Defining and Shaping Invisible Culture: A Conversation With National Security Innovation Network’s Regional Director David Schiff

How do you influence change, hire the right people, facilitate healthy culture, and modernize a government organization that’s intrinsically change-resistant?

These are some of the topics my guest David Schiff and I tackled in episode three of Building an Agile Future: A Modern Digital Leaders Interview Series.

Over the last two decades, David has served numerous government, military, and civilian organizations. Yet his ability to nurture collaborative working environments and strengthen trust, empathy, and creativity remains unchanged, regardless of the organization he serves.

David was hand-picked to build and lead NavalX, the Navy's innovation and "super-connector" cell, reporting directly to the Secretary of the Navy for R&D/Acquisition and the Chief of Naval Research. Additionally, he’s a military veteran who’s served in the U.S. Navy, NAVSEA, the National Security Innovation Network, Eccalon, and others.

Here are a few things I learned from him during our half-hour discussion.


Organizational culture is often elusive and, in some cases, invisible. That’s especially the case with the military, David explains.

In the military, there’s a general understanding of how you comport yourself with superiors, walk into a room, or behave in a meeting. The trouble is military culture isn’t always regulated or even written down, which leaves culture in a state of ambiguity.

So how do we firm up culture in an environment reluctant to nail down their cultural definitions?

Before anything else, David says, we military organizations must distinguish between our culture and ethos. To illustrate, he told me about an insight he gleaned from the U.S. Marines’ talent management strategy group, TMX.

“When the U.S. Marine Corps talks about culture, they’re talking about how enlistees wear their uniform, cut their hair, or conduct themselves. There’s tradition there, but these things are malleable and change over time.”

However, when the Corps talks about ethos, they’re having an entirely different conversation.

The U.S. Marine Corps ethos is dedicated to honor, courage, national security, and the safety of America and its citizens. Those values don’t shift under pressure or when a new administration takes over the Oval Office.

David’s point? Culture is ephemeral. Ethos is timeless. Therefore, culture must be constantly examined under a microscope. If that culture doesn’t reflect “who we are now,” it must change.


Treat Organizations the Way You Treat Your Own Home

“If I’ve learned anything in 20 years of working with military and civilian organizations, it’s that fear doesn’t influence lasting change,” David says. “Fear may move the needle forward in the short term, but it never leads to lasting change.”

If you want to influence change, you must reframe how you look at your organization.

For David, that means thinking about how you influence change in your own home: “You do it with human-centered empathy, care, training, and support. At least you should,” he says.

So David poses a challenge to organizational leaders: “If you wouldn’t conduct yourself with the same care in your organization as you do in your own home, you need to change your approach.”

That’s the first step.

Paychecks Are Not Powerful Motivators

Next, give team members something more than a paycheck. “I often talk to my colleagues about what it takes to succeed. No answer is identical, but we do share a consensus—success happens when leadership gives time, trust, and top cover to team members,” he says.

David thinks about what employees need in relation to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the psychological theory suggesting that five categories of need dictate human behavior. Once people’s physiological and safety needs have been fulfilled, humans need to self-actualize through autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Getting paid is a good start, but David argues that a paycheck isn’t a powerful enough motivator to sustain humans in the long run.

“Most of us want to feel like we’re making the planet a better, safer, cleaner place for our kids,” he says. “That kind of sustainable fulfillment cannot be found in a paycheck. Maybe at first, but monetary satisfaction never lasts.”

To make this journey matter, we must give people something more substantive than a paycheck. People want the opportunity to fail—or at the very least, stumble. “That’s the kind of leader I want to be,” he says. “And that’s the kind of leader I want to serve.”


Fail Fast. Hold Others Accountable for Doing the Same

Like “innovation,” “failing fast” is another buzzword organizations use, but less frequently mean. Failing fast sounds good, but David argues that leaders must show team members they mean it.

“That’s one reason I liked working for Assistant Secretary of Navy Research, Development, and Acquisition James Geurts,” he says. Guerts tolerated risk and failure. In fact, he demanded it.

“If you weren’t doing what you said you’d do, he’d call you out,” David said. But Guerts would also publicly recognize others who followed through and took risks—whether or not they were successful.

Build Bridged Between Old and New

There is no agile without collaboration. This is especially true when modernizing legacy architecture.

When transitioning into something new, David says, “you must bring forward-leaning subject matter experts from the legacy systems into the conversation.” Why? Because they’re the people who help you build bridges between the old and the new.

To illustrate, David told me about his experience at a multi-day boot camp on the future of model-based systems engineering. In attendance were leaders from the program office, Navy Warfare Centers, Missile Defense Agency, Strategic Systems Programs, and others. And the entire event was facilitated by Berkeley professors.

“All of those people were in the same room together, and each person was integral to bridging the gap from old to new.” And a funny thing happened: No one attacked the legacy system built by those who came before. Why? Because everyone in the room knew there was no new without the old.

Therein lies the message: Change happens incrementally and requires collaboration between old and new experts. Otherwise, it doesn’t happen at all.


“Innovation,” “transformation,” and “modernization” are industry buzzwords, but David argues that the words are meaningless unless they can be quantified.

In other words, David suggests that “innovation” can only be defined by metrics—dollars spent, resources exhausted, human capital used, and end-user satisfaction.

Your agile strategy may get your product to market quickly, but did you build something that justifies the dollars, resources, and human capital it took to build it?

The end-user will determine the answer to that question, says David. So if you didn’t conduct preliminary research to build a product end-users want, it doesn’t matter how “cool” it is.

“I like pushing boundaries, but I’m a big believer in human-centered design that yields quantifiable results,” says David. And to quantify, there must be cross-organizational buy-in, commitment, and follow-through, all leading up to a finished product that delights end-users.

So there you have it: consensus, sustained forward movement, and commitment that’s quantifiable. That’s how David defines innovation.

Thank you for a fascinating conversation, David!