Commentary: Innovation 'advances the ball'

  • Published
  • By Maj. Gen. Bradley D. Spacy
  • Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center commander

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas – I’ve been a proponent of innovation for the majority of my more than 32-year Air Force career. I feel so strongly about the importance of having an environment of innovation in the workplace that I made it one of my leadership priorities when I first became a commander in the mid-1990s.

If you’re not innovating, then you’re not “advancing the ball;” you’re not getting better. If you could have talked with Henry Ford after he made the Model T, you might have asked him why there was any reason to be better? The car was functional and it did the job. Well, as you innovate you find out there are more efficient, better, smarter and faster ways to do the job, and it’s more fun! For organizations to remain relevant, they have to innovate at some level. 

Ideally, we work in innovative organizations where people are just innovating on their own, without leadership pulling it out of them. Those tend to be more mature organizations that have developed that culture. We’re not there yet in AFIMSC, but we’re on the path to get there. It takes time. You have to develop a culture of innovation, determine where you want to innovate, and then implement it with buy-in from the team. Innovation is critical to remaining relevant, and in the military it’s certainly critical to staying ahead of the enemy. 

The first step you need to take is to tell people about it. Then you have to set up the mechanisms to support it. Like a corporate CEO, my job as commander is to continue to push the message, connect members of the team and set up a structure for innovation that can be self-sustaining. That’s the basics.

Then you have to convince people they can do it and eventually want to do it. That’s my job, too, along with leaders at every level. You have to convince the members of the team we mean it, and the only way you can do that is by taking their innovations and implementing them. I call this “getting innovation to market.” If it’s not a good idea, then you tell them why it isn’t and give suggestions on how to make it better.

A big part of innovation is getting people to be creative about what they do, and it can happen at all levels. It doesn’t have to come up through the commander or corporate structure for implementation in the enterprise. It can be as simple as just sitting around in your office and figuring out better ways to do things. That’s why empowerment is so closely tied to innovation. To have an innovative organization, you have to empower people to implement their improvements. If everything takes a two-year trip through the bureaucracy, it’s not going to happen.

The good news: it’s becoming easier to innovate in the Air Force, because senior leaders are working hard to make it easier. In our corner of the world, we’re realizing what an opportunity we have at AFIMSC. We’re getting over the difficulty of change and embracing the opportunity we have for the entire Agile Combat Support community. That’s almost half the Air Force!

The Innovation Rodeo we conducted in January was our first deliberate effort to get innovations from the field. Now we need to set up that perpetual motion machine that merges people, ideas and the desire to do things differently with the platform and processes to get it done.

In order to make AFIMSC succeed as a new Air Force organization -- to put us on the map -- just doing a good job was not going to do it. Just executing the 150 capabilities that transitioned to us from Air Force and the MAJCOMs was not going to do it. Innovation was what is selling our enterprise as a good idea. We’re innovative because of the way we were put together. We’re setting up the structure to support innovation and now we have to prove it over time.

We’ve made great strides on the innovation front in the two-plus years since we reached full operational capability. We’re tracking 54 active initiatives right now. These are Air Force-level efforts, and who knows how many are just below the surface working in local offices and other places like that? We offer the opportunity for the Air Force to bring installation and mission support innovation from innovator to market with agility because we own the I&MS market and we can do it within our own enterprise. 

In a little more than two years, we’ve seen innovation take hold with such initiatives as the Installation and Mission Support Weapons and Tactics Conference, the only innovation forum for ACS. Our Installation Health Assessment is giving leaders critical data never before available to help them make more informed infrastructure investment decisions. And the Alpha Warrior fitness strategy is changing how we stay fit for life! These programs are already having a huge impact on Air Force mission success and there are no limits to what they can do as we mature them. And right behind them are a ton more ideas that will make the Air Force more capable and lethal -- these are exciting times!