Breaking through with Your Breakthrough: How Science-Based Communication Can Accelerate Innovation and Technological Advantage

By Nystrom, Dave; Wojtecki, Joseph, Jr. et al. | Joint Force Quarterly, January 2017 | Go to article overview

Breaking through with Your Breakthrough: How Science-Based Communication Can Accelerate Innovation and Technological Advantage


Nystrom, Dave, Wojtecki, Joseph, Jr., Winter, Mat, Joint Force Quarterly


Communicating naval science and technology ... is about our responsibility to convey truth and reality for informed decisionmaking. Lessons learned detailed here are as much about good leadership as they are skills for defense innovators.

--Rear Admiral Mat Winter, USN, Chief of Naval Research

Naval technology today can trace its origins to Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored research, but in order for breakthroughs to reach the fleet, ONR has a responsibility to communicate warfighting value and foster informed support for implementation. This article shares some insights from decades of innovation and offers seven communication practices that can help innovators and leaders in military science and technology, not only in the Navy but also in the other Services.

As we scan the defense landscape, we see that threats are proliferating, adversaries are closing the gap, and the pace of innovation, once set by the Department of Defense (DOD), is exposing the consequences of our bureaucracy's declining ability to keep up. While innovation of all types is needed, the kind that enables us to win wars is technology-based. The Department of the Navy has a solid record of leveraging technology for decisive capability advantage, but often it is a stressful journey, sometimes calling for extraordinary intervention. We also contend with that most inelastic of naval cultural traits, tradition, which sometimes requires heroic effort and personal sacrifice from innovators to overcome.

Consider the case of Lieutenant William Sims. In 1900, Sims introduced continuous-aim firing for naval guns using gears and telescopic sights to compensate for a ship's roll, increasing accuracy by 3,000 percent. Nevertheless, his reports were systematically ignored or rejected by the Navy's Bureau of Ordnance--citing the technology as "unnecessarily disruptive to the social order of a ship." Exasperated, Sims wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1902 intervened to circumvent Navy bureaucracy and appointed Sims as Inspector of Target Practice, where he commissioned and tested new gunnery to instill continuous-aim technology. He persevered, retired at the rank of admiral, and was credited as the "man who taught us how to shoot." (1)

Some may recognize this case study and be struck by the parallels facing modern defense innovators. From a communication perspective, Sims assumed too much: that facts speak for themselves, that he was an effective messenger, and that data-laden technical reports would counter intractable perception-based resistance. Sims underestimated the stress his innovation placed on the status quo and how that stress impacted gaining informed support.

Today, we do not lack smart people, talent, or good ideas. The problem remains at the point of implementation; this is the point where, after the initial exuberance of discovery and early support, the reality of overcoming resistance from "late adopters and laggards," (2) combined with scaling the bulkheads of bureaucracy, sets in. Science-based communication, however, can help defense innovators break through with options well short of letters to the President.

Stress Impacts Communication

Innovation is the adoption of a new invention, practice, or idea. (3) Therefore, increasing the success rate requires deeper understanding of how to gain informed support. This seems straightforward, but the complexities of communicating innovation, and the changes invoked, are often oversimplified. Recall moments when you were involved in a crisis, had to deliver bad news, or had to persuade others on some controversial point. The message, messenger, and method all take on crucial significance in such circumstances. Effective communication in stressful situations draws upon an understanding of science-based principles that apply to the diffusion of innovation.

One point of reference for high stress that Americans vividly remember is September 11, 2001. …

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