Beware the Scenery: Noticing the Unnoticed

By: LT Dave Nobles

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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.

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

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!

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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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