Building an Environment that Fosters Innovation

  • Published
  • By Maj. Timothy Kirchner
  • 422nd Air Base Squadron commander

Last August, General Brown published his strategic approach titled “Accelerate Change or Lose.” This call to action describes an urgent need to adapt the Air Force to the changes we see across the globe. One change involves empowering Airmen. He writes, “successful operations and combat support in a contested environment demand maximum delegation, trust, and empowerment of Airmen before conflict starts.”

Delegation, trust and empowerment don’t come easily to an organization known for uniformity. The very first training an Airman receives involves stripping all elements of individuality and choice. In Basic Training, the Air Force ensures each trainee looks and acts the same, even going so far as to prescribe exactly how to perform the most mundane tasks such as folding your socks.

This type of training serves a critical purpose but when it is complete, we need to make an extra effort to ensure Airmen understand that there is a time and place for rigid adherence to technical orders and regulations. Certainly, you don’t want Airmen getting creative with how they pack a parachute while sending out a combat sortie. Before the conflict starts however, we must ensure there is freedom to innovate and problem solve, to show initiative, and stray from the prescribed way of doing business.

So how do we foster an environment that offers freedom to innovate? For an answer, I look to one of the most innovative organizations I know for ideas. Netflix completely up-ended the movie rental industry in 1997 with DVD rental through the mail. They then innovated and completely upended the industry again with the introduction of streaming media in 2007. Not content to stop there, they shook the marketplace again by acquiring their own content, House of Cards, in 2011. Two strategies from their playbook to create a positive environment for creative and innovative employees include 1) eliminate “bad policy” and 2) lead through “context, not control.”

Rules and policies should exist to either prevent disaster or to capture an ethical or legal issue. Mechanics need to follow Technical Orders to prevent life-threatening accidents. Additionally, we need to make it 100% clear to our Airmen that workplace harassment is absolutely unacceptable. These are examples of “good policy.”

Too often though, “bad policy” sprouts up from otherwise good intentions. It can come from a desire to prevent errors.  For example, when an Airman sends an email to a Colonel with inaccurate information, we might put a new rule in place: ”All emails to FGOs require NCOIC review before sending.” In actuality though, a bad email is a rare thing and even when it does happen, the mistake is entirely recoverable. The “cure,” on the other hand, delays communication and generates excessive work for the NCOIC. Even worse though, it tells the Airman “I don’t trust you.” It might make sense to have a second set of eyes when the consequences of failure are catastrophic, but in routine operations we should err on the side of trust in order to keep an environment in which our team members feel empowered to own their work.

In another example, I recently heard a story from a friend who bought a shirt for their child and their child hated the color. Only 30 minutes after the original purchase, he ducked back into the same store with receipt in hand and asked if he could exchange it for another color. The employee shrugged and pointed to a sign that said “no refunds or exchanges.” This example is a two-fold failure. First, the “bad policy” was created to prevent an incorrect refund or exchange being given, but it fails to take into considerations that there might be exceptions. Even worse though, it strips the employee of the freedom to apply good judgement. Instead of making hard and fast rules, we should educate our team about desired end goals, and trust them act accordingly.

So how do we fix “bad policy”? Examine your local policies closely and ask yourself, what is this trying to achieve? Does it create extra work, limit freedom or creativity, or have unintended consequences? What are the consequences if this policy isn’t followed? Is the cure worse than the disease? You won’t be able to eliminate all rules, but maybe there are one or two policies out there that just don’t make sense any more.

Next, lead by providing context, not control. I am sure you have heard the famous General Patton quote: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their results.” This is a great first step to empowerment and directly speaks to providing your team with freedom to make their own decisions and to innovate.

The concept of providing context takes this philosophy even one step further. Don’t tell people how to do things OR what to do…rather provide them with the tools, resources, and understanding they need to see for themselves what needs to be done.  In order to do this effectively, you will need to clearly communicate organizational goals and priorities, and be able to articulate what success looks like. When you provide the team with all the right pieces of information, they should be able to understand the desired end state and chart a course of action to get there. Critically, it is their course of action and they will have ownership over their actions. This is the ultimate form of empowerment.

This approach to leadership and management has two strong benefits. First, if your team fully understands their purpose and how they fit in to the larger mission, they will be able to make much better decisions and accomplish far more than if they are just told what to do. Second, you are allowing the team the freedom to offer innovation and problem-solving and they will grow and develop by determining their own courses of action.

I firmly believe in the Chief of Staff’s imperative to “accelerate change or lose.” In order to remain the world’s most dominant Air Force, we must adapt and be prepared to innovate and problem-solve. That starts by empowering our Airmen, and fostering an environment in which innovation and creativity can thrive.