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All Airmen must find the courage to innovate
Posted Tuesday, June 24, 2014

 

Commentary by Dr. Todd Stewart, Chancellor
Air Force Institute of technology

6/20/2014 - WRIGHT PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- As we all know very well, the reduction in past and current budgets and the uncertainty about future budgets has placed the Air Force and all of its Airmen, military and civilian, under considerable pressure. This budget situation resulted in civilian furloughs in the last fiscal year, a government shutdown at the beginning of this fiscal year and a variety of force management actions.

Our senior leaders have had to make some very tough choices on what to fund and what to cut, balancing the requirements for today's readiness with tomorrow's readiness -- modernization.

Like many of you, I hear almost every day that we don't have enough money and/or manpower to accomplish our mission, to meet required mission performance standards or to meet the expectations of our stakeholders. I think it's probably true that in many cases, we don't have the resources we need to fully accomplish our mission - in the way we've always done it.

But that doesn't necessarily mean we don't have sufficient resources to fully accomplish the mission -- in new and different ways. It means we might have to change how we get the job done - and with what and even with whom. It means we have to innovate.

Our Air Force Vision document ("The World's Greatest Air Force: Powered by Airmen, Fueled by Innovation") captures this notion well. It states: "The story of the Air Force is a story of innovation ... Now, more than ever, we need bold leaders at every level who encourage innovation, embrace new thinking, and take prudent risks to achieve mission success."

In a very real sense, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is all about innovation. In my opinion, it is the Air Force's center for innovation -- it is "Air Force Innovation Central." What's the mission of the Air Force Research Lab? Innovation. AFRL develops new technologies to make Air Force systems more effective, sustainable and affordable.

How about the mission of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center? Innovation. AFLCMC develops and fields new, innovative systems and system capabilities, incorporating the technologies innovated by (among others) AFRL scientists and engineers.

What about NASIC? Well, the National Air and Space Intelligence Center's mission is certainly not to produce "creative" intelligence assessments. But I know from my colleagues at NASIC that they fully embrace a culture of innovation, finding new and better ways to deliver intelligence to their customers.

At the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), we teach Airmen how to innovate -- that's our mission. We help Airmen develop the skills necessary to "innovate" more effectively at AFRL, AFLCMC, NASIC and at many other organizations throughout the Air Force and Department of Defense.

At AFIT, we often teach a three-step model of innovation that is pretty simple and intuitive. Innovation starts with inspiration -beginning with recognition of an opportunity to accomplish a mission or task "better, faster and/or cheaper." Inspiration leads to the second step: invention - developing a different approach or technology to realize the inspiration.

But inspiration and invention are irrelevant (another "I" word) if they don't lead to the third step: implementation. Having a great idea and developing a creative solution to that idea don't really mean much if we can't put the solution into practice. That often takes a bit of courage -- to risk giving up a proven approach in order to realize the even greater potential of a new, but untested, way of getting the mission done. Innovation takes leadership.

Steve Jobs said it very well: "Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower."

I would suggest that innovation often also requires another "I" word: investment. Innovation may lead to more capable and affordable systems, but it generally isn't free. To quote President Barack Obama, "Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It might make you feel like you're flying high at first, but it won't take long before you feel the impact."

Finally, we've all heard the old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." I suggest a different view: "If it ain't broke, then break it!" My rational again comes from our Air Force Vision statement:
"Every Airman should constantly look for smarter ways to do business. The person closest to the problem is often the one with the best solution. Leaders should empower Airmen to think creatively, find new solutions, and make decisions. Airmen at all levels must have the courage to take risks and learn from mistakes, as we pursue a stronger Air Force. As we do this, all of our actions will be shaped by a warrior ethos, bounded by our core values, and underwritten by common sense."