Sea Power: The Battle for Innovation


A lively conversation about innovation is underway within the U.S. Navy officer corps. Our confederates over at CIMSEC, the Center for International Maritime Security, have been out front on this debate, posting items on the CIMSEC website, over at the U.S. Naval Institute blog, and in dead-tree forums such as the Naval Institute Proceedings. The insurgents even gathered in a bar in Newport recently to plot their fell misdeeds. It’s heartening to see how many younger folk have the gumption to speak their minds about vexatious topics. Huzzah!

Reform has always taken guts. A superior once upbraided Mahan for his scholarly work, insisting naval officers had no business writing books. W. S. Sims, another innovator and Naval War College president, was utterly fearless in voicing strong opinions as a junior officer. Sims likewise incurred serious professional risk. To be sure, scholar-mariners like recently retired Admiral James Stavridis (now dean of the Naval Diplomat’s alma mater, the Fletcher School) have urged junior and mid-career officers to publish their views. Intervention from above has weakened the taboo that bedeviled Mahan and Sims. Still, the decision to challenge orthodox ways of doing things can’t be easy for youngsters.

Yet challenge orthodoxy they must. Stasis is the enemy of competitive enterprises like sea power. Institutional deadweight could prevent the U.S. Navy from keeping pace with changes in its surroundings, and from staying ahead of determined competitors like China.

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The question, then, isn’t whether but how to encourage dynamism. Our beloved service is a big institution, and big institutions reflexively deploy command-and-control methods. Top officials ordain that something shall be done, can-do subordinates start repeating the new slogan (“payloads, not platforms” being a sharp recent idea-cum-boilerplate), and everyone takes a top-down, centralized approach to induce shipmates to get with the program. Woe betide the officer marked down on his fitness report (a.k.a. personnel evaluation) for being insufficiently innovative, or whatever the concept du jour might be. It’s the bureaucratic way.

But not necessarily a good way. Dunno about you, but to me being ordered to be creative feels like a contradiction in terms. Free-range intellect and experimentation represent a core advantage of open societies over closed societies such as, ahem, budding naval rivals. Freewheeling exchanges of ideas and best practices preserve and widen that advantage. Regimentation narrows it. Nurturing an open society in the ranks, then, should be the navy’s goal. For higher-ups, that means exercising self-discipline. It mainly means getting out of the way — something those who scale the ranks have trouble doing. Let’s groom a corps of devil’s advocates — rewarding those who push contrary ideas zealously.

Easier said than done. An old Broadside cartoon— apparently never posted online, alas — conveys how the navy often responds when the leadership’s fancy alights on some big idea. It dates from the late Cold War or thereabouts, after W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy of Total Quality Leadership [a.k.a. Management] took the navy leadership by storm. TQL sought to involve people from all levels of the organizational hierarchy, junior and senior alike, in decisions about how the ship, squadron, or station should transact business. Good idea, eh? Why not solicit as much input about — yep, innovation — as possible?

But here’s the nub of the joke. Dr. Deming instructs leaders questing for the nirvana of “continuous process improvement” to “drive out fear” from the workplace. Cartoonist Jeff Bacon sketches one of his favorite scenes, a ship’s hatchetman executive officer sitting at the wardroom table terrorizing meeting with his officers. The XO issues a ukase: “As you know, driving fear out of the workplace is one of the major points of TQL. I’m not satisfied with your progress. Drive out fear by next week or you’re all fired.” Imagine the crestfallen looks at being directed to accomplish an ill-defined task, fast … or else.

Use fear to expel fear: it’s the navy way!!

Like all good humor, Bacon’s joke is evergreen because it exaggerates only slightly. Once TQL became a slogan for the leadership, it became part of bureaucratic routine. Everyone fell in line, and said the right things. But reducing a good idea to an item on a checklist sets you on your way to deadening people’s ingenuity. Innovation becomes just another chore on the to-do list. So the challenge is twofold. Officers and enlisted at all levels need to search out ways to improve things. And top leaders need to stand aside and let them do so. Do that, and watch a hundred flowers bloom.

Now go forth and do great things.

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