Wanted: Innovators for a 21st Century Air Force—Apply Now!

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Christian Randall
  • 86th Materiel Maintenance Squadron commander
U.S. Army General George S. Patton said, "Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results."

The late Patton's simple but powerful statement on leadership remains relevant to 21st century Airmen.  The message serves as a call to innovate and as a reminder to Air Force leaders, at all levels, of the need to foster a culture in which innovative ideas are brought to bear to enhance our service's capability to "Fly, Fight and Win."

Throughout its rich history, the Air Force has exhibited a culture reflecting a unique mix of innovative spirit and military professionalism.

There is a natural inclination to associate Air Force innovation with the leading-edge technology that drives our nation's competitive advantage across the domains of air, space and cyberspace. 

However, the imaginative spirit found in the design of the latest aircraft, missiles and satellites is equally necessary for transforming outdated business processes, antiquated organizational structures and obsolete communication protocols. 

The effectiveness of our Air Force requires that we continually seek innovative concepts, capabilities and processes. As leaders, we must encourage innovation from those we lead. 

Evidence is present that innovation is important to the Air Force.  Consider initiatives such as the Airmen Powered by Innovation program, which provides all Airmen a direct link for sharing innovative ideas.

Other evidence can be seen right in the Kaiserslautern Military Community.  Each month, 86th Airlift Wing senior leaders formally recognize individuals and teams that have generated novel, impactful solutions.

But what does it really mean to be an innovator?

If we consider some of the world's greatest innovators--Leonardo Da Vinci, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers -- each share a common characteristic: the ability to see the world differently and an obsession to take the world from what it is to what it should be.

Innovation then ought not be reserved for those we deem to be the smartest, the most educated or the highest ranking.  Rather, the ability to generate innovative change involves the capacity of an individual to view problems from a unique perspective and the passion to transform the seed of an idea into a viable solution.

The ability to see the world differently demands critical thinking. The effective innovator will challenge the status quo and question assumptions that others may take for granted. 

The effective innovator also focuses on desired outcomes and end-user needs and only then considers creative ways those needs might be met more efficiently.

True innovative spirit also requires passion because development of innovative solutions requires significant individual time and effort.  Innovation begins with the question "Why do we do things this way?", but the journey does not end until an improved, viable solution has been crafted.

The effective innovator considers many options, brings in relevant external expertise, tests proposed solutions and secures organizational buy-in prior to implementation.

Leadership plays a central role in the adoption of innovative ideas. Leaders are charged with cultivating an organizational climate in which pursuit of novel solutions is encouraged. 

Our Air Force is attracting a generation of Airmen that bring new skills, competencies and familiarity with technology.  As suggested by Patton, leaders should seek to overcome their personal biases by tapping into the ingenuity of those they lead.

Of course, adoption of innovative ideas often involves risk.  There are plenty of examples of transformational initiatives that have failed; yet as leaders, those failures should serve as learning opportunities and not as excuses to discount innovative opportunities in favor of the status quo. 

Innovative spirit and a culture that encourages new ways of accomplishing the mission are part of the Air Force's proud heritage.  As Airmen, it is incumbent upon each of us to develop an innovative mindset by challenging the status quo and pursuing positive change with passion. 

Innovative 21st century Airmen are needed to achieve the Air Force vision: "The World's Greatest Air Force -- Powered by Airmen, Fueled by Innovation."