I have often wondered why we in the Navy are so quick to use the word “innovative” (and derivatives thereof) in our daily vocabulary. In doing so, I am convinced most don’t realize how meaningless the word really is (or we made it)… “characterized by, tending to, or introducing something new.” There is no assessment of the value of this new process, idea, product, etc.; just that it is “something new.” We see innovations each and every day and often times they amount to nothing more than new ways of doing the same thing. This is why you will never hear me use the word (unless I am using it sarcastically) and I cringe at the site of the word in performance appraisals. I believe that the characteristic we truly need to promote is that of entrepreneurship. I have seen many definitions for this word, but it amounts to “A process through which individuals identify opportunities, allocate resources, and create value.” The key difference being that of CREATING VALUE.

The command at which I currently work believes so strongly in the entrepreneurship trait that it is one of our four command values and we proudly acknowledge “fear of failure is not authorized.” I believe we all are Chief Executive Officers (CEO) at some level…command, department, division, workcenter, team, collateral duty, process owner, or self. As such, we have a responsibility to celebrate our role as an entrepreneur by working “on” the business as much as we work “in” the business. The book E-Myth Revisited does a great job of describing the three roles we play in our professional lives…Technician, Manager, and Entrepreneur, where technicians work “in” the business at one end of the spectrum and entrepreneurs work “on” the business at the other end. Here is a quick summary about how each person looks at time and work:

Technician
Work – Directed by the manager; follows standard operating procedures
Time – Focused in the present moment…what can be done today

Manager
Work – Achieving results through others…turns the vision into action
Time – Both long and short term considerations

Entrepreneur
Work – Developing a vision of where s/he can take the business
Time – Focused on the long term

I firmly believe that each one of us regardless of rank or position has a responsibility to assume each role. The trick is recognizing how much time we should spend assuming each one. As a Commanding Officer, I spend most of my time focusing on the entrepreneurial role, some of my time in a managerial role supporting the vision from higher authority and little time responding to the tasking of the day as a technician. On the other end of the spectrum, our most junior analyst spends most of the time as a technician, finds way to work with peers to create managerial opportunities, and when given the requisite strategic context is able to devote a small portion of the day to an entrepreneurial role.

I continue to see evidence of my peers, seniors, and juniors embracing all three roles to varying degrees, but the reason I have been giving the concept of working “on” the business versus “in” the business so much thought is I see a mismatch. I see too many senior officers unable to shed the technician mindset that may have made them a great junior officer. I see Petty Officers, Chiefs and junior officers all focused almost entirely on a managerial role. And I see some of our greatest entrepreneurial minds being held back (by both themselves and others) by a collar device. Over the course of a career, we are expected to enter as technicians, grow into managers and ultimately become entrepreneurs (though the military clearly uses different lexicon) with personal initiative being the primary means of evolving (i.e. little deliberate investment in professional development). The problem is our best technicians do not necessarily grow into our best managers, and the concept of entrepreneurship is lost on those in our most influential leadership positions.

I ask that we think twice before continuing to use the word “innovative” as a prevalent part of our daily vocabulary, as our inaction has made it meaningless. Let’s get off the “innovative” treadmill that does nothing more than find new ways of delivering the status quo. Instead, let’s embrace the role of entrepreneur, create some unique value and acknowledge that much of what we do today is merely keeping ourselves busy under the false pretense that we are making progress. Please do not be afraid to fail and let us find ways to reward those who demonstrate they are not risk-averse, while we weed out those who are.

  • How often do you hear the words innovation, innovative, or innovator?
  • What are we really trying to say when we use those words?
  • How might we make value a meaningful part of the equation?