The Navy’s Innovation Problem
© U.S. Naval Institute
By Captain David Adams, U.S. Navy (Retired); Captain Jeff Cares, U.S. Navy Reserve (Retired); Lieutenant Commander Brett Morash, U.S. Navy (Retired); Dr. Albert Nofi, Mr. Antonio Siordia, and Captain David Soldow, U.S. Navy.
Admiral James Stavridis, who stood up Deep Blue, recently argued in Foreign Policy for the resurrection of the Pentagon-based Navy innovation cell as a possible answer. New organizations, however, will not fix the Navy’s innovation and strategy problems; only leaders determined to take tangible action to institutionalize a nurturing environment and acceptance of outliers will do that.
It is easy to find innovative, outspoken lieutenants, but it is the paucity of forward-thinking captains and commanders—the ones who run programs and advise flag officers—that paralyzes naval innovation. The Navy stifles rather than grows its potential innovators. Without persistent top cover by seniors, innovators flame out for a variety of personal or professional reasons—not least of which is that they are outliers, meaning different and quirky in general.
As General James Mattis once explained, the services must learn to reward risk takers. “Take the mavericks in your service,” he once counseled, “the ones that wear rumpled uniforms and look like a bag of mud but whose ideas are so offsetting that they actually upset the people in the bureaucracy. One of your primary jobs is to take the risk and protect these people, because if they are not nurtured in your service, the enemy will bring their contrary ideas to you.”
Developing innovators and strategists takes time. The idea that the Navy will embrace a new, rapid speed of learning defies logic given an organization that is inherently one of the slowest strategic learners on the planet (especially in peacetime). We must find ways and time to develop more leaders like Admiral Hyman Rickover (nuclear power), Vice Admiral William Raborn (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), Rear Admiral William Moffett (naval aviation), Rear Admiral A.T. Mahan (strategy), and Rear Admiral Wayne Meyer (Aegis). Imagine if Admiral Rickover had not been allowed to spend years of his career at the Naval Postgraduate School, Columbia University, and Oak Ridge National Laboratories learning nuclear power. Similar examples exist in nearly every case of successful naval innovation. History shows that taking the time to cultivate a few strong innovators while fostering a culture that will accept them, warts and all, pays extraordinary dividends.
The SSG offered the Navy a true innovation incubator. Over the group’s 35 years of existence, the impact of the annual SSG studies directly correlated to the CNOs’ levels of leadership and support. While some may argue the point, Admiral Hogg has a long list of SSG concepts that influenced the Navy’s course. Focusing only on praise or criticism of its products, however, serves to underplay the SSG’s long-term influence on the naval profession. Many of the mid-level idea generators on major staffs come from the SSG or linked organizations such as the Naval War College’s Halsey and Gravely groups.
Perhaps the greatest value of the SSG is that it forced upwardly mobile, senior leaders to think and live outside their comfort zones in unstructured innovative environments. It gave them time to think about innovative ideas long before the first shots were fired. The SSG kindled an innovative spirit in most fellows while exposing them to disruptive thinking by young outliers, thereby expanding the pool of leaders who might be accepting of young innovators and their ideas in the future.