Design Thinking! The Experience of 3M TANG

By: LTJG Tom Baker


On the afternoon of Monday June 8th, I left the mighty BENFOLD and drove north to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, excited about a promising opportunity to collaborate, create, and solve.

It was a slow roll through the front gate – ID check sat – and after two wrong turns in an unfamiliar base, I found my way to the Miramar Officer’s Club. With slightly wrinkled slacks and polo shirt from my journey, I entered to find two brightly smiling faces at a table full of gizmos and documents. “Hi, welcome to 3M TANG!”.

I was christened with my colorful badge, complete with a “Mavericks” team button. Thoughts filled my head like, ‘what is this thing for!?’ and ‘What have I gotten myself into?’

Oh was I in for a surprise.

I was gestured to the right into a large room and what fell before my eyes was what an innovator at heart may compare to the large candy room that Willy Wonka reveals to the children during their factory tour. And so my voyage into wonderful world of TANG began.

This is 3M TANG – in detail: The Maintenance, Material, and Management (3M) Tactical Advancements for the Next Generation. From June 8th-11th, 30 hand-selected warfighters were chosen to help create ideas, concepts, and solutions for future 3M systems, displays, hardware, policy, and procedures. This three-day workshop that I was attending – the culmination of months of research and insight generation – was designed to make tangible improvement to what the Navy largely affirms to be an outdated and broken maintenance system.

The first TANG event was held in 2011 to address challenges associated with Submarine displays. ADM Richardson, then the Commander of Submarine Forces, called for positive change and away the first TANG went – in San Diego – to prototype some concepts. The teams, through iteration, went from foamcore prototypes at the event to working models within a handful of months, finally transitioning concepts onto Submarines through the APB process. Since that first event, the team has accomplished several TANGs tackling a variety of challenges – Executive TANG, Australian/US TANG and Surface ASW TANG just to name a few.

3M TANG - the most recent event for the team - and plenty more to come!

3M TANG – the most recent event for the team – and plenty more to come!

TANG has been relentlessly successful because their creative structures accomplish two otherwise rare practices. One, they place stakeholders, technology experts, and warfighters in one room. Normally, the creator & stakeholder are geographically separated from the sailor, so valuable lines of communication and feedback are delayed. Secondly, TANG manages to get everyone rowing in a unified direction! Objectives are clarified quickly, and the team keeps each other in check.

Groups of people talking closely, jotting down notes on large white posters, laughing, or gathered around booths holding, wearing, and interacting with some of the coolest tech I’ve ever seen. My nervousness dissipated as I saw familiar faces in the room ~ a family of supporters and creators that have held The Athena Project afloat since its earliest inception, joined together with the TANG team was incredibly welcoming and put me into a state of creative euphoria.

The first event – the Tech Expo – showcased some of the most respected companies standing side-by-side with organizations that I’ve never heard of – their ideas all equally-incredible. I spent the rest of day one playing with technology and interacting with the creators who I realize are wholly devoted to giving our Sailors their best.

The tech expo is geared toward “unlocking the realm of the possible” to inform the brainstorming efforts of the teams from around the fleet. Over the next three days, our teams would engage in the process of Design Thinking to brainstorm, prototype, and present our creations.

I hardly thought that the second day could be better than the first, but I was wrong. The TANG team, partnered with award-winning innovators at IDEO, identified 14 solutions to known 3M issues that emerged throughout the course of some exhaustive empathetic research around our fleet. So, one of the first primers we did was to provide feedback on those concepts. Through “I wish” and “I like” statements, along with questions and concerns, the room collectively penned sticky notes to accompany these concepts, an exercise designed to kick-start the brainstorming process.

After we finished the concept card exercise, I came to find out that the “Mavericks” button I’m wearing is a team name. And, after a rousing and supportive speech by the Commander of Naval Surface Forces, Vice Admiral Rowden, the room is fired up to create!

Design thinking chart

We kick off the Design Thinking Process with some brainstorming. The goals are to generate a lot of ideas in a little time, get different perspectives, and build some excitement! Each group member starts slapping sticky notes to these ideas with every thought under the sun. I noticed a little poster next to our white space.


  1. Defer judgement
  2. Encourage wild ideas
  3. Build on the ideas of others
  4. Stay focused on the topic
  5. One conversation at a time
  6. Be visual
  7. Go for quantity

Some of the notes are features: “WIFI”, “Bluetooth”, “PERSONAL Profiles!”. Other stickies are more conceptual, or the “how” behind other stickies: “Hire coders”, “Partner with existing tablet creators”. Some of our mates are categorizing and connecting ideas as we go along. Everything is so fluid. During this process, I start learning how each of my new friends thinks. Those stickies and the conversations about them start to reveal personalities, and we fall naturally into our team roles.

Our mission, together, was to combine a couple of really interesting ideas that the team had collectively brainstormed and voted on. The PMS Recipe Card is a platform and ship specific set of digital maintenance instructions. PMS is planned similar to meal planning as it captures what tools, qualifications, hazardous materials, and training are necessary to carry out the plan. Our other idea, the Workcenter 3M Tablet, provides the ability to take these PMS Recipe cards anywhere in the ship, and even write and submit a job or feedback report.

Once we had the direction for our new concept, we dive into the room’s ‘arts and crafts’ section to get our ideas into the physical space. There were tables filled with large white papers, foamcore, glue guns and a table full of a crazy conglomerate of supplies (pipe cleaners, whiteboard markers, full-size candy bars… you get the idea).

Team Mavericks - having fun with Top Gun puns since 2015.

Team Mavericks – having fun with Top Gun puns since 2015.

Our team is now deep into prototyping. There is no better way to communicate a concept to our team with minimal investment. We can tear it apart, tweak it, or add on to it as soon as we see the need. I see some more guidance on the wall for this step in the process. Luckily I had some notes from a quick brainstorming and prototyping presentation by Dave Blakely from mach49 to remember the details:


  1. Building to think. Prototypes are tools used both to validate ideas and to help us generate them. Prototypes force us to think about how someone would interact with our concept.
  2. Rough & rapid. Prototypes are exploratory, not precious. They should be built as quickly and cheaply as possible.
  3. Answering questions. It’s essential to know what question a prototype is being used to answer: whether it’s around desirability, usefulness, usability, viability, or feasibility.
The prototyping toolbox.

The prototyping toolbox.

I drag a piece of foamcore the size of a picnic table over to our corner of the room. My friends are at the table of supplies, gathering markers, scissors, more stickies (because we understand the need at this point), and even manage to return with a handful of chocolate chip cookies. We are really clicking at this point. We cut out a foam-core tablet larger than the bed of a full-size pickup truck. There are so many concepts to visualize that we start drawing out “screen shots” on large pieces of white paper. With some help from the TANG facilitators, we realize we can rotate these white papers through our tablet frame to visualize to an audience.

Some of us want to add more detail, others realize the tight timeline we are on and move quickly to the next screen. Again, our personalities revealed, roles refined. We met each other 40 minutes ago and operate like a well-oiled machine.

Eventually, we would present our prototypes and concepts to the entire TANG audience and receive the invaluable live feedback through “I like” and “I wish” statements, questions, and concerns. Earlier in the writing I spoke about the three teams of warfighters. Well, there’s a fourth team of Stakeholders – the technology holder, sponsoring companies and those who want to and CAN create positive change – who will be giving feedback on our ideas and also sharing their own ideas to positively impact the future of 3M in the fleet. Our prototyping and presentation processes start to reveal who they are.

Another half hour later, and the room comes alive in theatrics as we rehearse our presentation. We feel confident about our prototype. It’s time to receive feedback and refine! At this point I recall my mind being expanded yet exhausted. I was fulfilled by the roller coaster of turning a collection of several hundred thoughts into something I could hold in my hand, complete with a rehearsed delivery by a cohesive team. And the most exciting part of this design thinking process, was that all of this preparation is to create something intentionally non-permanent – ready for alteration, destruction, further creation, all by design. It’s easy to iterate on something that’s a rough prototype – much easier than when we’ve already dumped millions of dollars into a solution BEFORE gaining the warfighter feedback. The tendency is to NOT change things then. I walked away from the event excited about the fluidity and fragility of our idea’s future.

When we finished our sharing session, with all the teams presenting their ideas to the crowd, the room was filled with an incredible energy. It was a good thing, too: Because we were about to do the whole process one more time!

I took with me the incredible lessons in a new approach to problem-solving. It brought me back to my undergraduate days when I had read about these processes occurring at IDEO and other forward-leaners. Being immersed in Design Thinking revitalized my sense of confidence in our ability to solve large and small scale challenges. I am passionately drawn to thinking about our underlying purpose at The Athena Project. This experience was a “how” that I believe our incredibly talented Sailors can and should be encouraged to utilize when approaching an increasingly dynamic set of challenges and future threats.

We can set our focus primarily toward innovations, solutions, and products, and I believe we will enjoy a few breakthroughs. OR, we can set our focus toward changing the way we think and approach our environment, and I believe we will enjoy both a culture of dynamic problem-solvers, AND a far greater byproduct of innovations, solutions, and products!

LTJG Tom Baker is the First Lieutenant and Public Affairs Officer onboard USS BENFOLD and the San Diego lead for The Athena Project. He’s a proud graduate of Oregon State University, earning his degree in Entrepreneurship.

Stay tuned for our official announcement of Waterfront Athena 8! If you’re in the Pacific Northwest and want to participate, reach out to the Athena team on Facebook, Twitter or e-mail!

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


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

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!