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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If You Give an Engineer a Toy: Building a Better Command Center

Here’s an article about design thinking and prototyping leading to real innovation in the fleet. Cross-posted in partnership with our friends at CIMSEC.org

At Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Newport we recently began an internal investment project—the Seamless and Intuitive Warfare Workforce Development Project—to develop the next generation of “system of systems” engineers. These engineers will ideally be trained to view problems and develop solutions in a holistic manner, breaking from the stove-piped designs of legacy systems.  As an underlying theme for the effort, NUWC Newport focused on the “One System” vision for submarine tactical systems.  This idea was originally conceptualized at the Tactical Advancements for Next Generation (TANG) forum and further advocated by the submarine fleet.  In pursuit of this vision, the team explored potential improvements for submarine combat system interfaces and for the control room as a way to improve the information flow and the effectiveness of the control room’s contact management team.

Our approach:

1. Team Formation: We recruited and selected a cross-departmental team of 10 young engineers, typically with 3-7 years experience, from the Sensors and Sonar Systems, Combat Systems and Electromagnetic Systems Departments at NUWC Division Newport.

2. Baselining on Current Combat Systems: We cross-trained the team using military personnel  in the Combat Systems Collaboration And Fleet Experimentation (CAFÉ) laboratory on an end-to-end layout of a Virginia-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) control room, driven by a Submarine Multi Mission Team Trainer (SMMTT) system with sonar and combat control watch teams.  An imaging simulator was even used to populate the periscope view with surface contacts when operating at periscope depth.

Virginia Class layout

Virginia Class layout

3. Innovation Process: The team brainstormed initial concepts for next-gen integrated tactical systems, generating around 40-50 ideas, from which about 8 concepts were selected by the team for early prototyping with mock-ups (see Figure 2 below for evolution of original ideas to early prototypes).  These mock-ups were cut-out model representations using basic materials such as foam-core, cardboard and coloring sheets; and served to focus the team’s attention on details of scale and placement that would not have otherwise occurred.

Evolution of initial ideas into quick prototypes

Evolution of initial ideas into quick prototypes

Matt Puterio of the Sensors and Sonar Department, described his participation in the process of innovation and prototyping:

“Today’s Sailors are accustomed to immersive video games, advanced smart phones and tablets, intuitive multi-touch applications and can easily navigate the highly networked and always-connected world in which we now live in (so-called ‘digital natives’).  Our project aims to leverage this natural affinity coupled with advanced technologies such as high resolution multi-touch displays, and mobile computing devices, and new software concepts such as cloud computing and virtualization and apply them to the demanding needs of the tactical warfighter.  Sailors should be able to seamlessly adapt their high-tech civilian skills to the world of Undersea Warfare with minimal re-training and Seamless and Intuitive USW is focused on making this goal a reality.”

The innovation process we followed was modeled after one developed by design and innovation consulting firm IDEO; the same process used by the TANG workshop. Generating a series of “How might we…” questions (called HMWs), the group brainstormed ideas for what improvements could be created.  The  members of the brainstorming group then  came up with ideas to answer the questions (e.g. “redesign the layout of the control center!”) and wrote their ideas along with descriptive pictures to better explain the idea on sticky notes; one idea per sticky.  Emphasis was on rapid and not necessarily well thought-out ideation along with quick sketches for each idea.  The fast-paced nature of this exercise kept team members excited and stimulated creativity.

Brainstorming in action!

Brainstorming in action!

After investigating each idea, the group voted on the ideas they found most interesting, most powerful, or most disruptive.  Sub-groups of 2-5 team members were formed, and each sub-group picked a high scoring response to a HMW question that they would like to prototype.  This stage of prototyping was very basic; 4-K displays, iPads, iPhones, Android tablets, cloud computing, and multi-touch monitors took a back seat to foamcore, construction paper, hot glue, whiteboards, Sharpies, and dry erase markers.  The immediate goal wasn’t to get an actual product out to the fleet—rather to build a better mental model of the top ideas before laying the groundwork for an actual system.  Some of our prototypes at this stage included an operator workstation stack built out of foamcore, models of how we envisioned the layout of futuristic control rooms built from construction paper and foamcore (complete with popsicle stick sailors), and a 3D-display made from transparency sheets and foamcore.

Building rough prototypes literally turns words on paper into tangible objects.  Tangible objects are easier to work with since they do not require the imagination of onlookers and fellow team members.  A 3D-display may seem unnecessary until a fellow team member shows a physical model with a clay “ownship” submarine at the center and contacts of interest at various ranges and bearings on the display, directly modeling the actual tactical picture in the current environment.

Ideation straight to prototyping.

Ideation straight to prototyping.

From here our Seamless & Intuitive USW group branched out in two directions; software application development and virtual worlds (VW) modeling.  The “App Team” focused on taking the most promising and realistic rough prototypes (in terms of team skills and project timeframe) and prototyped them in an actual software environment.  This year we had access to a Perceptive Pixel multi-touch workstation with the Qt development environment that enabled us to quickly put together a few simple applications to interactively demonstrate the same concepts we prototyped using the arts & crafts materials.  One example was a “Multi-touch App Manager” which allowed a user to pull open a menu of “available apps” similar to the app icons on Android or iOS, and resize and drag individual “apps”—simply static tactical screenshots in our prototype—around the workspace. Other examples included a demo of three different ways to select a trace on a display and a “Five Finger” multi-touch menu that enables users to pull open an intuitive menu simply by placing their right or left hand on the display surface.

Some of the ideas we brainstormed couldn’t adequately be represented in software.  Rather than build a full-sized model submarine control room, the other branch of our group, the “Tiger Team,” employed their modeling skills with Second Life, a virtual world simulator.  The Tiger Team worked with the “Virtual Worlds” group at NUWC, a team with expertise in creating realistic virtual models of Navy ships, submarines, and facilities in Second Life.  The Virtual Worlds group assisted the Tiger Team in building realistic models of concepts such as new control room layouts, next-generation displays (such as the previously mentioned 3D-display), and even interactive displays by utilizing Second Life’s VNC capability.

Futuristic Command Center conceptual layout in Virtual Worlds.

Futuristic Command Center conceptual layout in Virtual Worlds.

The next step from here is implementing these prototypes on live data-streams, and integrating them as advanced engineering modules into a tactical system.  So far we have given various demonstrations of our concepts, and have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from our colleagues, internal NUWC management, and fleet representatives from Submarine Development Squadron TWELVE at the annual DEVRON12-NUWC Tech Exchange.  The simplicity of the design-thinking process allowed our small team of engineers to go from ideas on sticky notes to working software prototypes and virtual models in several weeks.

We are eager to continue our work on Seamless and Intuitive USW. In addition to being an excellent platform for idea formation, this project was fun, exciting, and served as a vehicle to achieve our objective of developing the next generation of “system of systems” engineers. Working with next-generation technology is always a pleasure, and the expectation that our ideas will make it onto a shipboard system and help sailors perform their functions better makes our work even more worthwhile.

Contact Information:

Project Lead: chidambar.ganesh@navy.mil 401-832-3887

Co-Lead:  raymond.j.rowland@navy.mil 401-832-8207