In the October meeting of the Defense Innovation Advisory Board, Marne Levine, COO of Instagram, said: “The Department of Defense does not have an innovation problem, it has an innovation adoption problem.” Within the Air Force and within the 480th Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Wing, this is true our infrastructure within tactical ISR is aging rapidly. The climate is ripe for innovation. We are mired in a large bureaucratic system that is heavy on policy and process; changes come at a glacial pace.
We have to pivot toward a culture where innovative practices are seen as a new normal. But we cannot stifle creativity while we wait for a new system. We need a method that expedites projects through existing processes so that change can be implemented rapidly. We must sustain the flow of ideas while we work toward the larger strategic shift.
Invention vs. Innovation
Innovation is an imprecise word, but I choose to give credit for innovation at the point where an idea has been successfully implemented. All efforts prior to the point of innovation are inventions. Lean-Start Up advocates would call these inventions minimum viable products (MVPs); prototype is another possible descriptor. A key component of MVPs is getting feedback so that follow-on iterations are made early in the process. In the private sector, start-ups are not constrained by the same bureaucracy. When they have an MVP, they launch it, get feedback from customers, and then iterate. To launch an MVP within the Air Force, Airman need resources and funding, access to data and systems, security approval, and network and IT support. This requires coordination across multiple offices and organizations, all of which have their own byzantine processes. If these airman had nothing else to do except work on their MVPs, this process would be prohibitive. MVP development is in their “spare” time. Too often, their ideas become victims of the system.
Innovation on the Horizon
The Air Force is pursuing several highly publicized innovation efforts for the future, but what about the airman that have innovative solutions they are ready to deploy today?
One of the airman in our Wing recently developed an app called iTRAC to automate and track the equipment layout of his squadron. He got tired of chasing fiber cables underneath floor tiles as the only way to know where the right endpoint was. Programs such as Project Maven and Afwerx are part of the culture shift we need to be moving toward but efforts like iTRAC represent real improvement that can be actioned immediately.
The Fast Track in Practice
Within the 480th ISR Wing, we recently established an office focused on innovation. Our charter from the commander has been to educate airman on the processes and framework of innovative practices, to facilitate the stand-up of innovation labs, both physical and virtual, and to create a system for sharing ideas across the Wing. Where we differ from most innovation focused organizations is project champions.
We have a quarterly summit called “Innovation at the Edge,” where airman present their ideas to the Wing Commander. If he approves the MVP, we adopt it at the Wing-level and assign a project champion. Airman also pitch their ideas to the Commander when he visits their site and we occasionally pursue ideas presented from organizations and individuals outside the Wing. Once we assign a project champion, their job is to move the project through each of the different offices and processes that are required to develop the MVP. This allows the airman who created the project to be able to focus on his/her tasked mission while knowing someone is advancing their project.
The project champion does not and cannot replicate each of the individual offices and process within our Wing. Their role is to work with these offices to push the project through to completion. All of our project champions are assigned to the 480th Wing Innovation office full time so they can focus on advancing these projects.
An airman at one of our sites recently determined they would be able to better analyze data if they had access to Tableau, a data visualization and analytics tool. This tool can also ingest information from several of our existing systems and quantify the effectiveness of ISR. The Wing Commander directed us to move out and we assigned a project champion.
The first step was to define the requirement by determining how many licenses were needed. Second, it required talking to the company to make sure we understood what the licenses included and training. With this information we were able to explain the requirement to our acquisition team which expedited the contracting process. Once purchased, we worked with our integration team to move through the security requirements. Our project champion then got a list of machines that would receive a license and submitted the required paperwork. This cut the work flow down from months (if not longer) to weeks.
In this case a dedicated advocate co-located with the relevant stakeholders was able to fast track a project that may have otherwise taken much longer or would have been abandoned due to lack of progress. Purchasing software does not seem all that innovative but at its most basic level, an Airman identified a better way to analyze data and we were able to meet that need rapidly through the use of project champions.
Means to an End
Fast tracking is not the long-term answer for every innovation effort. A small team with limited reach is not going to be able to hand hold all projects through the system in perpetuity. What this process can do is use these smaller wins to gain momentum for larger systemic cultural change. Training on MVP development, cross-functional teams focused on innovative ideas, and professional development support will help create a system that lasts. In the meantime, we cannot lose our Airman’s best ideas while we go through this transformation. Ideas will keep the pipeline of creativity flowing long enough for us to get to an innovation ecosystem that is business as usual.
Ryan Hatfield is the deputy chief of innovation for the Air Force’s 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing.