Thursday, October 29, 2015

Killing innovation with mediocrity

How I feel almost every day now...
Recently I spoke with a fellow junior officer about changing the setup we have for distributing some of our reports. Currently we email them out, and although we serialize them, we don't have a way of saving them where others can search for them. One of our subordinate fleets saves their reports to a blog, which I thought was a great idea. I played around a bit with the WordPress blog that Intelink uses and setup a sample blog.

Unfortunately, we can't just register people for blog updates. We would have to have them subscribe on their own, since the WordPress widget for subscribing someone isn't on Intelink. Apparently that's a big deal, because it has literally held us up for over a month now.

Seriously. Because we might have people too lazy to click a "subscribe to RSS" link, we will continue to use email to distribute our reports.

4 star command mind you. If you ever wanted to know how it feels to have lots of responsibility but not be able to tell people what to do, all you need to do is work in the Intel shop in Hawaii.

Mediocrity kills innovation. The desire to please those in the middle that don't want to do work kills the desire of people that want to innovate. For me right now, as I near the end of my time at my command, I know full well that anything I may attempt in the next month will probably die after I leave, no matter how useful it is. So why bother? There are no reasons to even try moving the organization forward at this point, since the overwhelming mediocre mentality will ensure we go back to the old way of doing business.

Two months ago, I rolled out a blog on JWICS for tracking incoming RFIs. It eliminated about 8 emails a day, made it easy to search for RFIs and to quickly do turnover, which gets Sailors on liberty faster. I felt bad at first rolling it out because I didn't really have a lot of buy in before doing so. I'm glad I ended up doing so, because it was the right thing to do.

If you wonder why the Navy struggles to innovate, look at the number of people satisfied to do "just their job." These folks don't just stand out of the way when new ideas come in. They actively kill new ideas through disdain and inaction. That guy that won't learn a new way of doing business? He saps your energy that you should be using to build something new. The gal that can barely do her job and requires lots of adult supervision? She takes away your time that you should be spending making your organization better. It'll be disguised as worrying about failure, or about priorities, or whatever, but the cold reality is that mediocre people kill innovation every day.

Mind you, we aren't talking about new people here. New people need training, but in the process of training them you create someone who will likely be better than you later on. I find that when I train someone, I tend to get better and I almost always learn something new. New people aren't the problem. Trained people that are just punching the clock are.

I hate mediocrity. Actually, that isn't harsh enough. I absolutely loathe mediocrity. Not every good idea works, but many deserve a chance. Our enemies are innovating right now. They are finding new ways of doing business. They are hoping that we stay mediocre, that we keep promoting the people that are satisfied doing "business as usual."

The question is, will we let them win?

The views expressed above are the authors alone and do not represent the views of the US Navy, Department of Defense or any other government institution.


  1. It's not that people are content doing their job. Do your job quietly and I don't mind. It's the people that wawant to stop you from doing your job well that are killing me.

  2. I submit that the system as a whole is to blame for allowing mediocrity to rule the roost. Sailors will be content to do the bare minimum if the Navy allows it and even REWARDS them for doing so in the end. How? Read the award citations, the evals, the'll see acts of mediocrity being inflated to epic proportions, making it seem as though every minimalist achiever is single-handedly saving the world. You're absolutely right about our enemies' perspective and their gratification in watching us implode under the weight of our own bureaucracy. One can only surmise that the Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians....not one of them is tying up a single resource worrying about the trivial things that find us fully engaged for days and weeks on end. As we blindly fixate our organizational efforts on experimental social programs, "career development," and cultural campaigns, our enemies are rapidly improving their weapons, equipment, and tactics all under the TRUE auspices of warfighter improvement....something that unfortunately is becoming nothing more than a catchphrase in today's US military.

  3. Mediocrity can also hide in the C2 hierarchy when the upper echelon staff tells the subordinate you must accept/read/use/heed this product that I in my superior wisdom have developed. The email product push allows the creator to ignore the number of people who delete the email without reading it and go on steadfastly producing something that may or may not actually be useful. Having an intimate familiarity with the product you reference, circa two years ago, it is a good product. But if you forced people to opt-in to receive it, you could potentially develop a better product through the measurement of who and how many users are signing up to read it and some sort of A/B testing schema. Maybe instead of forcing people to read and heed the intel assessments we produce in the format and tone that we produce them, we could learn from Drudge or HuffPost and make them want to read our intel assessments, maybe not by turning them into click bait, but by adjusting format/style/content based on user analytics.