Does your industry seem to be experiencing a tidal wave of change? Does trying to change the direction of your company feel like trying to make a u-turn in an aircraft carrier on the high seas?
Then imagine what Richard Russell must feel like.
Russell, 51, is director of corporate-strategy development at the huge Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC), in Newport, Rhode Island. The 180-acre facility employs close to 3,000 engineers and scientists. It creates technology that seems like something out of science fiction: undersea bullets that travel faster than the speed of sound; unmanned vehicles that explore shallow, treacherous waters.
But its real job is to redefine how the navy does battle. “Warfare in the future will be filled with uncertainty,” says Russell. “We used to have a clear set of rules, a clear understanding of the threat that we faced. Now we’ve got a new set of vulnerabilities — which means that we have to think differently. So I’m trying to get all of us to think about how we think.”
That’s why Russell describes his actual role at NUWC as that of “chief irritant and instigator.” His job is to irritate those who uphold obsolete ways of thinking and to instigate breakthroughs about the future: “We’ve got to break out of our mental models — to spend less time thinking about what worked in the past and more time asking, ‘What’s possible in the future?’ “
Russell’s favorite technique for changing people’s mind-set is the “thinking expedition” — a term coined by Rolf Smith, managing director of the Virtual Thinking Expedition Co., a Houston-based outfit that works with corporate and military clients to encourage change and creativity. NUWC thinking expeditions convene people from various backgrounds — everyone from sonar engineers to two-star admirals — to work through questions that are “bold, daring, and different.”
Recently Russell built a thinking expedition around a scenario that he dubbed Hurricane Hilda: “Imagine that a hurricane sweeps through Newport, wipes out every building, and kills nearly everyone. The task of the remaining 50 people is to rebuild our organization. Where would we put it? Which facilities would be critical?” The logic behind the exercise: “I wanted to shock people into thinking about why we exist. What is our real contribution?”
The Hilda expedition began with a speech by the president and the senior vice president of a major defense contractor. Then came the NightFlight Program, which ran from 9 p.m. to midnight. Thirty participants listened to Led Zeppelin and Native American flute music. Meanwhile, Russell asked participants to answer back-to-basic questions: Why am I here? What’s the greatest thought that I’ve yet to have?
It was, to say the least, an un-navy-like atmosphere. But it paid off. During these thinking expeditions, Russell encourages people to express their ideas on three-by-five cards (called “blue slips”). The blue slips generated by the Hilda exercise yielded hundreds of ideas about NUWC’s blind spots and its future opportunities. “People unzipped their foreheads,” Russell says.
Not all of Russell’s events are quite as elaborate as his thinking expeditions. Every six weeks, he puts together what he calls “ThinkNets” — opportunities for small groups to get innovative for a few hours. ThinkNets have focused on spirit in the workplace, on “energy engineering” (in other words, balancing work and life), and on handling different personality types in the office (the latter event was titled “I’m Not Crazy . . . I’m Just Not You!”).
Russell doesn’t think that he’s solved the problem of old-style thinking inside the navy. But he does believe that he’s effected some change: “I’m trying to train people never to stop questioning what we’re doing or how we’re doing it.”
Sidebar: Imagine That
“Imagine a glass submarine. Imagine that you can see sound.”
You can’t generate breakthrough innovations without allowing people to imagine far-out scenarios. Granting people permission to imagine is Rich Russell’s role at NUWC.
Not long ago, for example, Ray Rowland, 46, and Stephen Greineder, 38, stumbled on Russell’s home page on the NUWC intranet. The two NUWC scientists, who work on submarine sonar, were intrigued by the page’s Virtual Idea Chamber. So they asked Russell to lead a ThinkNet. Russell handed out some of his trusty blue slips and asked the group a question: How can we use our imagination to jump-start the next generation of submarine sonar? Rowland, who has worked as a special-effects wiz for “Captain Kangaroo,” “Saturday Night Live,” and “The David Letterman Show,” wrote something along these lines: “Imagine if we could see sound. What would it look like?”
This and other questions resulted in a far-reaching thought experiment. Submarines have no windows. They navigate by analyzing acoustic data from thousands of sensors. Basically, Rowland was proposing a virtual wraparound window that would allow a commander and a crew to “see” outside the sub — the underwater equivalent of Captain Kirk’s post on the USS Enterprise.
“I don’t have a clue about what these guys had in mind technically,” Russell says. “But it could have huge implications.” Rowland and Greineder developed a presentation on the idea, and Russell got an “exploratory budget” to fund it. “It might not work, but it’s an amazing concept,” says Russell.
Much the same might be said of Russell’s work inside the navy.
Contact Richard Russell by email (email@example.com).