Pic by Pawel Kadysz

What does an Xbox controller have to do with designing the next-generation submarine? Much more than you think. That’s what I learned at the recent Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored conference, where I was able to see how the US Navy is determined to challenge everything, starting by its own creative potential.

Many organizations talk about innovation like it’s something that can be built. I like to believe that creativity is already there; it simply needs to be nurtured. Organizations need to be liberated — thus, the title of this blog — from the behaviors or emotions that don’t allow innovation to flow.

Back to the Navy. There are, lots of lessons that we can learn from them:

  • Start with a bold question: The way you kick-off an innovation challenge helps define the goal. The Navy asked participants, “How soon can these ideas become a reality aboard submarines?” That helped set the stage. It was a clear message that participants were not expected to simply brainstorm, but to develop solutions that could be quickly implemented in real life.
  • Kill “This is how we’ve always done it”: Thinking that past practices will lead us to future victories is one the greatest barriers to letting innovation flow. By inviting a new generation of sailors, the Navy shifted the discussion from what worked in the past to what could work in the future. The same principle occurred when applying Human-Centered Design (Design Thinking), or when collaborating with Microsoft and other tech partners to bring new technologies to inspire the team. All helped propel the conversation towards solving problems in new ways.
  • Leave your uniforms at home: Titles, departments, and specializations normally get in the way when it comes to collaboration. Creating an open and safe environment is critical for successful brainstorming. ATHENA project participants were asked to show up in casual civilian clothing, an evident sign of leveling the playing field by removing status symbols.
  • Want new results? Embrace new mindsets: By nominating either junior officers or E-6 and below, the Navy made sure to bring new and fresh ideas. “Why do I have to complete mandatory training during my off-watch period when I just did the real thing while on duty?” Taking credit for completing different tasks immerses users in a different environment that helps them “train like they fight.” Adopting a video-game approach to rethink training was only made possible with the outside perspective of these “digital natives.”
  • Reframe the idea of failure: In an “industry” where a mistake can cost someone’s life, how can you motivate sailors to embrace failure? With quick brainstorming and rapid prototyping, and by moving from one iteration to another. For example, by going from Post-it notes and a foam core design at a workshop, to a working prototype in a matter of months.

Going back to the Xbox controller. The Navy has been able to move from a heavy (8 pounds) and expensive ($128,000) solution to a cheaper (just $24), lighter, and easier option. More proof that when organizations are liberated, great things can happen. Josh Smith, TANG director from Johns Hopkins University, couldn’t have said it better: “These sailors have great ideas and they want to make things better. We give them the tools to unleash their creativity and watch the magic happen.”

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