Beware the Scenery: Noticing the Unnoticed

By: LT Dave Nobles


Shipyards are filthy, filthy places.

There are a lot of things that I love about the Navy, but a prolonged stay in a shipyard for a maintenance availability just ain’t one of them. Nonetheless, my ship has been moored at BAE Systems Shipyard in San Diego for an extensive Combat Systems Modernization to AEGIS Baseline 9C.

As anyone in the Navy can tell you, the shipyard environment brings with it a unique set of leadership challenges. Not the least of these is keeping things clean. BENFOLD entered the shipyard in August, and I can tell you: We’ve been battling to maintain cleanliness in this industrial environment ever since.

Fast forward to Saturday. It was a typical duty day for me as Command Duty Officer, and I had just finished observing evening colors. After we’d finished up, my Section Leader and I walked back to our berthing barge (moored outboard of us, because the crew can’t sleep on the torn-apart warship) for 8 O’Clock Reports when I noticed something.

I looked over to my left on the way into the barge and noticed some dirt on a bulkhead (wall, for the non-nautical). Honestly, it didn’t even seem too dirty, so I reached out and touched it. When I did, my fingerprints left two bold white streaks through the layers of dirt that had built up there.

Now, this is a bulkhead that we all walk by on a daily basis on our way into the barge. As I said before, we’ve been waging war against the dust bunnies since we came in the yards, so how did we miss this?

Because it became part of the scenery. We fell into the entrenchment trap.

At a small level, it’s the Broken Windows Theory in action: A building with broken, unrepaired windows is more likely to be vandalized. By the theory, vandals believe that if the windows aren’t repaired, then it must be “all right” to break more. Eventually, that leads to increased crime of all types in a neighborhood.


“Oh, this must be the land where vandalism is OK!”

In the shipyard environment, surrounded by filth, metal shards, discarded contractor earplugs and the like (trust me, there are many worse things, too) the dirty bulkhead became subconsciously “all right” despite our best efforts as a crew.

Well not anymore: Because we caught it. We fixed the window.

And as we scrubbed the filthy bulkhead together with warm, soapy water, I had some time to reflect. This was a microcosmic example of a bigger phenomena: When you’ve been in a place or at an organization long enough, things just start to become part of the scenery. Whether it be a process, a dirty wall, or a program, sometimes it pays to take a step back and view it with a fresh set of eyes. A critical set of eyes.

At all of our organizations, we may have grown accustomed to practices that may require a fresh take or a change. These, my friends, are the petri dishes of innovation.

So, what did I learn at the end of the day? Well, first and foremost, I got a good reminder to bring a more critical eye to the daily walk of my department’s spaces onboard the ship. But, I also learned that the same critical, fresh eye can be applied to any area on the ship and beyond.

In the book Creative Confidence, Tom and David Kelley advocate carrying “bug lists” of things that you may see with fresh eyes that could be done better. The idea being that the list will inspire idea generation for a movement, service or business that you could start to fix it. The book is also filled with examples of people who’ve gone the full distance when they found something that needed fixing and fixed it. Really inspiring stuff.

So, let’s do the same onboard our ships and within our organizations. Let’s don the fresh set of eyes and refuse to let things become part of the scenery.

Mahatma Ghandi said that we should be the change that we want to see in the world. So, let’s resolve to change what needs changing and fix what needs fixing, and let’s make things better. Because better is good.

Don’t forget the warm, soapy water.

LT Dave Nobles is a Surface Warfare Officer assigned as Weapons Officer aboard USS BENFOLD (DDG 65). He is also a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell.

Interested in pitching at our upcoming Waterfront Athena Event on February 13th at San Diego’s Ballast Point Little Italy Tasting Room? Message us!

Design-Thinking A Path To Improved Warfighting

By: LT Dave Nobles

photo 2

Recently, Sailors from USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) and USS GRIDLEY (DDG 101) were fortunate to spend some time with the Tactical Advancements for the Next Generation (TANG) Forum, brainstorming future improvements to the way that surface ships perform Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW).

The TANG Forum is an initiative composed of members from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Labs, design and innovation consulting  firm IDEO and the Program Office for Integrated Warfare Systems. The group uses design thinking to extract great ideas directly from warfighters and applies those thoughts toward designing user interfaces, consoles and other tactical systems that will be installed on the US Navy’s subs starting next year. You can read all about them in this awesome article in Undersea Warfare Magazine. Kicking off in 2011, the group has been focused primarily on how Submarines fight.

Until now.

The latest maneuver for the TANG is to come to the Surface Navy with their successful recipe for tactical improvements, and their research went full throttle in partnership with The Athena Project onboard the mighty BENFOLD’s battle barge.

Once onboard, the TANG group outlined some principles of the design thinking method, a structured approach to brainstorming that aims to create “How Might We” questions to stimulate boundless creative thought.


Structured brainstorming with Sailors


The method starts with empathetic research through interviews and observations to gain an understanding of the problem. After that, the flood gates open to harvest all kinds of ideas. There’s no idea that’s wrong, no idea that’s bad, and participants are encouraged to add on to existing ideas. The plethora of ideas are voted upon to select and refine, and then prototypes are built to shift ideas from someone’s mind’s eye onto something tangible.

Tim Brown, president and CEO of IDEO, gives a great definition of design thinking here.


Design Thinking: Quick and Dirty

“Having read about The Athena Project, we were familiar with the innovation effort onboard USS BENFOLD,” the TANG team said. “However, reading and experiencing are two completely different things. They were energized and showed awesome creativity. It was clear that this crew had some amazing ideas on how to make things better. The insights and ideas gained through the tours, interviews, and ideation sessions are critical for our preparation for the Surface TANG Forum.”

LTJG Mike Claus, BENFOLD’s recently-turned-over Anti-Submarine Warfare Officer lauded the TANG Forum, enjoying the ideation sessions from start to finish.

“One idea discussed was to implement an internship program with SWRMC and the PEO before SONAR techs report to their first ship or while waiting for their next school,” LTJG Claus said. “This would build a deeper understanding of their equipment directly from the subject matter experts.  It’s awesome that efforts like TANG Forum are making this happen!”

After the flurry of ideas the TANG team departed BENFOLD, leaving behind them a wake of Post-It Notes. The next stop was a tour of USS GRIDLEY (DDG 101).

By the hospitality of her crew, the TANG Forum was able to gain even more insight into the spaces where SONAR technicians operate and to fully grasp the spatial constraints of a DDG. The team observed SONAR spaces, the Combat Information Center (CIC) as well as some other command and control nodes onboard.

“I’m not sure if it was planned, but the sun was setting as we made it to the bridge on the GRIDLEY…absolutely gorgeous.” the TANG team said.


Next on the horizon for the Surface TANG team is a research trip to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii next month to continue massaging their process, ensuring that the right questions are asked and the best solutions are built.

We’re excited about the future and all that it will mean for the Surface Navy!

LT Dave Nobles is a Surface Warfare Officer assigned as Weapons Officer aboard USS BENFOLD (DDG 65). He is also a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell.

Interested in pitching at our upcoming Waterfront Athena Event on February 13th at San Diego’s Ballast Point Little Italy Tasting Room? Message us!

Be sure to like TANG on Facebook! Athena too! 



Project Pulse: Optical Database and Information Network (ODIN)

ImageAs we approach our next Waterfront Athena Event – February 13th at the Ballast Point Brewery Tasting Room in Little Italy – we’re going to showcase some of our past projects here on the blog. Both to give everyone an update on what our Sailors have done, but also to stir up some creative juices from any would-be presenters out there. What better place to start than our last winners? Enjoy!

-The Athena Team

When USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) deployed last year to the US Fifth Fleet Area of Responsibility, she spent an awful lot of time in the Arabian Gulf. The ship, like most Ballistic Missile Defense destroyers deployed to that AOR, spent that time conducting a plethora of mission sets while waiting to be called upon for any exercise or event that would require the use of the specialized mode of SPY radar.

As any Sailor who’s spent time in the Arabian Gulf can attest, it is a high-traffic environment. While steaming around the area, from mission to mission, watchstanders FC2(SW) Robert VanAllen, FC2(SW) Michael Owen and FC2(SW) Lisa Stamp became frustrated with the way the destroyer identified ships in her vicinity. With the available systems and tools, BENFOLD managed to effectively identify nearby ships, but the three Fire Controlmen collectively felt that the process was ripe for improvement.

Fast-forward six months later, the team got wind of The Athena Project and put together a presentation on a system that could remedy the process. They called it the Optical Database and Information Network (ODIN).

“Millions of dollars of technology and thousands of hours of training were put on hold as watchstanders played advanced ‘Pictionary: Warships Edition’ attempting to identify visual contacts,” said FC2(SW) Owen, a CIWS Technician. “Watchstanders flipping through a Jane’s catalog in the middle of this environment is one of the most ridiculously, inexplicably inefficient sights in our modern Navy. The expertise and technology already exists for us to do better, and we sought to codify that with our ODIN presentation.”


A great resource, to be sure, but is this really the best way to identify surface contacts in a tension-filled AOR?

And codify they did. In their pitch, the team proposed using software (not unlike the facial recognition software resident on nearly every smartphone) to pick out easily-identifiable aspects of nearby ships – mast location, heat signatures, size and aspect, etc. – and narrow down the list of ships that a contact could be down. By their assertion, simple algorithms could do the lion’s share of the legwork using visual data already being collected by ships.

Well, their pitch was clearly top-notch, because these three junior Sailors won Waterfront Athena, taking home the Admiral Sims Award for Intellectual Courage.

Shortly after the event, the team began working directly with a group of individuals at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) working a project called RAPIER that would use overhead imagery to identify surface contacts. The marriage of the ODIN and RAPIER teams was smart, as many of their efforts would work toward the same goal: Building an accurate Recognized Maritime Picture that all could use.

The RAPIER team, led by Ms. Heidi Buck in the Advanced Analysis Systems Branch at SPAWAR has been interfacing directly with the three BENFOLD Sailors on a path to make their idea from Athena a reality. The teams have exchanged media, had several meetings, and have arranged for an upcoming ship tour to give the scientists at SPAWAR a better view of the challenges Sailors face at sea. In fact, the Learning Warfighter Needs Workshop was born through the continued, strong relationship between The Athena Project and SPAWAR!

Currently, the SPAWAR team is sifting through the hours of imagery that the ODIN team has sent over. Soon, they expect an algorithm to be built to demonstrate proof of concept – an important step for any project.

“The response to our ODIN presentation has been really encouraging- scientists and engineers are interested and increasingly invested in a solution presented not by admirals, or master chiefs, but by the very people these technologies are intended to aid,” Owen said. “I sincerely hope anyone else out there with an idea sees what we’ve accomplished so far with ODIN and finds a way to come forward, be it via Athena or another format, and help shape their Navy and the Navy of generations of future Sailors.”

The road to realization for the ODIN team is still a long one, but the three FCs are speeding down it, with their phenomenal idea in the passenger seat!

And they aren’t stopping anytime soon!

Sailor, Allow Me To Introduce Scientist…

By LTJG Kaitlin O’Donnell


Back in December Josh Kvavle came to us with a simple question:  How can we help the technologists better understand the warfighter and the atmosphere they work in?

A few years ago at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), Josh created a “Learn Warfighter Needs Workshop” for the Grassroots S&T technologists with just this in mind.  But with only a few hours of sailor interaction in the past, he seemed all but qualified for the job.  After working with USS BENFOLD on a few other projects that junior Sailors pitched at Athena events, Josh and SPAWAR came to us and wanted to know what we think the technologists should know about what we do.

After a day of collaboration and brainstorming with Josh and his team, we started to understand just how little technologists and Sailors knew about each other. So, we figured it might be worth it to create a whole day dedicated to educating these Sailors and scientists about each other, connecting some dots that truly needed to be connected.  From there the wheels began to turn and we soon found ourselves planning a fun, informative and collaborative day to continue to help strengthen the bond between SPAWAR and the fleet.

The end goal was simple:  Make the Navy better.  If the technologists who are creating the systems we use understood the user better, couldn’t they make a better product?  How often is a sailor frustrated with the way a system is designed but figure they could never have a say in changing it?  What are the problems out there that the technologists aren’t working on yet?

On January 14th, we had the first ever co-sponsored Learn Warfighter Needs Workshop, and based on the incredibly positive response from the more than 60 that participated, it certainly won’t be the last!

The event kicked off with an Introduction to SPAWAR, focused on teaching Sailors what SPAWAR is, what they do and how they can help us.  We are extremely fortunate in San Diego to have a fleet concentration area within miles of one SPAWAR’s biggest research, development, test, evaluation and engineering fleet support facilities, yet we barely know what they do up on that hill at Point Loma.  After getting a better understanding of how cool their stuff is we were treated to technology tours across some of the most beautiful property in all of San Diego.

Tours were split up between Bayside, Seaside and Topside facilities all with exciting attractions. Sailors got to understand where the scientists work and the scope of their projects through tours of the Marine Mammal Program, the unmanned underwater vehicle program, the robotics lab, model shop, and more.  Each tour gave a unique perspective of how much research and development goes into each new piece of technology introduced into the fleet.  We definitely developed a greater admiration for the scientists and the work they do to help us fulfill our mission.  We wouldn’t be able to do our job serving our country if they weren’t doing their job developing our technology.

After getting familiar with their job and how they brainstorm and come up with new ideas, BENFOLD’s Captain, CDR Rich LeBron gave a great presentation on how his Sailors use The Athena Project and other avenues to express their ideas.  But still, the scientists knew very little about the fundamentals of the Navy and our everyday jobs, so we gave a brief interactive presentation to educate them about the ins and outs of shipboard life.  We walked them through the chain of command, gave them a perspective into each department, broke down some of our standard acronyms and described our watchstanding. Perhaps even more importantly than painting a picture of the environment, they were able to understand the areas on the ship for which they could help develop new technology.  Although the presentation may have seemed basic to most in uniform, it was a great way to take a step back and identify the little things that we take for granted but may be crucial to the scientist when developing new technology.


Prototyping a way to improved efficiency!

After understanding Navy lingo a little better, it was time to start the fun stuff!  With lunch came some awesome interaction – it was amazing to see how a little mingling could spark big ideas and great conversations all over the room! We had brand new seaman who had only been on the ship for a couple of months engaging with scientists with PHDs from John Hopkins and MIT!

Now THIS was getting very cool.

After lunch, everyone partnered up: At least one Sailor paired with at least one scientist.  Sure, there was some shyness at first, but before long, groups popped up all over the room and started getting really excited to start fixing problems!  The environment rapidly became electric: Each group identifying problems, but trying hard not to brainstorm solutions until later.  Technologists were encouraged to ask some “dumb” questions to get the sailor thinking outside of the box and identify things they might not have noticed on their own. Teams generated problem statements and away we went to brainstorm!

With some brainstorming guidelines and tricks, the room got quiet and everyone quickly began scribbling down on paper.  The brainstorming sessions were so successful that we even added extra time to let the creative juices flow!  Brainstorming concluded with each group coming up with an idea to prototype.  As a new activity to the innovators on BENFOLD, prototyping was a fun way to see your idea come to life and lighten up the activity.  It was like a room full of arts and crafts, and very effective for pitching to the large group!


BENFOLD Sailors reimagining Tomahawk functionality.

Pitch proposals were very similar to our Athena presentations but were strictly limited to two minutes and given with prototypes in hand.    We had presentations that made you laugh, some that gave you that “ah-ha” moment, and some that made many say “Why didn’t I think of that earlier?”.

Ideas included camera technology for maintenance, digital maneuvering board designs, advanced internal communication systems, seawater activated watches, hydraulic flight deck nets, a personalized training app and a spray paint rail system to paint the hull.  Some of ideas are already out there, some might not be efficient, and some just might make no sense – but that doesn’t matter.   Even if none of the ideas get traction (although some already have) the idea is to develop our Sailors into critical thinkers.  At the same time, the technologists are learning the needs of the Sailor and identifying shortfalls for future technology development. It was so cool to see the lightbulbs go off and the smiles on the faces at the end of the day.


Ideas abound – this one for Augmented Reality on Surface Ships.

At the beginning of December when we met with Josh and the SPAWAR team, I don’t think any of us could have imagined an outcome like this.  It’s amazing to see the ideas from the fleet and how much you can create in a few hours.  The technologists were excited and eager to go back to their offices and start development and have already been contacting us on ideas generated.  Our Sailors came back to the ship proud of their prototypes and supportive of technology, the innovation process and the scientists behind it.

In the end, as cheesy as it might sound, everyone was a winner. Maybe the most important thing, though, was that everyone felt that in some way, however small, we achieved our goal of making the Navy better.

If you ask me, I’d say it’s just the beginning.

LTJG Kaitlin O’Donnell is the Training Officer onboard USS BENFOLD (DDG 65). She’s a Marine Engineering graduate of Massachusetts Maritime Academy class of 2010.

Interested in being a part of the next Learn Warfighter Needs Workshop?  Want to meet a technologist and get to know more about SPAWAR?  If so, contact LTJG O’Donnell at or message The Athena Project on Facebook or Twitter! 

Waterfront Athena – February 13th at Ballast Point’s Little Italy Tasting Room!


The time for ideas is upon us again!

The Athena Project will be hosting its second Waterfront Event, open to all innovators, next month in sunny San Diego, California. In partnership with Ballast Point, we’ll be at their new tasting room in Little Italy at 2:00 PM!

For those who may be new to what The Athena Project is all about, here’s a quick rundown:

Named for the Greek goddess of reason, wisdom, courage and inspiration, Athena is a quarterly event to showcase ideas that junior Sailors have developed to make their commands, the Navy or the San Diego community better.

Founded on USS BENFOLD (DDG 65), we give Sailors time away from their traditional duties to dream up powerful ideas and put together action steps to make their ideas happen.

In our Waterfront Event, these innovators will have five minutes to pitch their concepts and propose action (without the crutch of Microsoft PowerPoint) before fielding five minutes of questions from the crowd. The audience will get to vote on each project for idea quality, actionability and presentation and the winner will receive the ADM Sims Award for Intellectual Courage. Those Sailors will gain the support of their command to form a small team to turn their idea into reality over the next quarter.

Our team and our Athenians can appreciate how difficult it can sometimes be to face seemingly overwhelming odds to bring ideas to life. Since the goddess Athena was a shrewd companion to heroes on epic endeavors, we provide not only the platform to be heard, but support each project through connecting dots that had previously been disconnected or building bridges and networks where none existed.

In our previous events, presenters have brought new processes to action at their commands, drafted articles on controversial topics, had projects prototyped by partners like the USC Institute of Creative Technologies, and are even currently working projects with entities like SPAWAR, NASA and more! In the month leading up to the next Waterfront Event, we’ll showcase some of those ideas here on the blog, so stay tuned.

If you have an idea that you want to pitch at Athena, you can e-mail or just find and message us on Facebook ( or Twitter (@AthenaNavy).

We hope that you’re as excited as we are for this awesome event! Join us, and let’s make the Navy better – One idea at a time!

Defending Traditions or Encouraging Innovation – What’s a Chief To Do?

By: FCC(SW) Christopher Roberts


The Navy Chief has long been charged with defending tradition, ensuring procedural compliance, and having a coffee cup that has not been washed since the Gulf War. From muster, instruction, and inspection to the glorious sounds of a Bosun pipe to let you know when chow is ready, traditions are at every turn of shipboard life.  However, it seems that more and more technology, innovation, and creativity creeps into our daily routines. Bosun pipes are now being replaced by an MP3 audio recording available at the touch of a button, and port and starboard lookouts capabilities are enhanced with night vision goggles. Sounding tubes are now read electronically, and paper navigation charts are all but obsolete as the Voyage Management System has come to the forefront.

Sailors are changing too. Everyday, more Sailors are coming into the Navy with higher education and a profound level of expertise with technology such as smart phones and apps. Let’s face it: Us old guys sitting in the Goat Locker have to make a conscious effort to somewhat keep up with the new technology. We also find ourselves in an all-too-familiar “expectation management” role with young Sailors, as the whiz-bang gadgets we have on ships don’t exactly look like the whiz-bang gadgets you can purchase at Best Buy (or what you see in your typical Navy commercial). This can be a challenge.

While us old guys try to communicate with these “digital natives” on their terms – usually via text message – we also have to recognize that these young Sailors think differently too. Many of them come in the Navy looking for a way to make a difference. Looking to contribute to the organization. Looking for purpose. They’re not only tech savvy, they’re creative. Not only do we have to make an effort to learn about the tech, we should strive to speak their language too.

So where does the modern day Chief draw the line between defending tradition and encouraging innovation and creativity? I say we listen to our Sailors. For the longest time, the saying has been “a bitching Sailor is a happy Sailor”. Now, technology has changed so fast that our junior Sailors are not just complaining, but bringing up very valid points about the tools, gear and processes in the Navy that could be improved with a little innovation. Listening to our Sailors is nothing new. The Navy has always practiced some kind of Total Quality Leadership (TQL). But now more than ever it is important that we filter through our Sailors’ comments and try to differentiate between the normal gripes and ones that may lead to a better way of doing business.

If one of your Sailors came up to you and told you that they thought it would be nice if the cameras on the ship facing the ocean could automatically identify surface vessels based on their physical attributes. A grumpy old Chief might say “Yep… that would be nice, now go do sweepers and make sure your weekly boards are turned in”. Onboard the Benfold they say “you want to pitch that at Athena?” Good thing too, because the camera idea won and now a prototype is being built.

Innovation can take place anywhere - in this case, building a target to shoot!

Innovation can take place anywhere – in this case, building a target to shoot!

So where does a Chief draw the line between defending tradition and encouraging innovation? Why can’t innovation be the best tradition we ever protected? Maybe we’ve been protecting all along and just haven’t called it innovation.

If innovation is introducing new or novel solutions to problems, isn’t that what we do, as Chiefs, when our Sailors come to us with a problem? We listen, we think, then we do. We find ways to get the job done. We find unique solutions – sometimes repurposing existing items or realigning a group of Sailors – and we make it happen.

Typically we see it from the other side. Someone up the Chain of Command wants something crazy done and we do not have the right resources so we end up “making shit happen”.  Well, brothers: That’s innovation. And we should protect that tradition.

The guiding principles of the Chief Petty Officer say “I will strive to remain technically and tactfully proficient. All Sailors are entitled to outstanding leadership; I will provide that leadership. I know my people and will always place their needs above my own”. The Sailors of today’s Navy are some of the most creative since the Navy’s conception. As Chiefs, we need to treat our Sailors’ ideas like a campfire. And we shouldn’t treat it as a Class Alpha Fire – put it out, set the reflash watch, and secure – but instead fuel the fire of innovation and challenge our Sailors to make their ideas even better. If we the Chiefs embrace innovation and encourage our Sailors to improve the Navy, I wonder what the Navy will look like when they are in the Chiefs Mess.

FCC(SW) Christopher Roberts is Training Department Leading Chief Petty Officer onboard USS BENFOLD (DDG 65). He is also the ship’s MWR Chief and has initiated several innovative shipboard procedures to improve Energy Conservation.

You can like Athena on Facebook: or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy. Interested in starting a movement of your own? Message us, or e-mail!

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