From recognizing innovators, to empowering your team at every level, to developing innovation outposts, the US Coast Guard are experts in innovation and idea management. Learn more in this podcast interview.
The U.S. Coast Guard is the maritime security, search and rescue, and law enforcement service branch of the United States Armed Forces. As one of the country’s six armed services, the Coast Guard has been involved in every major U.S. war since 1790. Currently the Coast Guard has a total workforce of close to 85,000. It is actually the world’s 12th largest naval force. But that workforce has a vast amount of responsibility: they conduct everything from search and rescue, law enforcement, national defense to commercial vessel safety, environmental protection, and much more.
In the past five years, they’ve adopted tons of new approaches and processes. They can be about accelerating adoption, like how changes during Hurricane Harvey led the Coast Guard to adopt mobile technologies and social media for response efforts. It can be something totally unique, like how a group of officers developed a machine learning system to counter illegal fishing activities. Or it can just make things faster or easier, like how a member developed an ingenious lifting system that uses mechanical advantage to slide smaller buoys up onto the deck of a boat with much less effort, which means less back strain – making the Coast Guard more efficient, but also healthier and safer for members.
With such a vast purview, a distributed workforce that is literally out to sea, and the need to respond in real-time, what best practices does the US Coast Guard follow to ensure that they are always innovating?
Capture What’s Already Working (No Matter how Small)
The US Coast Guard has been gathering and institutionalizing the best solutions that their talented members come up with while accomplishing their missions. Any employee (no matter their level) can share a solution that worked on in an always-on idea management system and others can view it, build on it, and vote on it. As of June 2021 they’ve collected nearly 3,000 ideas.
The Coast Guard has one of the longest running innovation recognition programs in the federal government. They host an annual Innovation Awards ceremony and they also hold “Idea Frenzies” (a shark tank-style pitch event). The CAPT Niels P. Thomsen Innovation Awards program goes back to 2000 to honor any officer who provided a solution in one of six categories (operation readiness, training or support, science and technology, management, culture and auxiliary achievement). This sort of organization-wide recognition is a moment of celebration, but also encourages others to think of themselves as innovators.
The US Coast Guard program is guided by the Innovation Council, a group of senior leaders from across the Coast Guard who are responsible for communicating innovation opportunities to the field, and for ensuring the program focuses on the most important priorities.
Empower Every Level
One of the things that makes the Coast Guard so special is they expect everyone to be able to problem solve on their feet – even young team members have to go out to sea, rescue people, face storms. That’s why the US Coast Guard says “every Coastie is an innovator.” That’s why it’s no surprise that the US Coast Guard has received winning ideas from their newest members right out of bootcamp to the long-time established leaders and everyone in between.
The Coast Guard leadership is very serious about finding ways to implement new tools and methods, which is why they installed Coast Guard members at the Defense Innovation Unit, the Department of Defense’s Silicon Valley outpost and they are constantly scanning the tech ecosystem for capabilities that might help them better perform our missions.
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