Creatures of Habit

By: LT Dave Nobles

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At every military unit, there is some single document that governs troops’ schedule. In the Navy, we have the Plan of the Day (POD).

Quoting from the top of the POD that’s sitting in front of me right now. Ahem…

“FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY – ALL HANDS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR KNOWING THE CONTENTS OF THE POD.”

Now, there are certain things you can just count on: Benjamin Franklin said death and taxes, while many have said that the only thing you can count on is change. Well, here on the mighty warship USS BENFOLD, you can count on ‘khaki call’ at 0630 every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

The Executive Officer (XO) writes the POD and sometimes may miss adding in that essential meeting to the daily schedule, particularly when there are a lot of other moving parts in the daily grind. I’ll tell you what, though: Even if that meeting is not in the POD on a Wednesday, our entire cadre of leaders will still be standing in formation, bright and early on Hump Day.

Why? Because we’re creatures of habit.

Also, because the XO would scorch the earth if we weren’t there.

The point is that we all have routines and schedules, and the more you do whatever it is you do in alignment with your routine, the more effortless it is. Further, once something’s become habit, it just doesn’t feel right not doing what you’re supposed to when you’ve always done it.

Many books, like Charles Duhigg’s Power of Habit, talk about habitizing through repetition, making any process more natural. Almost automatic.

So, why can’t we treat innovation that way? Why can’t we make it a force of habit and put some time in our daily schedules for it?

Think. Ideate. Repeat.

In the surface fleet, our schedules are packed as it is with inspection preps, maintenance, training and meetings. I get it. But, can we really not find a half hour a day? An hour twice a week? Something?

One option would be to build some white space into the daily routine to allow people the chance to occupy their minds with their own pursuits vice occupying their hands with the pursuits of others, if they so choose. They could think big thoughts and work together as a team to solve issues. Or, they could take the time to catch up on maintenance or administrivia. But, why not encourage free thinking during that time, or even facilitate it?

The true innovators out there will use the time. On BENFOLD, I think we’ve grown to ‘automate’ some of that creative thinking time by openly sharing ideas with each other. Perhaps it’s because The Athena Project was born onboard, or maybe we grew into it while striving to think through our presentations in support of Athena. Whatever the case may be, in our time in between the cavalcade of obligations it’s become very commonplace to see a groups break off in the wardroom, classroom or somebody’s office to think through ideas on how to make things better.

And that’s good.

Somebody will come in with an idea, we’ll apply a little design-thinking to it and away we’ll go to a whiteboard. There is no specific “innovation window” in the POD, but we just do it now. It’s natural. It’s habit.

That concept is nothing new for our friends in Corporate America. In fact, it’s pretty old. 3M has been doing it since 1948 with their “15% Time.” Their engineers devised projects that were so revolutionary but so incredibly “duh” in retrospect, like the Post-It Note.

Many companies have adopted similar implemented processes that bake that free-thinking into the daily routine, or just encourage it as a portion of the day. Organizations like Google, who developed Google Earth and Gmail out of their ‘20% Time,’ have more nebulous schedules wherein the concept of “carved out time” is more of a culture than a rule. When it’s culture, it’s habit and it’s hard to kill.

So, let’s make it culture. Let’s make innovation a force of habit in our daily routines. Sure, it might take some coaching in the early stages of such a paradigm shift, but who knows what we might get out of it.

I’d venture to say it might be something pretty cool.

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

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