The key to innovation: You!

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. David Moeller
  • 335 Fighter Squadron commander
Innovation is one of the cornerstones of Air Force success. Innovation is a key link between daily training and combat-mission readiness. As supervisors, it is our responsibility to develop a culture that encourages all members of our unit to innovate. This is done by assessing our daily performance in order to identify ways to more efficiently and effectively accomplish our mission.

There are three components to creating a culture of innovation within your unit.

Create the environment to innovate. This is perhaps one of the most important precursors to effective innovation. In the military, we are very familiar with orders and training passed down from superiors. Personnel in your workplace should be comfortable to critically assess performance and processes in order to develop more innovative approaches to mission accomplishment. As a supervisor, allocate time during a training day to discuss workplace processes and areas for improvement. Set the agenda and lay out expectations with a clear statement of purpose such as, "For the next 30 minutes we will discuss process X with a goal to increase efficiency by YY%." By setting the agenda, defining the expectation, and allowing subordinates to critically review a process, you have set the foundation for innovation and process improvement.

Your focus is key. As a supervisor, do you feel relegated to the concept of "doing more with less?" If so, chances are you will quickly realize that the fewer resources you have, the more you will work -- which will lower workplace morale, burn you out and ultimately could lead to mission failure. Think instead in terms of "doing the best with what you have." Viewing your resources from this perspective will assist in developing an environment conducive to innovation. Instead of focusing on the limited resources that inhibit your performance, focus on the processes that allow you to maximize your efficiency and effectiveness. In the business world, this is referred to as lean innovation and assumes resources will continually diminish as processes become more effective, a fundamental tenet of profit maximization. While military members are generally not concerned with profit margin, we are concerned about being good stewards of allocated resources. By focusing on "doing the best with what you have," you are forcing constant innovation into your workplace while also efficiently using our limited resources.

Get a broad variety of viewpoints. Henry Ford said, "If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person's point of view and see things from that person's angle as well as from your own."

Widely considered one of the most successful businessmen ever, Ford was referring to the importance of viewing an issue from multiple perspectives in order to have a better understanding and develop better strategies. In the military, we tend to all receive the same initial training, read the same end of course and career development course manuals, and generally develop the same viewpoint and perspectives in the workplace -- as a result, we tend to teach and emulate the successful person or process. As supervisors, it is important to cultivate a culture that encourages diverse viewpoints -- this can also be considered "outside the box" thinking. The different viewpoint may be from a recently in-processed co-worker, an exercise evaluation team member or a friend in a different workplace. Regardless of what it is called or where it originates, different viewpoints can rapidly fuel the innovation engine.

Why is innovation important? Every month or so we are practicing mission skills during the operational readiness exercises. Use the exercises to review and assess performance and make recommendations about how to better accomplish these tasks. Inspection criteria contained in AFIs and higher headquarters guidance is grounded in mission tasks expected to be accomplished in combat...who knows, your innovation could lead to a more efficient or effective process that saves lives in combat!