Incoming: Advice for the Innovators

March 1, 2015
By Adm. James Stavridis, USN (Ret.)

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, a creative and questing leader, has just announced the creation of Task Force Innovation—a long overdue effort to put real emphasis on the critical role of innovation in running the Department of the Navy.

According to a January press release and in conversation with several of the leaders involved in the concept, it seems clear that the task force will focus broadly across many of the key activities in the department. It will seek to create and maintain an innovative work force, looking at personnel activities to “harness the creative energy our sailors, Marines and civilians already have.” The task force also will look hard at using what might be termed “big data”—large quantities of information to drive innovation. Finally, the task force will seek to provide paths to the fleet for emerging operational capabilities, essentially, technology. This all makes sense as a vector for the task force as it gets started.

Having focused a great deal on innovation throughout my career—particularly as the leader of “Deep Blue,” the Navy’s innovation think tank immediately after the September 11, 2001, attacks, and as commander of U.S. Southern Command—I would offer some important advice to the innovators as they get started.

First, they must demand access to the top. The task force currently is scheduled to report to the undersecretary of the Navy. This is acceptable but not optimal. It should report at least monthly to the secretary himself. Particularly given Secretary Mabus’ inclination to innovate, this makes great sense. It also provides the ultimate “top cover” in the department and gives real heft to any recommendations.

Next, the task force should leverage other people’s money. The task force will not be heavily resourced, but that is fine. It should be small, nimble, flexible and able to convince other larger entities in the Department of the Navy’s enterprise. It also should reach out to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the CIA innovation cell, other government and interagency equivalents and above all to the private sector for funded projects that can be done “on spec.”

Of course, the task force must hire the best. People will be looking hard at who the mechanics of the task force are and what their career mobility looks like. Are these individuals on an upward track? Are they already “screened” for their next assignment? Does the 0-6 in charge compete and make flag? Ensuring a track record of promotion and good next assignments will send an enormous signal.

This group must “work the seams.” Of course, a ton of innovation already is in progress across the Department of the Navy and indeed across the entire Defense Department. But several seams are not being exploited and should be considered.

One is biotech. The truly big changes that are coming will be tied to biology—human performance enhancement, human life extension, energy from biomass, synthetic designer drugs and many more. Innovation needs to recognize the key importance of biotech.

Then, we have cyber. Lots of work is going on here already, of course. But what are the areas where too little focus is being applied? Big data applications for everything from air traffic control of unmanned vehicles to maritime domain awareness make sense, as well as finding the right balance of logistics and warfighting in a given scenario. And where is the nation’s Cyber Force? Its appearance should be comparable to the emergence of the Air Force at the end of World War II.

The Arctic and the global environment are ripe for innovation. Building on the Navy Department’s work on sustainability, renewable energy and environmental responsibility, specific work can be done very innovatively in the high North. The department is well positioned to explore this type of innovation through both technology and personnel.

Social networks and strategic communications are front and center. If we are going to wrest control of the strategic narrative away from criminal enterprises such as the Islamic State, we need both technology and trained personnel to do so. What are the innovations that will enable this?

And, the innovators must pick the winners. Recognizing that perfection in innovation is the ultimate chimera, we still have to do our best to invest in the right broad operational and technical areas. The three key operational areas that make the most sense are special forces; unmanned vehicles, including space; and cyber. Thinking through both the right technologies and the best operational practices to find the synergies in this new triad could be a powerful contribution from Task Force Innovation.

Perhaps the best part of the task force is simply the message it sends to the entire million-person department: We are open to new ideas, excited to implement them, unafraid if many of them fail and committed to change.

Hopefully the message emanating from the Navy will fall on listening ears in other parts of the Defense Department. In this turbulent 21st century, we are not going to out-muscle our opponents; we need to out-think them. As this era of brain-on-brain warfare unfolds, Task Force Innovation is a welcome innovation unto itself.


Adm. James Stavridis was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander for NATO from 2009-2013. He is the 12th Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, from which he holds a Ph.D. in international law, and he is chairman of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Board of Directors.

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Dean Stavridis: you argue that we must out-think our enemies, restructuring our organizations to respond faster to change and emergent technologies and reaching out to form partnerships across sectors. You deftly explain that, "perfection in innovation is the ultimate chimera" to unfreeze future-inventors and cynical backlash to the process. I would like to tweak this. Perfection in the generation and initial implementation period is indeed a myth. However during refinement, it is exactly this quest for perfection which drives exponential growth in efficiency (for example more powerful micro-processors, sharper blades, and faster codes). Patience is the cask for 'perfecting' and maturing fine ideas. In the end, if we are to “harness the creative energy our sailors, Marines and civilians already have", we'll have to designate special time for these activities and a high level of personal and organizational respect for fine-tuning innovation. Thank you for your insights.

The United States military has become heavily bureaucratized since World War II, and largely to our detriment. Today, there are too many kingdoms in the Pentagon, that endure because their destruction would result in unemployment for the brass who lead them, rather than any diminution of American power.

Historically, innovations have happened when there was value to working on a new idea: interwar US naval aviation provided promotion pathways to aviators, interwar Royal Navy aviation didn't, so our aviation community advanced much faster than theirs.

Sometimes this drive for funding and status leads to less rational results. Both the US and Royal Air Forces based their 1930s doctrine on strategic bombardment, not because they could do it effectively, but because there was not justification for independent air services otherwise. It would take decades for technology to catch up with the bureaucratic justifications, and it limits the cultural ability of the USAF to perform other aerial missions (see: CAS, A-10 vs. JSF).

If we loosen up (fire) large portions of the bureaucracy, innovation will take much less effort. Until we break the tribal structures of the Pentagon, no smart officer will break with their tribe to do something new.

Great discussion! To combine 3 areas you named, biotech, human performance, and cyber, I would add that augmented cognition (DARPA is working on it) is one area where innovation has great potential.
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