Big Ideas Live In Unlikely Places – 5 Tips For Cross-Pollination

By: Dave NoblesBee-Insect-Robots-For-Cross-Pollination-14

In 1913, the Ford Motor Company introduced a revolutionary innovation that changed the shape of the automotive industry forever – the moving assembly belt. The innovation helped Ford produce more of it’s Model T, which was sweeping the nation at the time, transforming the automobile from a novel curiosity to an accessible tool that would change the world.

While the great innovator and businessman Henry Ford is credited with this innovation, the true source of this great innovation was from an entirely different domain – the meat packing industry.

An early assembly line at Ford, courtesy ford.com

An early assembly line at Ford, courtesy ford.com

Ford, and more appropriately Ford’s brilliant team of engineers that did the majority of the design work for the auto manufacturer’s Detroit plant, looked to slaughterhouse practices used in Chicago in the late 19th Century for inspiration in an industry that had little more to do with meat than driving it to the market. Despite that fact, Ford’s team had the wisdom to keep their minds open to finding ideas in unlikely places. The team’s open-mindedness led to revolutionary changes that have impacted the lives of everyone on the planet to this day.

That’s the power of cross-pollination.

Cross-pollination is the discovery of new ideas and unique solutions to challenges through inspiration from unlikely sources. That source could be anything from exploring a new hobby that inspires a change in your frame of reference to the application of a new or interesting product to a problem you are facing. Or you could simply consider a diverse viewpoint from someone who thinks a little different than you.

Kelley's book is a great resource for building innovative teams and solving tough challenges.

Kelley’s book is a great resource for building innovative teams and solving tough challenges.

Many books, blogs and articles have discussed the benefits of cross pollination and recombinant innovation. Most notably, in the 10 Faces Of Innovation, Tom Kelley says that cross-pollinators (one of the titular 10 faces) have an uncanny ability to stir up new and interesting ideas by looking broader, into unexpected worlds that may not even seem relevant to the problem you may be facing. While that may sounds like one would need a particular set of skills, a la Liam Neeson in Taken, but truthfully anyone can be a cross-pollinator.

I have a very particular set of skills. I will find you, and I will innovate.

I have a very particular set of skills. I will find you, and I will innovate.

Case studies on cross pollination and recombinant innovation are everywhere – In the video rental industry, Redbox gained a competitive advantage through harvesting inspiration from vending machines and their closest competitor, Netflix, leveraged inspiration from the Postal Service after CEO Reed Hastings was frustrated by paying a $40 late fee to a traditional video rental provider.

In the Navy, look no further than the Tactical Advancements for the Next Generation (TANG) team, who hosted a design thinking event in San Diego recently that Tom Baker talked about on this blog. An idea emerged from an early event that the team hosted to replace the $128,000 joystick submariners use to control periscopes with an intuitive (and cheap) $28 Xbox controller. That concept has made its way onto new Virginia Class submarines and even earned an excellent hashtag at a Fast Company conference in San Francisco last year – #SuperMarioSubmarine.

We’ve also had many examples of cross-pollination in some of our past Athena pitches. The Environmental Acoustic Recognition System (EARS), Rob McClenning’s winning idea from Athena Two, was an conceived by looking at Army technologies; and Bill Hughes’ celestial navigation system proposal CosmoGator was devised after downloading a Star Finder app for iPhone – just to name a few.

LT Bill Huges pitching CosmoGator at Athena 3. He started the pitch by holding his iPhone in the air and asking "if I can automate celestial navigation on this, why not on my ship?"

LT Bill Huges pitching CosmoGator at Athena 3. He started the pitch by holding his iPhone in the air and asking “if I can automate celestial navigation on this, why not on my ship?”

While cross-pollination is a great skill that can yield some great ideas, some of us may not know where to start. There are actually loads of ways that you can bring the benefits of cross-pollination and recombinant innovation into your daily routine. Here are some ways that you can become a cross-pollinator at your job:

Be Engaged – A critical prerequisite to cross-pollination is starting with the right mindset. To truly remove your internal governor and enable the benefits of cross-pollination into your routine full throttle, you have to be engaged and observant. If you’re not engaged in your current surroundings, and observing the small nuances in the way things work, then you may miss an opportunity to affect positive change.

Spark Your Intellectual Curiosity – A genuine desire to learn about new things would be another prerequisite. If you don’t have an inherent curiosity to learn new things, then the rest of the tips below, and cross-pollination in general, may not make sense or even appeal to you. To be able to take new concepts onboard and apply them when the time is right, then your desire to learn must be genuine.

Use Metaphors – Allowing different perspectives, or describing things in a different way can enable viewing a problem from a different angle, which could bring with it some unlikely and powerful solutions. In the past few months on design thinking projects that I’ve worked here at Johns Hopkins APL, I’ve likened technical leadership paths to Dungeons and Dragons and personnel evaluations to the popular Madden series of sports video games. While those ideas certainly were not the answer, they sparked a discussion and eventual solutions that the group may not have considered using traditional descriptors. Try it in your everyday ideation – you may be surprised by what you and your team come up with!

Yoda says use metaphors

Yoda says use metaphors

Stretch Your Aperture – Being open to new experiences and schools of thought is key. An easy way to achieve a wider perspective is by simply using some of the social media tools widely available right now. Twitter is great because you can customize your own feed. Start by following some different accounts – adding a few artists, marine biologists, or toy manufacturers to your list might cause something unexpected to pop onto your feed as you’re scrolling and may ignite an a-ha! moment for you. Taking that a bold step further, try joining an interest group that you know nothing about. Sign up for a class – from improv to crocheting to coding – learning a new skill will introduce you to new perspectives as well as new people. And if all else fails, talk to a stranger while you’re waiting in line at Starbucks. You never know what you might learn.

Ideate And Share – While your big idea is in its formative stages, share it out early. Pull together a diverse group and capitalize on the diversity of thought it provides. The military is renowned for having members from all over the country and even the world working side by side. With every different individual background comes a different and fresh perspective that could propel the development of a solution that you would have never thought of on your own.

In our daily jobs, we can all have tendencies to keep our heads down and operate only within our bubbles to solve everyday challenges. There certainly are problems that we can face and solve by only seeking inspiration within our immediate surroundings. In fact, this is an appropriate method for specific problems that may only have a few specialized solutions. However, if we rely solely upon our personal work silos for inspiration, we could find ourselves solving problems that don’t need to be solved.

So, how might you harness the power of inspiration from unlikely sources? What challenge might you solve by looking in unexpected places? What new idea might you cook up by cross-pollinating from an unrelated field?

If you try it, you might be surprised what you find.

 

Dave Nobles is a member of the Design Thinking Corps at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and the founder of The Athena Project.

In the San Diego or Norfolk areas? Well, join us for Athena 8 in San Diego on August 28th and Athena East 2.0 in Norfolk in October! Have an idea you want to present? Message us!

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

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Design Thinking! The Experience of 3M TANG

By: LTJG Tom Baker

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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.

THE 7 RULES OF EFFECTIVE BRAINSTORMING

  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:

PROTOTYPING

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

TANG – Innovation in the Big Leagues

By: LT Dave Nobles

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Last week, I was honored to attend Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored 2014 in San Francisco to share the story of Military Innovation with a broader audience.

The magazine invited the team from Tactical Advancements for the Next Generation (TANG), to present to a room full of forward thinkers from Silicon Valley and beyond who learned that the Navy not only has an appetite for fresh ideas and creative solutions to complex problems, but that there are movements afoot that are turning those ideas into action. Fittingly, the event was on Veteran’s Day and the conference center at San Francisco’s Metreon was filled with energy and excitement for TANG.

TANG is an initiative that brings together warfighters, decision makers and engineers to tackle problems using design thinking tools. Since 2011, Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) has worked together with the international innovation consultancy and design firm IDEO and the Program Executive Office for Integrated Warfare Systems to gain operator insight and transition cutting-edge programs rapidly to the Fleet. One of the amazing things that TANG brings to the table is speed – The team is able to swiftly move from Post-It Notes and a foam-core design at a workshop to a working prototype in a matter of months, and more importantly from a prototype to a functional system onto a Navy platform in less than two years. Lightning speed, in terms of the current acquisitions pipelines in the Department of Defense.

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STG1 Rory Satink negotiating a foamcore periscope at the TANG booth.

Through several events, chiefly focused in Anti-Submarine Warfare both on Submarines and Surface Ships, the initiative is beginning to gain traction in many other fields of the Navy. During the San Francisco visit for the conference, the TANG team was able to sneak away to IDEO’s Palo Alto offices to discuss what topics upcoming workshops will attack with Design Thinking and Creative Confidence. More to come on that.

No trip to the Bay Area is complete without dropping by to hang with the gang at IDEO - Big things coming in the future!

No trip to the Bay Area is complete without dropping by to hang with the gang at IDEO – Big things coming in the future!

Beyond the interest and respect that the initiative has gained within the Fleet, the invitation to present the TANG story alongside other top-tier innovative minds like Disney’s Ed Catmull, Lyft CEO John Zimmer and Samsung’s Vice President and Head of Design Dennis Miloseski marks a validation of the innovative work that the team has accomplished in the epicenter of corporate innovation, Silicon Valley.

The director of TANG, Johns Hopkins APL’s Josh Smith, in a conversation on stage with Fast Company’s Chuck Salter, talked about some of the initiatives TANG has put into play already on Submarines, like replacing a bulky $128K joystick for periscope control with an Xbox controller.

“These Sailors have great ideas and they want to make things better,” Smith said. “We give them the tools to unleash their creativity and watch the magic happen.”

Those tools are the unique brainstorming rules developed by IDEO that the team employs at every TANG workshop, bringing Sailors from all over the Fleet together to generate powerful new concepts for the warfighter. A couple of those ideas: Defer Judgement and Encourage Wild Ideas, are what allows a concept like bringing a video game controller into a real-world tactical environment to blossom and become a reality.

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Post-It Notes: The Design Thinking calling card.

And that’s just part of the overall value proposition for harnessing operators’ ideas. Smith envisioned partnerships that leverage the extensive amount of R&D funds major corporations invest in new technologies and connecting operators’ insights to develop intuitive and effective systems that increase warfighting efficiency.

While the TANG story is a compelling one, there are numerous projects afoot in the Department of Defense, including the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (and extended network, CRIC[x]), the Defense Entrepreneurship Forum and of course The Athena Project, the “Milicon Valley” movement doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. Especially in the wake of the recent announcement by Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work that a new DoD Innovation Initiative would be announced within the week. You can read more about that here.

One thing is for sure: There’s a lot of energy out there to try to make things better across the Navy and the DoD. Imagine what we could do when we’re all pushing in the same direction!

Whatever the future may hold for innovation in the military, it’s safe to say that TANG will be a big part of it. Post-It Notes and all.

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

Swinging Level – How Baseball Can Inspire Innovation

By: LT Dave Nobles

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Growing up, I played a lot of baseball. While I was certainly no child prodigy, I wasn’t half bad either.

Like every Little Leaguer, I desperately wanted to knock the casing off the ball, a la Roy Hobbes in The Natural.  So, like most kids in Little League, I’d swing about as hard as I could, trying to uppercut the ball right out of the ballpark.

And, I usually missed.

Not to be discouraged, I practiced.  I took hours upon hours of batting practice, and I worked hard to get my swing right.  One thing that sticks out in my head about those hours at the ballpark was something that my Dad told me as he pitched me buckets upon buckets of baseballs, likely doing permanent damage to his pitching arm:

Just swing level, and the power will come.

So I did, and I actually got pretty good. I was consistently making solid contact and before long I was comfortable in the batter’s box and was spraying line-drive base hits all over the field.

But, I wasn’t hitting any home runs. Sadly, I wasn’t blasting baseballs into the lights, creating explosions and raining sparks onto the field as I trotted triumphantly around the bases as I had hoped. But, I was doing very well for the team and I was having fun.

Then it happened. With a level swing, I crushed a ball in a game further than I ever had, straight out of the park.

The Old Man was right: Swing level and the power will come. And it did.

Now maybe it’s just because baseball season is upon us and it makes me feel a little nostalgic, but I was reminded of this story as I considered the Navy’s relentless (and often misguided) pursuit of innovation.

Now, let the record show that I do not think that innovation is a false pursuit. I wouldn’t be on the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell if I did. Calling innovation a fruitless goal is like saying Home Runs are a bad thing. Home Runs are always good, provided you’re on the team that’s hitting them!

Rather, if we want more innovation, perhaps we should pursue and inspire creativity. Just as if we want the long ball, we should take the time to coach fundamental baseball to our young players. If we want our folks to innovate, we need to teach the tools necessary to realize that goal, rather than preaching the goal.  Maybe pursuing innovation as an end state is the same thing as taking that big, hacking, hard-as-you-can uppercut swing when you’re at the plate.

If what we really want is more innovation, then perhaps we should advocate creativity in thought. Maybe we should make training more effective by injecting a dose of creativity.

Maybe we could inspire a new generation of creative sailors by using tools like General Military Training (GMT) as a vehicle to provide exercises to managers that encourage Sailors to think differently and hone an ability to connect dots.

Sure “Creativity GMT” is a pretty lofty goal that would likely take some time to implement. In the meantime, there’s no reason that we can’t apply some of the myriad tools easily found online to the training regimens for our respective divisions, departments and commands.

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What are you doing building spaghetti towers?!?! Get back to work!

Here are just a few of the awesome websites out there that can spark the creativity training process:

Stanford University d.school: Here you can grab a boatload of guidance on the brainstorming process, including tools for facilitation. While you’re there, check out the virtual crash course in design thinking!

Mind Tools: A site dedicated to honing ideation tools for businesses, there are tons of exercises here that you could use to spark a great session within your work group.

Marshmallow Challenge: Here’s a specific exercise that you can equip yourself for in the grocery aisle, aimed at bringing teams together.

Creative Confidence: A book by Tom and David Kelley of IDEO, the matching website gives a page full of tools to learn design thinking.

Creative Thinking: The Web’s repository for brainstorming books, techniques and exercises. This site could populate your training plan for a year.

And those are just the tip of the iceberg. Google is your friend when trying to find some fun exercises that can train the brain to not only think outside the box, but to rip the old one down and build a new, bigger box.

By unlocking the latent creativity within our Sailors, especially our junior Sailors who may have joined the Navy looking to be inspired, we drastically widen the innovation aperture. And, like a muscle, exercising that creativity will only strengthen it, leading to some great things.

Maybe doing that d.school crash course on reimagining the gift giving experience will be all the inspiration needed for a Sailor to start believing in their own creative abilities and looking for ways to make things better. Then, the next time that Sailor sees a problem, rather than becoming frustrated, they’ll craft a creative solution and make the Navy better.

Make no mistake: The Navy is 100% a People Business and those people are our greatest asset. By empowering our people to be intellectually curious, we might spur even more participation in so many of the great groups that are trying to grow the creative culture within the Navy, like CRIC[x], TANG, DEF[x], CIMSEC and, of course, The Athena Project.

One of the goals of Athena has always been to inspire a cadre of young officers and junior Sailors to think differently, relentlessly question the status quo and not be afraid to do something about it.

Let’s get creative and keep growing the wave!

 

Dave Nobles is the Combat Systems Officer onboard the Ballistic Missile Defense Guided Missile Destroyer, USS BENFOLD (DDG 65). He is also a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell.

Interested in presenting an idea at the next Waterfront Athena Event, May 30th at Societe Brewing Company in Clairemont Mesa? Message us on Facebook or Twitter @AthenaNavy. Do you hate social media? Send us an e-mail instead!: ATHENA@ddg65.navy.mil.

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Societe Brewing: Home base for Waterfront Athena Five!

 

 

Design-Thinking A Path To Improved Warfighting

By: LT Dave Nobles

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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! 

 

 

Our 3 Innovation Resolutions

By: LT Dave Nobles

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The new year is upon us, which means it’s the time for resolutions.

2013 was an awesome year for not only The Athena Project, but also for the growing culture of creativity within our Navy. But, just like anything, we can ALWAYS get better. The new year is a great opportunity to reflect and find those spots where we can improve upon ourselves.

At Athena, we’ve identified three innovation resolutions that may help us to get better. What good is a resolution, though, without a means to test it, right? That’s why we’re going to be throwing down on our Second-Ever Waterfront Athena Project in February. More to follow on that.

So, here you are: Our 3 Innovation Resolutions for a more creative 2014:

1. Take the time to THINK! – I often hear from people that they “don’t have time.” Now, whether that’s with regard to innovation, participating in The Athena Project or working to make something – anything – better, that mindset is just plain wrong.

The first step of any innovative process or creativity writ large is ideation. And, contrary to popular belief, ideation is not a time sump.

There are loads of small opportunities in the course of our everyday routines wherein we can apply a little brain power to think of new and/or novel ideas to make things better. A long run (or the shower that follows), the 5 minute “snooze” period when you’re waking up, the long drive home, or even just closing your internet browser or Microsoft Outlook window at your desk for a few minutes are a few primo examples of thinkspace that we can steal away from our busy days. It does take a little commitment to free our minds of the daily toils to “think big thoughts,” but these five-minute clips will hardly derail your entire day.

So, we’re resolving to take those little chunks of time to think. Who knows, you might think of something really great! (Just be sure to write it down!)

2. Share your ideas! – The great part about the Navy is our diversity. Within our ranks we have an abundance of different experiences, upbringings, educational backgrounds and, of course, sea stories that, when combined, broaden all of our horizons. As a result of that diversity, there are so many varying points of view that you’ll get if you share your thoughts with other people.

So, all that big thinking you’ve done with your carved out time blocks? Talk to people about it! One of the things that we’ve found is incredibly valuable is building a small team of creative folks with different backgrounds in which you can freely share your thoughts without judgement.

Do you have an idea for a mobile application? Find someone with app-building experience and talk about your idea with them? Do you have a fix to an administrative process? Talk to a yeoman about whether or not it would be useful. If you talk to others, you never know where you may find the perspective you’ve been looking for – and it might lead to a breakthrough for your idea.

3. Do! – We’re beginning to get very good at talking about our ideas, but as we often hear: Execution is the new innovation. Even one of our favorite destinations for creative inspiration, TED, is under blogger fire for talking too much and doing too little.

Though several of our Athena Projects are currently being worked feverishly at various levels, we can always do better. So, this year, we’re resolving to execute. And then execute some more. And then keep on executing.

As Anatole France famously said, “To accomplish great things we must dream as well as act.” Certainly, a quick Google search would likely yield a litany of similar quotes from many of history’s big, philosophical brains. So, we’re accepting that challenge and we hope you will too.

Of course, this is always the tough part. But, there are more resources than ever to prototype ideas (not to mention IDEO and the TANG Forum’s favorite tools: Foamcore and construction paper!) and the quicker you can showcase the thought that’s in your mind, is the quicker you can perfect its design. Be first to the whiteboard this year: Get your ideas out there and then DO something about them!

To use a term that one of BENFOLD’s phenomenal Senior Chiefs often says: Don’t put execution in the “too-hard pile.”

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Waterfront Athena is coming this February! Are you?

So, that’s what’s on our minds as we hit the 2014 waypoint. With February’s Waterfront Athena Project right around the corner, we’ll see how many of you feel the same way!

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.

You can like Athena on Facebook: www.facebook.com/athenanavy or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy. Interested in starting a movement of your own? Message us, or e-mail ATHENA@ddg65.navy.mil!

Three Keys to Building a Culture of Creativity and Innovation in the Navy

By: LT Dave Nobles

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Spoiler alert: They’re books.

In the time that I’ve been a part of The Athena Project, I’ve noticed something about the Navy that’s been pretty inspirational. It’s something that I’ve talked about quite a bit on this blog and something that I’ve seen in my short time as a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) as well. There are pockets in this organization that are motivated to spread and cultivate a culture of creativity and innovation. It’s not just the Navy either, it’s a theme across all the services and in many of the places where civilians and government employees support the litany of missions out there.

These little pockets of hope can manifest themselves in the form of organizations like the Defense Entrepreneurship Forum (DEF), the Innovator’s Initiative (I2) at the Naval Academy as well as Athena and CRIC, but they’re also brewing at nearly every command out there. There are groups of innovators, intrapreneurs, disruptive thinkers committed to bringing about a change in culture within our organization. The culture of creativity, where all opinions are valued, where design thinking is king and where failure is not a career-killer.

So, how might we connect those dots and make the culture go viral?

I feel like I’ve been on a bit of a hot streak lately in terms of books, and a few that I’ve read lately and some old classics might hold the key, when we consider the lessons they teach us together. I feel like there’s a sequential order in those lessons, but all three are key to spreading a culture of innovation:

1. Creative Confidence by Tom and David Kelley. 

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This book is the new bible of innovative thought, by two brothers with a boatload of street cred: Founders of the innovation design firm IDEO as well as the Design School at Stanford University. What the Kelley Brothers teach us in this book is that there’s inherent creativity within each of us, but the decision to harness that is a conscious one that each individual has to make on their own. Further, they speak to the power of design thinking and creativity as a natural process through a series of stories and examples. Some specific examples in the book, at corporations like Intuit and 3M, even have a similar look and feel to The Athena Project!

The book is also full of creativity exercises that zealous creative explorers might use to brew the innovative mindset in their organizations. The exercises are great tools that we can use to spread the culture and identify those who have made that important decision to be creative. Those that choose to strive toward making things better.

Not only does this book help us find out who we are and can be on a personal level, but also what our organizations are and could be at a much higher level. It’s a tremendous read and essential to help shine a light on who the innovation movers are – for those who seek their partnership and to those who seek to find the spirit within themselves.

2. Good To Great by Jim Collins.

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By most accounts, this book is a modern classic on how to build organizations that transcend success into greatness, a peak that few companies ever reach. The reason why this book is second on the path to building and spreading the culture of creativity in the Navy is that it preaches identification of the right people before careening toward the goal.

One of the main points that Collins hammers home in the book: First who, then what. It’s important to put the right people in the right seats on the bus often times before setting the final destination. While the corporate examples mentioned have different constraints and capabilities than we do in the military with regard to recruiting and retaining talent, the message and its relation to our cause is clear.

The book does have its criticisms, however. It’s dated, and of the companies referenced throughout the course of the book many have continued to sustain great performance, including Kimberly Clark, Walgreens and Wells Fargo, while others identified, like Circuit City and Fannie Mae have not. Nonetheless, the points regarding harnessing the human capital first and setting a clear vision for the organization are enduring and provide a sound lesson for a culture shift.

First who, then what. Identify the creative explorers, and then spread the culture.

3. Contagious by Jonah Berger.

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Which brings us to ideas worth spreading, which is precisely the sermon that Wharton professor Jonah Berger gives throughout the course of his book. Another relatively recent publication, Contagious differs from book-club-favorite, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell in many respects. While Gladwell focuses primarily on the personality types required to make a message, style or idea spread, Berger focuses on the content of the message or idea and gives a checklist for success. In fact, on his web site, Berger provides worksheets that help the development of the idea that goes viral.

Berger gives us the ingredients that make a viral message In his STEPPS, an acronym for Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value and Story. Now, while each message need not have all of those ingredients in the final dish, the more that are baked in, the better it will taste.

So, I propose this trilogy of books as our roadmap for spreading the innovative culture. We identify and cherish the creative volunteers, put them in the right seats, and build a message that we all want to share. If you’ve read any of these and have feedback to offer to those that want to pursue this vision, please leave it below. Otherwise, I ask that you give these three a try, and leave your thoughts below.

Let’s work together to build the culture that we want. Let’s turn those pockets of innovative thought within our organization into a movement, and make the Navy what we want it to be.

Here’s to the dreamers, the doers, the thinkers and the movers: All engines ahead flank.

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.

You can like Athena on Facebook: www.facebook.com/athenanavy or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy. Interested in starting a movement of your own? Message us!

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?

 

You can like Athena on Facebook: www.facebook.com/athenanavy or follow us on Twitter: @AthenaNavy.

Photo by FC2(SW) Shawn Truesdale

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