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

An early assembly line at Ford, courtesy

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


A Simple Question and a Call To Action

By Dave Nobles

MainBanner_2015Last week, I had the pleasure of sharing the story of Athena with the submarine force at the 2015 Submarine Technology Symposium at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Beyond conversations, it was the first time that the history of The Athena Project was presented to this audience and the brief was part of a larger group of presenters in a session titled “Innovation.” My fellow session mates all had tremendous stories of how they’ve harnessed the collaborative spirit of Sailors to find creative solutions to complex problems and I was humbled to be a part of it.

While the possibility existed for the crowd to treat me as though I was a stranger in a strange land, my brief laden with photos of ships (they call them ‘targets’), the vision and mission of The Athena Project resonated with the group and I received a number of questions following the talk.

The prevailing theme of many of questions and comments was as simple as a Beatles song: How can we help?

And as John sang in the song Help, you know we need somebody, not just anybody.


The Beatles: Obviously Athenians.


However, to appropriately answer that question, it’s worthy to first assess the current state of Athena and where we would like to go in the future.

As many of you know that have been following The Athena Project from the beginning, transitioning Sailors’ great ideas to the next levels – Prototyping and implementation – is hands-down the most difficult phase of our expedition. The legend of Athena holds that the Greek goddess was a shrewd companion to heroes on epic endeavors, and most innovators know that transitioning a project from idea to action is an epic endeavor. Through our history, we’ve grown the network of innovators, academics, engineers and makers and had success with providing the heroic Sailors with companions that can make their big idea happen, but we can always do more.

Often, when asked by senior leadership what flavor of help they can provide to our efforts, I usually respond with ‘advocacy and support.’ However, to truly have Athena thrive by bringing forth tremendous ideas from the Navy’s deckplates and inspiring junior Sailors to be creatively confident, we need to take action.

So, what can you do to help? Well, it kind of depends on where you are in your organization. So, in the spirit of the song Help, here’s what you can do and what Beatles track you might best identify with:

If you’re a Sailor, you are “With A Little Help From My Friends” – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).

In the song, Ringo (yes, Ringo… As “Billy Shears”) sings about the importance of friends to get through difficulty or even attempt something that you may consider hard when you do it alone. Sometimes, getting involved in something like Athena and just getting your concept to the point of pitching is much easier said than done. But, with a little help from the Athena Network and local support from groups at the unit level, it becomes a lot easier.

What we’ve found that works best is developing a collaborative network at your command and apply supportive brainstorming tools to encourage each other’s ideas. You can find some great ground rules for creating an innovative group here. If you keep the faith and bring forth your ideas, eventually the whispers on a wall will become a shout too loud to be ignored. If you want to get involved with other like-minded innovators in your area, connect with us! We may be able to help!

A microphone shouldn't be intimidating - there's a team behind you!

A microphone shouldn’t be intimidating – there’s a team behind you!

If you’re an engineer, you are “Get Back” – Let It Be (1970).

In this classic, Paul urges Jojo, who had left his home in Tucson to make a horticulturally-driven voyage to California, to head back to where he should be. In developing new systems and technologies for the warfighter, it’s important to break out of the lab or office and get back to user-centered design. What better way to do that than to hear ideas straight from the Sailor and begin a relationship to keep the user at the center of the design process.

So to the engineers, get back to the deckplates. Take a risk and get involved! Often, the ideas that come out of Athena events need to be developed and iterated to realize their full potential. And often, the Sailors that pitch the ideas need your help. At many organizations, there are channels in which research, development, testing and engineering funding can be pursued through alternate means. If you take a risk by attending an event and partnering with a Sailor, you might find that you can develop a concept that emerged out of frustration on the deckplates, you can have a positive impact on how Sailors can perform their jobs. Beyond that, you’ll more deeply discover warfighters’ needs and build lasting connections that will prevent innovation in a vacuum. Sure, it may be a bit out of your comfort zone, but if you make the effort, the benefits greatly outweigh the costs!

Researchers at the University of Southern California proving the EARS concept that won Athena Two.

Researchers at the University of Southern California proving the EARS concept that won Athena Two.

If you’re a unit-level commander, you are “All Together Now” – Yellow Submarine (1969).

If anything is going to happen with Athena at your command, it’s going to require you to be involved. This song’s message is perhaps the simplest of all Beatles songs, and contained in the title: All Together Now.

As a commander, advocate, motivate and be part of the process, together with your Sailors! It’s one thing to inform your Sailors about Athena, but another thing altogether to encourage and inspire those under your charge to develop their ideas and bring them forth. By getting involved in the process – the coaching, the creation and the listening – A junior Sailor’s motivation to participate and present will follow suit. By putting in the time to make Sailors’ intellectual courage a priority, you’ll be investing in the future of the Fleet by serving its most critical asset: Its people. If it’s important to you, it will be important to your command.

Advocacy goes far beyond a mention at a Captain's Call! U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class N.C. Kaylor (RELEASED)

Advocacy goes far beyond a mention at a Captain’s Call! U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class N.C. Kaylor (RELEASED)

If you’re a senior leader or influencer, you are “Revolution” – The Beatles (The White Album) (1968).

As anyone who’s heard this gem knows, the song presupposes that the listener wants a revolution or beyond that, has a desire to change the world. Many senior leaders are highly ambitious and desire to make an impact, and Athena could create a tremendous avenue for just that. And, as the song goes, if that leader says they have a real solution, then people will be lining up to see the plan.

So, help towards building some real solutions: Challenge your team and your network! The Naval Message is still a powerful tool, and the individual that owns the message-release authority can wield it. Simply by lending your support to Athena, you may inspire commands or even communities that have yet to participate! And beyond that encouragement, you could discover the work that the Sailors have put into their concepts and challenge those under your charge to develop and prototype the ideas that resonate with you. Nothing like throwing down the proverbial gauntlet to inspire concept development!

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert challenged  the status quo by establishing a Rapid Innovation Cell during his tenure.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert challenged the status quo by establishing a Rapid Innovation Cell during his tenure.

Athena is valuable because it drives Sailor engagement. Inspiring junior Sailors and young officers to think about how to make the Navy better tends to inspire those same Sailors to think about all they do, making them more apt to be engaged in problem solving and innovative solutions.

Beyond the quarterly pitch events in Fleet Concentration Areas, The Athena Project is rolling out several initiatives that can help to inspire, get new faces engaged and build on the creative spirit of the deckplates. More to follow on those new initiatives in the weeks that follow.

Dan Pink, whose book Drive has served as a catalyst for the birth of The Athena Project, notes that engagement is powered by three factors: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. While encouragement may lead to the Autonomy and Mastery pillars, the Purpose will always be decided by the network: The influencers, makers, engineers and doers that can transform a Sailor’s idea into reality. If an idea can make it to the next level, it proves that the voice of the deckplates is being heard and fuels the all-important Purpose pillar.

Together, we can fulfill that duty.

Or, to stay true to the Beatles feel of this article, we can be “Fixing a Hole.”


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