James ‘Hondo’ Geurts on Taking the Navy into the Next Wave of Innovation

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How do you manage over $100B in spending to innovate and not let that scale overcome your vision and approach to driving the most effective outcomes?  Can you balance speed and performance, short and long term innovation in parallel? Today’s guest on Killer Innovations stands at the forefront of these decisive decisions every day and has a keen eye for high speed, low drag. Assistant Secretary of Research, Development, and Acquisition James ‘Hondo’ Geurts has been innovating the U.S military’s ecosystem for over 30 years. During the interview, he discusses his efforts in accelerating the Navy into the next wave of innovation.

James 'Hondo' Geurts

Overseeing and innovating throughout the US Navy’s vast programs to protect is a daunting task at hand. From basic to in-depth research, development, procurement, and sustainment of assets, the Navy is always working to stay one step ahead in global innovation. To give the Navy an advantage, Jim focuses on creating conditions to make optimal choices and take the right risks while empowering the workforce to successfully complete a job.

Staying Focused While Differentiating

The demands of the US Navy required a multi-dexterous approach. One's that avoid getting overwhelmed by bureaucracy and standardization that far too often limits flexibility needed for today’s forces. Many organizations have problems doing many things well or even multiple workstreams, multiple ways. Jim’s task is to ensure the Navy can do that while boldly stepping out and harnessing innovation with scale and speed. Always knowing there are certain areas they absolutely cannot fail in. With such a vast organization and many opportunities to advance the Navy, Jim uses a simple, but powerful wet-dry framework to differentiate the work.

In a large scale innovation, you have to operate with speed of relevancy. Simultaneously, you may have one group operating with a longer-term workstream or low iteration speed that requires assured performance. While the other works at high iteration speed and low iteration cost. You can’t lock into one approach for multiple threads of innovation pacing in a single deliverable or launch. However, those workstreams have to operate and synchronize for an effective state-of-the-art product deliverable. Each group that is innovating at a speed relevant to their workstream needs to be valued equally. Though they may have a different culture.

Staying focused on the mission and how each contributes allows you to have differentiating approaches, innovation paces, and cultures in one large scale innovation effort. Another challenge in balancing the speed and relevancy of a mission need is the absorption rate. Sometimes rapid innovation outpaces the ability to absorb and integrate, deploy, train and operationalize capabilities. Keeping an active focus and appropriate disciplines on mission speed and relevancy ensure efficiency.

Innovation Leadership

How do you manage the right thing at the right time and synthesize it to meet a critical mission? Can you deliver on the expectation of out-innovating your competition? In a leadership position with demands like this, one is often faced with the challenge of how to operationalize and develop a successful team. Jim discusses his strategy to motivate his workforce in three core ways:

  • Ruthlessly Decentralize – layout vision with a focus on intent and empower your workforce—free to make decisions
  • Offer Various Tools – differentiate the work, allow them to use multiple tools and customize for the right tools as needed
  • Have an Agility Mindset – create a good enough plan with proper intent, tools needed and be ready to pivot with pivot speed and adapt to change
  • Get Rid of Stupid – remove things that are wasting time in the organization and don’t replace it with more stupid time wasters, but with items that create or preserve value

When in a leadership position such as Jim Geurts, there is limited opportunity to be specifically involved in each situation. To deliver excellence for the mission, he has focused on enablers to deliver his intent to the organization, even when not available:

  • Learn Fast and Act Fast – press the boundaries, expect 50% failure with appropriate judgment and measured risk
  • It’s About Team – the outcome of the idea and answer to the problem is more important than who it came from
  • Be a Servant Leader – create conditions and foundations for others to succeed—realize that you are there to help those under you, not vice versa
  • Explain Your Intent – continuously repeat your intent until your audience gets it

Importance of Agility in Innovation

How do you plan for the unknown? The unknown can be a daunting thought to those unprepared for it. Building a culture, mindset, and set of skills that increase pivot speed to take advantage of upside opportunities prepares you for the unknown. Ultimately, it makes or breaks an organization’s success. Couple of insights Jim has learned from his Special Operations Command days and other experiences he employs today:

  • Get Over Fear of Failuretry something new
  • All about a Learning Environment – value best ideas not necessarily individual ideas—collaborate and improve on individual ideas with a team
  • Have a Network that is Diverse and Inclusive – engage a variety of functions, levels, internal and external organizations
  • Rip Off and Deploy – don’t just value inventing yourself, look for what can be innovated on
  • Kill Projects Fast – if a project is not going anywhere, move on – that takes thoughtful deliberation, courage, and leadership
  • Don’t Overvalue Discovery and Undervalue Deployment – ideas must be made real and delivered to a customer – as Phil states “ideas without execution is a hobby, I'm not in the hobby business”

When it comes to working with the military, many businesses are intimidated by it. So how do you create a friendlier and easier path to make a contribution? Jim’s strategies focus on reducing barriers with a variety of incentives to bring the best ideas forward at the lowest cost. These include connecting the idea generators from the sailor to the startup with access points. As well as enabling an environment in which contributors bring their best in class solutions at the best price to the Navy.

Engaging to Contribute to Success

There is no one perfect path or mechanism for organizations to contribute to the Navy’s mission. However, Jim Geurts, or ‘Hondo’ as many call him, has created as large a surface as he can to attract innovative solutions from any internal or external entity. With his leadership the Navy has:

  • Spent $500M+ each year on Small Business Innovation Research (SBIRs) – broadcasting events, educating and discussing needs.
  • Doubled Efforts to Leverage Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRDA)
  • Instituted Tech Bridges – multiple tech clusters to help certain mission areas
  • Created Challenges for Solutions – pay on the spot
  • Shortened Procurement Timelines – idea to contract in 90 days or fewer programs

Hondo emphasizes the Navy’s focus on being multi-dexterous—good at all things from small to large while enabling scale and speed. There are many challenges from talent development to mission solutions. Innovation advances when we open up our approach and mindset working with outside sources, like inventors such as Dean Kaman. Opportunities abound to leverage more innovation and apply technologies to elements we didn’t envision as traditional tech solutions. That requires an ecosystem of the best/most qualified internal and external entities supporting to complete any given mission with efficiency.

About our Guest: James ‘Hondo' Geurts

James ‘Hondo’ Geurts is Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research, Development and Acquisition). Mr. Geurts is responsible for a $100B+ budget, as well as supporting and equipping Marines and Sailors with the top technology and systems to better them in their pursuit to defend the United States of America. Prior to his time current position, he served as Acquisition Executive of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), with the responsibility of overseeing special operations forces acquisition, technology, and logistics. Through this position, Geurts innovative leadership and mindset bettered USSOCOM and earned him the Presidential Rank Award, USSOCOM Medal, William Perry Award, and Federal Times Vanguard Award for Executive of the Year.

Prior to his service with USSOCOM, Mr. Geurts served as an executive officer with the Air Force. Throughout Geurts 30 years of extensive joint acquisition experience and service, he has earned the respect of many of his colleagues and has used his innovative mindset to better the defenses of the United States.

Let’s connect; I am on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter.  If we do connect, drop me a note and let me know.  The email address is feedback@philmckinney.com or you can go to PhilMcKinney.com and drop me a note there.  If you are looking for innovation support go to TheInnovators.Network or want to be challenged to develop the next big idea, check out our Disruptive Ideation Workshops, with our next one in Washington DC, November 18-19th.  Don’t forget to join our Innovators Community to enjoy more conversations around innovation.

To learn about the Navy's next wave of innovation, listen to this week's show: James ‘Hondo' Geurts on Taking the Navy into the Next Wave of Innovation.

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