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Two major, ongoing stories involving the Navy and the coronavirus illustrate a key challenge the U.S. military is facing: the need to be agile so that innovation can thrive.
First, the USNS Comfort was sent to New York City to help relieve hospitals and other medical centers inundated with patients. But the ship was unable to quickly take on many of those patients, due to what The New York Times called a “tangle of military protocols and bureaucratic hurdles.” As the head of New York’s largest hospital system put it, “If I’m blunt about it, it’s a joke.”
Meanwhile, there’s the story of Navy Capt. Brett Crozier, who was fired ostensibly for not following the formal chain of command — though he was clearly trying to protect his crew from the deadly coronavirus. Sailors cheered for Crozier as he departed the USS Theodore Roosevelt, showing their support for him. (Crozier later reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 himself.)
What these stories have in common is a mindset that some believe prevents the kind of quick, agile and adaptable thinking that could help save lives, not only in a pandemic, but in wartime as well.
It’s the type of challenge that some service members and military leaders have discussed with me often over the past several years. My team at Gapingvoid Culture Design Group has been working with the U.S. Air Force to overcome similar problems. We’ve worked to help build a culture of innovation, allowing committed airmen to exercise their creativity in ways that help achieve their mission.
As Brig. Gen. E. John Teichert, commander of the 412th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., said in a video as part of this effort, “There are some who think that in order to shake us out of the way that we do business, that it takes a crisis. And I think that is absolute rubbish. We are smart, we are creative, we are motivated. And it shouldn’t take a war to force us to innovate.”
T.J. Wuth, electrical engineer and innovation lead with the 412th Range Squadron, added that innovation “shouldn’t take a deadline, it shouldn’t take an emergency. We should be doing this. We should be innovating for the warfighter and not accepting the status quo.”
The National Defense Strategy mandates that our military become more innovative. And numerous actions across the services speak to that. The Navy hosted an Innovation Summit aboard the USS San Diego in May 2016. Just months ago, the Military Health System Communications Office noted that researchers at the Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center are working to develop all sorts of new technologies that could, for example, help field medics care for wounded soldiers.
Still, these recent developments involving the Navy during the COVID-19 crisis are a reminder that legacy rules and systems can stand in the way, limiting a branch’s agility in responding to an emergency.
Solving this requires a delicate balancing act. Rules and systems are essential in the military. They protect lives, ensure orders are followed and allow the armed forces to orchestrate missions as a cohesive whole.
But not all rules and systems of the past are still apt in the modern era. Service members should be empowered to introduce their own ideas about changes that would increase efficiency and productivity in support of a mission. And those ideas must be heard and considered.
Despite the many differences between the military and businesses in the private sector, I’ve found through experience that on this front there’s a great deal of similarity. Culture change is needed inside these organizations to allow agility and innovation to flourish.
At the heart of core, daily operations, people at all ranks should be encouraged to approach challenges with a mindset focused on creating new solutions. This means crushing the instinct to quickly say, “This is how it’s done,” and replacing it with a question: “How can we change things to get this done better and faster?”
It sounds simple, but in reality, it’s tough work. It requires training and a management system in which this kind of constant innovation is rewarded and recognized.
Now is the time to make it happen. Crises can spur big change. As we explain in the ebook “Leadership in the Time of Coronavirus,” agility is your friend. No one should be afraid to pivot — least of all the brave men and women working so hard to keep the nation safe, including from a global pandemic.
Jason Korman is CEO of Gapingvoid Culture Design Group.