Take a huge area of responsibility, and 11 statutory missions that are vital to the security and prosperity of the nation and the safety of its citizens, sprinkle myriad difficult and dangerous threats, and get it all done in the most extreme maritime environments on an austere budget. How can the Coast Guard hope to achieve all of that? Innovation!
… “design thinking” and “human-centered design” methodologies are driving how the Coast Guard leads innovation. They play a critical role in designing challenges and prototyping potential solutions generated by the workforce. “At the end of the day, it’s not about me running a program, or the RDC running their program, or our capabilities colleagues running their program. It’s about supporting the Coastie with the idea, and how we couple our strategic needs with the Coast Guard men and women that have the talent and knowledge to help us design solutions that get us from our current state to our desired state.”
“Innovation is hugely important to the Coast Guard. It involves looking at better and new ideas – both technology-based as well as non-material approaches – that offer improved solutions to requirements that we have,” said Bert Macesker, executive director of the Coast Guard Research and Development Center (RDC) in New London, Connecticut.
The challenge is to carry out the Coast Guard’s 11 missions in the current austere budget climate. “So that means that we need to get creative,” said Macesker. “There are a lot of good ideas, but we have to translate and transition these good ideas into products and systems that improve operational execution.”
Macesker said the Innovation Program is kind of a middle step between where the Coast Guard is today and the long-term strategy to future thinking. “We need to have innovation as a middle. That’s what enables the workforce and the stakeholders all to collaborate together in trying to close our performance gaps.”
The Coast Guard held periodic Innovation Expos, and presented Captain Niels P. Thomsen Innovation Awards for the best ideas. In fact, the Innovation Program is so important that the Coast Guard is, well, innovating: It’s making the program better.
A newly “reimagined” Innovation Program is based on an important shift from a passive posture to an active one. Fueled by the need for improved employee engagement and steered by conference, travel, and budget constraints, the new active posture offers specific challenges for the workforce’s innovators to target their efforts toward. Rather than senior leaders and stakeholders shopping for ideas that were presented at an Innovation Expo, the new program is challenge based, open to everyone in the Coast Guard, and uses the latest technology in crowd-sourcing ideation platforms.
The “What” and the “How”
The Innovation Program starts with the service’s “evergreen” outlook toward the future. Evergreen is a scenario-based strategy development process that looks ahead at trends, drivers, and uncertainties affecting the way the Coast Guard may operate well beyond the next decade. It then builds scenarios the Coast Guard may consider, which are updated on a cycle that starts with each new commandant.
Evergreen is a way to inform the organization of what capability it might need, while remaining “solution agnostic.” Innovation Program Manager Cmdr. Tyson Weinert said the innovation-based methods can now empower the workforce to help determine the best way to achieve that capability. “If the Evergreen Program influences the ‘what,’ the Innovation Program supports the ‘how.’”
A new ideation-based software platform will soon connect the service’s targeted problems with the workforce – which, Weinert said, includes active-duty, civilians, reservists, and auxiliarists. “We value the talent of the 88,000 people that make up our total workforce,” Weinert said. The diversity of thought that can feed into this collaborative platform is a compelling resource that supports the pivot to an active, challenge-based program.
“Instead of having a panel of experts reviewing award submissions, we will soon have the whole workforce that has access to this voluntary platform looking at an important problem and offering potential solutions. If 67 percent of your boatswain’s mates or machinist technicians like and support an idea, that’s a very powerful statistic,” Weinert said. “If it meets a strategic need, and the workforce likes it, let’s go ahead and put some investment dollars into it, then we’ll pass the baton to the RDC and our requirements and capabilities specialists to have them apply some rigor towards further developing this idea.”
The program isn’t tied to an event or competition judging. Rather than waiting for the Innovation Expo or the annual innovation awards cycle, the new program is in effect 24/7/365 and will feature multiple challenges per year.
Weinert said the Coast Guard can prototype processes, policies, and products. But it’s important to identify who will champion and sponsor these challenges. “We need that office to declare that need, and that they want to see this through. Otherwise we risk trying to offer our colleagues ‘free puppies.’”