The Navy values many things—leadership, tactical performance, and teamwork, to name a few—but how do we recognize and value innovation? We hear from senior leaders that innovation is critical if we are to "do more with less" and excel in an age of information warriors. It certainly is necessary for us to remain at the forefront of war fighting, particularly in light of new unconventional threats.
Most service members, however, experience a Navy culture that reflects a very different reality. Innovation that is attempted top-down often is stifled by institutional inertia, parochialism, and a general discomfort with change. Risk taking demands a willingness to accept the possibility that people might fail, something that is problematic in the current Navy climate. Our senior officers (the ones who rank fitness reports and sit on selection boards) came of age in a downsizing Navy when any mistake could mean early retirement. This bred a culture of hard work, but also one that is risk averse. Consequently, there has been little incentive to attempt innovation. The Navy has had innovative ideas recently (such as Admiral William Fallon's vision for transforming the Navy through web enablement), but the Navy culture has not groomed a corps of personnel to embrace innovation and build on it. Those innovative ideas that do take hold most often spring up from the fleet and worm their way around slowly.
We need a Navy that cultivates innovators, where challenging the status quo is seen as a basic tenet of leadership. Innovation should be recognized and encouraged, with rewards aligned to promote the behavior we need to support transformation. Navy personnel should be trained in the process of innovation, and in ways that encourage creativity and the confidence to try new ideas.
How can innovation be judged? What is truly innovative and what is merely novel? As the expression goes, "You can put a dress on a pig, but it's still a pig." How do we avoid just bringing home more bacon?
For starters, new ideas should be encouraged and pursued even if only through small prototype or pilot efforts to test their efficacy. Proof-of-concept testing could be done with measures of effectiveness established to collect data on their usefulness. In many cases, this could be achieved at little or no monetary cost to a command, particularly when the changes are mostly process-based. Leaders should carefully balance time and resources to ensure that not all efforts are focused on simply addressing immediate problem solving. They should be able to step back and look at the systemic causes and locus innovation efforts there. Time needs to be provided for critical thinking and imaginative measures applied to generating many new ideas from which to choose. A visible process needs to be in place to review and select ideas for testing. In addition, personnel need to think of their innovation as it relates to the larger Navy organization. Ideas should be considered for their applicability in other situations and the resulting linkages and secondary effects, not simply for the direct effect of the innovation on the originator's immediate environment. Innovation is much more valuable if it is repeatable.
Perhaps most important, the Navy must create an incentive and reward structure that places value on creativity in a meaningful way. Innovation should be a graded performance trait on officer, senior civilian, and senior enlisted fitness reports and evaluations. Criteria should include both tangible and intangible results of innovation (i.e., documenting what is learned, spreading gained knowledge, and improving morale, among other things).
Some will argue innovation breeds behavior that is not conducive to good order and discipline. Innovation is not, however, about disobeying, subverting, or challenging orders or operational plans. What is envisioned is a chain of command reinvigorated by a collective Navy culture that feels empowered at all levels to present new options and alternatives to the old ways of doing business-where people know their ideas will be thoughtfully considered. An information-age Navy needs a culture that embraces new ideas, tests the status quo, and rewards creative thinking.
Lieutenant Commander Barrett is an information professional officer assigned to Commander, Cruiser-Destroyer Group 8.