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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Sights Set On Symbiotic Solutions.

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By: LT Dave Nobles

I mentioned yesterday that I’ve always found relating business world concepts to the Navy to be challenging and rewarding. In fact, it’s 100% the primary driver of The Athena Project.

Several companies today have initiatives that encourage growth of their employees as people, harnessing the power of their human capital and riding that wave all the way to the shores of Awesometown. Companies like 3M, Google, IDEO, FedEx (and the list goes on and on) supercharge their ridiculously talented professionals through the concept of time off for intellectual development. What they find is that their employees are generally happier and more productive. Some corporations encourage their employees to study anything – Even if it doesn’t relate to the jobs they were hired for.

Athena strives to make that type of initiative for the Navy work. Too many of our hyper-intelligent Sailors are academically discouraged by the nature of their work.  It would be folly not to at least provide a channel in which they could unleash that dormant talent and brainpower. Just one lesson among many that the Navy can and should adopt from successful giants of industry.

That said, there is much that the business world can learn from the military as well. When I was studying for my MBA at Penn State, I participated in a great residency assignment that brought my entire cohort together to run a business simulation. We formed groups of about 10 and became companies competing in the perfume and aftershave industry. Over the course of the next week, we had four years’ worth of quarterly decision periods in which we steered the company in terms of financial leverage, marketing, pricing, quality assurance and a litany of other metrics.

I had the great fortune of being selected as Chief Executive Officer of one of the six groups of students in the simulation.  What I found during my time as “Team Alchemy” CEO was that the lion’s share of students who were in the group – brilliant people who had been working for quite some time in the business world – had never, EVER been led. And, many of them didn’t know how to lead, either.

It was at about this point that I realized the extent of my brainwashing, courtesy of the military. Leading is easy to me because of the great experience that I’ve had in the Navy. I immediately went into that mode and rounded up my team to perform to the best of their abilities.

Together, we built an open environment in the team where anyone could express their ideas and thoughts and work toward the end goal: Winning. We had fun, we gained a metric ton of knowledge about how competition really works, and… We won!

That little case study in leadership taught me that the corporate world has as much to learn from the military as we from it. There are countless lessons on leadership and management that can be distilled from the experience of servicemembers just as there are a bevy of productivity, human resources, project management, and innovation lessons that the services can glean from years of business experience.

At the Defense Entrepreneurship Forum this past weekend in Chicago, and on its blog, Esteban Castellanos, an Air Force reservist, presented the idea of short externships for promising leaders. A phenomenal idea, and a great way to educate our promising young leaders on business world concepts. There are also programs like the Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellowship Program that aim to do the same for senior leaders.

How do we give back, though? Certainly forums like LT Ben Kohlmann’s DEF that foster networking and relationships are an excellent medium. Another would be to host ideation sessions between businesses and military leaders. Perhaps a leadership retreat where groups of leaders in businesses and various military communities could share ideas and solve problems would be a path for mutual growth. The possibilities are endless, but the bridges need to be built.

Interaction between the business world and military has the potential to yield some positive results on both sides. How might we best cultivate that symbiotic relationship?

 

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Photo by FC2(SW) Shawn Truesdale

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