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.

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One thought on “Defending Traditions or Encouraging Innovation – What’s a Chief To Do?

  1. Perhaps I was just fortunate, but with only a couple of exceptions i must say that my chief petty Officers were very hands on in my training and growth as a technician and as a leader. I too strove to emulate their examples to the point that one OIC had the temerity to suggest that I was too concern about the welfare of my subordinates. When it comes to missed pay, late awards and such other items, I was proud to carry the burden of that accusation on my shoulders

    Chief Cryptologic Technician Interpretive, Retired.

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