Innovative Out of Orbit — Part 2
This is part 2 in the series that started with Innovative Out of Orbit — Part 1, in which I described how the Air Force and the DoD, distracted by the immediate impact of innovation by exception, cultivate a culture that supports the self-fulfilling perception that innovation belongs only to those who are lucky enough to hide from, escape, or defy the institution.
History isn’t a single narrative, but thousands of alternative narratives. Whenever we choose to tell one, we are also choosing to silence others.
Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus
It took me three years of pushing through and around numerous gatekeepers — champions of The Status Quo — before the Air Force found us a solution. It took three years of unreasonable persistence in the face of systematic discouragement to save my career and protect my family from a three-year separation at a time when my daughter was terminally ill. For three years I failed to get anybody to imagine that a solution might exist that wasn’t written into regulations. After three years, the details of my case finally reached that single person who felt empowered to think beyond the pages of policy and identify a solution starting from a premise of values. Arguably, the struggle of those initial three years had little to do with these gatekeepers’ level of authority. It had everything to do with consistently trained and culturally reinforced approaches to questions of norms, regulations, and policy: There will always be victims. It is not our place to question. We ought not waste the time of our superiors with the complaints of those inevitable unlucky few. If the problem is widespread enough, I’m sure they will hear about it. Maybe the military lifestyle just isn’t for you.
What ‘Innovativeness’ Actually Means
It is time we started questioning our idea of what constitutes success in this time of increasing innovation-by-exception. Many hold the view that an accumulation of innovative accomplishments is a good measure of success. That is their proof in the pudding — beautiful, state-of-the-art innovation labs churning out cutting-edge solutions to our problems. The truth is that accelerators and incubators are fantastic sources of vanity metrics. They are the five-star restaurants serving up world-class cuisine in the affluent pocket of a city otherwise rife with undernourishment.
Rather than focusing on easy wins, we should see the prevalence of unacceptable failures as a more accurate indicator of the state of things, because our goal should be to become more innovative, not simply to have more innovations.
We are not as innovative as we need to be until the mundane grievances of Airmen don’t require a campaign achieving access to the highest authorities in order to be solved. The cultural norms and habits that make us refrain from self-advocacy, that cause leaders to feel compelled to protect their superiors from hearing challenges to convention, that lead no one to believe it is their place or that they are safe putting up that challenge — these are the issues that warrant the most attention and resources — not ‘How do we make higher-tech pants for pilots?’. When I see ungodly amounts of money dedicated to the tiny advancements provided by technical development projects, while the Airmen above, below, and all around me remain petrified by mutually enforced psychological unsafety, I can’t help but feel like our leaders have become distracted from a significantly more important matter, one that gets to the heart of real, emergent innovation.
If it is not yet clear, the matter of mundane, meaningful innovation is one that means a lot to me personally.
Incidents of prolonged hardship like my family has faced are far more prevalent than we are able to see, because the men and women who suffer silently, afraid of committing the sin of nonconformity, will separate from the force without announcing their departure. They have heeded the message that the military lifestyle simply does not fit them and their family. When I started to share my story about fighting to stay with my family and dying daughter without ending my career, many people came out of the woodwork, to reach out for assistance or express solidarity, who had not expressed their suffering to the degree necessary to get help because they felt it wasn’t acceptable. I have seen countless examples of people silently enduring pointless hardship because they considered hardship (even the pointless kind) a definitive element of the military experience. I have seen colleagues depart the force because they wanted to start a family. Brilliant, motivated individuals that the Air Force is worse-off without, felt they had to choose between finishing a career and starting a family, because they expected that potential hardships would likely not be accommodated for or even cared about. They looked out for their family’s well being in anticipation that the Air Force would not. That is a fact of the culture we perpetuate. The mostly unspoken message is being received loud and clear.
What I’ve described here is a more accurate demonstration of just how innovative we are as an organization. The degree of persistent, prolonged struggle it took to even reach the ear of a leader, to convince them to make a small change to the automated assignment system, allowing me to stay with my family through this difficult time while continuing to serve — this demonstrates a culture that is norm-enforcing to a very serious fault.
This is what innovativeness really means: values-driven agility in the face of the unanticipated. Focus instead on this, and you will recognize that we are failing to innovate.
Shoes that Almost Fit
All it took to assist my family was a little bit of creativity, but most people along the way found themselves incapable of envisioning any relief, because it wasn’t in the manual. All it took was a simple act of caring, but that act was beyond the conceptual capacity of so many, and many stood in my way to enforce norms rather than helping. We default to norm-enforcement because our culture places standards above all else — above families, above individuals, and above even those things we claim to call values.
In general, we don’t consider policy changes to be a priority unless they are having an obvious and generalized negative effect. Harm to the individual has to be severe enough that it warrants escalation to a level at which there is the authority to grant exceptions (I am still trying to figure out what that threshold for personal suffering is). To merit escalation to those with authority to change policy, the negative impact has to be enormous — and impact to mission is all but required.
The effect of this approach is that we collectively consider an “approximate fit” of policy to the force acceptable. So long as a policy suits most of the people most of the time, it is good enough. The small harm experienced by many or the extreme hardship experienced by few are seen as inevitable and unavoidable facts of our organization This is the military. Sacrifice is our brand.
I contend that policy is more like a pair of shoes, in that an approximate fit is absolutely not acceptable. What start out as tiny frictions turn, in a short distance, to painful blisters, which can then split open, bleed, and introduce infection just as severe as a bullet wound. If shoes only fit approximately, they can be even more damaging than having no shoes at all. Shoes that almost fit quite simply don’t fit. Rather than stoically carrying on, dutifully ignoring the festering open sores in our feet, we need to find some shoes that actually fit, and agility in making those adjustments to policy starts with caring.
Lower the Threshold for Caring
The solution to these deep-rooted cultural problems starts with unlearning our misplaced reverence for norms and regulations, and beginning to see them as conditional. Policies and standards must be in service of a deeper set of principles rooted in core values, prioritizing caring for the welfare of our people and sustainable increases in mission effectiveness. Regulations that violate the explicit values of our community can be clearly identified and, without hesitation, disruptive challenges to them elevated, acted on, and openly celebrated. Before that can happen, our priorities need to be reordered, and the new, values-driven order has to be demonstrated often, out loud, and without exception.
Empowered by increased psychological safety, we must learn new habits for how we will deal with challenges to the status-quo. Unnecessary negative impact to the people in our charge should never be acceptable, so when faced with questions about whether or why a policy ought to exist or be enforced, the answer should never be “because it’s a policy”. The suggestion that writers of the countless regulations, AFIs, DoDIs, and policies somehow anticipated and considered every contingency is disingenuous and dangerous. We need to be willing and able to test these stubborn strands of the giant hairball against current conditions and unique circumstances. We need to be handing out the cutting implements as broadly as possible, so that shaping policy happens at ground-level, where policy has the greatest impact.
One of the crucial tenets of good leadership shared by Silicon Valley CEO Coach Kim Malone Scott in her brilliant book Radical Candor, is to “care personally”, something we fail to incorporate into our leadership all too often. In many cases, within our community, the role of caring personally about individuals has even been outsourced to specific offices and helping agencies. Most of us don’t have to worry about caring personally much of the time, because we have chaplains, first sergeants, family support centers, and others, who can help us prevent the emotions of those in crisis from contaminating the cold, sterile business of norm enforcement. We are enabled and encouraged to detach from the human, so that we can execute the mission with minimal variance. Perhaps if we put more emphasis on the value of caring, if we made caring one of those values through which we filtered the enforcement of norms, it would make a significant difference. Being expected to care personally might reduce the incidence of arms-length leadership, something I see everywhere within our community. Without falling into the trap that Kim Malone Scott describes as “Ruinous Empathy”, we could use a serious infusion of caring into our leadership ethos.
With our Powers Combined
According to Yuval Noah Harari, in his book Homo Deus, the embedded values of a culture, conscious and unconscious, emerge as a shared reality made manifest only by the fact that those in the community believe in it. This is an example of what Harari describes as “transsubjective reality” — not objective truth, but made real by the interaction of many individuals’ subjective belief. An example is the concept of authority. A country’s ruler is only in charge so long as the people believe them to be so. If one day, everybody suddenly realized this individual held no objective power and all at once stopped believing they were in charge, they simply no longer would be.
The learned helplessness of our leaders in the face of MacKenzie’s “Giant Hairball” (from part 1) is an example of transsubjectivity. If we believe in the permanence of the hairball, in our own incapacity to trim back the tangled mass of accumulated dysfunction, that becomes the reality. If we collectively believe in the supreme value of regulations and standards and we consistently minimize the importance of individuals’ experience, the resultant reality is where we find ourselves today.
The good news is that transsubjective reality is a collective choice. We are the stewards of the human environment, and the only thing standing in the way of us becoming agile in the face of the unexpected might simply be that our leaders haven’t given the word yet.
So how about we do this? How about we put our heads down and start digging in to the mass of accumulated toxic norms, tolerance for unnecessary individual harm and prolonged hardship. I’ll bring the machetes. How about we check every flare-up against a newly prioritized set of values that give us the psychological safety to speak up, take action, but first to care personally.
If I leave you with only one message, let it be this: While far above us, satellites are orbiting, within which brilliant minds are making stunning advances in the focus-areas of a select few; down here, hacking away at the overgrown jungles of serpentine, interwoven norms and regulations that hold us back, are the innovators who will make us more innovative — collectively and inclusively. Their mission needs support. They will have an even greater impact than anything we’ve seen from those tiny rooms hurtling through the sky, miles overhead.
The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect the views of the US Air Force, Department of Defense, or any other entity.