Innovation: our calling and imperative

Lt. Col. Erik Fisher, official photo, U.S. Air Force

Lt. Col. Erik Fisher, official photo, U.S. Air Force

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – “Our industry does not respect tradition—it only respects innovation.”  Satya Nadella spoke after assuming the role as chief executive at Microsoft.

Arguably, similar sentiments could be said of our U.S. Air Force.  Seven decades ago, visionary innovators established our service as a separate, but equal, solution to the problems of the third and fourth dimensions of time and space. Since that day, the Air Force has demanded creativity, open-mindedness and calculated risk-taking. We are the service of big ideas from luminaries such as Billy Mitchell, John Boyd and John Warden. We lift them up not because of the positions they held, but for the power of their ideas. As we look to the future, innovation is not merely in our DNA, it is also our imperative.

The operational environment demands innovative Airmen. For the last 16 years, while combating violent extremism, we’ve grown accustomed to air superiority. Today, we pivot to full-spectrum readiness.  We must prepare in mind, body and spirit for near-peer conflict.  Such conflict requires a high-level of readiness, grit and resilience that is foreign to many on our team. Our military may be called to operate in an asymmetric battlespace with degraded command, control and limited weapons effects.  Are we ready?  I posit that the path toward readiness is partly paved through innovation.  Innovative cultures challenge the inherent inertia of the status quo while simultaneously creating growth opportunities.  Simply said, the day we stop thinking, innovating and learning is the day we lose.

Innovation is a catalyst for individual and organizational growth.  Reflect on the stories of Mitchell, Boyd and Warden.  Mitchell launched bombers off an aircraft carrier, Boyd created the observe, orient, decide and act loop and Warden developed our modern airpower strategy. These Airmen were brilliant, yet controversial. Boyd famously said one could choose to “be someone or do something.” These three Airmen chose to “do something.” They chose to aggressively challenge the status quo in pursuit of the exceptional, often at individual peril. Without question, they made our service more lethal and invigorated future innovation. This is our service. Ours is the service of audacious innovators and big ideas.

Our teams must encourage innovation and cultivate a meritocracy of ideas. In 2014, “The Deloitte Millennial Survey,” echoed this belief. The authors articulated the importance of innovation in attracting, developing and retaining Generation Y (those born in 1983 or later) talent. Today, we see this at Travis Air Force Base, California, through the Phoenix Spark program. Phoenix Spark is an organizationally flat and leaderless incubator of ideas. Thanks to Phoenix Spark, our aircrew flight equipment experts in the 60th Operations Group recently connected with maintainers in the Maintenance Group to solve a long-standing issue with night vision goggles. This collaboration saved countless dollars and hours.  More importantly, this joint solution created a sense of ownership, pride and self-efficacy among those involved. Travis Airmen are no longer held hostage by the limits of the organizational chart.  Our Airmen are connected through the power of their ideas.

Innovation is more than creating a new widget.  It is about creating new ideas and methods.  It is about creating a culture of Airmen who thrive amid an uncertain operational environment. We thrive because of creativity, ingenuity and calculated risk-taking. We must instill these attributes in our Airmen and organizations in times of peace to be ready for times of war. Leaders must kill bureaucratic entrenchment, create growth opportunities for Airmen and reward innovative thinking.  Mitchell, Boyd and Warden were audacious innovators. Who will follow their lead today and ensure our Air Force continues to lead in an uncertain tomorrow?