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Solve Tomorrow’s Problems Today

By Captain John Cordle, U.S. Navy (Retired)


Significant barriers that kill innovation across the service include:

Clinging to the status quo: Despite numerous efforts to change the military advancement system over the years, it still rewards a career path with standard milestones, and any deviation from that path is met with disdain. However, there are numerous examples of individuals—Admiral Hyman Rickover (nuclear power), Captain Deak Parsons (nuclear weapons), and Rear Admiral Wayne Meyer (Aegis) to name a few—who put their careers second to the success of an idea and came out on top. The recently spotlighted story of then-Colonel H. R. McMaster—passed over twice for general officer rank after rewriting the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine in Iraq—is a timely example. Lieutenant General McMaster bucked the system at great professional risk and now serves as national security advisor to the President. But these cases are notable exceptions to the rule. The Navy remains a place where it is not good for your career to rock the boat.

Fear of failure: Risk aversion feeds the Navy’s affinity for the status quo. From designing a new class of ship to implementing a new process, leaders at all levels have heard the words “it is OK to fail now and then” only to learn from the Navy’s reaction to things going badly that failure is not an option. At some levels, that may make sense in the military. The Coca-Cola Company took a risk with “New Coke,” failed, and survived. But a failure on the battlefield could cost lives or the battle itself.

Twice in recent military history—once during carrier operations in World War II and once during Operation Iraqi Freedom—a commander’s decision to “turn on the lights” against standard procedure saved a squadron of planes and a battalion of tanks and represented a turning point in major battles. In both cases, had the enemy been more capable, the consequences could have been deadly but the commanders assessed risks correctly and made the right call.

In many ways, the risk/reward balance that applies to financial investments is duplicated in innovation. The Navy must recognize that while risk comes with consequences, not taking risks can result in worse outcomes. In the maintenance world—where lives are not at stake—we routinely assess availabilities as “high risk” in terms of funding and duration, and but then act surprised and look for someone to blame when they exceed the allowance for either.

Lack of urgency: In the military, we have seen a lack of urgency in each of the last three postwar periods, where downsizing and consolidation, not innovation, were the order of the day. This always seems to catch up to us, whether it is improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Chinese creating new antiship missiles, or the threat from violent extremism generating a new sense of urgency. This approach has huge consequences with respect to time, since it leaves the military playing catch-up and trying to counter an already existing threat instead of finding ways to make the other side counter us.

Lack of resources: No matter how good the idea, without resources to develop it into a solution, it will never materialize. This barrier could manifest itself as a lack of funding, a lack of properly educated personnel, or a lack of technology. Since innovative culture must accept failure to get success, that means it must expend more resources and look at problems in terms of investment and return rather than budgets, costs, and losses.

Building Blocks and Catalysts

To overcome obstacles to innovation, a few key elements must be in place. Like the fire triangle (oxygen, fuel, heat, and a combustion catalyst), these elements must all exist in the correct relative amounts and at the same time for innovation to take place.

Building Block #1: A Problem. Innovation typically focuses on a problem and ends with a solution. History shows, however, that the cycle can start almost anywhere along the path. Take the story of Chester Carlson who, tired of the physically taxing method of printing multiple copies, invented a means of transferring an image from one piece of paper to another. Twenty companies turned him away, thinking the process had no value. It took him five years to find someone to support the concept, and after a name change, Xerox was born. Thus, the innovation cycle is depicted with the problem at the top. Along the margins of the cycle are the catalysts that are required for that step to move forward.

Catalyst #1: A Person. To solve a problem, someone must think of an idea that may lead to a solution. Rarely in the military do we have someone just sitting around thinking, but for the cycle to work, the organization with the problem must either have someone capable of coming up with the idea or communicate the need sufficiently to get the correct people engaged. Conversely, an organization could set up a core group of innovative people—such as the Skunk Works of the 1960s—or create a shared environment where people with problems and the right people to think about them come together. Former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ Task Force Innovation initiatives are in their nascent stages, but they contribute to accomplishing this goal.

Building Block #2: An Idea. The next stop around the cycle is the idea. Lots of us have them—few of us act on them. Ideas come in all shapes and sizes and may come from unorthodox places. They could come out of focused group brainstorming or out of the blue. But one thing that any idea requires is the next catalyst—time.

Catalyst #2: Time. In the military, often we lack the time necessary to turn an idea into a solution. During most sea tours, between watch, administration, training, and maintenance, the average Sailor or Marine barely has enough time to do the things he or she is required to do, much less take on extra tasks or think innovatively. Shore duty is supposed to provide more time to build personal relationships and reconnect with family, but high-stress positions, graduate school, and joint education can drive out time for much else. One could argue that allotting time for officers to just think occurs only at the Naval Postgraduate School or the Naval War College, but even these institutions target the time allotted to a specific goal—a degree, a paper, an exam—and not to free thought for innovation and invention.

Building Block #3: A Solution. With time, the idea can start to form a solution. This may take the form of a project plan, a white paper, a research paper, or a technical presentation. While thousands of innovative ways to fix problems are generated daily, many do not go any further because of lack of resources.

Catalyst #3: Resources. Assuming the right person has both an idea and the time to develop a solution, it may stand to reason that the problem is solved. But having a solution is far from the final answer. As in the case of Xerox, a solution without the resources to develop it and implement it may never come to fruition. The functionality of the military research-and-development process is not necessarily one that supports spending resources on unproven ideas. Projects have many drivers—from military advocacy to political capital to career consequences—that make it difficult to get an idea from solution to implementation. Witness the fits and starts of any major shipbuilding program—the littoral combat ship (LCS) and the Zumwalt (DDG-1000) guided-missile destroyer are just the most recent examples—and you can see a pattern where innovation has come at a huge resource price tag in dollars, careers, and time.

Building Block #4: Application. Once a solution is generated and resources are expended, the concept of an application comes into play. A laser in a laboratory is a grand accomplishment—installing one on a ship at sea or on an aircraft in flight is a different story. This is where the next catalyst is so important: technology.

Catalyst #4: New Technology. When it comes to resources and risk, this is where the balance sheet comes into play. New technology is risky and expensive. Artificial hearts have been around for decades in various forms, and while it may sound nice to call a version low risk, that may have a very different meaning to the recipient than to the doctor. Naval engineers are always considering risk in new designs and making risk assessments, but that risk ultimately is assumed by the sailors who operate the equipment, as well as the commanding officers whose careers may end because of failures that resulted from an acceptable risk. In the military, there are countless examples of new technology—jet aircraft, amphibious lift, nuclear power, Aegis radars—that changed the face of warfare. All of them carried great risk, many a high price, and for each one there are probably a dozen technologies that did not pan out.

A Nurturing Environment

At the center of the innovation cycle is a nurturing environment. Even if all the building blocks exist in the right time and place, without a nurturing environment as the final catalyst, the fire of innovation will not ignite.

New ideas continue to meet cultural obstacles. For example, initiatives to establish a circadian watch rotation for underway operations, or to get our ships in 27-section duty by dividing the crew into 80 percent day shift with an evening and night crew during a maintenance availability, continue to meet with resistance. These ideas that cost little and have great potential to improve performance, productivity, and morale are being discounted (except by those who have tried them) by a force that grew up with three-section watch underway and three-section duty in port. These two ideas are examples of the challenge of an idea that crosses multiple stakeholders—from the operating forces to the medical community to the safety organization and the maintenance world. Each may think it is a good idea, but each thinks someone else needs to take up the initiative. In a nurturing environment, individuals who are willing to take initiative and risk can reach out and find support and top cover. They can trust that the organization is ready to accept risk and the consequences of failure as a necessary part of the process. The Navy is a big ship with a small rudder, and many of the forces that act on it are uncontrollable.

The good news is that if an innovative idea has merit, if it solves a problem that has personal meaning for someone—whether pertaining to missile defense, watchstander fatigue, or the work-life balance of raising a family while having a successful career—and sailors see the tangible benefits, it will thrive and grow on its own. To strengthen the visibility of good ideas, the Navy must create more opportunities for knowledge and idea sharing.

The Navy Innovation Network (NIN) is a great knowledge-sharing concept and has much potential, but it assumes that individuals will have the time and motivation to participate and contribute. Part of the NIN process is to accelerate research, development, and fielding of ideas through complementary organizations such as the CNO Hatch and Project Athena. The Navy must continue to look for ways to incentivize participation. Some ideas include: 

• Find a way to show someone is listening. Have an expert review each comment and provide a reply—either directly to the submitter or posted on the website—to show that someone is looking at the idea. Set up a way to provide monthly updates to show progress or discussion. If a decision is made not to pursue an idea, provide feedback to the submitter on the factors that influenced the decision.

• Provide a link to the beneficial suggestion program forms where the submitter can get a financial reward for a good idea if it is implemented. Better yet, facilitate and advocate for this process by making someone available to help walk submissions through the approval process.

• Generate a letter of thanks for the chain of command for the submission of an idea and its implementation. Send the member’s superiors a recommendation that the submission be included in his or her performance evaluation. The CNO’s office could even generate a flag letter of commendation, worth one point on the advancement exam, for contributors whose ideas move on to the next step of research or implementation.

Dedicated innovation cells are key to forming an environment that nurtures innovation. The CNO’s Strategic Studies Group and Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC)—with all their strengths and weaknesses—served a function and were abolished without the announcement of replacements. The Navy should consider creating innovation cells at existing centers of excellence. Top Gun is an excellent example, but there may be room for discrete participation in these cells at places like Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command and Navy Surface Warfare Centers. The Naval War College and Naval Postgraduate School could create cells for more conceptual or process innovation. And do not ignore the enlisted force. Many enlisted men and women have developed innovation skills out of necessity on deck plates. The Senior Enlisted Academy is a potential starting point to mine innovative ideas. Connect each of these to the NIN and you have a significant force multiplier.

The inventor of the stirrup is lost to history. He probably has no idea that his addition of a strap of leather to a molded “U” of iron changed the course of military battles for several centuries and across the world. But in first century, no one was talking about nurturing environments, and the lexicon of the day probably did not include the word innovation. Today’s innovators—military and civilian—will be remembered, but they are more likely to succeed and foster military success if they are provided with the building blocks, the catalysts, and the correct environment to spark innovation with the potential to solve tomorrow’s problems today.

Captain Cordle retired in 2013 after 30 years of service. He commanded the USS Oscar Austin (DDG-79) and USS San Jacinto (CG-56). He is the 2010 recipient of the U.S. Navy League’s Captain John Paul Jones Award for Inspirational Leadership.

SSG Served as an Innovation Incubator

Killing the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Strategic Studies Group (SSG) addresses the symptom and not the cause of U.S. Navy’s larger strategy and innovation problems. The truth is the Navy’s culture is antithetical to innovation and innovators.

Many Navy leaders reach the senior ranks and find “innovation and strategy religion.” They bring together good strategic minds, sometimes including young, potentially disruptive thinkers (Retired Admiral James Hogg started this with SSG XV), to form innovation cells. Some great concepts are generated, but the Navy rarely acts on the teams’ advice by investing in their ideas and accepting the inherent risk that possibly only one in three will prove any warfighting value. Cells such the SSG, Deep Blue, and the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) as well as various Commander’s Action and Initiatives Groups sometimes produce positive results when an unusually strong personality—supported by senior leaders—temporarily breaks down barriers to progress.

Most of the time, the Navy Staff, Office of Naval Research, or some other intransigent institution is directed to study the concept—which meets massive bureaucratic or technical resistance and is discarded as soon the senior support dissipates. Given tremendous effort and patience, some innovative technical ideas such as the SSG’s naval rail gun initiative, eventually and slowly break through.

Admiral James Stavridis, who stood up Deep Blue, recently argued in Foreign Policy for the resurrection of the Pentagon-based Navy innovation cell as a possible answer. New organizations, however, will not fix the Navy’s innovation and strategy problems; only leaders determined to take tangible action to institutionalize a nurturing environment and acceptance of outliers will do that.

It is easy to find innovative, outspoken lieutenants, but it is the paucity of forward-thinking captains and commanders—the ones who run programs and advise flag officers—that paralyzes naval innovation. The Navy stifles rather than grows its potential innovators. Without persistent top cover by seniors, innovators flame out for a variety of personal or professional reasons—not least of which is that they are outliers, meaning different and quirky in general.

As General James Mattis once explained, the services must learn to reward risk takers. “Take the mavericks in your service,” he once counseled, “the ones that wear rumpled uniforms and look like a bag of mud but whose ideas are so offsetting that they actually upset the people in the bureaucracy. One of your primary jobs is to take the risk and protect these people, because if they are not nurtured in your service, the enemy will bring their contrary ideas to you.”

Developing innovators and strategists takes time. The idea that the Navy will embrace a new, rapid speed of learning defies logic given an organization that is inherently one of the slowest strategic learners on the planet (especially in peacetime). We must find ways and time to develop more leaders like Admiral Hyman Rickover (nuclear power), Vice Admiral William Raborn (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), Rear Admiral William Moffett (naval aviation), Rear Admiral A.T. Mahan (strategy), and Rear Admiral Wayne Meyer (Aegis). Imagine if Admiral Rickover had not been allowed to spend years of his career at the Naval Postgraduate School, Columbia University, and Oak Ridge National Laboratories learning nuclear power. Similar examples exist in nearly every case of successful naval innovation. History shows that taking the time to cultivate a few strong innovators while fostering a culture that will accept them, warts and all, pays extraordinary dividends.

The SSG offered the Navy a true innovation incubator. Over the group’s 35 years of existence, the impact of the annual SSG studies directly correlated to the CNOs’ levels of leadership and support. While some may argue the point, Admiral Hogg has a long list of SSG concepts that influenced the Navy’s course. Focusing only on praise or criticism of its products, however, serves to underplay the SSG’s long-term influence on the naval profession. Many of the mid-level idea generators on major staffs come from the SSG or linked organizations such as the Naval War College’s Halsey and Gravely groups.

Perhaps the greatest value of the SSG is that it forced upwardly mobile, senior leaders to think and live outside their comfort zones in unstructured innovative environments. It gave them time to think about innovative ideas long before the first shots were fired. The SSG kindled an innovative spirit in most fellows while exposing them to disruptive thinking by young outliers, thereby expanding the pool of leaders who might be accepting of young innovators and their ideas in the future.

The authors served on various CNO Strategic Studies Groups.




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