Saturday, June 9, 2012

Getting the Conversation Started: Innovation for Junior Leaders in the Naval Service

LCDR "BJ" Armstrong speaking at the event.
On Wednesday June 6, 2012 the Naval Warfare Development Command hosted a Junior Leader Innovation Symposium as part of the 2012 Innovation Series held by NWDC. The Symposium objectives were listed as:
  • Boost awareness and educate junior leaders on the importance of innovation
  • Empower junior leaders to contribute new ideas to Navy missions
  • Explore new ways to organize, connect, and proliferate open discussion venues
  • Harvest recommendations from junior leaders on key issues confronting the Navy
  • Employ the creative energy of junior leaders to tackle emerging challenges
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LT Jon Paris, U.S. Navy attended the event and has contributed the following thoughts on the symposium.

“Some things will never change.”  “If it makes sense, we’ll do it the opposite way.”  “Just press the ‘I Believe Button’.”  These are pretty common phrases – the clean ones – on the deck plates, in berthing, and in the JO Jungle.  Why does nothing (seem to) change?  Our junior ranks are intelligent and full of experience and innovative potential.  They just do not feel that anyone is listening.  To paraphrase one flag officer who “get’s it” – today’s staffs are anti-bodies for good ideas.  Another senior leader commented to me that, when he was a Junior Officer, bottom-up ideas rarely got past the Air Wing.  I quipped back – “In my community, they don’t get past the Department Head.”  Why, is this true?  Culture, for one.  My community is probably the worst – and I say that as a SWOtivated Surface Warfare Officer who cannot wait to lead a Department and hopefully someday, command a ship.  Why else?  Our young leaders – officers and enlisted alike – feel stifled.  Their perception may be misplaced, but it is reality nonetheless.  The Navy does not have a track record of accessing the intellect contained amongst the Young Voice in our service.  Young people have good ideas, too.  Junior Leaders have been, can be, and are, innovators.  And, even if our ideas are not always “top notch,” we are the operators.  We are the ones that think through, carry out, and analyze our Navy’s programs, tactics, doctrine, and operations.  Our brains matter!  What we think, how we think, where our interests lay, how we learn, what keeps our attention, what bores us, and what we retain are all extremely important factors that must be taken into consideration – not only when planning the future of our service, but when plotting our current course.
   
The Naval Services – the Navy and Marine Corps team – is waking up!  DONALD COOK and others have taken innovative approaches to the work-week.  SAN JACINTO took on Surface Warrior fatigue head on with out-of-the-box watch rotations.  A Marine Captain and Cobra pilot took a constant cockpit limitation and turned it into a game-changer.  Some good ideas are making it past the “anti-bodies.”  Our Senior Leadership is taking notice.  They are actively looking to streamline the today’s cumbersome concept generation-concept development process.  The pipeline from innovator to decision maker will soon be more direct.  More importantly, though, Senior Leaders are reaching out to Junior Leaders and empowering them.  They are reminding us that it is okay to think big thoughts – that it is, in fact, our responsibility to do so – and that when we have good ideas, we should speak up.  A perfect example was this week’s Junior Leaders Innovation Symposium, hosted by Navy Warfare Development Command, and strongly endorsed and supported by Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command.
   
I was skeptical.  Would junior leaders show up to this event?  Having spent my sea tours in an environment nearly void of innovation, would I have shown up if I had not already worked here?  Junior Officers and enlisted leaders “know” that nobody listens to them – why would they bother?  Well, they did come.  They came in droves.  Over two-hundred showed up in-person, with at least that many participating on Defense Connect Online.  Junior Leaders made a statement – we do have ideas - ranging from process improvement to new systems – and we don’t want to continue to sit back; we want to be part of the solution.  I was pleasantly surprised at the turnout.  We had representatives from every imaginable community and rate.  Most showed up with a spark in their eye and all left with a sense of purpose.
   
LCDR B.J. Armstrong’s presentation was fantastic.  He used a masterful innovation in Naval Gunnery as a medium for showing Junior Leaders that their ideas can make a difference and that they must remain the squeaky wheel.  I already considered myself an innovator and a leader in my community, and it totally fired me up.  “I could make that kind of difference!”  I saw it around the room, and within the chat session, as well.  LT’s Kohlmann and McFall were living examples of how to get “the conversation” started.  Blogs and boards such as ID, SailorBob, and Small Wars Journal were discussed, as well as the use of sites such as YouTube and Facebook.  The U.S. Naval Institute’s presence was extremely important.  As a one-time “hater” of USNI (they were BORING!), I was fascinated by the changes they have implemented in just the past year, and was motivated by their new approach to tackle “my” demographic – junior leaders!  One of my comments the next day was, “USNI bought me beer and all I had to do was talk about the Navy, which I do anyways.”

That’s it in a nutshell - Getting our powerful brain-trust of Junior Leaders talking.  We don’t need to be the proverbial “Good Idea Fairy” every day, or even every year.  We just need to be a part of the conversation – both written and verbal, wherever that conversation is happening.  The senior folks have done their part – they have started to reach out and listen.  Now the ball is in our court – we need to give them something meaningful to listen to (or read!).  The Junior Leaders Innovation Symposium was a great start.  Young people like pictures, real-life (and current!) examples, and people they can relate to.  “Old people” briefing complex techniques are not as effective.  This observation is not meant as disrespect..  When you talk to an audience – especially if you are trying to motivate them – you have to consider who you are speaking to.  Today’s Junior Leaders play xBox, use iPhones for everything, and generally do not appreciate an argument if it cannot be made in a page or two.  We are not dumb, we are just a different generation with different ideas.  We are today’s Junior Leaders and tomorrow’s decision makers.  The event got people thinking – and talking – which absolutely met its objectives.  Hopefully the continuing conversation will draw more participants.  Future events will help reinforce the process, and we will start breeding a new culture of innovation, where Junior Leaders feel comfortable looking at the tasks they do every day, and working for the collective good to make them better.  Please check out the event’s archive next week, and be a part of the conversation.

LT Jon Paris is a Surface Warfare Officer who did tours aboard CHUNG-HOON and CHOSIN in Pearl Harbor, taught Seamanship and Navigation at the Naval Academy, and is currently serving as a Flag Aide in Norfolk.

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See also:

LCDR BJ Armstrong is publishing his presentation on the US Naval Institute blog, the first installment can be read here.

LT Rob McFall recently discussed tactics on the US Naval Institute blog.

LT Kurt Albaugh discusses his thoughts from the symposium here.

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