Last week I attended the Athena East Naval Innovation Competition in downtown Norfolk. More specifically, I was part of a “Shark Tank” style board, helping the contestants think through the “so what” of their idea. The ideas were strong, the passion shared by each contestant was obvious, and the interest from the audience was inspiring. There was value in each of the five ideas and I am certain that all will be implemented in meaningful ways, scaled to the appropriate level. But it wasn’t the ideas that were pitched that excited me most. What excited me most was the combination of the concept of the forum, the energy it inspired, and the opportunity to connect with those in attendance.
I have long been turned off by the overuse, misuse, and just plain dumbing down of the word “innovation” (Click here for more). So the concept of innovation is not one that grabs my attention as much as it did years ago. In fact, it plain turns me off. Rather than focus on the devolution of the word, I would say that for one night, this particular room was comprised of leaders committed to making the word have meaning once again. This group of creative individuals, curious enough to solve problems they see in the world and focused on delivering value to those with whom they serve, represented the actual meaning of the word. This mindset was not limited to those who pitched their ideas or the event organizer, all of whom did an amazing job, but described all in attendance.
I listened intently to each of the five ideas, exchanged thoughts during and after each pitch, and continue dialogue with some of these innovators (yes, I used the I-word). As much as I enjoyed interacting with each of them, and as good as the ideas they shared were, that was only a fraction of the experience. This experience was about connecting people who have self-identified as collaborators, connectors, and problem solvers. For one night, those individuals, inspired largely by the crew of the USS BENFOLD a few years ago, found a centralized location. Some were on stage, some were part of the Shark Tank, and most were in the audience. Many of us had admired each other’s work from afar and even exchanged e-mails over the years, but had never met. That alone made attending worthwhile, but wasn’t the entire value proposition.
The value of that night is being realized right now and with each day that follows. The group that was centralized is now dispersed across the atlantic seaboard. The message is growing, and the visible commitment to following through is becoming more obvious. The number of people who are willing to share their ideas is larger than ever and mentors equipped to coach our most passionate teammates are plentiful. That night was not about that night, that night was about the ripples that continue to emanate. That night is about a movement. And that movement is all about distributed problem solving across the military hierarchy. It’s about giving people at all ranks the confidence, the tools, and the support to solve the problems that they see. It’s about removing barriers so that others understand they have the requisite permission to do more than just their jobs. It’s about bringing more of the Silicon Valley culture to the Navy. It’s about redefining “us”. Don your hoodie, full-speed ahead – let’s distribute problem solving across and beyond the Fleet!