Defending Traditions or Encouraging Innovation – What’s a Chief To Do?

By: FCC(SW) Christopher Roberts


The Navy Chief has long been charged with defending tradition, ensuring procedural compliance, and having a coffee cup that has not been washed since the Gulf War. From muster, instruction, and inspection to the glorious sounds of a Bosun pipe to let you know when chow is ready, traditions are at every turn of shipboard life.  However, it seems that more and more technology, innovation, and creativity creeps into our daily routines. Bosun pipes are now being replaced by an MP3 audio recording available at the touch of a button, and port and starboard lookouts capabilities are enhanced with night vision goggles. Sounding tubes are now read electronically, and paper navigation charts are all but obsolete as the Voyage Management System has come to the forefront.

Sailors are changing too. Everyday, more Sailors are coming into the Navy with higher education and a profound level of expertise with technology such as smart phones and apps. Let’s face it: Us old guys sitting in the Goat Locker have to make a conscious effort to somewhat keep up with the new technology. We also find ourselves in an all-too-familiar “expectation management” role with young Sailors, as the whiz-bang gadgets we have on ships don’t exactly look like the whiz-bang gadgets you can purchase at Best Buy (or what you see in your typical Navy commercial). This can be a challenge.

While us old guys try to communicate with these “digital natives” on their terms – usually via text message – we also have to recognize that these young Sailors think differently too. Many of them come in the Navy looking for a way to make a difference. Looking to contribute to the organization. Looking for purpose. They’re not only tech savvy, they’re creative. Not only do we have to make an effort to learn about the tech, we should strive to speak their language too.

So where does the modern day Chief draw the line between defending tradition and encouraging innovation and creativity? I say we listen to our Sailors. For the longest time, the saying has been “a bitching Sailor is a happy Sailor”. Now, technology has changed so fast that our junior Sailors are not just complaining, but bringing up very valid points about the tools, gear and processes in the Navy that could be improved with a little innovation. Listening to our Sailors is nothing new. The Navy has always practiced some kind of Total Quality Leadership (TQL). But now more than ever it is important that we filter through our Sailors’ comments and try to differentiate between the normal gripes and ones that may lead to a better way of doing business.

If one of your Sailors came up to you and told you that they thought it would be nice if the cameras on the ship facing the ocean could automatically identify surface vessels based on their physical attributes. A grumpy old Chief might say “Yep… that would be nice, now go do sweepers and make sure your weekly boards are turned in”. Onboard the Benfold they say “you want to pitch that at Athena?” Good thing too, because the camera idea won and now a prototype is being built.

Innovation can take place anywhere - in this case, building a target to shoot!

Innovation can take place anywhere – in this case, building a target to shoot!

So where does a Chief draw the line between defending tradition and encouraging innovation? Why can’t innovation be the best tradition we ever protected? Maybe we’ve been protecting all along and just haven’t called it innovation.

If innovation is introducing new or novel solutions to problems, isn’t that what we do, as Chiefs, when our Sailors come to us with a problem? We listen, we think, then we do. We find ways to get the job done. We find unique solutions – sometimes repurposing existing items or realigning a group of Sailors – and we make it happen.

Typically we see it from the other side. Someone up the Chain of Command wants something crazy done and we do not have the right resources so we end up “making shit happen”.  Well, brothers: That’s innovation. And we should protect that tradition.

The guiding principles of the Chief Petty Officer say “I will strive to remain technically and tactfully proficient. All Sailors are entitled to outstanding leadership; I will provide that leadership. I know my people and will always place their needs above my own”. The Sailors of today’s Navy are some of the most creative since the Navy’s conception. As Chiefs, we need to treat our Sailors’ ideas like a campfire. And we shouldn’t treat it as a Class Alpha Fire – put it out, set the reflash watch, and secure – but instead fuel the fire of innovation and challenge our Sailors to make their ideas even better. If we the Chiefs embrace innovation and encourage our Sailors to improve the Navy, I wonder what the Navy will look like when they are in the Chiefs Mess.

FCC(SW) Christopher Roberts is Training Department Leading Chief Petty Officer onboard USS BENFOLD (DDG 65). He is also the ship’s MWR Chief and has initiated several innovative shipboard procedures to improve Energy Conservation.

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

By: LT Dave Nobles


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.


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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ATHENA Project Showcase: Illumination


For surface ships in the U.S. Navy, day-to-day operations can sometimes feel like a cavalcade of inspections, assist visits and assessments across a growing spectrum of warfare areas, programs and processes. Many of these assessments are conducted by different organizations, and in typical Navy fashion, the requirements for each are contained in a handy checksheet.

Unfortunately, because each inspection is independent of the others, the checksheets will often contain redundant (or even worse, contradictory) guidance.

LTJG Kaitlin O’Donnell aimed to improve this process with her Athena pitch for a program called Illumination.

LTJG O’Donnell, the Training Officer onboard USS BENFOLD, proposed the formation of a small functional team whose charge would be to consolidate the requirements found in each checksheet into a single, usable document for each warfare area.

Time to knock out those ASA Checksheets!

Time to knock out those ASA Checksheets!

The Illumination Team, while incorporating all requisite guidance into a “one-stop shop,” would also provide program managers with an in-depth local assessment of each area of cognizance prior to any off-ship inspection.

The schedule for the local assessments would be overlaid atop the ship’s schedule through the training cycle. Each area that the ship was responsible for would be scrutinized in depth prior to an assessment, while leaving adequate time to correct deficiencies prior to “game day.”

“It’s a tall order to stay ahead of all these inspections. There are just so many of them!” LTJG O’Donnell said. “Basically, we’re just trying to work smarter and not harder.”

LTJG O’Donnell drafted a command instruction governing the Illumination program, and hopes to implement it onboard BENFOLD prior to commencement of the ship’s training cycle. BENFOLD is presently moored at BAE Systems Shipyard in San Diego undergoing a complex combat systems upgrade to Advanced Capability Build 12.

LTJG O’Donnell said that her goal in the long-term is to create consolidated checksheets for every warfare area over the next year and to share those functional documents with other Guided Missile Destroyers that would eventually have to traverse the guantlet of inspections in preparation for a deployment.

“If we can make it easier to ensure that we’re at our top readiness by consolidating requirements, then we would have more time to focus on training and operating,” LTJG O’Donnell said.


You can like Athena on Facebook: or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy.

Work, Basketball and the Manager With A Dream.


By: LT Clarence Harris

Marshay Gorman was the manager of my high school basketball team. I know what you’re thinking: Why is a former Naval Academy fullback babbling about the manager of my high school basketball squad in this innovation blog? Well, I’ll tell you…

Marshay handled all the team’s equipment during my freshman and sophomore years. Coach would always fuss about him shooting during the Junior Varsity and Varsity practices. He also had a tendency to dribble the ball at the most inopportune times and regularly got an earful of Coach as a result. Marshay loved the game, though. Inside that manager was a vision of greatness.

Day in and day out for two years Marshay would dribble and shoot hours before the team hit the court and he’d do it again hours after the late practices were over. Before and after games he practiced his tail off and continued to dream of becoming a part of the team and proving not only to himself but to everyone that believed and him that he could do it.

Greatness doesn’t come easy and making something happen against heavy odds is even harder. But then there was Marshay. During tryouts at the beginning of our junior season, the once-manager hit the court and shocked everyone. He had some serious game.  The coaches saw it too and Marshay made the team. Even though he was fighting for an already-taken position, he become a starter quickly and went on to become the conference’s leading scorer. It was awesome to see all of his desire and determination come to life before all of our eyes.

We all often reflected on the vision that he had and the drive that he possessed to get to that point. He was humble and determined to make a positive contribution to our team and make us better than we were without him. We all know what he had gone through to get to this point and welcomed him with open arms. All those nonbelievers became believers and rooted him…US on!

Marshay was hungry. He not only had the desire to, but knew that he could help our basketball team in winning and becoming better as a whole. He know that he would have to work when others were resting he know that it would not be easy. He knew that if he simply told our coach that he wanted to play on the team and contribute that the coach wouldn’t entertain the idea. The guy had dreams. Dreaming about hitting that game winner was easy for Marshay – he loved the game of basketball.

What he had to do was do.  And doing isn’t always easy.  It’s work.

Ok, so what does any of this have to do with innovation, The Athena Project, or making our organization better? If you ask me I will quickly tell you that there are a lot of Marshay Gormans amongst us. People who have the dream, the vision, and are willing to put in the work to make a contribution to our Navy team. To make a change for the better.

The tough part about it is that we can’t forget that this change may not happen in a week, a month or even a year. But we can’t give up. Having a vision is one thing, but putting in the work to make it happen is something else altogether. Sometimes things get rough, but we have to continue to believe in our ideas and not be deterred by any naysayers. We have to ‘Marshay Up’ – Work Hard. Work Late. Work Before. Work After. Do whatever it takes to make your vision come to life. Your contribution is needed and welcomed. And you will be backed up by everyone that understands the time, energy, and focus is essential to making a change for the better. And you to will be rooted on to the finish.

You just have to pick up the ball and start dribbling.

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LT Harris is a Surface Warfare Officer assigned to USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) as Combat Systems Officer.


To Innovation and Beyond… How We Started.


By: LT Dave Nobles

It all started in Happy Valley.

Before reporting to the Mighty Warship, USS BENFOLD (DDG 65), I taught college students at the Naval ROTC unit at Penn State. While I was shaping those young minds I shaped my own, earning an MBA while stationed in State College.

The most interesting thing about getting a degree like that while still in the military was that I was shoulder to shoulder with classmates who had been working in Corporate America for some time. Many of the concepts from the coursework were easily relatable for them, while I had to rack my brain thinking about how to apply business concepts to my experience in the Fleet.

While on my feverish quest of concept correlation, I stumbled upon the work of Dan Pink in his book Drive. Mr. Pink also has a great TED talk that the folks at RSA Animate turned into a whiteboard video that has garnered 11 million views on YouTube.

I was fascinated with the motivation stuff, and started thinking about how I could apply those concepts to my department head tour once I circulated out of Central Pennsylvania and back into a fleet concentration area.

When I reported to BENFOLD, I was pleasantly surprised to find a chain of command that supported the implementation of innovative concepts.

Wait… What? So, there are commands out there in the Surface Navy that actually encourage disruptive thinking?

Not one to miss an opportunity, and fueled by the stories that Mr. Pink recounted at TED about the Australian IT firm Atlassian, I proposed to the Captain that we give all the Junior Officers the day off.

He looked at me and raised an eyebrow.

Before he kicked me out of his cabin, I quickly explained myself.

The reason I wanted them to have the day off was so they could pursue whatever big, hairy audacious idea they had to make BENFOLD, the San Diego Waterfront, or the “Big Navy” better.

He eased back in his chair.

I called the concept I proposed “WikiWardroom.” I was totally making it up as I went along, and though I thought the name was clever, hindsight reveals otherwise.

The Captain let me pitch the concept to the wardroom, and it was well received. You get the day off from your work to pursue any idea to fix a problem. The only price you pay for the day off is a five-minute presentation at an off-ship, casual location on the Friday that follows the Tuesday “day off.”

If there’s anything that sailors do extraordinarily well, it’s gripe. The event, I told the Captain, would not only harness that innate ability, but also unleash the intellectual horsepower from our Junior Officers that’s typically dormant in their daily grind.

I was riddled with a crazy anxiety that I’d never felt before as I wondered if the JOs that we gave the day off would actually bring good ideas to the table for the event. I had absolutely no control and it drove me crazy. I hoped that they would bring the kind of ideas and solutions that I knew they were capable of. They did want this, right? They did want to try to make change in the often-stodgy bureaucracy, right?

Turns out, I was <thankfully> right. The wardroom dug the first-ever event, hosted at Basic Pizza in Downtown San Diego. We had some excellent food, great cocktails and had an awesome time as we listened to and gave presentations.

In true fashion of ‘making it up as we go,’ after the first presentation, we noticed that the group writ large really wanted to give feedback. So, we instituted a five-minute Q&A session that followed the five-minute, powerpoint-free presentation.

Success. We ended the first event and patted each other on the back for the exercise and ideas that came from it. And, it would seem that we were on to something. We were thinking and we were having fun! It was great.

I sold the first “WikiWardroom” as a quarterly affair, and in the meantime, I was brought to my senses that the name was god-awful and so birthed the name “The Athena Project.”  Fitting, because not only is Athena is the Greek goddess of inspiration, wisdom and the arts, but in legend she was also a shrewd companion of heroes on epic endeavors. And, if anyone’s ever tried to make change in such a large organization, they can attest that it most certainly is an endeavor of epic proportions.

As we were beginning to plan the next event, ships began reaching out to BENFOLD about The Athena Project and I went aboard several ships to talk to their wardrooms about it. It seemed that my wardroom wasn’t alone, and that Sailors actually wanted a voice! Go figure!

For the second event (which we held on the rooftop of one of our young ensign’s apartment complex) we had Sailors from six different ships, the Commander of Naval Surface Force’s training shop as well as a couple researchers at the University of Southern California’s Institute of Creative Technologies in attendance. It seemed that the idea was starting to grow. Great ideas flowed out of that event, and again – it was fun!

The strength of the second event earned me the privilege to fly out to Norfolk and present the concept at Naval Warfare Development Command’s IdeaFest. Further, I was selected for the Chief of Naval Operations’ Rapid Innovation Cell – a small group of innovators whose charge is “To empower and enable emerging Naval leaders to rapidly create, develop and implement disruptive solutions that tackle warfighter needs while advocating for, and inspiring, deckplate innovation throughout the Fleet.”

The Athena Project itself is not an innovation, the ideas that come from it are. Athena is akin to methods that the business world has been using for years! Honestly, I believe that it shows how much the Navy has to gain from corporate processes that unleash the intellectual curiosity of employees and encourage outside-of-the-box thinking.

Athena is moving forward under that tack. Perhaps The Athena Project won’t find the cure to cancer or develop the next great strike aircraft or change Coke to Pepsi. However, the one thing that Athena will do for sure is create a cadre of junior Sailors and young officers that think differently, have the intellectual firepower to pursue difficult problems and the courage to stand up and say something about it.

And isn’t that what the Navy needs? Isn’t that what any company needs? A stable of intrapreneurs laser-focused on being better?

We’ll find out at next month’s first-ever Waterfront Athena Project, hosted at the Modern Times Brewery in San Diego.

A bit of a long introduction to this blog, I know, but I’ll be using it to post success stories from previous Athena events, and general musings about innovation in the Navy.

Enjoy and welcome.

You can like Athena on Facebook: or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy.

LT Nobles is a Surface Warfare Officer assigned to USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) as Weapons Officer.