“Is this another one of your Crazy Ivans?” my Senior Enlisted Advisor asked me with a skeptical smile. “If so, I think I’ll go ahead and sit down.”
Made famous by the movie Hunt for Red October, a Crazy Ivan is, according to urbandictionary.com, a “quick unexpected and radical change in direction, literally or metaphorically.”
As a CO, I loved the ability to infuse fresh, new ideas to make positive change. To me, that has always been one of the greatest joys of being a leader – having a positive impact on peoples’ lives. The CO has a unique ability and freedom to affect positive changes on a crew and I didn’t want to waste an opportunity.
I never thought of what we did on the ship as “entrepreneurial” in nature, but I read something the other day that challenged this notion. In Jim Collins’ best seller Good to Great, he writes:
“Avoid bureaucracy and hierarchy and instead create a culture of discipline. When you put these two complementary forces together – a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship – you get a magical alchemy of superior performance and sustained results.”
Ethic of entrepreneurship. Do we have that in the military? Can we have that? While we certainly have our share of bureaucracy, you can also find a culture of discipline. But you’d be hard pressed to find an ethic of entrepreneurship. If you buy what Collins is saying – you need a culture of discipline and an ethic of entrepreneurship if you want superior performance and sustained results – the military has some work to do.
What is it? Entrepreneurship is something military folks don’t talk about. We tend to link the entrepreneurial spirit with building a business or starting a company. Not necessarily so. It is a way of thinking. An organization that has the entrepreneurial ethic is one where fresh, innovative ideas are implemented with little resistance. People are excited to work there because they can experiment and take risks without fear of failure.
We can’t be afraid of embracing the ethic of entrepreneurship. It’s that spirit and ethic that can drive change in our organizations.
The Entrepreneurial Ethic is There – Sort Of. At the lower echelons, you may see it. On his submarine, David Marquet challenged the status quo and stopped giving orders – instead, he asked for peoples’ intentions. In getting the crew to think and not just react to orders, he forced Sailors to come up with their own problem solving solutions. The crew of USS Benfold (DDG 65) started the Athena Project, “a platform for Sailors to pitch innovative ideas to improve their command or the Navy in an open forum to fellow Sailors as well as leaders of industry, academia and government.”
In my own command experience, I was always on the lookout for different and more effective ways to operate. We experimented with combined watch stations in order to create efficiencies and flexibility. Sailors designed training and drills that were more realistic and challenging – I loathe the run-of-the-mill drill scenario. On one deployment to Bahrain, we employed a modified work schedule in port that resulted in maximized time off for the crew but did not sacrifice readiness. My successor instituted a wildly popular and effective program where a “night shift” was created while in port, Bahrain. He credits this initiative as a key success factor in their superior INSURV inspection.
We need an ethic of entrepreneurship – who will lead it? The entrepreneurial ethic yields positive results when you have the right people and a culture of discipline. David Marquet and USS Benfold are prime examples. The problem with these examples is that they are isolated. While positive change was affected, it was only realized at the lower echelons. Think about how our military could change for the better if these examples were applied across the whole military.
Don’t fret. There is hope! The Athena Project is gaining traction across the Navy. Recently, a forum for the Athena Project was held in the Pacific Northwest where Sailors pitched their innovative ideas. The CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) is an example of how the Navy is trying to embrace the entrepreneurial ethic at a more institutional level. The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF) is a grassroots organization run by active duty and former military members. DEF aims to “build a cadre of creative leaders who foster the adaptation and innovation required to solve 21st century national security problems.”
The problem with these initiatives is that the Navy and military still operate as a giant, sluggish bureaucracy. Our acquisition process is a nightmare. From an institutional perspective, risk taking is frowned upon. Incentives aren’t embedded in processes and procedures in order to inspire innovation. Innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit shouldn’t be confined to individual commands, Athena Projects or the CRIC. We need to unleash this spirit across the military and realize the positive change on a grander scale.
I think the next generation of leaders will not only bring the ethic of entrepreneurship to the military culture, but to imbue the military with that ethic. Looking ahead at the fiscal pressures we face in budgets and appropriations, we will need a new way to build and sustain our military if we are to continue as the world’s most capable force. As long as they stay the course and continue to serve, the guys and girls of the CRIC, Athena Project and DEF are the future of the military. They know we need to create the ethic of entrepreneurship on a broad scope in order to achieve sustained and superior results. And when they’re at the helm, I can’t wait to hear about their Crazy Ivans.