How the Navy Drives Culture Change and Scales Innovation

As an organizational change expert working at the Defense Acquisition University for the Department of Defense (DOD), I spend a lot of time researching how organizations implement and drive culture change to scale innovation and deliver business outcomes. Over the past six months, I was embedded with NavalX, the Navy’s innovation cell, to design and deliver learning experiences to Sailors and Marines. NavalX is located at The Garden, a creative maker space in Alexandria, Va., and its network spans globally from Norfolk to Newport, San Diego to London, and Orlando to Okinawa.

Navy Drives Culture Change and Scales Innovation
Navy Drives Culture Change and Scales Innovation

During my rotation, I observed how NavalX drives culture change to scale innovation. Based on research by Clark & Estes, culture change is about people and getting them from the current state “A” to future state “B.” The process of change begins by asking three questions: Do the people have the skills to get from A to B? Do they have the motivation to inspire them to get from A to B? Does their organization support them with infrastructure, including top cover, technology, funding, and tools to do so?  Organizations can successfully drive culture change when they commit to continually keep moving the three levers: skills, motivation, and organizational infrastructure. Here’s how NavalX does that.

Skills

Adversarial advances and the volume, velocity, and complexity of change require that organizations invest in upskilling and reskilling their talent. One of the biggest challenges facing the Department of the Navy (DON) and the DOD is rapidly upskilling talent to withstand change. In their book,The Expertise Economy, Kelly Palmer and David Blake highlight that the organizations that tackle change most effectively focus on equipping their talent with the right skills and own what they learn and how they learn it.

At NavalX, the Center for Adaptive Warfighting (CAW) offers two virtual one-day courses packed with industry best practices to provide Sailors and Marines the skills they need to solve complex problems across the fleet. “In the CAW, we are serious about upskilling Sailors and Marines to problem solve differently,” says CAW Director Michael Lavery. The Warfighter Center Design course adapts design thinking to the context of the warfighter. This course helps warfighters build the skills they need to define complex problems and creatively develop testable solutions in the classroom and the battlefield.

The Design Thinking course brings in all the voices into the conversation: high-ranking officers and junior enlisted, those who know the most, and those who think differently. The Military Scrum course arms warfighters with scrum fundamentals adapted from the software industry. The course enables warfighters to design the values, team roles, and structures that accelerate creativity and productivity on the job. These courses are interactive, engaging, and practical and have trained more than 3,000 Sailors and Marines worldwide. As a result of these courses, warfighters go back to their units, train their teams, and spread new ways of thinking and problem-solving. With the CAW, NavalX plays a critical role in upskilling the workforce and helping change the culture of a 246-year-old institution that is also the world’s most powerful naval force, and that in itself is powerful.

Motivation 

The most challenging lever to move during the culture change journey is motivation. Inspiring and empowering the people to shift their behavior from current state “A” to future state “B” is quite challenging because, typically, people don’t want to change. Motivation is critical if an organization is to achieve lasting change. In his book Drive Daniel Pink analyzes what really motivates us: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy means that we must own our challenges and problems and how we tackle them and find ways to solve them, just like the CAW teaches. Mastery is doing something really well to accelerate mission outcomes. Mastery has a secret ingredient of engagement.

The ConnecX team at NavalX, and in particular, Matt Denny, who helped build the effort, works to bring the DON together by sharing lessons learned, tools, and resources and breaking down organizational barriers through videos, podcasts, livecasts, and events in person and virtually. Being able to ask questions to an admiral and get a response on the spot is both inspiring and empowering to junior enlisted Sailors and Marines because it underscores that their ideas and questions count and can make a difference in solving the Navy’s biggest problems.

ConnecX has reached more than 5,300 workforce members through 12 Seaside chats, and engaged with more than 9,000 attendees in 14 “Ask Me Anything” events. Engaging the workforce by empowering them to share their ideas and recommendations is vital in culture change efforts in any organization. At NavalX, having worked closely with Denny and his team to develop a livecast, I was impressed with their mastery of using the livecast platforms but also their readiness to embrace hiccups during the live broadcasting event on social media and keep going with passion and decisiveness to deliver the message. When it comes to motivation and engagement, walking the talk is perhaps the most powerful action leaders can take, and at NavalX, the ConnecX team does just that.

Organizational Infrastructure

The third lever of organizational change is foundational to and includes elements like top cover and access to funding, tools, and technology, and above all, an environment of psychological safety so that people not only can feel safe moving from the current state “A” to the future state “B” but also help carve the path of doing so. In The Fearless Organization, Harvard Business School Professor Amy Edmondson underscores how psychological safety drives learning and innovation. She also highlights tasks that leaders implement to build psychological safety, including setting expectations about failure, uncertainty, and the power of working together, asking good questions, modeling active listening, and creating forums for input, among others.

Additionally, NavalX offers Tech Bridges, a connected network that strengthens collaboration across naval labs, industry, academia, and other military branches and provides access to state and local government and academic institutions resulting in richer regional innovation ecosystems and economic growth. Currently, there are 15 Tech Bridges located in nine states and one overseas location in London, United Kingdom. In a little over a year, NavalX also added 11 new Partnership Intermediary Agreement (PIA) partners. PIAs are contracts, agreements, or memorandums of understanding by non-profit partnership intermediaries to engage academia and industry on behalf of the government to accelerate tech transfer and licensing and are used by government labs to facilitate technology transfer to the private sector.

As my rotation ends, I am grateful for the opportunity to see up close how NavalX navigates one of the world’s biggest bureaucracies and the world’s most powerful naval force to cultivate a culture change and scale innovation by inspiring and empowering the workforce to problem solve differently.

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