Don’t Force It

By: LT Dave Nobles


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.

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ATHENA Project Showcase: SWO Service Obligations


In arguably our most controversial project, LTJG James Martin and LTJG Solomon Lu took the crowd’s breath away when they proposed increasing initial Surface Warfare Officer (SWO) obligated service time from five years to ten years.

Before the SWOs in the room at Basic Pizza in San Diego could revolt, the two young officers explained their reasoning.

They argued that, since each year the Surface Warfare community has over 800 accessions, aiming to create approximately 300 Department Heads. They went on to opine that the SWO community was  the dumping ground for low performers, the vast majority of which leave the Navy after their 5 year service obligation.

To fix their identified problem, they proposed the consolidation of Division Officer jobs onboard surface ships from around 21 to around 11. They pitched a three-step plan of action to achieve this goal:

  1. Pass legislation to increase service obligations for SWOs to 10 years or the completion of 2 Department Head tours. Since Congress has enacted 10 USC § 6959, it will require new legislation from Congress to extend SWO service obligation, just as they did in 1989 to extend Pilot/NFO service obligations (10 USC §653).
  2. Reduce the number of accessions into Surface community to match the number of needed Department Heads, factoring in some attrition. Selection can then be much more rigorous, instituting standards that make Surface Warfare the most competitive community in the Navy.
  3. Institute billet specific training for all Division Officers.

Along with these steps, the young officers proposed reducing Naval Academy class sizes, potentially saving tens of millions of dollars every year.


LTJG Solomon Lu and LTJG James Martin defend their idea to the interested Athenians

With some quick math, LTJG Martin and LTJG Lu calculated a savings of $1.7B over 10 years under this plan, factoring in the approximate cost of training an officer and cost savings from the salaries of officers that would not have to be paid.

Their pitch theorized that the reduction of officers and consolidation of jobs would build a more proficient and focused cadre of officers in the surface fleet.

“Restructuring the Surface Warfare Officer detailing process would both save money and make more a more streamlined and effective Officer Corps,” LTJG Martin said. “It’s widely recognized that we have twice as many Division Officers as needed in order to fill the quotas for Department Head. The only result is less satisfaction with jobs that have little clear responsibility leading to higher attrition, exacerbating, rather then solving our shortage of Department Heads.”

LTJG Martin and LTJG Lu are currently developing their proposal into a white paper for publication.


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