Inspire a Culture of Learning Using Design Thinking

June 30, 2017

I have had the honor to work at Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command (NCDOC) over the last 6 years – a Navy command that strives to operate as a Learning Organization (Senge, 1990).  We have a designated team of NCDOC facilitators who are passionate about helping our teammates think more critically, solve problems creatively, and inspire collective ownership through a 2-day Thinkshop. Over the past year, we have extended our reach to inspire a culture of learning across the Navy and cyberspace operations mission area. We value and embrace experiential and thought diversity. Therefore, we started blending our Thinkshop participation with external partners so that we are thinking more broadly with various perspectives.

At our command, we have used Thinkshops to think about “how we might improve…” our onboarding experience, recognizing teammates, and improving various programs and processes such as Sponsorship, Mentorship, Command Assessment Team survey participation, and most recently, addressing operations and specific mission topics.  We believe that part of our mission is helping leaders and teams learn to challenge norms, learn faster, and grow daily. This course is designed to do just that.

At the 2017 Department of the Navy (DON) Information Technology (IT) East Conference, and in conjunction with the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA) Hampton Roads Maritime Summit, I was part of a small team of NCDOC facilitators who hosted an abbreviated version (4 hours) of our Thinkshop – the Design Thinking part only. Participants consisted of representatives from 11 different organizations: Small Business, AFCEA members, NEWARCOM, NAVSEA, Fleet Cyber Command South, William & Mary, ECPI, NIOC Norfolk, NCIS, NAVIFOR, and the DON CIO Office.

Design Thinking

We began the Thinkshop with icebreakers and facilitators explaining what Design Thinking is, the methodology we use, and demonstrate how they will execute the various exercises with their respective problem sets. The participants were then divided into 3 teams of 4 (total of 12 participants) where each team was challenged to create solutions that addressed: Cyber workforce development, recruitment, and retention. Teams then applied the various Design Thinking approaches that explore and define the problems. One they’ve identified all the problems, they prioritize and identify which ones are most important based on unit level feasibility and impact. Collectively, they will choose ONE problem – or group of closely related problems – in which the team will ideate solutions.

The next step is to brainstorm solution ideas – this ideation step is simply to come up with as many solutions as possible. They can range from practical ideas or best practices to the most outlandish, improbable, or pie-in-the-sky ideas. The team groups these ideas together into clusters and collectively votes on ONE idea (or cluster) that will directly address the problem identified in the previous step.

Once the solution is decided, the team develops a 3-minute elevator pitch to present the problem and their solution. They prototype their pitches with the rest of the class while the other teams provide constructive feedback, building on their ideas and providing tips  to make their ideas/presentation even better. The Thinkshop ends with each team pitching their problems and solution ideas to an audience of their peers, their leaders, and other stakeholder, or in this case, conference attendees.

The ideas generated and creatively presented at the DON CIO IT Conference include: 1) “Incent-A-Thon” that focused on recruiting millennials and providing an incentive by hosting a mobile app hack-a-thon to win the job and a sign-on bonus; 2) “Train to Retain” focused on cyber workforce development by providing in-house training on capabilities in a lab or Makerspace environment; and 3) “Make Mentoring Great Again” focused on retaining current employees by re-energizing a mentorship program that is more than a check-in-the-box, where mentors and proteges choose each other and there is a 360 feedback mechanism for mentors.

Each pitch is between 3-4 minutes in length, but it’s the critical questions from the audience and ongoing discussion during the Q&A that demonstrate the interest and impact made on the audience.


Participant feedback during the conference as well as post-Thinkshop survey was overall positive and everyone enjoyed the experience:

“I was voluntold by my leadership, so I honestly wasn’t looking forward to doing this today…but I actually had fun and enjoyed it. I find it very useful to thinking differently about everyday problems at work.” [Incent-A-Thon ]

“I really enjoyed this training. I had the group with a bunch of us old-timers…we’ve seen and had to deal with these problems for years. We had a young man, college student, on our team and so it forced us to think about our problem from the younger cohort perspective and how we might do better at retaining these younger folks.” [Make Mentoring Great Again]

One participant was surprised during the pitch development process and presentations: “I didn’t know I would really enjoy the skits that much, but our team had a lot of fun creating it.” [Incent-A-Thon]

As we coach the pitch development, we stress the importance of the 3 principles of improvisational theater: 1) Make your partner look good, 2) Always start your sentences with “Yes, And…”, and 3) Listen – really listen – before reacting. When followed, these principles help build team unity and makes the experience fun and creative while still driving their solution idea home to the audience.

The Real Value of the Thinkshops

Although all of the participants found this experience to be enjoyable and valuable, the true value of the Thinkshops is not about the training itself. It is about the the follow-through and implementation of these ideas and seeing if the changes really do improve that program or process… or do they need to iterate and refine it again. The commitment to DOING is what will create real change.

At NCDOC, we have made deliberate efforts to demonstrate the value of the Thinkshops by ensuring we commit to one or some of the ideas generated. It may not be exactly the idea pitched but rather a modified version of it.  The important part is that the idea was birthed and the team took action on it. Our New Teammate Handbook is just one of many visible examples of a meaningful Thinkshop outcome.

For the abbreviated Thinkshop, we asked if the participants believed they could implement their ideas in their own organizations, and most agreed they could:

“Yes, we aren’t trying to solve the whole problem… We chose one actionable solution – the one idea that was the most feasible at our level with highest impact. That’s why this method is very useful.” [Make Mentoring Great Again]

In conclusion, I am truly blessed to be a part of Team NCDOC as we continue to be culture-shapers and grow as a Learning Organization. I have been amazed at the various opportunities we have created to develop new passions for everyone including myself – because of this and the help of a great team, I will continue to use the lessons I have learned throughout each of the Thinkshops to help strengthen partnerships and deliver creative outcomes.


Senge, Peter. 1990. “The Fifth Discipline”.

Teammates Featured in Main Image:

Phil Stratton (Network Forensics Analysts, AFCEA member)

Charlene Blanks (Current Operations Leading Petty Officer)

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