to sustain the transformation, and kindle the desire for change that the course has ignited.

We plan to continue to respond to the growing demand signal our course has generated throughout the Navy and Marine Corps. Our envisioned end state is a community of practice that can access a number of methods for problem solving and critical thinking beyond what we can offer during our current three-day course. We hope to create a connected network of dedicated change agents that improve in everything they do, and also work to solve the service's problems at the command level and share their successes and challenges with other like-minded individuals.


In his message to the force for 2017, the Commandant of the Marine Corps envisions a team effort that will "enable individual initiative."[3]

Our team seeks to "tackle [the] internal challenges" present today in the Department of the Navy through the methods and techniques we apply that empower individuals at all levels of command. As General Neller states, "it costs us nothing to think," and a community of practice developed and executed by active duty Sailors and Marines attempts to reinforce this idea through a human-centered method that puts our greatest asset, our people, at the very center of the process. We strive to be better, and we encourage those who take our course to take ownership in the process, and, above all, to seize the initiative.

[1] Senge, Peter M. (1990), The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday/Currency.
[2] U.S. Department of the Navy (January, 2016), A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority.
[3] Commandant of the Marine Corps (January, 2017), "Seize the Initiative."

Capt. Benjamin Gallo is a member of the FY17 SECNAV Naval Innovation Advisory Council (NIAC), a dynamic forum for advisors to conduct research, advance problem-solving projects, and advise the Secretary of the Navy on innovation opportunities within the DON. The DON Office of Strategy and Innovation coordinates support and oversight of the NIAC. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the United States government. For more information, please contact

Join DON Innovation on or @DON_Innovation or visit the SECNAV/DON Innovation website at

Capt. Benjamin Gallo official photo
Capt. Benjamin Gallo official photo

illuminate video 5 min 23 sec Feb 2017'>Official <a href="" alt="illuminate video 5 min 23 sec Feb 2017' width='230'>
Official illuminate video 5 min 23 sec Feb 2017
Related CHIPS Articles
Related DON CIO News
Related DON CIO Policy

CHIPS is an official U.S. Navy website sponsored by the Department of the Navy (DON) Chief Information Officer, the Department of Defense Enterprise Software Initiative (ESI) and the DON's ESI Software Product Manager Team at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific.

Online ISSN 2154-1779; Print ISSN 1047-9988
Hyperlink Disclaimer