Practicing Innovation in the U.S. Navy


The term innovation has gotten a lot of attention in the Department of Defense (DOD) lately. The Defense Innovation Initiative was announced last fall by the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, recently established Task Force Innovation. In addition, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and the Chief of Naval Research (CNR) called for more innovation at the 2015 Naval Future Force Science and Technology Expo. These initiatives and discussions point to the critical role that innovation must play as the defense community grapples with the technological advances of our adversaries under diminishing DOD budgets.

The message from leadership on the importance of innovation is clear, but what’s less clear is how we practically implement it. In particular, how does someone at the staff level with an innovative idea get traction in the bureaucratic world of DOD? How can that staff innovator overcome the inevitable obstacles that will come? The innovation experiences at U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet provide some insight.

In the spring of 2013, the 4th Fleet Commander established an innovation cell. He asked cell members (I was one of them) to explore and experiment with technologies that could contribute to theater operations. The Southern Command theater is the lowest priority among all the Geographic Combatant Commands and, as a result, severely under-resourced. Our task was to use innovation as a means to address mission requirements under these difficult circumstances.

We researched areas as diverse as underwater detection by Lighter-than-Air platforms, autonomous Unmanned Aircraft Systems for counter-narcotic operations, and modular intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance payloads for non-traditional surface platforms. Our goal was to provide the Commander with options to accomplish the mission. We also wanted to establish ourselves as a valuable partner when it came to experimentation and innovation initiatives across the Department of the Navy and the larger Defense Enterprise.

Looking back at our team’s successes and failures, I offer some suggestions for the staff innovator. These suggestions focus on how the innovator interacts with different audiences; what innovators should look for as they execute; and what attitudes they should develop as they try to bring an idea to fruition.

Continually communicate with leadership

At 4th Fleet we had the Commander’s full support on all things innovation. We maintained that support by addressing the Command’s needs with thoroughly researched ideas. These ideas were then communicated with the Commander and senior staff on a regular basis. This regular communication had several benefits. It allowed us to get the Commander’s guidance and adjust our initiative as necessary. It also allowed us to explain any obstacles we faced and get help early. It kept the initiative transparent, which meant there were no surprises for the rest of the staff. And, it kept the topic of innovation on the minds of all within the Command.

Takeaway: As a staff innovator, coming up with a great idea is key, but for leadership to support it you must convey a clear and consistent message that revolves around how your idea can solve the Command’s problems. Great ideas without key backing seldom get past the conceptual stage.

Build bridges across organizations

In the summer of 2014, the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) Spearhead deployed to the Southern Command area of responsibility in support of 4th Fleet’s Southern Partnership Station (SPS) mission. The Spearhead was the first in its class vessel designed primarily for rapid intra-theater transport. It was 4th Fleet’s intent to conduct experiments during the deployment to understand what other missions were possible with this new platform. The innovation cell took the lead in finding technologies that complimented the capabilities of the JHSV. We quickly came to the conclusion that we did not have the resources to accomplish everything we wanted to do. So we asked industry and other commands for help. Industry partners provided internal research and development funds to participate in the experiment. We got support and resources from Southern Command, Joint Interagency Task Force South, Fleet Forces Command, and Naval Warfare Development Command. As a result, we were able to accomplish more than we originally envisioned and, at the same time, some of the experimentation goals of the other organizations were met. The JHSV experiment provided valuable information for 4th Fleet and the rest of the Navy on what was possible with the JHSV. Our success was made possible because we pooled expertise and resources and aligned them for a common purpose.

Takeaway: As a staff innovator, strive to build bridges to outside organizations and foster a collaborative environment. Your ideas will benefit from the experience of others, and you’ll likely accomplish more than you could independently. Innovators rarely have impact if they work in isolation.

Don’t neglect the bridges within

The JHSV experimentation period was a small part of the larger 4th Fleet SPS deployment. SPS is a multi-faceted mission that conducts Theater Security Cooperation and Building Partnership Capacity activities with Central and South American countries. Planning for such a large mission requires the full attention of staff officers across different directorates. They deal with issues as diverse as force protection, country clearances, contract support, and logistics. In short, they have their hands full. The last thing we, as the innovation cell, wanted to do was swoop in as the “good idea fairy” and add extra burden to the overworked staff officers. We needed to build bridges within our staff even though we had the buy-in from leadership already. We accomplished this by supporting them in their efforts and by minimizing the amount of work they would be doing on our behalf. Having the bridges established helped us when our experimentation plans didn’t survive first contact with operational realities. We needed the staff action officers on our side just as much as we needed the outside organizations we courted.

Takeaway: As a staff innovator, build bridges within your Command and maintain good rapport with other action officers. Let the staff know you are there to support and enhance what they are doing. Make it easy for them to support you.

Make your “go-to” list

In bridge-building, we looked for like-minded innovators who wanted to overcome barriers and get to “yes.” We looked for people who were willing to send emails up their chain of command to build consensus and support. And we looked for people who provided constructive and honest feedback. Having this network came in handy when we were dealing with spectrum issues for some of the systems we wanted to test or when we had questions concerning airship operations off the U.S. coast. It is sometimes difficult to find these types of people in a world of professional naysayers, but they are out there.

Takeaway: As a staff innovator, make every effort to develop and build a go-to list of like-minded people. Obstacles are a constant in innovation. Knowing who is willing to help gives you a better chance of success.

Be persistent in the face of barriers and bureaucracy

Several times during our innovation endeavors we thought we had hit a brick wall. We got pushback on our idea of bringing the Navy’s airship to Jacksonville, Florida, for a proof of concept demonstration. In another case, we were told we would never get the network accreditation approved in time to push a radar feed from the JHSV to the Maritime Operations Center at 4th Fleet. In both cases, we found a way forward, but it took persistence and top cover.

Takeaway: As a staff innovator, you’ll need to accept the inherent conflict between the risk-taking involved in innovation and the risk-reduction that is at the heart of DOD bureaucracy. Despite the obstacles, effecting change means you don’t flinch at the rules, regulations, documentation, and check-in-the-box requirements. You may not see immediate ways around all the red tape, but with the support you’ve amassed, and some persistence, you’re likely to push innovation through.

Share the credit, not the blame

As mentioned, innovation requires risk. Sometimes a dart you throw lands on the target and sometimes it hits the wall. On rare occasions, it may hit someone in the eye. Luckily, our misses didn’t cause too much damage. Still, it is no fun going to the Admiral’s office to explain why the idea flopped, why the piece of gear didn’t work, or why the aerostat got struck by lightning (that actually happened). It would have been easy to point the finger at someone else, but our goal was to maintain productive working relationships with innovators inside and outside the Command. It is hard to maintain relationships if you are known for throwing people under the bus.

Takeaway: As a staff innovator, resist the temptation to blame others when things don’t work out. Be willing to take responsibility even if it wasn’t directly your fault. Don’t let all the hard work you have done building a team and pushing the boundaries go to waste. Build a reputation that makes people want to work with you.

Strive for lasting impact

When we started our work, in addition to providing immediate assistance to the 4th Fleet mission, we also wanted to ensure that innovation could be sustained in the long term. To establish this continuity, we focused on an iterative approach towards experimentation. The work we did in one year would be expanded and improved upon in the next. At the same time, we would incorporate the ideas of our partners so that they also had an interest in our future experiments. We have seen the fruits of this approach by our continued participation in the Fleet Experimentation campaign and our new initiatives with partners such as Fleet Forces Command, Naval Warfare Development Command, and the Office of Naval Research.

Takeaway: As a staff innovator, you’ll need to look past the FITREP cycle and focus on work that can remain after you have left. Be strategic in your partnerships so that the vision you’ve cast can be advanced by others.

In these times of fiscal pressure and increased risk to global security, DOD is looking to innovative solutions to maintain its technological edge. New approaches in areas as diverse as electronic warfare, intelligence, logistics, and disaster relief are ripe for exploration. Leadership will set the tone to tackle these problems, but, ultimately, the solutions will come from the resident innovators within each organization. It will be their job to get their ideas out for evaluation. The practical suggestions outlined above — communicating with leaders, building bridges, putting together a team, being persistent, taking responsibility, and focusing on the long term — will give innovators a greater chance at success.

It is a great time to be an innovator.


Dr. Ciro M. Lopez is a Research Scientist for CNA. He completed his tour at U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet in August of 2014 as the CNA field representative and member of the Admiral’s Innovation Cell. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of CNA.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery

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