Harnessing the Navy’s Culture of Innovation


Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus speaks with Sailors and Marines during an all-hands call in Seoul, Republic of Korea, in December 2014. With the establishment of Task Force Innovation, the secretary wants the dialogue to work both ways in the search for new ideas for how to improve the Navy and Marine Corps. Photo by MCC Sam Shavers.

By Ray Mabus

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps uniquely provide presence around the globe to promote stability,deter adversaries, and assure our nation’s leaders full range of options in times of crisis. In past conflicts, our attention often was focused on one defined adversary; today, with the onset of the information age, technology has been democratized and our adversaries come in all shapes and sizes. They are unhindered by processes and policy, let alone the rule of law, and can adapt and employ technology and tactics as fast as the commercial world can develop them.

In the face of these new and dynamic challenges, and with an increasingly constrained fiscal environment, it is critical that we continue to lead the way—across every part of our organization—in innovative thinking.

Strategic thinkers know that leading an organization through times of change requires innovation. In my few short years in uniform I learned something that has been reinforced in the five years I’ve been Secretary of the Navy. The Navy and Marine Corps are always changing, evolving, and advancing to meet the latest in technology and warfighting developments. Innovation is part of our tradition, and it will continue to define us and drive our capabilities into the future.

In January, I established the Navy’s Task Force Innovation, a group from across the department composed of innovative thinkers, experts, and warfighters with diverse backgrounds and from every level. I’ve charged them with identifying changes we could make to amplify the power of the innovative work force that comprises the Navy and Marine Corps. Our talented Sailors, Marines, and civilians have proven their ingenuity throughout our history, whether it’s bringing our ships from sail power to the steam-driven ironclads of the Civil War, or the Marines’ development of amphibious warfare. Our people have been and will always be our most innovative resource. What we’re doing is harnessing the creative energy they already have, and finding ways to infuse those ideas back into our operations.

Innovation isn’t just producing some new platform or weapon. Innovation must mean taking a new look at our culture, our policies, and our operations and challenging ourselves to think differently. Promoting a culture of innovation means repurposing resources to endorse a new idea; it means removing bureaucratic roadblocks to allow for change more quickly. It also means accepting the risk associated with coming up with new ideas, some of which will not work. I challenge the Sailors, Marines, and civilians of the fleet to bring their ideas forward, and I challenge the Navy leadership to encourage that innovation—whether it be concepts, tactics, policies, processes, or technologies. The challenges of the present and future require that we aggressively press forward with emerging capabilities and operating concepts that exist within the intellectual capital of our remarkable workforce.

For seven decades, the Navy and Marine Corps have kept the sea lanes open, maintaining stability and security around the world. Today, increasing global demands coupled with tighter budgets force the Navy and Marine Corps to maintain our global presence in the midst of decreasing resources. There is no better time than now to embolden our innovators and reinvigorate the culture of innovation that is intrinsic in our people, and has, throughout our history, inspired some of the greatest achievements our world has seen.

 Our people, information, and systems are all part of a constantly transforming information era that must adapt with the times to stay at the forefront.

A majority of our Sailors and Marines come from a generation native to this information world; they have grown up with mobile technology and social media at their fingertips. They bring new and unforeseen skills to our fleet, and it’s our responsibility to attract, develop, and retain the best talent.

In today’s information environment, data provide us an unparalleled military advantage—but data in the wrong hands can be catastrophic. The platforms of the future are increasingly reliant on the ability to collect, analyze, and disseminate data. This requires understanding that data has intrinsic value outside of the systems and platforms that contain it. With the large quantity of information and data we collect, we must take advantage of the great leaps that have been made in advanced computing and analytics and ensure we treat our information as a strategic asset while preventing our adversaries from using it against us.

Our ships, aircraft, and submarines, along with the incredible systems we have developed to enhance these platforms, make us the most advanced Navy in the world. Looking ahead, unmanned systems and advanced manufacturing are the future. Now is the time to look at all of our platforms and systems and make sure we  are asking ourselves what the future fleet looks like, and how we can best use the capabilities we have today to remain a superior maritime force in the decades ahead.

About the author:

Ray Mabus is the Secretary of the Navy.

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