A Simple Question and a Call To Action

By Dave Nobles

MainBanner_2015Last week, I had the pleasure of sharing the story of Athena with the submarine force at the 2015 Submarine Technology Symposium at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Beyond conversations, it was the first time that the history of The Athena Project was presented to this audience and the brief was part of a larger group of presenters in a session titled “Innovation.” My fellow session mates all had tremendous stories of how they’ve harnessed the collaborative spirit of Sailors to find creative solutions to complex problems and I was humbled to be a part of it.

While the possibility existed for the crowd to treat me as though I was a stranger in a strange land, my brief laden with photos of ships (they call them ‘targets’), the vision and mission of The Athena Project resonated with the group and I received a number of questions following the talk.

The prevailing theme of many of questions and comments was as simple as a Beatles song: How can we help?

And as John sang in the song Help, you know we need somebody, not just anybody.


The Beatles: Obviously Athenians.


However, to appropriately answer that question, it’s worthy to first assess the current state of Athena and where we would like to go in the future.

As many of you know that have been following The Athena Project from the beginning, transitioning Sailors’ great ideas to the next levels – Prototyping and implementation – is hands-down the most difficult phase of our expedition. The legend of Athena holds that the Greek goddess was a shrewd companion to heroes on epic endeavors, and most innovators know that transitioning a project from idea to action is an epic endeavor. Through our history, we’ve grown the network of innovators, academics, engineers and makers and had success with providing the heroic Sailors with companions that can make their big idea happen, but we can always do more.

Often, when asked by senior leadership what flavor of help they can provide to our efforts, I usually respond with ‘advocacy and support.’ However, to truly have Athena thrive by bringing forth tremendous ideas from the Navy’s deckplates and inspiring junior Sailors to be creatively confident, we need to take action.

So, what can you do to help? Well, it kind of depends on where you are in your organization. So, in the spirit of the song Help, here’s what you can do and what Beatles track you might best identify with:

If you’re a Sailor, you are “With A Little Help From My Friends” – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).

In the song, Ringo (yes, Ringo… As “Billy Shears”) sings about the importance of friends to get through difficulty or even attempt something that you may consider hard when you do it alone. Sometimes, getting involved in something like Athena and just getting your concept to the point of pitching is much easier said than done. But, with a little help from the Athena Network and local support from groups at the unit level, it becomes a lot easier.

What we’ve found that works best is developing a collaborative network at your command and apply supportive brainstorming tools to encourage each other’s ideas. You can find some great ground rules for creating an innovative group here. If you keep the faith and bring forth your ideas, eventually the whispers on a wall will become a shout too loud to be ignored. If you want to get involved with other like-minded innovators in your area, connect with us! We may be able to help!

A microphone shouldn't be intimidating - there's a team behind you!

A microphone shouldn’t be intimidating – there’s a team behind you!

If you’re an engineer, you are “Get Back” – Let It Be (1970).

In this classic, Paul urges Jojo, who had left his home in Tucson to make a horticulturally-driven voyage to California, to head back to where he should be. In developing new systems and technologies for the warfighter, it’s important to break out of the lab or office and get back to user-centered design. What better way to do that than to hear ideas straight from the Sailor and begin a relationship to keep the user at the center of the design process.

So to the engineers, get back to the deckplates. Take a risk and get involved! Often, the ideas that come out of Athena events need to be developed and iterated to realize their full potential. And often, the Sailors that pitch the ideas need your help. At many organizations, there are channels in which research, development, testing and engineering funding can be pursued through alternate means. If you take a risk by attending an event and partnering with a Sailor, you might find that you can develop a concept that emerged out of frustration on the deckplates, you can have a positive impact on how Sailors can perform their jobs. Beyond that, you’ll more deeply discover warfighters’ needs and build lasting connections that will prevent innovation in a vacuum. Sure, it may be a bit out of your comfort zone, but if you make the effort, the benefits greatly outweigh the costs!

Researchers at the University of Southern California proving the EARS concept that won Athena Two.

Researchers at the University of Southern California proving the EARS concept that won Athena Two.

If you’re a unit-level commander, you are “All Together Now” – Yellow Submarine (1969).

If anything is going to happen with Athena at your command, it’s going to require you to be involved. This song’s message is perhaps the simplest of all Beatles songs, and contained in the title: All Together Now.

As a commander, advocate, motivate and be part of the process, together with your Sailors! It’s one thing to inform your Sailors about Athena, but another thing altogether to encourage and inspire those under your charge to develop their ideas and bring them forth. By getting involved in the process – the coaching, the creation and the listening – A junior Sailor’s motivation to participate and present will follow suit. By putting in the time to make Sailors’ intellectual courage a priority, you’ll be investing in the future of the Fleet by serving its most critical asset: Its people. If it’s important to you, it will be important to your command.

Advocacy goes far beyond a mention at a Captain's Call! U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class N.C. Kaylor (RELEASED)

Advocacy goes far beyond a mention at a Captain’s Call! U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class N.C. Kaylor (RELEASED)

If you’re a senior leader or influencer, you are “Revolution” – The Beatles (The White Album) (1968).

As anyone who’s heard this gem knows, the song presupposes that the listener wants a revolution or beyond that, has a desire to change the world. Many senior leaders are highly ambitious and desire to make an impact, and Athena could create a tremendous avenue for just that. And, as the song goes, if that leader says they have a real solution, then people will be lining up to see the plan.

So, help towards building some real solutions: Challenge your team and your network! The Naval Message is still a powerful tool, and the individual that owns the message-release authority can wield it. Simply by lending your support to Athena, you may inspire commands or even communities that have yet to participate! And beyond that encouragement, you could discover the work that the Sailors have put into their concepts and challenge those under your charge to develop and prototype the ideas that resonate with you. Nothing like throwing down the proverbial gauntlet to inspire concept development!

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert challenged  the status quo by establishing a Rapid Innovation Cell during his tenure.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert challenged the status quo by establishing a Rapid Innovation Cell during his tenure.

Athena is valuable because it drives Sailor engagement. Inspiring junior Sailors and young officers to think about how to make the Navy better tends to inspire those same Sailors to think about all they do, making them more apt to be engaged in problem solving and innovative solutions.

Beyond the quarterly pitch events in Fleet Concentration Areas, The Athena Project is rolling out several initiatives that can help to inspire, get new faces engaged and build on the creative spirit of the deckplates. More to follow on those new initiatives in the weeks that follow.

Dan Pink, whose book Drive has served as a catalyst for the birth of The Athena Project, notes that engagement is powered by three factors: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. While encouragement may lead to the Autonomy and Mastery pillars, the Purpose will always be decided by the network: The influencers, makers, engineers and doers that can transform a Sailor’s idea into reality. If an idea can make it to the next level, it proves that the voice of the deckplates is being heard and fuels the all-important Purpose pillar.

Together, we can fulfill that duty.

Or, to stay true to the Beatles feel of this article, we can be “Fixing a Hole.”


Connect with The Athena Project on Facebook: www.facebook.com/athenanavy or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy. Interested in starting a movement of your own? Message us, or e-mail athenanavy@gmail.com!