“DoD does not have an innovation problem; it has an innovation adoption problem.”
– Dr. Eric Schmidt, chairman, Defense Innovation Board, testifying in front of the House Armed Service Committee in April 2018
The Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) and the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Warfare Centers are collaborating on an Innovation Leadership program to help solve the Navy’s “innovation adoption problem” by showing Warfare Centers scientists and engineers how to deploy, use and integrate innovation to achieve strategic priorities.
A cohort of 10 participants, one from each of the Warfare Center Divisions, took the 10-week winter session of the course, which has been offered at NPS for several years. Each had a concept for an innovation project that they developed, refined and brought back with them to their command.
The collaboration grew out of the Diffusion and Adoption of Innovation Studio Summit (DAISS) held at the Naval War College, in partnership with the NAVSEA Warfare Centers and NPS, in 2018 and 2019. In 2020, plans for a third DAISS were scuttled by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Dr. Peter Denning and retired Marine Corps Col. Todd Lyons, who lead the Innovation Leadership program at NPS, invited several people from the Warfare Centers to audit their course, which was being offered virtually for the first time.
“As we were taking the course, we were drawn in,” said Dr. Thomas Choinski, Deputy Director for Undersea Warfare at Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Headquarters, who was among the Warfare Center personnel who audited the course. “We started doing the homework, and started a working group that still has weekly phone calls.”
Several Warfare Center participants stayed involved in the program as advisors and facilitators, and they came up with the idea of inviting a cohort of 10 participants from across the Divisions.
“S&T (science and technology) people often struggle to move their projects or ideas forward,” said Choinski, who also was involved in planning and executing the DAISS events. “We thought this could help.”
After an introductory meeting last October with Denning and Lyons, Warfare Centers Executive Director Dr. Brett Seidle approved sending 10 Division participants through the program, which supports the strategic goals of “Workforce and Leadership Development” and “Technical Innovation and Excellence” outlined in the Warfare Centers Strategic Plan. In August, Seidle was briefed by the participants in the winter session as well as Warfare Center advisors and facilitators.
With adversaries like China and Russia continuously accelerating adoption of technological advances, there is renewed urgency for the United States to move faster as well, Choinski said, from the scientists and engineers who are developing solutions for the warfighter to the acquisition process.
That, he said, requires an interdisciplinary approach to bring the various communities together for “conversations for action."
The Innovation Leadership program supports that concept by teaching participants about the eight key practices for innovation – sensing, envisioning, offering, adopting, sustaining, executing, leading and embodying, as outlined in the book, “The Innovator’s Way: Essential Practices for Successful Innovation,” by Denning and Robert Durham – and practicing how to have the right conversations with the right people to move innovation toward adoption.
“The Warfare Centers have a very important mission to get technologies adopted in their domains,” Denning said. “Through the course, we aimed to show engineers, scientists and managers how to build momentum for their innovations and break through resistance to attain adoption. In other words, we aim to help the Warfare Centers improve their effectiveness at achieving their mission.”
Business surveys have shown only about 4 percent of innovation projects meet their financial objectives to be considered successful, Denning said. Underpinning that low success rate is a general lack of understanding of the difference between “invention” and “innovation.”
“Invention is only 10 percent of innovation,” Denning said. “Ninety percent of the real work of innovation is in the adoption phase.”
Embracing the notion that innovation is not simply a clever new idea, but the adoption of a new idea, or a new practice, within a community broadens the focus from processes to people, said Lyons, who led a condensed version of the Innovation Leadership program as part of the DAISS events.
For example, Lyons said, rather than looking at the acquisition process as simply a channel for moving money, innovators look at it as a space in which to have conversations.
“How can we connect people who have something meaningful to contribute with the operators who could benefit and the people who have funding?” he asked. “Who are the right people to drive this?”
Answering those questions is key to creating an ecosystem in which everyone develops the skills and is empowered to move faster to meet the needs of the organization in definable and measurable ways, he said, avoiding the so-called “valley of death” between prototyping new technology and putting it into practice, and perhaps even improving processes along the way.
In addition to an overarching goal of helping the U.S. be more competitive, by coaching students as they apply these principles to their innovation projects and move them from conception to adoption, the course aims to develop leaders who find satisfaction from building and growing a community that cares about each other and the mission – and is willing to explore new ways to better serve both.
To that end, course participants from Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Carderock Division are developing the first external version of the Innovation Leadership class at their command, in partnership with NPS.
Dr. David Drazen, NSWC Carderock Division’s Chief Technology Officer, and Director of Innovation Garth Jensen have received funding and solicited participants and are planning for Carderock’s Innovation Leadership course – which will extend over 10 months, rather than 10 weeks, to allow a deeper dive into the concepts – to begin in October.
“The idea is that we will see how it goes and have it be a model for other Warfare Center Divisions to leverage if they are interested,” Drazen said.