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Three lessons on innovation I learned from the Navy

Roxane Heaton

Companies can’t afford to stand still. Nor can our Armed Forces, who guard the security of our nation 24/7. Both are constantly pushing the boundaries of received wisdom, problem solving and coming up with new perspectives to get one step ahead of the competition or threat. Article by Roxane Heaton, Head of Innovation at Morrisons and Royal Navy Reservist.

Which is why, after spending 12 years in the Navy, I found it surprisingly easy to transfer my skills to my new role as Head of Innovation at Morrisons. And why, when I left the Navy as a regular, I realised that becoming a Reservist would allow me to hone the very skills that would continue to add value to my new career in business. When I left the regular service, I wanted to work in a civilian environment where I could make a difference to people’s lives. A new role at Morrisons offered that opportunity. Innovation can be really simple stuff all the way through to really complex things and it’s always about adding benefit. The Navy prepared me well for my new career, especially around three principles which day in and day out, help me navigate the challenges of my work. It’s all about managing information, managing people and making things better. As in the Navy, my work now is to help people across the business to join up dots, save money and make improvements for both customers and colleagues, of which we have over 110,000.

Good innovation is about creating maximum benefits for the maximum number of end users. Regardless of whether the end user is a sailor, a supermarket customer or a colleague, real innovation starts with insights into their needs and customer experience. With help from the Navy, I did a Master’s degree in Modelling and Simulation at Cranfield University to help address the shortage of simulation specialists within Defence. Submarine training is very expensive and anything that allows the Navy to work smarter whilst saving money makes a huge difference. I learnt how to make simulation tools and games for individual and team training with sailors’ needs in mind, so they could acquire new knowledge in a shorter time. The tools were not only more realistic, but also cost-effective. This had a positive impact on their learning and also on Defence training budgets.

I do have a slant towards digital data and technology innovation because it touches everything and everyone. But innovation is actually about increasing benefits to customers or colleagues in any area, whether financial, experiential or simply in the form of better processes that make the end users’ journey better. Values are vital to push and embed innovation across the board. People can be wary of change; innovation can involve huge transformation that people challenge. The Navy taught me that to drive innovation through to success you need sheer determination, as you constantly need to challenge the status quo. You also need teamwork to make things happen, get people on side at all levels and embed new ideas. Determination and teamwork are great military qualities which are deeply ingrained into service life, – so much so that you hardly think about them.

I was a student in aeronautical engineering at Bristol University when I stumbled upon a Royal Navy stand at a careers fair. I signed up to become a Royal Navy Reservist. I had hoped to work as an aeronautical engineer, but after 9/11 jobs were few and far between. So after graduation, I went into banking, working as an analyst in London and Melbourne. I then became a full time sailor, deploying in 2006 to Sierra Leone and then teaching the last class of engineering technicians at HMS Sultan. From there I deployed to Iraq and on my return I was a naval education and training service officer, deploying to ships and units globally to ensure sailors had lifelong learning and coaching while deployed so they could advance to the next stage in their careers. For those sailors and me, this was all about overcoming obstacles and keeping the end goal in mind.

Teamwork is fundamental in the Armed Forces, and a joke and a laugh in a tough situation is sometimes all you need. The ability to make connections and work closely with teams to deliver an outcome can make a huge difference to the mission, so the military enables this skill. Teamwork is incredibly useful in my life as a Reservist and in my civilian role. Listening, responding to feedback and joining up individuals across networks are valuable tools to deliver results. Another valuable skill of any member of the Armed Forces is to make the most of what you have, be it time or resources. Determination to succeed and fill every moment efficiently means that individuals maximise spare capacity and are dedicated to the aim. These values are huge across Morrisons for the individual and the teams to achieve the common goal.

Managing information is key to innovation
Breaking silos and sharing information is vital. Whether in operations or in a commercial environment, the process of change starts with good quality information so you can spot gaps and identify needs. Information about the requirements, hard facts and benefits need to be clearly articulated and connected. The right information in the right place at the right time can realise the cultural change required. Technology is just an enabler to change, helping embed change and new ways of working. At Morrisons, I get involved in a wide variety of projects across the business. We can control and make change across the business, which enables huge opportunities for delivering benefits such as creating the best products for our customers at the right price. But there is no standing still, momentum is everything.

Being a former sailor provided the best training I could get for my career in business. Being a Reservist allows me to continue soaking up military skills which I can bring back to my employer, particularly in the competitive world of innovation. So when something disruptive in the market comes along, the Navy’s problem solving approach kicks in and I get more clarity to find a new perspective, a solution. Balancing two careers, two roles, isn’t always easy, but it can be incredibly empowering.

Roxane Heaton won the 2015 Woman of the Year prize at the FDM everywoman in Technology Awards.

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