To innovate, we can’t be afraid to fail

by Col. Robert Novotny
48th Fighter Wing commander

ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England  — “Throughout history, people with new ideas — who think differently and try to change things — have always been called troublemakers.” — Richelle Mead, author.

The Air Force is pushing hard for us to innovate. You hear it when our senior leaders give speeches or post articles imploring us to improve. Examples include the AFSO21 process or the new Airmen Powered by Innovation program launched in April. All of that is great, except for the fact that over the last 30 years, we’ve created an organization that is resistant to failure.

When was the last time you heard someone say, “It’s OK to not spend all of your money at the end of the fiscal year,” or, “Getting a three on your EPR (enlisted performance report) is awesome!” Never, right? Clearly we have a problem. Innovation and fear of failure are incompatible. Like oil and water, a culture afraid to take risk is inherently unable to explore the sometimes-ugly world of innovation.

Here’s some good news. Since the birth of the airplane, Airmen have always been innovative. Innovation is resident in our DNA — just maybe a bit dormant right now.

A pair of brave, “troublemaker” bicycle mechanics took flight at Kitty Hawk, Doolittle’s courageous “troublemakers” launched B-25 bombers off of the USS Hornet, and don’t forget a fearless “troublemaker” named Chuck Yeager — all are legacy examples showcasing the rich history of risk-taking Airmen.

If you’ve ever been to Edwards Air Force Base, California, you know that nearly every street is named for an innovative Airman who gave his or her life pushing the envelope — failing while innovating. Given that innovation is part of our culture, how can we create an environment at Royal Air Force Lakenheath where our Airmen are willing to innovate without fear of failure?

First, I think we need to agree that we have to be better than we are – with our precious time, our tremendous Airmen and our finite resources. In the past several months, the Air Force released more Airmen in an attempt to meet Congressionally mandated end strengths. This reduction in manpower is stressing the team more than ever. Furthermore, our team is now in a period of mission-growth that I can’t remember in recent history.

We all thought that the drawdown in Afghanistan would bring relief, but the new fight in Iraq and Syria, a pandemic virus coupled with declining security in Africa, and other resurgent threats demand improvements in the way we accomplish our mission. It is only appropriate that an old English proverb stated, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I think that applies to us right now.

Second, and most important, we have to foster a culture that is willing to experiment and fail during discovery. I have a big role in this culture, but I am convinced our first and second-level supervisors will make or break this effort. Every time I meet with the first-term Airmen, I am reminded that we recruit and retain brilliant Americans, and they have great ideas. They are also a fresh set of eyes in the organization with a long list of questions about how we’re doing business.

If you’re a young supervisor, listen to your folks. Engage with them about how to improve the organization. Our Airmen, regardless of rank or experience, are the key to our future. You have to empower them to take action on their ideas, and reward them when they succeed – and fail. As soon as we admonish an Airman for trying and failing, we can be certain they won’t try again.

Without a doubt, we know there are areas where failure brings a high price — like flight and weapons safety and our health care. But there are countless areas around this installation, to include bureaucratic processes, communication, staffing, mission accomplishment and finances, where we can make improvements. If in doubt, start small and build some momentum. Every improvement, no matter how small, will make our team better.

I know this is easier said than done, and we can’t change it overnight. I also know that some folks won’t trust me when I say it’s OK to fail. Fair enough. I can tell you we are listening to your ideas and making improvements. Because of your ideas, we’ve already raised the speed limit on the perimeter road, canceled monthly meetings, returned promotion ceremonies to the squadrons, deleted multiple briefing requirements, and so on. All of these improvements are incredibly simple and small changes that make our lives better — ideas that came from our Airmen. Those are not truly innovative ideas, but they are better ways of doing business, and we’re listening.

Together we can push the boundaries. Our youngest Airmen hold the keys to this change. Listen to them, and take action. Don’t be afraid to try and fail. I’ve got your back. Don’t believe your idea will survive to implementation, but you still want to try it? Send it to me, and I’ll try it. My post box is PSC 41, Box 1. Just scribble it on a 3×5 card, and stick it in the mail next time you’re at the post office. They’ll send it to me anonymously.

We also have an active AFSO21 team that can help you get your ideas off the ground. Have you heard about the 48th Component Maintenance Squadron’s egress team that just finished an AFSO21 project on ejection seat inspections? To date, they have saved 21,000 man hours, $450,000 and turned in 501 tools while increasing the quality assurance pass rate from 67 percent to 100 percent.

That great idea was successful, because the master sergeant running the shop listened to a senior airman and a staff sergeant. Ideas like that don’t come from colonels. Those ideas come from Airmen. We’re currently working an AFSO21 project on munitions scheduling, and I just asked a team of Airmen and junior NCOs to help improve our sponsor program. They had the ideas, not me.

Innovation will save us money, which is good, but, more importantly, it will save us time — time that will go back to you and your team. I want you to keep that elusive “white space” time for yourselves. You know best what to do with your time.

Hopefully you’ll use that time to get to the gym, travel Europe, mentor a young Airman, or experiment with ways to do our mission better. We can innovate together if we accept the fact that it comes with a price — a price we’re willing to pay.
I like Winston Churchill quotes, so I’ll leave you with this one: “No idea is so outlandish that it should not be considered.” Trust your intuition, and let’s get after this together.