Don’t Force It

By: LT Dave Nobles


As I’ve been sitting around in lay-up for the past couple weeks, I’ve opened up the ‘ol laptop quite a few times trying to figure out the next post, but nothing had come to mind nor fingers.

So, I whined to my wife about the lack of creative inspiration, and she told me simply, “Don’t force it.” Clearly, she was giving the Heisman to my incessant moaning, but what she said not only highlighted a problem that I was having for this post, but also summed up some of the issues we have with ideas in the fleet.

Too often, when it comes to innovation, we force it. And we shouldn’t.

Now, I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t schedule out brainstorming and design thinking sessions, or challenge a group to find solutions to a specific problem. What I mean is that we shouldn’t direct or attach incentives to the generation of new ideas. The unnecessary pressurization of the otherwise open activity of idea generation tends to cause people to force it, and the results could be ugly.

In his book Drive, Dan Pink references a study by researchers at MIT, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Chicago on the topic of incentives and performance. The study used three tiers of bonuses, offered to individuals based on their performance in cognitive tasks as well as physical tasks that didn’t require much thought. In both cases of the experiment, one conducted at MIT and one conducted in rural India, the results were the same: Bonuses had an inverse effect on performance for cognitive tasks whereas the rewards led to better performance for those rudimentary, mechanical, wrench-turning tasks. Pink gave an awesome TED talk about it, check it out here.

Since idea generation is a cognitive exercise, if we pressurize the process we can expect the same negative correlation. In the example of the study, it was rewards that pressurized the process, but an order can have the same effect because of the stress it creates. This is a phenomenon that’s been explored time and time again by sociologists, psychologists and economists.

Dan Ariely uses several examples in his book, The Upside of Irrationality, to illustrate that people actually behave less rationally the harder they try. Though some innovative ideas can seem a little bizarre at first, introducing irrationality into the idea incubation process is just asking for trouble.

Green Day Portrait Session

In the words of rockers and guys-who-look-like-they-stayed-up-all-night-watching-anime Green Day, “You can’t go forcing something if it’s just not right.”

That’s why The Athena Project is not, nor will ever be, a mandatory event. Not to attend, and certainly not to present. By keeping it open, only the passionate people who actually want to contribute do, and the results are pure and usually a higher quality because of it.

The Athena Project belongs to all of us, and it’s open. If an initiative like The Athena Project was a directive, then it would transform from an event where Sailors share ideas because they want to into a mandatory event in which Sailors “mail in” thoughts because they are required to.

LT Dave Nobles is a Surface Warfare Officer currently assigned to USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) as Weapons Officer. He is also a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell.

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Work, Basketball and the Manager With A Dream.


By: LT Clarence Harris

Marshay Gorman was the manager of my high school basketball team. I know what you’re thinking: Why is a former Naval Academy fullback babbling about the manager of my high school basketball squad in this innovation blog? Well, I’ll tell you…

Marshay handled all the team’s equipment during my freshman and sophomore years. Coach would always fuss about him shooting during the Junior Varsity and Varsity practices. He also had a tendency to dribble the ball at the most inopportune times and regularly got an earful of Coach as a result. Marshay loved the game, though. Inside that manager was a vision of greatness.

Day in and day out for two years Marshay would dribble and shoot hours before the team hit the court and he’d do it again hours after the late practices were over. Before and after games he practiced his tail off and continued to dream of becoming a part of the team and proving not only to himself but to everyone that believed and him that he could do it.

Greatness doesn’t come easy and making something happen against heavy odds is even harder. But then there was Marshay. During tryouts at the beginning of our junior season, the once-manager hit the court and shocked everyone. He had some serious game.  The coaches saw it too and Marshay made the team. Even though he was fighting for an already-taken position, he become a starter quickly and went on to become the conference’s leading scorer. It was awesome to see all of his desire and determination come to life before all of our eyes.

We all often reflected on the vision that he had and the drive that he possessed to get to that point. He was humble and determined to make a positive contribution to our team and make us better than we were without him. We all know what he had gone through to get to this point and welcomed him with open arms. All those nonbelievers became believers and rooted him…US on!

Marshay was hungry. He not only had the desire to, but knew that he could help our basketball team in winning and becoming better as a whole. He know that he would have to work when others were resting he know that it would not be easy. He knew that if he simply told our coach that he wanted to play on the team and contribute that the coach wouldn’t entertain the idea. The guy had dreams. Dreaming about hitting that game winner was easy for Marshay – he loved the game of basketball.

What he had to do was do.  And doing isn’t always easy.  It’s work.

Ok, so what does any of this have to do with innovation, The Athena Project, or making our organization better? If you ask me I will quickly tell you that there are a lot of Marshay Gormans amongst us. People who have the dream, the vision, and are willing to put in the work to make a contribution to our Navy team. To make a change for the better.

The tough part about it is that we can’t forget that this change may not happen in a week, a month or even a year. But we can’t give up. Having a vision is one thing, but putting in the work to make it happen is something else altogether. Sometimes things get rough, but we have to continue to believe in our ideas and not be deterred by any naysayers. We have to ‘Marshay Up’ – Work Hard. Work Late. Work Before. Work After. Do whatever it takes to make your vision come to life. Your contribution is needed and welcomed. And you will be backed up by everyone that understands the time, energy, and focus is essential to making a change for the better. And you to will be rooted on to the finish.

You just have to pick up the ball and start dribbling.

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

LT Harris is a Surface Warfare Officer assigned to USS BENFOLD (DDG 65) as Combat Systems Officer.