Capt. Joseph Re (pictured), chairman of the Coast Guard Innovation Council, is chief of performance management and decision support. Retired Capt. Geoff Abbott, a fellow at the Homeland Security Institute, is past chairman.

Dec 31 2009

How Innovative Thinking Transformed an Agency’s Culture

Foster innovation where you find it in your agency.

Immediately after The New Orleans levees failed during Hurricane Katrina, the Coast Guard marshaled helicopters and flight and logistics personnel from across the nation. Each flight crew’s mission was to rescue people from rising floodwaters. One crewmember — a rescue swimmer from Mobile, Ala. — was lowered by hoist to rooftops and balconies, wherever people were waiting to be rescued, and prepared them to be hoisted aboard the helicopter.

After dropping on one roof, the rescue swimmer, clearly distressed, told his pilot that he could hear a family below yelling for help from the attic. He had no way to reach them. The water level was above the second floor and still rising. The pilot remembered seeing a stranded fire truck, so he left the swimmer on the roof, flew to the truck, landed his copter in a nearby dry area and “borrowed” a fire axe.

When the helicopter returned to the air station, the petty officer shared his experience. Those on deck quickly sprang into action and went out and bought every fire axe they could find. The next morning every helicopter and rescue swimmer had axes to extract people trapped in their attics.

What empowered these individuals, in some cases at their own expense and without permission, to buy fire axes for the rescue swimmers? It was the Coast Guard’s Core Values and Principles of Operation, which encourage taking initiative to accomplish a mission creatively. Countless tales have been told about leadership, but what is often understated is the capability of each of us, wherever we are in our organizations, to suggest and lead meaningful change from the middle. The best organizations grow leaders at all levels. The Coast Guard calls this “distributed leadership.”

Attitude, Not Altitude

About now, you’re wondering why you’ve been reading about hurricane rescues and axes in an IT magazine. At the Coast Guard, our view of fostering smart ideas and smart people wherever they are found applies to all areas, from first-response actions to back-office data processing.

A frequently misunderstood concept about leading change is that it has to be done from the top. Ideally, senior executives establish and communicate compelling visions, and then develop implementation strategies and align their organizations accordingly. In reality that’s extraordinarily difficult, especially in the large, geographically dispersed organizations typical of government.

High-performing organizations have people at all levels who clearly understand how their work supports the mission. They are often in the best position to understand its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. By combining commitment to the overall mission with strategic priorities, individuals can suggest and achieve meaningful change.

Creating a Culture

Knowledge alone is not enough to lead from the middle. The organizational culture must encourage, support and even expect that people at all levels develop imaginative solutions. In this sense, innovation is much more than technological developments and includes any idea or concept that improves or adds to an organization’s resources, processes or values. The culture must ensure the requisite tools, processes and programs are in place to allow for a full spectrum of innovation to occur — from conception to development to implementation.

Our leadership walks the talk when it comes to supporting an innovative culture. The results provide proof: 1,400 to 1,500 annual Innovation Expo participants, an award-winning information portal, numerous innovative initiatives prototyped and the realization of innovative programs. (To read about one such program, click here.)

The bias toward positive action has inspired a culture of innovation that has allowed the Coast Guard to execute its mission more effectively while implementing process improvements valued at more than $300 million.

To read the Coast Guard’s Core Values, go to; for the Principles of Operation, go to

<p>Photo: James Kegley</p>