Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Think about it.
In January 2013, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh III released a new vision for the Air Force: The World’s Greatest Air Force … Powered by Airmen, Fueled by Innovation.
Placing the word “innovation” within this vision emphasizes how significant it is to our future and serves as a powerful call for Airmen to recognize this as a core element of their identity.
While some people understand the concept of innovation, a strong and consistent definition will help Airmen connect their daily role in our Air Force with this enduring mandate to be innovative. Further, if the Air Force seeks to invigorate a culture of innovation, it must aim for a culture of critical thinking, as critical thinking is the key to innovation.
The term innovation is not new to the Air Force, but it seems to be surfacing a lot lately. This is primarily due to a greater emphasis from Air Force senior leadership and recognition that in order for the Air Force to continue to dominate in a fiscally constrained environment, it’s going to take some new ways of thinking — some bold ideas.
This emphasis is readily apparent in the Air Force’s new vision document, A Vision for the U.S. Air Force, released in January 2013, which highlights the need to develop Airmen who innovate: ” … complex security and fiscal challenges demand that our Air Force develop innovative Airmen who find better and smarter ways to fly, fight and win.”
Yet, without a concrete definition of innovation, it is difficult for Airmen to identify their role and embrace this call.
I submit the following definition as a starting point on this discussion: Innovation is the application of critical thinking to fundamentally enhance or improve a strategy, process or product.
Notice that this definition does not emphasize technology, but instead places emphasis on the thinking element of innovation. This is because technology is not innovation.
Technology can be a vehicle that accelerates innovation, but how we develop, use or apply technology still derives from critical thinking. The true essence of innovation is critical thinking.
Once Airmen understand this key linkage, the call to innovate can find application in every Airman’s job — from the flight line to the flight kitchen — and a culture of innovation can begin to take root.
The key to establishing such a culture is to get people thinking more deeply and reflectively about their jobs, every single day. If the Air Force wants Airmen to be better innovators, it will need them to be better critical thinkers.
Therefore, the Air Force should focus on developing this competency in Airmen. While that may seem like a monumental task, Air Force leaders can take immediate actions to help foster innovation (i.e., critical thinking).
Here are just a few examples:
Be consistent in your message. Leaders who preach innovation while discouraging divergent thinking send mixed signals. If the key to innovation is critical thinking, leaders must be willing to hear what they sometimes do not want to hear – that their idea or decision isn’t the best one, that there may be a new or better way.
Welsh set the standard when he encouraged Airmen to “stop doing things that don’t make sense” in his speech at the 2013 Air Force Associations annual conference. A consistent message across all levels of leadership would go a long way to empowering Airmen to innovate.
Create space for innovation. One of the biggest impediments to innovation is the “busy-ness” of Airmen. Critical thinking requires a deeper level of thinking that can only be achieved when there is thinking space in an Airman’s day.
Everybody is busy and must meet deadlines. But what Airmen need, especially if they’re expected to be innovative, is some of their time back. That may be something as simple as helping Airmen prioritize their tasks, to something as complex as a top-to-bottom evaluation of the local demands placed on Airmen, and asking the question “Why?”
Airmen need space to think in order to innovate.
Acknowledge and reward critical thinking. Once leaders create space for critical thinking, leadership needs to respond appropriately and award those Airmen who embrace the call and risk speaking up. This recognition can take on a variety of shapes, but one way of doing it is by establishing a quarterly and annual innovation award.
This will emphasize the importance of innovation and prevent highly innovative accomplishments from relegation to one crafty line, hidden in the many under a “Primary Job Performance” heading.
A simple act like creating a new award will cause supervisors to look for and encourage Airmen to be innovative.
The Air Force’s push toward a culture of innovation is well-timed and appropriate. The fiscal challenges and evolving nature of our security environment demand that we focus our efforts in this direction. By establishing a common definition of innovation, rooted in the competency of critical thinking, we can help Airmen see how they support this call to innovate every single day.
Further, if leadership across the Air Force consistently supports the CSAF’s vision, creates space for innovation and rewards critical thinking, it would reinforce this calling from senior leadership and foster an innovative environment.
The key to developing innovative Airmen “who find better and smarter ways to fly, fight and win” is to encourage and place a stronger emphasis on critical thinking across the force at all levels, regardless of rank or Air Force specialty code.
After all, while critical thinking is much more than innovation, innovation is not much more than critical thinking applied. Think about it.