April 19, 2016

Creating an Innovative Workforce in a Large Bureaucracy: Lessons from the U.S. Air Force

Strategic Narratives for innovation

The idea that bureaucracy inhibits innovation is far from new: Political scientists in the early 1960s were already making the charge that, “There is a growing feeling that modern organizations and particularly the large, bureaucratic business and government organizations, need to increase their capacity to innovate” (Victor Thompson, Administrative Science Quarterly, June 1965).

Fifty years later, this ‘feeling’ continues to grow, often in bureaucracies that have also grown in the interim. The US Air Force is one such institution. Yet, there are creative ways to advance, as my opportunity to spend a day earlier this month with the Air Force Chief of Staff and an advisory group of my peers made abundantly clear. A diverse group of us were gathered–technology entrepreneurs, corporate CEOs, government executives, futurists and Air Force officials—to share ideas and offer our recommendations.

Although we talked extensively about practical fixes that could begin to create new pockets of innovation across the Air Force, we all agreed that ultimately the United States government as a whole will need a new way of thinking about innovation and failure. This new strategic narrative will tell a story about the US government as innovative, respectful of necessary failures, and open to true diversity of thought.

The Challenges to Innovation Facing Large Bureaucracies are Formidable
The challenges opposing innovation are formidable.

Like other large bureaucracies, the Air Force has:

  • A globally distributed workforce–in this case it is over 300,000
  • Mission critical areas in which failure is not an option
  • Decision-making that lies beyond its ability to control: Congress and the White House have a strong say in how the Air Force allocates its resources and defines incentives for performance
  • A deeply embedded structure for performance and advancement
  • A budget that is static and set by others

The lack of control over much of their own destiny, coupled with a stringently defined mission, makes it difficult to incentivize innovation. As the Air Force officials explained to us, the Service can best reward new problem solving approaches only at the tactical level, over which it has authority. Strategic innovation is more complicated.

Yet, doing nothing is not an option, in the view of the Air Force. The need to innovate is pressing. While the United States Air Force once had a clear advantage among other nations, global power shifts and the democratization of technology have made it much simpler for states and non-state actors to advance. Like other elements of the United States government, there is palpable concern these days that without establishing the conditions for innovation, the United States will fall behind, with consequences that have not yet been contemplated by national leaders.

When Mission Failure is Not an Option, Incentivizing Failure as Part of Innovation is also Difficult

One of the key recommendations for organizations seeking to innovate is to permit, even encourage failure. At the Pentagon, we discussed corporate leaders in the technology sphere who encourage failure, knowing that it is a necessary part of successful innovation.

Yet unlike a private corporation, the Air Force must explain itself to Congress, which does not look kindly on resources or programs are anything but highly successful. Neither the mindset nor the way in which budgets and programs are evaluated currently support useful failure. Other government agency or corporate managers seeking to drive innovation from below may recognize this problem as well.

How to Introduce a Culture of Innovation

The ideas that my colleagues and I came up with over the course of an afternoon, although designed to serve the Air Fove, may hold value for the leaders of similarly large, bureaucratic or networked organizations.

  • Public private collaborations are essential to accelerate innovation. Opportunities to work on a project with colleagues from other institutions could be a reward for innovation as well
  • Develop an expectation that a certain amount of failure is not only tolerable, but productive. Identifying a threshold of expected failure (20%, for example) can be a useful metric to show that innovative ideas are being developed and tried. This kind of mindset can be introduced to those who hold the purse strings, like Congress.
  • Create rewards and incentives that are not financial when the budget is fixed. Millennials (and even non-millennials!) may appreciate a shorter workweek or the opportunity to work on projects of their choosing more than money.
  • Ensure better teamwork by “translating” different fields to one another. In order to accelerate productive collaborative work, interdisciplinary team members need to understand the values, norms and vocabularies of their colleagues. This kind of understanding can be encouraged organically by embedding team members with their counterparts, so they can absorb how others talk and work. It can also be productive to surface this need and hold workshops or other guided discussions in which teammates explicitly translate their work to others.
  • Develop teams in which diversity of thought is encouraged and nurtured. In many cases, external signs of diversity (race, ethnicity, gender) are markers of diversity of thought because different people experience the world differently, but sometimes there are no external markers. Seek people who think and create differently from one another, and encourage the conditions in which those differences are valued.

These are practical steps by which a large bureaucracy can begin to establish a collective narrative of innovation that resonates throughout the organization.

If you would like to discuss developing an innovation narrative in your organization, I’d be pleased to hear from you at info@strategic-narrative.net.

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