Learning to Win, a Hudson Institute Report

I was pleased to contribute to a recent Hudson Institute report on operational innovation and the importance of learning to today’s U.S. Navy. The whole report is available in PDF at this URL.

In my section, I focused on the importance of creating a learning organization by coupling individual learning outcomes to the Navy’s operational objectives. The Navy of the 1920s and 1930s was able to do that and there are lessons from that experience. More effective communication, more detailed orders, or more thorough checklists will be insufficient. Instead, the Navy must create an environment that stimulates and rewards creative problem-solving.

High-level goals should focus attention on the most important operational challenges. Boundary conditions—such as timing, geography, available resources, and other constraints—should constrain the scope of problem-solving. Within that scope, open-ended exploration must be encouraged and rewarded.

That will allow the Navy to conduct multiple experiments in parallel. Different officers and their teams will explore alternative ways of approaching challenging problems. Parallel experimentation will accelerate learning and create a broader understanding of potential solutions and available options. Creative ideas will emerge from the bottom-up, based on new lessons and the friction between established operating concepts and desired outcomes.

Captain William V. Pratt (second from left), Commander, Destroyer Force, Pacific Fleet observes exercises with members of his staff in 1921

When those creative ideas are coupled with new tactics, technologies, or operating concepts innovations will result. Innovations will enhance the Navy’s capabilities. However, they are not the goal. Instead, the goal is a repeatable learning system that enables the Navy to readily adapt and innovate along with advances in technology, changes in force structure, and shifts in the international environment.

That is what the Navy was able to do in the 1920s and 1930s as it explored carrier air power, experimented with rigid airships, and improved fleet tactics and doctrine. The system of learning developed in those years paid dividends in World War II when the Navy developed the combat information center (CIC), underway replenishment, and the tactics of multi-carrier task forces. Experimentation and rapid learning were essential to victory during the war.

I argue that it is time to apply some of the same underlying concepts, like open-ended exercises, nested feedback loops, and parallel experimentation, so that today’s Navy can enhance and capitalize on what former Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer called its “most critical warfighting capability” – the skill of its officers and sailors.

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