Unleashing the innovative spirit of Airmen

  • Published
  • By Capt. Ryan McGuire and Capt. Lyndsey Horn
  • 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – We’re doing it again.

We’re taking the momentum of a renewed focus on innovation and beginning to squander its potential, making it “just the next thing.” While senior leaders continue to emphasize innovation, our Airmen are becoming frustrated with the pace of real progress and the disproportionate focus on innovation theater –i.e. exciting events that fail to deliver real capability.  Our rate of progress is not due to a lack of passion or intellect in our Airmen, but rather bureaucratic attempts to force innovative solutions through standard corporate processes designed in the Cold War.  

You have asked the organization to disrupt itself, yet the traditional processes of our organization are built to wring risk out of decisions, not to expedite innovations that very well could fail.

Innovators are disruptors.  Disruptors understand that innovation is not just technology and widgets. Innovation is about solving problems. 

We believe Spark can change this narrative if properly supported.  Spark provides a valuable outlet for Airmen with a focus on delivering capability to the warfighter.  Through multiple iterations over the last two years, Spark has adapted to leverage our Airmen’s abilities, solve problems and find successes locally.

Spark has failed, learned and succeeded

Spark started as a group of motivated, and admittedly frustrated, individuals.  Frustrated with the small nuisances that plagued their day-to-day work life, and how seemingly simple solutions were right outside the gate but just out of reach.  Airmen felt frustrated because a simple change was always met with a “no” or a “yes, but (insert long list of illogical barriers here).”  Spark set out to change that, and did so with all thrust and little vector.  The organization rapidly received attention and fed speeches. It held its first pitch session with headquarters—a meeting that failed miserably. 

We failed because the first meeting did not focus on problems.  It solely looked at solutions, contracting mechanisms, return on investment, funding streams and legal reviews.  While there were many advocates for change, there were even more anti-bodies who were (and are) defending their historical processes. 

The trend of these pitch sessions has not changed much; however, the focus at the wing-level has evolved.  The organization took a step back and returned to its roots: the Airmen and their problems.  The problems encompass process, policy and, if appropriate, technology.  We found solving Airmen’s problems resonates and the focus of the organization must be to empower Airmen to identify and solve problems at their level…rapidly.

Spark builds a culture of Airmen who are not going to submit their ideas to a suggestion box.  As disruptors, these Airmen don’t think outside the box, they think the box is outdated and part of the problem.  Spark provides Airmen either with physical space like an innovation lab, or with education and connections who can assist.  The organization’s job is not to solve the problem for the Airmen, for we do not live it every day.  Spark’s job is to move barriers out of the way.

This refocus led to a C-5M Super Galaxy electronic flight bag mount, adoption of 3-D printing technology in the medical field and a more efficient and effective generator prototype for Contingency Response forces. It also assisted in the adoption of radio-frequency identification, or RFID, technology for inventory and new partnerships with Air Force Research Lab, which included development of a C-5M loadmaster scanning seat. We worked to procure virtual reality to combat patient anxiety in MRIs as well as better debrief programs and software for aircrew.  Spark also praises something as simple as a piece of Plexiglass to prevent doors on passenger buses from breaking because, at the end of the day, it solves a problem. 

However, if the Air Force is to truly harness the power of innovation, our innovators need your help.

What Spark Cells Need – Theater is important, Driving Staffs and Processes is Imperative

Senior leader advocacy, innovation competitions, public affairs stories (the irony of which is not lost on us) and new facilities for innovation are avenues for displaying commitment; however, they do not drive staffs or change our culture.  These avenues do not address the fact that there are still multiple layers of people empowered to say “no” to the simplest idea.  It doesn’t address that innovation programs charged with supporting the unit-level initiative get buried under some agency, directorate or entity with no unique authorities. 

Travis Spark fell victim to this realization internally. We didn’t solve problems rapidly, we attempted to control people’s time while discovering solutions and we didn’t prioritize “the how” of innovation and culture change.  We overcame our deficiencies through constantly explaining intent, restructuring our processes, allocating separate lines of resourcing and aligning directly under an O-6 champion.

It isn’t perfect, but it’s a start.

The organization also translates innovation jargon into terms the traditional enterprise understands.  We aren’t the enemy trying to break rules or act unethically.  Innovators are simply people who see things differently, those who want to get things done.  We stopped asking for money and stopped asking permission to do things that were within our authority.  We went to the people we knew could deliver, prioritized Airmen development and trusted people to pursue ideas without constant oversight or timelines.  We also learned the rules…and how to navigate within them.

Through our experience, we found Spark cells only need one thing to succeed: a commitment to follow-through and willingness to find a way.  We call this “getting out of the way.”  This must be the mindset at higher-level staffs if we want to create institutional change. 

What does Spark need to succeed?

There is an immense amount of “low-hanging fruit” right now and many unit-level innovations have focused on that.  Anything that moves the needle is valuable; however, the lessons learned here will enable breakthroughs in the future.  Breakthrough innovations will only come when the organization’s culture supports the innovator.  In the time between solving the low hanging fruit and the first breakthrough, we have to create the mechanisms to quickly churn unarticulated needs through our cultural barriers to execution. 

We must also focus on how we leverage the talent that we have within the unit and foster their non-traditional development.  We affectionately refer to our Spark team as the “Land of Misfit Toys.”  This is not meant in any way as a slight on the talented Airmen we engage with, but as an assessment of where talent is hiding on base.  Spark is an outlet for diverse Airmen with unique backgrounds to connect and deliver amazing capability.  The talent is there, yet the pipelines and support to quickly respond to their needs are not. 

Our end goal for the Spark program is that it eventually ceases to exist.  This end state is not because we will solve all the problems or we failed to deliver. Rather, that Spark’s disruption permeates beyond the wing, enabling Airmen-led initiatives to rapidly provide capabilities to the warfighter. But our Airmen need help, help from the senior leaders, who praise their innovative spirit, to drive action at all levels.