Every morning when I leave my house I drive by this one vehicle. It’s had a broken window for as long as I can remember. Though the condition of the window hasn’t changed in a long time, the color of plastic that covers the hole changes frequently and with each application the owner delays the permanent fix in favor of a band-aid. I have seen black, orange, white, and clear plastic used as the temporary remedy. Some last a week, others a few weeks, but each inevitably gets torn and must be replaced. Truth is I see this happening in quite a few places: people accepting a short-term solution as the longterm fix. Inevitably the band-aid falls off and the decision to either apply a new one or fix the problem comes to the forefront.
I will freely admit that I use band-aids and sometimes those band-aids become a good enough solution for things that aren’t as important as I once thought. The refrigerator water dispenser in the house I rent might not be something I use enough to make it worth fixing in the short term, using a match in favor of the broken automatic lighter on the grill might be good enough, and a piece of tape over the tear on my bike seat is acceptable for the foreseeable future. That said, there are a multitude of other instances where a band-aid is just not acceptable and delaying proper addressal of the underlying problem just makes it worse. That leak in the roof, that suspicious looking mole, or that strained relationship with a loved one are things that don’t get better by delaying a proper fix.
Of late, the Navy has been talking a great deal about the need for more innovation within our ranks. There have been experiments across the force and there continues to be widespread acknowledgement that we need more innovation. In fact, the Secretary of the Navy recently signed a memo that is intended to help build an innovative culture across the Department of the Navy by “assessing innovation in the workplace.” The memo is well meaning, but is little more than a band-aid. I am critical of it because the memo calls for innovation as the outcome, but doesn’t speak of the culture of creativity, curiosity, and entrepreneurship necessary for innovation to predominant. It makes innovation mandatory and it calls for the measurement of something immeasurable. Lastly, it doesn’t even define the word ‘innovation’, which has become so overused that its meaning is hollow at best, and unknown by those who use it most. As much as I appreciate the intent and see flaws in the approach, I have long seen part of my role as a leader as being to turn another’s ideas into ‘good’ ideas and focusing on the implementation of those ideas once we shape them into good ones. And that is what I intend to do here.
The truth is a band-aid doesn’t heal a wound. It helps to keep the wound clean, prevent it from getting any worse, and afford the opportunity for the body to do the work it needs to in order to heal itself. A Navy void of truly innovative ideas is problematic. That said, you can’t expect to have innovative ideas when creativity is stifled by regulation, curiosity is killed by checklists, and entrepreneurs are all but invited to leave the ranks. You just can’t get there by standing on top of the hill yelling, “On my command, Innovate!” As flawed as the command might be, leaders have a responsibility to focus on the intent. Now that the Secretary has applied this band-aid, it’s my job to take advantage of the now sterile environment to help the tissues of curiosity bind, to ensure the scab of creativity forms, and to apply pressure so the entrepreneurial blood loss begins to clot. The Secretary never intended to fix anything with this memo, he expected leaders to stand up and follow through; to not wait to be told what to do, but to begin leading in ways that are in keeping with the culture mentioned in his band-aid of a memo. He didn’t say it, but the true leaders are well aware that he wants us to do these five things and more:
- Reconsider our recruiting pitch so Creatives know there is a place for them on our team
- Rewrite accession criteria so our most entrepreneurial applicants are selected
- Rescope performance appraisal criteria so innovators are brought to the front of the rankings
- Tailor promotion precepts so those overly enamored by the status quo might not promote at the rate that they have been
- Inspire a culture of creativity, minimize the fear of failure, and negate the check-in-the-box mentality that is overwhelmingly present
No singular organization has the authority to change the culture, but we each have the responsibility to change what we control and partner with others to influence what don’t. As a friend of mine says, we need to take a systems engineering approach to things like this. The challenge is finding partners who are self-compelled to lead together in the absence of a singularly accountable and anointed systems engineer to bring it all together. A band-aid heals nothing, but it speeds up the healing process. A leader makes little progress on his own, but if they can inspire the masses to take action everything is possible.
- What wounds are your band-aids hiding?
- What ‘ideas’ are you shaping into ‘good ideas’ and then implementing?
- How are you inspiring others to take action? How are you taking action yourself?