With more than 24 years in the military, I have come to realize the old adage, “Culture will eat strategy for lunch every day of the week” is a true statement, and we as Airmen have a responsibility to cultivate an inspiring and healthy workplace culture.
Every organization has a culture. Some are very toxic and crippling, while others are incredibly healthy and inspiring to their members, affording them the opportunity to create solutions daily. I would even venture to say the efficiency and wellness of a given organization is most likely a direct reflection of its organizational culture and how well you would attain your strategic mission and vision.
I joined the Air Force in 1989 to become an obstetrical gynecological nurse and quickly realized I was joining a culture and not just getting a job. Cultural expectations were set for me from day one.
Upon entering the Air Force, I was immediately expected to comply with AFI 36-2903, Dress and Appearance, as well as lots of other long-standing customs and courtesies.
Another cultural expectation that evolved shortly after I joined the military was the establishment of our Air Force core values of integrity, service before self and excellence in all we do. Since their inception, they are what we live by and what I have learned to cherish over time. Our core values are much more than the minimum standards. They remind us what we need to do to get our mission completed. It also inspires us to do and be our best at all times.
Lastly, our core values create a common bond among all Airmen and ties us to our predecessors and Air Force heritage. Our Air Force has come a long way since establishing these core values. Now, the vast majority of us don’t even think about them daily – the Air Force core values have become ingrained in our daily lives.
More recently, Gen. Mark Welsh III, the current Air Force chief of staff, released his new vision for the Air Force titled, “The World’s Greatest Air Force … Powered by Airmen, Fueled by Innovation.” The strong emphasis placed on “innovation” suggests every Airman has the ability and duty to help our Air Force become better every day. Bold ideas and new ways of thinking are what our Air Force senior leaders and your supervisors and commanders are asking from each Airman as we navigate through these difficult fiscally constrained environments with the ultimate goal being to find better ways to continue to dominate as an Air Force. Yet, every day it appears our Airmen are having a difficult time identifying their role and embracing this call for a change in our cultural expectations.
So, how can you become a change agent? Ownership and applying critical thinking are two options.
First, realize the call for innovation is for every Airman – yes, you – from the medical clinic to the flightline and beyond. Each of us is responsible for creating an environment of innovation. Second, in order for us to embrace innovation we need to apply and encourage critical thinking at the lowest level within our organizations. Third, once innovative ideas surface, we as leaders must embrace and acknowledge divergent thinking and recognize there is synergy to be gained during problem solving with multiple perspectives. Additionally, our personnel need to know you are willing to listen and try something new or better when a new approach has been offered as a solution.
Finally, we need to have a forum and platform to reward innovation and critical thinking. When individuals are change agents and embrace the culture of innovation, we as leaders should reward them for taking the time and risk of speaking up. Creating and sustaining a reward system that highlights innovation will encourage our supervisors and Airmen to continue to seek opportunities to be innovative and simultaneously drive a change to a culture of innovation.
Developing a viable strategic mission and vision in today’s tough economic times and evolving security challenges and risks can be a daunting task. Cultivating a culture such as how the Air Force has done over the years with the Air Force core values and now with embracing this culture of innovation and developing innovative Airmen, the task of having a viable strategic mission and vision will become less daunting. This is because all Airmen are working toward the common goal of, “bringing us your bold ideas and speaking up,” so that our innovative culture will find better and smarter ways to “fly, fight and win” for many years to come.