Introducing, ATHENA Far East!

By LTJG Tom Baker

beautiful-lake-of-japan

USS BENFOLD (DDG 65), the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, and a team of innovation veterans from fleet concentration areas across the United States have teamed up in Japan to establish ATHENA Far East, our first permanent ATHENA hub outside of the continental United States!

Rooting itself at Commander, Fleet Activities Yokosuka (CFAY), Japan, the opportunities to collaborate with Japanese and American sailors are tremendous.

The surface and submarine mariner of the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces across Yokosuka Bay, an entrepreneurship professor from a local university, the talented civilian maintenance community, an aviation mechanic in Aircraft Carrier RONALD REAGAN…we will reach at every corner of civilian and military entrepreneurship to bring the same diverse conversation under one roof that has made every ATHENA so successful before us!

If you are in Japan, make plans now to join us on January 15th from 1245 – 1430 at the Commodore Matthew Perry General Mess “Tatami Room” on the Yokosuka Navy Base.

Any Military members or DoD Civilians interested in pitching ideas at this event can reach out on facebook or connect with us on the gmail account listed below!

Connect with Athena 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!

 

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Big Ideas Live In Unlikely Places – 5 Tips For Cross-Pollination

By: Dave NoblesBee-Insect-Robots-For-Cross-Pollination-14

In 1913, the Ford Motor Company introduced a revolutionary innovation that changed the shape of the automotive industry forever – the moving assembly belt. The innovation helped Ford produce more of it’s Model T, which was sweeping the nation at the time, transforming the automobile from a novel curiosity to an accessible tool that would change the world.

While the great innovator and businessman Henry Ford is credited with this innovation, the true source of this great innovation was from an entirely different domain – the meat packing industry.

An early assembly line at Ford, courtesy ford.com

An early assembly line at Ford, courtesy ford.com

Ford, and more appropriately Ford’s brilliant team of engineers that did the majority of the design work for the auto manufacturer’s Detroit plant, looked to slaughterhouse practices used in Chicago in the late 19th Century for inspiration in an industry that had little more to do with meat than driving it to the market. Despite that fact, Ford’s team had the wisdom to keep their minds open to finding ideas in unlikely places. The team’s open-mindedness led to revolutionary changes that have impacted the lives of everyone on the planet to this day.

That’s the power of cross-pollination.

Cross-pollination is the discovery of new ideas and unique solutions to challenges through inspiration from unlikely sources. That source could be anything from exploring a new hobby that inspires a change in your frame of reference to the application of a new or interesting product to a problem you are facing. Or you could simply consider a diverse viewpoint from someone who thinks a little different than you.

Kelley's book is a great resource for building innovative teams and solving tough challenges.

Kelley’s book is a great resource for building innovative teams and solving tough challenges.

Many books, blogs and articles have discussed the benefits of cross pollination and recombinant innovation. Most notably, in the 10 Faces Of Innovation, Tom Kelley says that cross-pollinators (one of the titular 10 faces) have an uncanny ability to stir up new and interesting ideas by looking broader, into unexpected worlds that may not even seem relevant to the problem you may be facing. While that may sounds like one would need a particular set of skills, a la Liam Neeson in Taken, but truthfully anyone can be a cross-pollinator.

I have a very particular set of skills. I will find you, and I will innovate.

I have a very particular set of skills. I will find you, and I will innovate.

Case studies on cross pollination and recombinant innovation are everywhere – In the video rental industry, Redbox gained a competitive advantage through harvesting inspiration from vending machines and their closest competitor, Netflix, leveraged inspiration from the Postal Service after CEO Reed Hastings was frustrated by paying a $40 late fee to a traditional video rental provider.

In the Navy, look no further than the Tactical Advancements for the Next Generation (TANG) team, who hosted a design thinking event in San Diego recently that Tom Baker talked about on this blog. An idea emerged from an early event that the team hosted to replace the $128,000 joystick submariners use to control periscopes with an intuitive (and cheap) $28 Xbox controller. That concept has made its way onto new Virginia Class submarines and even earned an excellent hashtag at a Fast Company conference in San Francisco last year – #SuperMarioSubmarine.

We’ve also had many examples of cross-pollination in some of our past Athena pitches. The Environmental Acoustic Recognition System (EARS), Rob McClenning’s winning idea from Athena Two, was an conceived by looking at Army technologies; and Bill Hughes’ celestial navigation system proposal CosmoGator was devised after downloading a Star Finder app for iPhone – just to name a few.

LT Bill Huges pitching CosmoGator at Athena 3. He started the pitch by holding his iPhone in the air and asking "if I can automate celestial navigation on this, why not on my ship?"

LT Bill Huges pitching CosmoGator at Athena 3. He started the pitch by holding his iPhone in the air and asking “if I can automate celestial navigation on this, why not on my ship?”

While cross-pollination is a great skill that can yield some great ideas, some of us may not know where to start. There are actually loads of ways that you can bring the benefits of cross-pollination and recombinant innovation into your daily routine. Here are some ways that you can become a cross-pollinator at your job:

Be Engaged – A critical prerequisite to cross-pollination is starting with the right mindset. To truly remove your internal governor and enable the benefits of cross-pollination into your routine full throttle, you have to be engaged and observant. If you’re not engaged in your current surroundings, and observing the small nuances in the way things work, then you may miss an opportunity to affect positive change.

Spark Your Intellectual Curiosity – A genuine desire to learn about new things would be another prerequisite. If you don’t have an inherent curiosity to learn new things, then the rest of the tips below, and cross-pollination in general, may not make sense or even appeal to you. To be able to take new concepts onboard and apply them when the time is right, then your desire to learn must be genuine.

Use Metaphors – Allowing different perspectives, or describing things in a different way can enable viewing a problem from a different angle, which could bring with it some unlikely and powerful solutions. In the past few months on design thinking projects that I’ve worked here at Johns Hopkins APL, I’ve likened technical leadership paths to Dungeons and Dragons and personnel evaluations to the popular Madden series of sports video games. While those ideas certainly were not the answer, they sparked a discussion and eventual solutions that the group may not have considered using traditional descriptors. Try it in your everyday ideation – you may be surprised by what you and your team come up with!

Yoda says use metaphors

Yoda says use metaphors

Stretch Your Aperture – Being open to new experiences and schools of thought is key. An easy way to achieve a wider perspective is by simply using some of the social media tools widely available right now. Twitter is great because you can customize your own feed. Start by following some different accounts – adding a few artists, marine biologists, or toy manufacturers to your list might cause something unexpected to pop onto your feed as you’re scrolling and may ignite an a-ha! moment for you. Taking that a bold step further, try joining an interest group that you know nothing about. Sign up for a class – from improv to crocheting to coding – learning a new skill will introduce you to new perspectives as well as new people. And if all else fails, talk to a stranger while you’re waiting in line at Starbucks. You never know what you might learn.

Ideate And Share – While your big idea is in its formative stages, share it out early. Pull together a diverse group and capitalize on the diversity of thought it provides. The military is renowned for having members from all over the country and even the world working side by side. With every different individual background comes a different and fresh perspective that could propel the development of a solution that you would have never thought of on your own.

In our daily jobs, we can all have tendencies to keep our heads down and operate only within our bubbles to solve everyday challenges. There certainly are problems that we can face and solve by only seeking inspiration within our immediate surroundings. In fact, this is an appropriate method for specific problems that may only have a few specialized solutions. However, if we rely solely upon our personal work silos for inspiration, we could find ourselves solving problems that don’t need to be solved.

So, how might you harness the power of inspiration from unlikely sources? What challenge might you solve by looking in unexpected places? What new idea might you cook up by cross-pollinating from an unrelated field?

If you try it, you might be surprised what you find.

 

Dave Nobles is a member of the Design Thinking Corps at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and the founder of The Athena Project.

In the San Diego or Norfolk areas? Well, join us for Athena 8 in San Diego on August 28th and Athena East 2.0 in Norfolk in October! Have an idea you want to present? Message us!

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!

The Future Will Be Made (By You!)

By LT Dave Nobles

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Last week, I had the honor of presenting The Athena Project’s story at a conference on Additive Manufacturing (AM) put on by The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The strength behind the AM movement is inspiring, and the best part is that this is the ground floor – and there’s plenty of room in the elevator!

 

The conference focused on evaluating not only policy for the use of 3D Printing Technology, but also the ways to get this innovative technology into the hands of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines around the world. As you may expect, a workshop concerning a topic like this brought forth many key players in the Additive Manufacturing movement, including representatives from multiple branches of the military as well as government and civilian pioneers of AM.

Talking about our journey with The Athena Project fit naturally with the theme of the event, because we’re all about giving the talented minds in our services a voice. The cool thing about AM is that it allows that voice to be heard and be seen.

With a capability so empowering and burgeoning hardware and software options becoming easier and easier to use, servicemembers can employ their creativity to build an initial design or prototype of an idea that may have otherwise been difficult to express on paper or in a Powerpoint presentation. Indeed, AM is an excellent new technology, but it’s also an entirely new way to approach problem solving that unlocks a wave of possibilities to turn imagination into reality.

The encouraging thing about the AM movement is that the Navy is at the leading edge of getting the resources to the fleet. Last year, the LT Ben Kohlmann of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell launched an initiative called Print the Fleet that has put 3D printers onto ships and have paved the way for more involvement at the deckplate level. You can read about it here.

And on August 6th and 20th out in Dam Neck, the Print the Fleet team is hosting an event to increase awareness and knowledge about AM as well as brainstorm some uses for the technology to solve challenges. VADM Phil Cullom, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Fleet Readiness and Logistics, talks about the this Makers Event during the Print the Fleet workshop here.

3D printers are getting more and more affordable - If you want one of your own, you don't have to be an evil supervillian anymore!

3D printers are getting more and more affordable – If you want one of your own, you don’t have to be an evil supervillian anymore!

Here in San Diego we aim to contribute to the cause as well. In the coming months, we hope to aim our first athenaSPEAR at Additive Manufacturing and pass your ideas to the team to ensure that we’re making the most of this awesome new capability.

So, how would you use additive manufacturing? If you’ve got a great idea that can solve some of of the challenges our ships, subs and squadrons face, we want to hear it! Hey, if you’d just like to get your hands on the latest 3D printing gear, let us know that too. And, as always, if you’re interested in doing some design thinking with us, come on down!

Sure, there are loads of ways that we can use AM to solve problems at sea, but beyond that, the use of the techniques can strengthen any potential Athena pitch as well. A quick Google search can direct you to a number of Makerspaces in most cities. Not into sharing? Well, there are truckloads of different AM printers that you can buy for less than $500. Take a look!

With Athena East right around the corner in Norfolk on September 12th and Waterfront Athena Six coming on October 10th in San Diego, there’s plenty of time to saddle up some Computer Aided Design software and print up your prototype!

 

Interested in presenting at Athena East or Waterfront Athena Six? Find us on Facebook and message us! Or, if you’re not into the whole social media thing, send us an e-mail at athenanavy@gmail.com

Want to read more about the Print the Fleet workshop? Check this out! Or, contact the team at PTF@navy.mil.

 

 

 

Waterfront Athena Roundup

By LT Dave Nobles

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We cross-posted this article a few weeks ago with our friends at CIMSEC.org. Recently, I’ve gotten quite a few questions on many of the projects presented, so I thought it would be appropriate to post this on our blog in an attempt to connect the dots of ideation across the fleet. Message Athena on Facebook or Twitter at @AthenaNavy to learn more about any of our projects!

A month ago, a group of young innovators met in a brewery in Point Loma trying to change the U.S. Navy.

We hosted our third installment of The Athena Project at Modern Times Beer on October 25th and for the first time, we opened it up to the entire waterfront. Even though the presenters were predominantly from USS Benfold, the birthplace of Athena, a few change-makers from other commands presented ideas. About 15 different commands represented in the crowd, many coming from the Basic Division Officer Course (BDOC) here in San Diego. In addition to the Navy contingent, representatives from the University of Southern California (USC) Institute of Creative TechnologiesSPAWARDisruptive Thinkers, and Harris Corporation were among the more than 70 in attendance. We had a phenomenal turnout – better than we expected. It feels like just the beginning, though.

Before we get into the roundup of our last event, here’s a quick summary of how The Athena Project works. Presenters are given five minutes to pitch their projects to the crowd, who vote on each idea based on quality, actionability, and presentation. We’ve found that the short pitch time and lack of powerpoint forces each presenter to get to the heart of their idea quickly and to distill it down to the essential points. After every presentation, the floor is open for five minutes of questions and comments from the crowd. When all the projects have been presented, votes are tallied and the ADM Sims Award for Intellectual Courage is announced.

The winning project gets to form a small functional team and receives command backing to make their idea happen over the next quarter. That, and of course bragging rights.

So, we had our friends from USC select the first name, and away we went. Here’s a summary of each of the ideas presented:

Idea 1: Psychology-Driven Division Officer Assessments – LTJG Kaitlin O’Donnell, USS Benfold

The foundation for LTJG O’Donnell’s idea was trying to help junior ensigns develop their leadership skill set. She proposed working hand-in-hand with the Human Systems Integration department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, to generate a survey that could be given to an officer’s division to evaluate leadership traits. LTJG O’Donnell envisioned a breakdown similar to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to give young officers feedback and action items for strengthening traits.

Idea 2: Hydro Wave Power Generator – ET2(SW) Erika Johnson, USS Benfold

Petty Officer Johnson and her husband proposed utilizing cranks and netting in littorals to build a network of power generators that would double as a passive sonar system.  She explained the technology, then offered multiple design-types leveraging materials currently in use.

Idea 3: Peer Resource Sharing – LTJG Sarah Eggleston, Destroyer Squadron ONE

Citing a great deal of frustration in maintaining version control of current instructions and guidance, LTJG Eggleston proposed a sharepoint-like system in which naval personnel could share lessons learned, updated messages, and recent notices among other information. Feedback from the crowd suggested utilizing current channels such as Navy Knowledge Online to grow the database and function as a type of Navy Wiki.

Idea 4: Benfold University CLEP – STG2(SW) Gina Stevens, USS Benfold

Onboard USS Benfold, there is a program called Benfold University in which Sailors who have a passion and knowledge base for any topic can teach their shipmates about the subject. Since its establishment in early 2013, the program has hosted classes in writing, welding, photography, Spanish, finance, nutrition and Japanese. Petty Officer Stevens, the program’s first teacher, proposed using free resources provided by Navy College for the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) to teach Sailors the knowledge necessary to gain college credit for a course.

Idea 5: Active Sonar Defense – ENS Joshua Corpus, BDOC

A game-day addition to the presentation list, ENS Corpus proposed taking technology found in noise-cancelling headphones – reciprocal noise generation – and applying that concept to ships’ sonar to act as a defense against active prosecution. ENS Corpus defended his assertion following his presentation as engineers in the crowd questioned the technology. During a break in the action, the concept was a hot topic, bringing several innovators together to discuss the feasibility of the idea.

Idea 6: Optical Database and Information Network – FC2 Robert VanAllen, FC2 Michael Owen and FC2 Lisa Stamp, USS Benfold

The winners of the ADM Sims Award for Intellectual Courage, this group of Petty Officers dominated the peer voting in every category with their presentation. The group proposed building an integrated database that would combine information from existing sensors to assist in identification of surface contacts. Characteristics from ships such as radar cross-section, electromagnetic emissions and heat signature would be combined with new visual-profiling software to build an electronic profile. That profile could then be compared to a database of surface ships and ranked by probability, resulting in rapid identification of long range surface targets. They also gave many examples on how the system could be developed in future iterations, including integration with seaborne drone systems and crew served weapons mounts. The pitch was well received and engineers from USC immediately pounced on the idea, offering to work with the team to develop a rapid prototype for proof of concept.

Idea 7: Electronic Division Officer Notebook – LTJG Isaac Wang, USS Benfold

Trying to solve the problem of maintaining paper records for Sailors, LTJG Wang suggested leveraging existing technology, like Neat Scanners and handwriting recognition software, to digitize the contents typically kept in Division Officer notebooks. Documents like counseling sheets, signed evaluations, history forms and the like could be scanned and kept together. Many in the crowd viewed this idea as “low hanging fruit” and claimed it would be simple to implement onboard a ship. LTJG Wang took the recommendations in stride and aims to institute his plan onboard BENFOLD.

Idea 8: Cosmogator – LT William Hughes, USS Benfold

LT Hughes, the navigator onboard Benfold, developed a concept for a system that would automate celestial navigation. He proposed that the system, consisting of optical sensors and a database of stars, could provide accurate positional data to the ship’s weapons systems in the event of a GPS outage. LT Hughes tested several mobile applications through his research and claimed that the technology to make this system a reality was well within reach. The crowd agreed, and his project finished in second place overall.

Idea 9: SCAT Tactical HUD – ENS Robert McClenning, FC1(SW) William Steele, FC2(SW) Amanda Curfew, FC2(SW) Justin Lagenor, GM3 Jacob Niessen, USS Benfold

This large group finished third in the peer voting for their proposed solution to the problem of command and control for ships’ crew-served weapons mounts. Citing difficulty in communications between the Anti-Terrorism Tactical Watch Officer (ATTWO) on the bridge and the machine guns on the weatherdecks, the team suggested utilizing augmented reality (AR) headsets for gunners and a touch screen tablet for the ATTWO to optimize the process. The team said that the headsets would be simplistic – only displaying commands such as “fire” and “ceasefire” – and would have to be hard-wired because a tactical wireless system would be easily exploitable by potential adversaries.

Idea 10: Metal Alloys for Energy – GSM2(SW) Robertson Acido, USS Benfold

The second of our game-day additions, GSM2 Acido proposed taking technology that’s being developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota to augment the power needs of surface ships. The engineers developed a new alloy that converts heat into energy. GSM2 Acido suggested using that alloy onboard ships – on anything the exhaust stacks for engines to solar-heated panels – to save fuel by allowing ships to have sufficient power without running their generators. GSM2 Acido formed a small team at the Athena event, including BDOC officers and SPAWAR engineers, to shape his pitch before presenting.

Overall, the event brought forth some tremendous ideas from the deckplates and provided some great networking opportunities, but the best part of it all: We had fun. The feedback on all the voting sheets was incredibly positive, and the support from the diverse crowd was amazing. It’s encouraging to know that there are so many people out there who want to make a difference.

We’re looking into scheduling the next waterfront Athena event for this spring, and hope that the innovation wildfire continues to spread – not only on the West Coast, but throughout the Navy. As The Athena Project continues to grow, so grows the chances that we’ll uncover the next big thing.

As Ben Franklin, among others, famously said, “To have a great idea, have a lot of them.”

Challenge accepted.

LT Dave Nobles is the weapons officer aboard USS Benfold and a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Three Keys to Building a Culture of Creativity and Innovation in the Navy

By: LT Dave Nobles

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Spoiler alert: They’re books.

In the time that I’ve been a part of The Athena Project, I’ve noticed something about the Navy that’s been pretty inspirational. It’s something that I’ve talked about quite a bit on this blog and something that I’ve seen in my short time as a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) as well. There are pockets in this organization that are motivated to spread and cultivate a culture of creativity and innovation. It’s not just the Navy either, it’s a theme across all the services and in many of the places where civilians and government employees support the litany of missions out there.

These little pockets of hope can manifest themselves in the form of organizations like the Defense Entrepreneurship Forum (DEF), the Innovator’s Initiative (I2) at the Naval Academy as well as Athena and CRIC, but they’re also brewing at nearly every command out there. There are groups of innovators, intrapreneurs, disruptive thinkers committed to bringing about a change in culture within our organization. The culture of creativity, where all opinions are valued, where design thinking is king and where failure is not a career-killer.

So, how might we connect those dots and make the culture go viral?

I feel like I’ve been on a bit of a hot streak lately in terms of books, and a few that I’ve read lately and some old classics might hold the key, when we consider the lessons they teach us together. I feel like there’s a sequential order in those lessons, but all three are key to spreading a culture of innovation:

1. Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley. 

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This book is the new bible of innovative thought, by two brothers with a boatload of street cred: Founders of the innovation design firm IDEO as well as the Design School at Stanford University. What the Kelley Brothers teach us in this book is that there’s inherent creativity within each of us, but the decision to harness that is a conscious one that each individual has to make on their own. Further, they speak to the power of design thinking and creativity as a natural process through a series of stories and examples. Some specific examples in the book, at corporations like Intuit and 3M, even have a similar look and feel to The Athena Project!

The book is also full of creativity exercises that zealous creative explorers might use to brew the innovative mindset in their organizations. The exercises are great tools that we can use to spread the culture and identify those who have made that important decision to be creative. Those that choose to strive toward making things better.

Not only does this book help us find out who we are and can be on a personal level, but also what our organizations are and could be at a much higher level. It’s a tremendous read and essential to help shine a light on who the innovation movers are – for those who seek their partnership and to those who seek to find the spirit within themselves.

2. Good To Great by Jim Collins.

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By most accounts, this book is a modern classic on how to build organizations that transcend success into greatness, a peak that few companies ever reach. The reason why this book is second on the path to building and spreading the culture of creativity in the Navy is that it preaches identification of the right people before careening toward the goal.

One of the main points that Collins hammers home in the book: First who, then what. It’s important to put the right people in the right seats on the bus often times before setting the final destination. While the corporate examples mentioned have different constraints and capabilities than we do in the military with regard to recruiting and retaining talent, the message and its relation to our cause is clear.

The book does have its criticisms, however. It’s dated, and of the companies referenced throughout the course of the book many have continued to sustain great performance, including Kimberly Clark, Walgreens and Wells Fargo, while others identified, like Circuit City and Fannie Mae have not. Nonetheless, the points regarding harnessing the human capital first and setting a clear vision for the organization are enduring and provide a sound lesson for a culture shift.

First who, then what. Identify the creative explorers, and then spread the culture.

3. Contagious by Jonah Berger.

Contagious1

Which brings us to ideas worth spreading, which is precisely the sermon that Wharton professor Jonah Berger gives throughout the course of his book. Another relatively recent publication, Contagious differs from book-club-favorite, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell in many respects. While Gladwell focuses primarily on the personality types required to make a message, style or idea spread, Berger focuses on the content of the message or idea and gives a checklist for success. In fact, on his web site, Berger provides worksheets that help the development of the idea that goes viral.

Berger gives us the ingredients that make a viral message In his STEPPS, an acronym for Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Story. Now, while each message need not have all of those ingredients in the final dish, the more that are baked in, the better it will taste.

So, I propose this trilogy of books as our roadmap for spreading the innovative culture. We identify and cherish the creative volunteers, put them in the right seats, and build a message that we all want to share. If you’ve read any of these and have feedback to offer to those that want to pursue this vision, please leave it below. Otherwise, I ask that you give these three a try, and leave your thoughts below.

Let’s work together to build the culture that we want. Let’s turn those pockets of innovative thought within our organization into a movement, and make the Navy what we want it to be.

Here’s to the dreamers, the doers, the thinkers and the movers: All engines ahead flank.

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.

You can like Athena on Facebook: www.facebook.com/athenanavy or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy. Interested in starting a movement of your own? Message us!

Don’t Force It

By: LT Dave Nobles

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As I’ve been sitting around in lay-up for the past couple weeks, I’ve opened up the ‘ol laptop quite a few times trying to figure out the next post, but nothing had come to mind nor fingers.

So, I whined to my wife about the lack of creative inspiration, and she told me simply, “Don’t force it.” Clearly, she was giving the Heisman to my incessant moaning, but what she said not only highlighted a problem that I was having for this post, but also summed up some of the issues we have with ideas in the fleet.

Too often, when it comes to innovation, we force it. And we shouldn’t.

Now, I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t schedule out brainstorming and design thinking sessions, or challenge a group to find solutions to a specific problem. What I mean is that we shouldn’t direct or attach incentives to the generation of new ideas. The unnecessary pressurization of the otherwise open activity of idea generation tends to cause people to force it, and the results could be ugly.

In his book Drive, Dan Pink references a study by researchers at MIT, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Chicago on the topic of incentives and performance. The study used three tiers of bonuses, offered to individuals based on their performance in cognitive tasks as well as physical tasks that didn’t require much thought. In both cases of the experiment, one conducted at MIT and one conducted in rural India, the results were the same: Bonuses had an inverse effect on performance for cognitive tasks whereas the rewards led to better performance for those rudimentary, mechanical, wrench-turning tasks. Pink gave an awesome TED talk about it, check it out here.

Since idea generation is a cognitive exercise, if we pressurize the process we can expect the same negative correlation. In the example of the study, it was rewards that pressurized the process, but an order can have the same effect because of the stress it creates. This is a phenomenon that’s been explored time and time again by sociologists, psychologists and economists.

Dan Ariely uses several examples in his book, The Upside of Irrationality, to illustrate that people actually behave less rationally the harder they try. Though some innovative ideas can seem a little bizarre at first, introducing irrationality into the idea incubation process is just asking for trouble.

Green Day Portrait Session

In the words of rockers and guys-who-look-like-they-stayed-up-all-night-watching-anime Green Day, “You can’t go forcing something if it’s just not right.”

That’s why The Athena Project is not, nor will ever be, a mandatory event. Not to attend, and certainly not to present. By keeping it open, only the passionate people who actually want to contribute do, and the results are pure and usually a higher quality because of it.

The Athena Project belongs to all of us, and it’s open. If an initiative like The Athena Project was a directive, then it would transform from an event where Sailors share ideas because they want to into a mandatory event in which Sailors “mail in” thoughts because they are required to.

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

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

One Ear For You, the Other For the Band.

By: Todd Richmond, Ph.D.

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Sometimes people get locked into certain ways of thinking, or look to the same places for inspiration or ideas.  Often the best lessons for your work can come from totally unrelated areas of your life like sports or music. 5-time Grammy winning bassist Victor Wooten tells a story about one of his first studio sessions in Nashville. He was a young, hot-shot bass player with amazing chops.

Victor was recording with the Memphis Horns, and at the end of the session he came out elated. He had nailed the material, and was playing at the top of his game. But much to his chagrin, one of the leaders of the Memphis Horns pulled him aside afterwards and said, “you know Victor, one ear is for you – the other ear is for the band.”

Victor knew exactly what he meant, and took that phrase with him on every gig since then. It doesn’t matter how good you are at what you do. Invariably tasks as accomplished by groups, and if you’re not “listening” to others, your individual skills will not be enough to carry the day. I learned a variation on this directly from Victor when I was attending one of his Bass/Nature camps in Tennessee. Our group was working on improvisation, and while he and Anthony Wellington played a rhythm figure, students, one by one, took turns playing a solo.

When it came time for my turn, I played some of what I thought were my “best licks”, and was largely error-free. At that point Victor stopped, smiled, and said, “you know Todd, you had some really interesting things to say. Unfortunately you weren’t talking about the same subject as Anthony and me.” That hit me like a lightning bolt, and while part of me wanted to find a hole to crawl into and hide, the other part of me “got it.” I was listening to myself with both ears. Point taken. Another thought that I take to every gig.

The beauty of these stories is that the underlying lesson applies everywhere in your life – especially in the workplace. Have you ever sat in a meeting where you were thinking so hard about what you wanted to say (in order to sound smart), that you didn’t really listen to anyone else? (I have). How about being so focused on what you want or need that you don’t hear reasons from others on why you may want to course-correct? These are all symptoms of the underlying problem of keeping both ears for yourself.

I’ll give you a related situation that happened with one of our projects some time back. We were about 2 weeks away from showing a beta version of a game for training dismounted counter-IED concepts. I was the project lead, and my team had been working very hard in order to hit a crazy deadline (3 months from project start to first delivery). We had a play-test and things went reasonably well from a technical perspective. The code was fairly stable and there were no major bugs. But at the end of the play test, I wasn’t happy. The team gathered to debrief and we went around the room with everyone (programmers, QA, artists, management, etc) giving their plusses and minuses. Then it came to me since I get the last word. I knew my team had really pushed and I wanted to give them the kudos they deserved. But sadly, after doing the play test I knew that the game just wasn’t where it needed to be.

Projects often come to these types of situations. And there are different ways to deal with it. I chose my words carefully, and said, “instructional games ideally need to do two things – they have to train and they should be fun. Right now we have a game that is neither.” I could see the blood drain out of the faces of the team. It sucks to work hard and hear that it isn’t good enough. Now some would have just dropped that grenade and walked out of the room, leaving the team to figure out how to fix it. And sometimes you need to do that. But my “ear” for the team told me that if I was going to tear it down, then I needed to lead them to build it back up. So I went up to the white board and we went through what worked, what didn’t, and how we were going to rethink the problem. After an hour of that we had a new plan of attack and the team was energized to crank out the next version.

So along with keeping an “ear for the band,” this episode resonated with another line I learned from Victor – “feel the groove before you play.” There are a number of different ways to run a project, lead a group, or play a song. But every situation has an inherent “groove.” And it can change from day to day even with the same people involved. So before you speak or make a decision, try and find the groove of the room and the group. It is more art than science, but it turns out if you’re doing the listening thing, the groove generally follows.

If this resonated with you (and even if it didn’t), there are more “aha moments” to be found in Victor’s book, “The Music Lesson.” If ever there was a book that was about far more than its title indicated, this is it.

By day, Todd Richmond is the Director of Advanced Prototypes and Transition at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. By night he is a bass player in a number of bands (www.nostatic.com), is a photographer/filmmaker, and waxes philosophic on the nature of analog and digital. He welcomes comments, feedback, and people disagreeing with him. After all, if we all agreed, we wouldn’t learn anything new.

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

Never Get Too Comfortable

By: LT Dave Nobles

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As a Weapons Officer, I consider myself privileged to work with some pretty amazing people – Gunner’s Mates, Fire Controlmen and Sonar Technicians as well as a few fresh Junior Officers. It’s a great department and I’m lucky to be a part of it.

Whenever things are going relatively well in the department, I’ll tell the guys something that they’re probably tired of hearing me say: “Don’t get Polaroid on me.”

Whenever those words stumble out, it usually elicits a groan or two, maybe even an eye-roll. But after my chops are adequately busted, the team nods because they know the story. And nobody wants that to happen to them.

Polaroid, founded in 1937 by Edwin H. Land, is best known for instant photos. The company rolled out its first instant photo camera in 1948, ushering in a new era for photography. In the 1960s and 1970s, Polaroid was THE “it” company, with some even likening the company’s influence and style to Apple’s today. Polaroid was trendy, cool and dominant.

From the glory days through the 1980s and even into the 1990s, Polaroid owned the industry. Polaroid even forced Kodak out of the instant photo realm in the mid-80s. The company was edgy, aggressive and innovative. And life was good.

So then why did Polaroid file for bankruptcy (for the first time) in 2001?

Because it got too comfortable and the digital imaging revolution roundhouse kicked the company in the face.

Even though Polaroid produced a digital camera in 1996, relatively early in the revolution, their lack of investment into the future caught them flat footed and they failed. Now, the once-great corporation is now a niche product, relegated to dusty photo albums and the hands of bearded hipsters (to take pictures of their record players).

In its heyday, Polaroid was so popular that it was verbed AND nouned. Like many companies and products – Google, Xerox, Sharpie, and more – that’s when you know you’ve really made it.

Well, for the purposes of motivation, we’ve verbed and nouned it too. But to us, it means something else.

To Polaroid is to lose when you could have won. To miss out on an opportunity because you weren’t prepared. To fail to see the distant elephant and end up getting trampled by it.

We try to avoid going Polaroid by keeping the press on. Instead of kicking our feet up, we’ll continue to work with the future in mind. We’ll ask ourselves – “What’s next?” – and apply that methodology to stay ahead of the game. Whether it’s planning maintenance or dreaming up an idea for the next Athena Project, the mindset should remain the same.

Remember these guys?

Remember these guys?

Polaroid was a victim of disruptive innovation and its story isn’t rare. Advancements in technology leave case studies littered along the side of the road: CRT televisions, VHS tapes, the music industry, bookstores, and the list goes on and on. Companies that got rolled didn’t see it coming until it was too late.

While may not be trying to maintain market share in the camera industry, we can easily fall victim as well if we don’t stay focused, pay attention and put in the work.

So, go be Nikon or Canon instead. And don’t get caught on your heels.

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Sailors and Stockboys – Innovation From the Deckplates or the Housewares Aisle

By: LT Dave Nobles

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Deckplate innovation is obviously a running theme of The Athena Project and something we talk about a lot on this blog. We also routinely note that there’s a lot that we can learn from businesses that have been extracting great ideas from their “deckplates” for some time now.

There’s a little general store in Arkansas that believed that mantra, and it worked out pretty well for them.

Sam Walton once famously said that Wal-Mart’s best ideas came from clerks and stockboys.  Wal-Mart grew to be a goliath corporation, perhaps on the strength of ideas that bubbled up from below. Employees with great ideas would bring them to Mr. Walton, or someone who could make a difference.

We see this time and time again. Take the Ann Arbor delicatessen Zingerman’s, for example. As they were starting to grow, they opened different flavors of restaurants. One such restaurant was called the Roadhouse. Management noticed that the store was taking some heavy losses, so they started to investigate.

The sleuthing led the team to ask a dishwasher what he thought. He said that he noticed something in the food waste that the managers may not have: People were throwing away a LOT of french fries. Nothing wrong with the taste, the portion size was just too big. So management reduced the serving size and offered free french fry refills, and it saved the company loads of cheddar.

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You can read more about that awesome story and some core Ethos from Zingerman’s by clicking this picture!

In both cases, leaders happen upon great ideas by listening, but the channel to receive the ideas was ad-hoc at best. That begs the question: Had there been a better channel for employees to share ideas, would Wal-Mart have grown even bigger?

The game of Monday morning quarterback isn’t as compelling when discussing the largest retailer on the planet – a company leaps and bounds bigger and more valuable than its closest competitors. Whatever they did worked. Open and shut case.

What if, however, Wal-Mart started to falter? If that blue banner started to fade and retailers threatened to take significant chunks of its market share? What if the chain grew to too many locations and didn’t have enough resources to fill them all the way they always had?

Certainly a grim picture to paint for a retailer, but it’s a picture that some might say is beginning to materialize for the U.S. Navy.

The service is stretched thin, supporting missions around the world. Often, robust deployment cycles steal away from maintenance and training phases of operational units. A fiscally austere environment forces leadership to prioritize maintenance and supplies based on what are affordable, leaving no choice but to postpone or ignore legitimate needs. The growth in capabilities of potential adversarial nations in many ways outpaces our own.

In the face of a plethora of problems, it would be prudent to investigate new ways to find solutions. Athena is just one among several initiatives focused on improvement by providing a channel for good ideas to come from the Navy’s “stockboys and clerks.”

If we learned anything from last week’s Waterfront Athena Project, it’s that great ideas really do come from the deckplates. The peer-voted winners of the event were a team of Second Class Petty Officers that wanted to work smarter, not harder was proof positive. Imagine the possibilities if more our motivated junior Sailors started putting that brainpower toward some of the administrative and procedural issues that were identified in the Reducing Administrative Distractions initiative! I, for one, would love to see a fresh set of eyes tackle General Military Training delivery, the gargantuan preventative maintenance system or the often-confusing Training Cycle.

Well, the channel is there. It’s growing and spreading and it doesn’t bank on chance meetings, like Wal-Mart’s or Zingerman’s did.

The question is, will we take advantage of that channel? Will we continue to beat the drum on deckplate ideas and innovation, but then lose our drumsticks when the time comes to be heard? Will leadership listen to the problems identified or solutions crafted by we passionate stakeholders? Will the passionate stakeholders put their effort where their gripes are?

The answers will come with time, but the channels are there. We just have to use them.

 

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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.

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