A second Renaissance

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs

A second Renaissance. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton, animation by Staff Sgt. Joseph Vigil/Released)
I used to smile more. During those carefree days of my youth when my friends and I would run like lost boys through the woods - building tree forts and "playing Army."

The world was simpler then, or maybe I was just that naïve. But one thing is true, the older I get the more the world seems to change - or maybe I am just taking more notice of it.

That forest of yesterday is not as dense as it once was - the trees not as full and vibrant. All over the world that seems to be the case as the winds of change blow stronger with each passing year - leaving many to hold their coats a bit tighter and bury their heads to avoid the bristling gale. Life in the U.S. Air Force is no different, as 2014 was a year of great change for the nation's youngest military branch.

"We need to be bold - we need to be a little fearless right now," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III said during the 2014 Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition, Sept. 16. "We need to realize that we can spread our wings a little bit and, in fact as a service, I believe we have to."

Innovation is the key to air power, Welsh said. Unlocking both ourselves and our creativity to find new and different ways to solve problems is the calling card leading us toward a collectively successful future. However, that future comes at a price - the specialist.

For decades, the Air Force cultivated, developed and mentored some of the most talented specialists the world has ever seen. Individuals who are so adept at their job they are considered by many to be absolute subject matter experts. Just like the animal kingdom, the Air Force contains both specialists and generalists. Specialists, like the koala - which subsists primarily on eucalyptus leaves, play a very unique role in nature; however, they only thrive under very specific conditions. When environmental conditions change, specialists have trouble adapting and surviving.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III gives his keynote speech at 2014 Air Force Association's Air and Space Symposium and Technology Exposition, Sept. 16, 2014, in Washington, D.C. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

Nature and Nurture

This is where generalists differ. Like mice, generalists can survive just about anywhere - withstanding climate change and nourishing themselves off a variety of food. Generalists adapt in nature and are the key to developing an innovative future.

"Nature is the source of all true knowledge," said Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most recognized generalists in history. "She has her own logic, her own laws, she has no effect without cause nor invention without necessity."

We need to innovate to survive and generalists are typically natural innovators. Their adaptability allows them to find new ideas in seemingly ordinary places by automatically following four steps toward an inventive breakthrough. [Information courtesy of the Harvard Business Review]

· Innovators ask questions. They look beyond the surface veil and challenge core processes and fundamentals.

· Innovators care about people more than processes. A process is nothing without the dedicated people who make it happen. Innovators understand their people and establish themselves as servant leaders who genuinely empathize with the complexities of their lives.

· Innovators connect the right people to the right process at the right time. More naturally than most, innovators understand many amazing breakthroughs are a result of an amalgam of ideas developed by a diverse group of both specialists and generalists.

· Innovators are committed to action. They are not content to simply be the "good idea fairy." Innovators push their teams beyond the planning phase and into developing a working prototype.
Leonardo da Vinci's self portrait. (Illustration courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy Berkeley Lab/Released)

Embracing Action

The will to act may prove the most difficult step toward innovation, as it involves blazing a new trail into an undiscovered country. But, it is quite possibly the most essential - as action fuels growth and change.

Another famous generalist, Benjamin Franklin, once said, "Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement and success have no meaning."

Within the Air Force there is a need for both generalists and specialists. Today's fast-paced, technology-driven culture values the specialist for their comprehensive knowledge of a specific process or system. Mentorship and development has traditionally been focused on creating a professional ecosystem of specialists.

But what happens when the ecosystem changes?

"We have to be able to do the same things in new and different ways," Welsh said. "We have to be more cost-effective in the way we run and operate the Air Force. We have to think differently and open the aperture about potential solutions. We have to unlock ourselves from the things we're used to, and listen to some of these brilliant young people we have coming in to our Air Force today, when they have ideas that are different."

Identifying and challenging the structures that have become shackles becomes the responsibility of every Airman - both specialist and generalist. However, it is the front-line supervisor who has the power to recognize and develop generalists when they see them - while still mentoring the specialists.

Credit: Duplessis, Joseph-Siffrede, artist.
A Culture of Self-Righteousness

It would be easy to ignore what is on the horizon, bury our heads to avoid the winds of change and succumb to a culture of self-righteousness. The culture prevalent in all organizations that places processes ahead of people, touts the virtue of "that is the way we've always done it" and proclaims this service as "my Air Force," rather than "our Air Force" or "the Air Force."

Unfortunately, circumstances have changed and the old processes may not net the new solutions we require. Our heritage remains an important part of our identity, but the need to embrace invention is fueled by a collective desire to remain the world's greatest air force.

We need to encourage Airmen at all levels to challenge rationalizations and ask why the standard practice is in fact the standard. Supervisors should encourage their people to expose the faults found in limiting options to either choice "A" or choice "B." Instead, propose "C" and "D" as a new way of problem-solving or goal realization. As Airmen continue to develop innovative programs and processes, supervisors should use these creative expressions as opportunities to show their people the "big picture" and encourage both tactical and strategic levels of thinking that recognizes short and long-term gains and consequences.

Into the Wild, Blue Yonder

Innovation is our future. Our core functions are currently being consolidated into a single master plan spread across different domains. Now, more than ever, we must embrace the bold spirit of invention in the face of adversity that defined our heritage. We must once again spread our collective wings and take to the sky, as da Vinci so eloquently said.

"For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return."