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NEWS | April 16, 2010

Innovation as close as the youngest Airman

By By Col. Robert Mulheran 89th Aerial Support Group commander

Our Air Force was born out of innovation; we now need to reinvigorate that innovative spirit - we need Airmen who continue to press the envelope.

Over the course of my career, I have noticed a gradual change within our Air Force -- we don't look within anymore. The reasons leaders and supervisors shy away from the Airman with the great ideas are varied. Many leaders see the Air Force as a zero-sum operation where implementing innovation and change comes at a cost to someone else; someone must pay for innovation, and they don't want to be the ones losing resources. Innovation also involves risk and is hard to implement.

Leaders don't often look within their own organizations to solve problems and over the last decade tended to ignore solving hard problems with the mantra of "Wow, that's tough; let's contract it out." It is human nature to fight change and supervisors often like the status quo.

Without the proper culture within a squadron to reward and foster innovation and risk-taking, the status quo prevails -- the commander must take the time to talk and listen to Airmen. We have to harken back to our early flying years, to the Airmen who thought of air-to-air refueling and night operations, to find another era where technology lends itself to innovative concepts for the air, space and cyber realms.

Luckily, our current AFSO environment, while focused on continuous process improvement, offers commanders an outstanding opportunity to identify and foster innovative Airmen. Ask the same young Airman who has great ideas for improving day-to-day processes what they see five years from now, and you are on your way. Foster and encourage them by letting them do research on what it would take to implement their ideas. Help them map their vision.

The next step to nurturing innovation falls to leaders. While balancing risks, leaders must make sure those Airmen get the opportunity to present their ideas. Commanders must engage staffs and seek opportunities to push the ideas forward.

Demonstrating great ideas from our young Airmen is one way to garner the attention of general officers and sponsors. Explain to these Airmen that innovation is often revolutionary, yet garnering the resources -- the gathering of senior sponsors and dollars -- makes it seem evolutionary. Sponsors are those who recognize the benefits of the innovation and see beyond the zero-sum environment.

Don't let them get disheartened. Let them know there will be roadblocks, and it may take time -- maybe months or maybe an entire career -- but if it is the right thing, never give up.
Sometimes the innovative thinking of a single Airman can change the course for our entire Air Force.

Our Air Force faces huge challenges; I am confident our Airmen -- given the right environment where innovation flourishes -- will be up to those challenges.