To Innovation and Beyond… How We Started.

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By: LT Dave Nobles

It all started in Happy Valley.

Before reporting to the Mighty Warship, USS BENFOLD (DDG 65), I taught college students at the Naval ROTC unit at Penn State. While I was shaping those young minds I shaped my own, earning an MBA while stationed in State College.

The most interesting thing about getting a degree like that while still in the military was that I was shoulder to shoulder with classmates who had been working in Corporate America for some time. Many of the concepts from the coursework were easily relatable for them, while I had to rack my brain thinking about how to apply business concepts to my experience in the Fleet.

While on my feverish quest of concept correlation, I stumbled upon the work of Dan Pink in his book Drive. Mr. Pink also has a great TED talk that the folks at RSA Animate turned into a whiteboard video that has garnered 11 million views on YouTube.

I was fascinated with the motivation stuff, and started thinking about how I could apply those concepts to my department head tour once I circulated out of Central Pennsylvania and back into a fleet concentration area.

When I reported to BENFOLD, I was pleasantly surprised to find a chain of command that supported the implementation of innovative concepts.

Wait… What? So, there are commands out there in the Surface Navy that actually encourage disruptive thinking?

Not one to miss an opportunity, and fueled by the stories that Mr. Pink recounted at TED about the Australian IT firm Atlassian, I proposed to the Captain that we give all the Junior Officers the day off.

He looked at me and raised an eyebrow.

Before he kicked me out of his cabin, I quickly explained myself.

The reason I wanted them to have the day off was so they could pursue whatever big, hairy audacious idea they had to make BENFOLD, the San Diego Waterfront, or the “Big Navy” better.

He eased back in his chair.

I called the concept I proposed “WikiWardroom.” I was totally making it up as I went along, and though I thought the name was clever, hindsight reveals otherwise.

The Captain let me pitch the concept to the wardroom, and it was well received. You get the day off from your work to pursue any idea to fix a problem. The only price you pay for the day off is a five-minute presentation at an off-ship, casual location on the Friday that follows the Tuesday “day off.”

If there’s anything that sailors do extraordinarily well, it’s gripe. The event, I told the Captain, would not only harness that innate ability, but also unleash the intellectual horsepower from our Junior Officers that’s typically dormant in their daily grind.

I was riddled with a crazy anxiety that I’d never felt before as I wondered if the JOs that we gave the day off would actually bring good ideas to the table for the event. I had absolutely no control and it drove me crazy. I hoped that they would bring the kind of ideas and solutions that I knew they were capable of. They did want this, right? They did want to try to make change in the often-stodgy bureaucracy, right?

Turns out, I was <thankfully> right. The wardroom dug the first-ever event, hosted at Basic Pizza in Downtown San Diego. We had some excellent food, great cocktails and had an awesome time as we listened to and gave presentations.

In true fashion of ‘making it up as we go,’ after the first presentation, we noticed that the group writ large really wanted to give feedback. So, we instituted a five-minute Q&A session that followed the five-minute, powerpoint-free presentation.

Success. We ended the first event and patted each other on the back for the exercise and ideas that came from it. And, it would seem that we were on to something. We were thinking and we were having fun! It was great.

I sold the first “WikiWardroom” as a quarterly affair, and in the meantime, I was brought to my senses that the name was god-awful and so birthed the name “The Athena Project.”  Fitting, because not only is Athena is the Greek goddess of inspiration, wisdom and the arts, but in legend she was also a shrewd companion of heroes on epic endeavors. And, if anyone’s ever tried to make change in such a large organization, they can attest that it most certainly is an endeavor of epic proportions.

As we were beginning to plan the next event, ships began reaching out to BENFOLD about The Athena Project and I went aboard several ships to talk to their wardrooms about it. It seemed that my wardroom wasn’t alone, and that Sailors actually wanted a voice! Go figure!

For the second event (which we held on the rooftop of one of our young ensign’s apartment complex) we had Sailors from six different ships, the Commander of Naval Surface Force’s training shop as well as a couple researchers at the University of Southern California’s Institute of Creative Technologies in attendance. It seemed that the idea was starting to grow. Great ideas flowed out of that event, and again – it was fun!

The strength of the second event earned me the privilege to fly out to Norfolk and present the concept at Naval Warfare Development Command’s IdeaFest. Further, I was selected for the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell – a small group of innovators whose charge is “To empower and enable emerging Naval leaders to rapidly create, develop and implement disruptive solutions that tackle warfighter needs while advocating for, and inspiring, deckplate innovation throughout the Fleet.”

The Athena Project itself is not an innovation, the ideas that come from it are. Athena is akin to methods that the business world has been using for years! Honestly, I believe that it shows how much the Navy has to gain from corporate processes that unleash the intellectual curiosity of employees and encourage outside-of-the-box thinking.

Athena is moving forward under that tack. Perhaps The Athena Project won’t find the cure to cancer or develop the next great strike aircraft or change Coke to Pepsi. However, the one thing that Athena will do for sure is create a cadre of junior Sailors and young officers that think differently, have the intellectual firepower to pursue difficult problems and the courage to stand up and say something about it.

And isn’t that what the Navy needs? Isn’t that what any company needs? A stable of intrapreneurs laser-focused on being better?

We’ll find out at next month’s first-ever Waterfront Athena Project, hosted at the Modern Times Brewery in San Diego.

A bit of a long introduction to this blog, I know, but I’ll be using it to post success stories from previous Athena events, and general musings about innovation in the Navy.

Enjoy and welcome.

You can like Athena on Facebook: www.facebook.com/athenanavy or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy.

LT Nobles is a Surface Warfare Officer assigned to USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) as Weapons Officer.

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