Monday, June 20, 2011

The Innovative Treadmill

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 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:

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

Work - Achieving results through others...turns the vision into action
Time - Both long and short term considerations

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 themself 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.


  1. To comment on a tangential matter: Do you ever find it a little odd to speak of the military's mission in business terms? I often hear elected leaders speak of "running government like a business," but the fact of the matter is that government, like the military, is NOT a business.

    Yes, I know such people do not LITERALLY mean that government and the military should be focused on maximizing shareholder profits by any legal means available. But the quality of our thinking is impacted by the language we use to form our thoughts. If we use the language of business when forming our thoughts on matters of government and the military, there may be a risk that the VALUES of business will infect what should be the values of goverment and the military -- that is, government and the military exist to serve the nation, not vice-versa.

    Over the top? Perhaps. But government and the military have their own well-established language used to describe what it is they do: govern and protect. Is it necessary to risk cheapening those honorable missions by casting their actions in the language of mere commerce?

  2. Fair point. I see goodness in using business lexicon/ideas in a military environment, as well as military terms/ideas in a business environment. If our commitment to military values is undermined by using business terms, we have bigger problems. There is much we (military) can learn from the private sector and much they can learn from us. We need to create more intersections, as we leverage the strengths of our respective cultures, and tailor the ideas from outside our silo to fill the void within.

    I will also acknowledge that the technical field in which I work has almost as much in common with Google as we do the traditional Fleet. Finding that balance is the challenge and as crazy as it may sound, I believe we have to migrate more towards the silicon valley culture (speaking of creativity and experimentation) to find that balance.

    Lastly, I try to write in an inclusive manner in hopes of the ideas resonating just as much with my non-military as they do with my military friends.

  3. Well said. Entrepreneur vs. Innovator is an important distinction in my lexicon that I will take forward.


  4. My disdain for the I word, its derivatives, and associates stems from the widespread belief that change, in and of itself, is always good. Well thought through and properly executed change is good; everything else is just activity masquerading as accomplishment.

  5. Since 2004, I have been advocating running the government more like a business than ever before, particularly with keeping the mindset of maximizing the shareholder's ROI at the forefront. Otherwise, the collective "we" will not take the ownership perspective needed to effect dramatic change at inspriational times with some risk (read different than "no risk"). If we the employees of the company strive to serve our shareholders, then I think we would output a better product, intellectual or otherwise.

  6. Hmmm...