Coast Guard innovators are jazzed about their jobs because
they are empowered, recognized, and get to implement their ideas.
New survey results can fuel other federal
It was August 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit New
Orleans. The levees had just given way and the waters were rising.
Within hours, Coast Guard helicopters and boat crews scrambled to
rescue more than 30,000 citizens from rooftops and balconies across
During one of the many missions, a Coast Guard pilot signaled to
his rescue swimmer below that he needed to return for refueling. As
the sound of the choppers blades subsided, the rescuer could hear
the cries of help from a family trapped beneath the roof of their
There was little time. The water was already above the second story
windows and rising. The rescuer tried to pull up shingles with his
bare hands, only to find plywood underneath. He tried kicking
through the plywood roofing but could not. He did not have the
right tools for the job.
When the pilot returned, the rescuerangry, frustrated, and sad
recounted the story. In an anguished voice he told the pilot: I
joined the Coast Guard to save lives, not lose them! Im afraid that
family drowned because I couldnt help them.
When that helicopter returned to its home base at Mobile, Alabama,
about midnight that night, this rescue swimmer and some of his
colleagues went to a local hardware store and bought every fire ax
it had. The next morning every Coast Guard rescue swimmer on every
helicopter leaving Mobile had a fire ax to rescue people trapped in
their roof spaces.
The swimmer did not wait to formally request fire axes through his
supervisor and official channels. He did not put in a procurement
request to the storekeeper. And, he did not know, nor care, whether
he would be reimbursed. Indeed, he likely could have gotten in
trouble for bringing unauthorized, potentially dangerous equipment
on board weight-limited helicopters. But he took the initiative.
What made him do it? What made him in effect lead from the middle?
It was his clear sense of his ultimate missionsaving livesand his
keen situational awareness that every hour and every day counted.
I remember this story from my deployment during Hurricane Katrina
because this employee represented the culture of innovation that I
had come to know in the Coast Guard. He had passion for his work
and compassion for the people he was trained to save. He knew the
Coast Guard expected him to use good judgment to take initiative
and to innovate when the objective was clear, but normal procedures
proved ineffectual. He felt empowered to act to produce good
outcomes. His actions and his method of urban search and rescue
helped him and his colleagues rescue dozens of citizens that week.
In the years since, my research on the Coast Guards innovation
program and a survey of 170 documented Coast Guard innovators
demonstrates that empowered employees who are proactive and take
initiative to make improvements in the workplace not only
significantly improve organizational performance, but are jazzed
about their work. They have much higher job satisfaction than their
peers. The research findings could provide profound insight for
federal executives and managers faced with the challenge of
improving, or even just sustaining, workforce productivity and
organizational performance levels in the face of agency budget
cuts, fixed federal salaries, and reductions in bonuses for
What Is Innovation and How Does It Occur?
There must be a thousand definitions for and examples of
innovationfrom the latest cellular technology to improving
educational practices. How do we know which to apply? In his 2008
masters thesis describing the Coast Guards innovation program,
Lieutenant Commander Chris Kluckhuhn of the U.S. Coast Guard
Reserves uses a definition adopted from the government of New
Zealand: Innovation: The creation, development, and implementation
of a new product, process or service, aimed at improving
efficiency, effectiveness, or competitive advantage.
Innovation may be applied to products, services, manufacturing
processes, managerial processes or the design of an organization.
Both the organization and employees must be engaged for innovation
to occur. First, the organization must establish goals and
guidelines. Then it should empower people to take risks to find the
The survey of 170 Coast Guard innovators, including innovation
award winners, graduates of the National Graduate School (NGS)
masters program in quality systems management, and current and
former innovation council members, revealed the following factors
as most influential in enabling innovation to take place:
1| leadership support (37 percent)
2| empowerment (10 percent)
3| personal involvement (10 percent)
4| resources (8 percent)
5| a willingness to take risks (8 percent) 6| a change culture (7
Among these categories, leadership support received as many
comments as did empowerment, personal involvement, resources, and
What is necessary to create and sustain an innovative culture? The
top responses included
1| leadership support (38 percent)
2| resources (13 percent)
3| recognition (13 percent)
4| open, frank feedback (often to leadership) (7 percent)
5| implementation of good ideas (7 percent) 6| motivated employees
Components of Coast Guard Innovation
Established in 2001, the Coast Guard innovation program has a solid
track record of producing significant improvements in capabilities.
The program has several components, including an innovation
staff: a small but dedicated team coordinating the
council: influential members representing various
directorates as a collateral responsibility
process: developed by the innovation council to
identify and promote the best initiatives
venture capital fund: a modest fund to invest in
proofs of concept, or further develop promising initiatives, and
used to conduct the annual Innovation Expo
expo: conducted annually to connect Coast Guard
innovators, their program managers, leaders, executives, defense
and homeland security partners, and stakeholders so they may
communicate fresh ideas horizontally and vertically to improve the
organization. Participation has grown from 200 at the first expo in
2001 to 2,500 at the 2010 expo. Some 28 countries have been
awards: presented annually since 2003 by the expo
Commandant at the expo in the areas of operations/ readiness,
science/technology, administration/ training/support, and
top leadership support: the innovation staff works
directly for the chief of staff and co-locates the fall flag/Senior
Executive Service leadership conference with the annual Innovation
The Coast Guard also has partnered with the NGS to deliver a unique
masters program in Quality Systems Management. This program
includes experiential learning that is applied to improve processes
in such business areas as logistics, operations, finance, law,
engineering, acquisition, and planning. In addition to several
courses in best business practices, this 12-month program requires
students to conduct a team project to address an organizational
business challenge, identify improvement opportunities, implement
change, and measure the impact of the change.
Students may not complete their degrees unless they can show a
positive return on investment to the organization. More than 700
Coast Guard personnel have earned Quality Systems Management
masters degrees in this program and have implemented team projects
valued at $500 million.
Who Are Public Sector Innovators?
A lot of innovation comes from stars at the nations leading
engineering and business schools. But the innovators that improve
our public-sector organizations come from a wide variety of
experiences, pay grades, ages, and job functions. When it comes
down to it, where they came from does not matter. Its what they
did. Coast Guard innovation award winners include:
- Lil, a lieutenant, started the Coast Guard partnership with the
NGS, which (through 2010) has yielded 700 CG personnel with masters
degrees producing projects valued at $500 million
- Jay, a warrant officer, found opportunities to improve
healthcare to Coast Guard personnel and their families in remote
locations through telemedicine
- Zeita and Rahshaan, both lieutenants at the time of the
project, worked on an NGS team to improve small arms weapons
training using lasers. They significantly improved small arms
qualification scores, and reduced training costs and the
environmental impact of small arms training
- Richard, a civilian medical professional and Coast Guard
auxiliarist, established Coast Guard auxiliary healthcare support
with more than 50 physicians, dentists, and licensed allied health
credentialed providers who donated 5,600 hours of healthcare
augmentation valued at $340,000
- Justin, a 20-something third-class petty officer, developed a
process to use cellular phone technology to provide search areas
directly to Coast Guard search units saving time and relieving crew
members from navigation duties to concentrate on search efforts
- Bob, a civilian working at an information technology center,
worked with a team to develop technology that added significant
value to the Coast Guard common operational picture (displaying
relevant information shared by more than one command) and improved
USCG maritime domain awareness
- Jan, a lieutenant commander and persuasive proponent of
information sharing, became the architect of the Coast Guards
internationally recognized information portal
- Montgomery, a warrant officer, saved 18 months in acquisition
time and more than $12 million when he helped replace a recently
crashed CG helicopter using an available Defense department
As the tables and figures show, Coast Guard innovators are a
diverse group of people yet they share common characteristics.
According to their self-description, they are
1| highly-motivated employees (25 percent)
2| creative and open to new ideas (12 percent)
3| not afraid of failure or accepting risk (10 percent)
4| optimistic and enthusiastic (7 percent) 5| not driven by
promotability (7 percent)
6| empowered (6 percent).
Coast Guard Innovation Strategy
As its innovation program evolved, the Coast Guard developed and
refined a strategic approach that included soliciting, rewarding,
implementing and funding, and sharing innovation. It was further
supported by internal and external critical success factors, and
mission and support activities.
Value-Added Innovation Program Results
The results achieved by the Coast Guards innovators have improved
organizational performance in all mission areas. Some additional
- implementing e-learning technologies for training course
- modifying equipment to allow direct communications between
Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection officers during joint
counter-narcotic and illegal immigration operations
- reducing the response time for congressional inquiries
- improving flight simulator training for pilots
- developing easy-to-customize generic specifications for boat
repairs and overhauls
- creating an Internet portal for authorized public members to
access useful Coast Guard information
- developing a budget metrics tracking system
- creating a procurement request tracking database.
The Coast Guards innovation program rewards two types of
innovationindependent initiatives like the one taken to secure the
fire axes, and formal initiatives such as the masters program. The
NGS program formally captures the return-on-investment and value
created for each team project. Note that value can be composed of
three elementstime, money, and capability.
What Motivates Innovators?
What factors are influencing people to find better ways to perform
their work? When researchers asked the innovators, their responses
1| personal drive (29 percent)
2| to make improvements and lead productive change (23 percent)
3| to improve efficiency (16 percent)
4| to benefit the Coast Guard overall (9 percent)
5| to benefit my workplace and teammates (8 percent)
6| to fix broken processes (6 percent).
When researchers asked,What rewards are most meaningful to you as
an innovator? the top responses were:
1| recognition (formal and informal) (24 percent)
2| implementation of my idea/concept (21 percent)
3| improving the organization (12 percent)
4| personal satisfaction (10 percent)
5| appreciation/thank you (7 percent)
6| promotion (6 percent).
Monetary performance awards were eighth on this list and thus did
not appear to be a major motivating factor for innovators. Most of
all innovators wanted recognition from peers or superiors and the
satisfaction of seeing their ideas implemented.
Innovators Have Higher Job Satisfaction than Their
The Coast Guard scored the highest job satisfaction ranking of any
agency within the Department of Homeland Security in OPMs 2008
Federal Human Capital Survey, conducted biannually, and the Coast
Guard also finished in the top 20 percent of all governmental
agencies for effective leadership and empowerment; DHS overall
ranked 27th of 28 for major federal departments.
The recent research included survey responses to eight identical
questions on empowerment and job satisfaction from 170 Coast Guard
innovators, the general Coast Guard population (based on 2010 CG
Organizational Assessment Surveys), and overall federal government,
DHS, and Federal Emergency Management Agency employees (based on
2010 OPM Federal Human Capital Surveys).
A 5 percent difference in response rates was determined to be
statistically significant for this study. While DHS insiders
expected that three to four questions would show significant
differences, the CG innovators responded more positively than their
Coast Guard peers to all eight questions by an average of 12.2
percent. The overall federal government responses were similar to
the general Coast Guard population.
However, the response rates of Coast Guard innovators were 24
percent and 22 percent higher than DHS and the Federal Emergency
Management Agency responses, respectively. Table 1 shows the
results for two of the most meaningful questions asked: Considering
everything, how satisfied are you with your job? Considering
everything, how satisfied are you with your organization?
More than 90 percent of CG innovators surveyed said the culture of
innovation encouraging employees to take initiative and risk
improved performance and commitment to the CG as well as job
satisfaction within it.
Implications for the Federal Leaders and Agencies
Federal executives and managers should take heed of a few
recommendations from the Coast Guard research as they work to
energize employees and improve job satisfaction while increasing
workforce productivity in tough budgetary times.
- When supporting workforce empowerment, strong visible and
personal leadership engagement is critical.
- When making hiring decisions, consider a potential employees
motivation level; it may prove more important in the long run than
- Investing in employees strengths and empowering them in those
areas may provide a better return on investment for an agency than
attempting to fill gaps in individuals overall professional
- When rewarding and recognizing people, think carefully. Senor
leader recognition of good work in front of peers, combined with
their implementation of good ideas, are very meaningful to
innovators, often much more so than monetary rewards.
Table 1| Most Significant Differences in 2010 OPM Federal Human
Differences in Positive Response Rates (Very Satisfied or
CG Innovators federal Government
CG Innovators DHS employees
CG Innovators fEMA employees
CG Innovators uSCG employees in general
Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job?
Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your
Source: Abbott, G. (2011). Improving Organizational Performance
Through Innovation and Workforce Empowerment. Doctoral dissertation
for the National Graduate School; Falmouth, Massachusetts.