When you're looking for examples of creative thinking, innovation, and a willingness to break the rules, you might think of taking a peek inside garages in Silicon Valley or buying a ticket to SxSW. The last place you'd consider looking would be the military. The armed forces might be great at projecting power but it's a place where are orders are obeyed, not questioned, and processes are continued because...well, that's the way they've always been done. But a recent article in Harvard Business Review described how one unit in the U.S. Navy is dedicated to fostering new ways of thinking.
The "rapid-innovation cell" was set up by Ben Kohlmann, an instructor and director of flight operations who wanted to build a culture of non-conformity. He looked for what the article calls "black sheep," sailors who weren't afraid to show dissent. One of his recruits had shouted at senior flag officers. Another had refused to go through basic training. A third had been kicked off a nuclear submarine after refusing an order. Kohlmann added a bunch of regular sailors who had until then followed the rules, took them all to Google and the Rocky Mountain Institute, created a syllabus about innovation, and built a naval A-Team of insubordinate misfits.
The result has been the introduction of 3-D printers on ships and the use of robotic fish for stealthy underwater missions. Other parts of the military have started forming their own rapid-innovation cells.
So what can the Navy's rebel team teach entrepreneurs about thinking outside the box?
First, it's not enough to hire mavericks and hope they offer good ideas. Eventually, they run out of new thinking, and other people in the company don't bother offering their own thoughts. Businesses should be encouraging everyone to contribute and they should be doing it all the time, whether it happens through suggestion boxes, dedicated times in team meetings, intranet forums, or one-on-one meetings with team leaders. Individuals should always feel that they have a place to contribute alone, so that they aren't mocked or silenced or judged by other team members and managers. Ben Kohlmann tossed out the use of rank in his team so that everyone feels they have an equal voice; members of the unit call each other by their first names regardless of the number of stripes or shoulder bars they've earned.
Those ideas should also come in volume. Many of them will be standard. Some will be truly bad. But some of them, especially the ones the team members reach for after they've thought of everything else, will be worth a second look. Writers at Upworthy, a viral content site, have to produce 25 headlines for every story, and it's usually the last ones added to the list that perform the best. The rest are ditched.
Entrepreneurs have to be equally careful about how they pick those creative ideas. The idea generation can be democratic, but some people are better at judging the viability of an idea than others. Managers tend to prefer the processes that brought them to their position, and the innovators themselves are usually too much in love with their own ideas to judge them objectively. The best people to judge a new way of doing things are usually other innovators: they're impartial, open-minded, and can think critically enough to see flaws.
Ben Kohlmann refers to his team as the "loyal opposition." "Agitating against the status quo is how we contribute to the mission," Joshua Marcuse, one of Kohlmann's Pentagon colleagues, told Harvard Business Review. Agitating against the status quo is also how entrepreneurs get to achieve success.