Recipe for innovative Airmen

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Bryan Elder
  • 8th Flying Training Squadron commander

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- In Air Education and Training Command, we are challenged with delivering innovative Airmen.

But what is the recipe for innovative Airmen?

Equal parts adaptability, creativity, persistence and the ability to see connections between ideas and patterns? Mix, bake and presto, we’re done, right?

After a year of looking, I still have not found that recipe.

In the very rigid and syllabus-constrained environment of Undergraduate Pilot Training, I keep looking for that one “golden nugget,” the one “best practice,” the one flight commander that obviously had a new and innovative way to produce the world’s best warriors for victory in the air.

Commanders and Airmen alike are hungry for innovation. Over the years I’ve learned that it is not about creating new programs or finding the one best practice.

Instead, it is the culture and environment each and every one of us sets in our group, squadron, flight, section or office that will foster and cultivate new and innovative ways of thinking.

This is not driven from the top and we certainly don’t need another new program to tell us how to be innovative.

In his book, “Good to Great,” Jim Collins argues that large companies often fail because they “launch change programs with huge fanfare, hoping to ‘enlist the troops.’

“They start down one path, only to change direction. After years of lurching back and forth, these companies discover that they’ve failed to build any sustained momentum,” writes Collins.

“Companies that make the change from good to great have no name for their transformation -- and absolutely no program. They neither rant nor rave about a crisis and they don’t manufacture one where none exists,” he writes.

So the solution is not a new program.

Then how can we harvest innovation? The one simple truth of command is the men and women under your command will be passionate for your ideas. My recipe – let us be passionate about creating an environment where calculated risk and ideas are rewarded.

If you are a shop chief or supervisor, do you have an environment in which your people can express and test new ideas? Or have you created an environment so paralyzed by products and processes that it doesn’t allow for innovation?

Have we become so scared of failure that we fail to dare for success?

Growing up in fighter squadrons, this was subconsciously engrained in our upgrade programs. For the first year, new pilots concentrate on being experts in the aircraft and follow the tactics and procedures to the letter without question.

This may be similar to when you get someone new in your office, shop or squadron. You want them to know the processes, Air Force Instructions and procedures as a starting point.

However, after the first year of being a wingman, we then ask our pilots to upgrade to flight leads. With this added responsibility comes a certain amount of “leash.”

We allow them to apply their own ideas to the Air Force’s tactics, techniques and procedures learned over the previous year. What does this do? It allows a flight lead to take some calculated risk in areas they think may produce better results.

It does not always work. After six hours of debriefing one of my flight lead upgrade rides, I realized a calculated risk drove my wingman and I inside the “minimum abort range.” This eliminated our ability to turn away from the threat.

As a result, my two-ship had to square up to the threat and split our formation in order to try and get one of us to merge with the threat. Hopefully the other one could quickly follow it up with a shot.

I lost my wingman that day -- simulated of course -- but it still hurt the same. My new innovative idea was a failure -- or was it?

By creating an environment in which Airmen have the opportunity to take an educated and calculated risk, you foster innovation. I learned more from that failure than I would have from applying the status quo.

My recipe for innovation? Start with technical expertise, throw in leaders who are willing to let their people fail, and finish it by giving every subordinate a venue to share new ideas and innovations.

Every Airman has an incredible idea. We just have to listen.