Whenever we talk about innovation in the Air Force, we inevitably end up stumbling across that familiar old trope of “The Frozen Middle”, which approximately describes the theory of “middle-status conformity”, in which those mid-tier leaders with enough power to enable or impede innovation for the majority are incentivized to remain risk-averse by their long-earned status and the ease with which it could be lost if they fail to enforce norms.
I’ve seen a lot of thoughtful takes on this problem, ranging from ‘the frozen middle doesn’t exist’ to ‘we’re all the frozen middle’ and everything in between. There’s value to be gained from many different perspectives. Most of these treatments focus on what leaders can do to ‘thaw’ their frozen middle. As an NCO, I think I could consider myself fairly well ‘stuck in the middle’ (depending on your perspective) and it occurred to me recently that I have a pretty simple philosophy around preventing cultural crystallization within my immediate vicinity.
What if we think of the whole “frozen middle” thing in terms of the actual physics of temperature and liquids freezing? A drop in temperature really just describes particles moving at a slower rate. At a certain temperature, they settle into low-energy states in the form of crystals.
So as a particle myself, there’s a straightforward solution to this problem, facilitated by the fact that, unlike a water molecule, I have sentience, autonomy, and little respect for social mores:
I keep moving.
In practice, this means continuing to talk, to question, to describe my experience and work out-loud, to serve as a conduit, connector, questioner, and to explore what else could possibly be–all in spite of laws of physics that would rather have me still and silent, preserving energy for movements deemed prudent. My particular gyrations are in and of themselves the generation of heat, and as it thaws the crystalline bonds holding tightly together those that surround me, heat is also a powerful catalyst for mutation and evolution.
Settling into low-energy, crystallized, locked-in states is something we tend to do as a trained habit, indoctrinated into us in a culture in which efficiency is of the utmost importance. This is how we end up with hierarchically straight-jacketed organizations, like insecure eccentrics clinging to precise mealtime routines that generously feed the domesticated lions of norm-enforcement and throw only scraps to the feral stray kittens of innovation pitifully mewling outside.
What we and our institutions consistently fail to recognize is the power of necessary inefficiencies — those heat-generating habits of motion analogous to aimlessly meandering, to wildly gesticulating, gracefully dancing, and throwing the occasional flailing tantrum.
But even without the institutional buy-in that might more broadly facilitate regular sessions of conceptually disruptive hot-coal-flinging or the purifying blowtorch of enabling everyday creativity, we as individuals do have it in us to be singular little sources of heat, simply by squirming, by shifting, by staying frantic. This is why I write. It’s how I stay frantic.
If we want to be as innovative an Air Force as we possibly can, every one of us can play a part in preventing that risk-averse, norm-enforcing, creativity-suppressing crystallization from forming around us, locking us tightly together, no matter the temperature that our institutions keep the environment:
- Be curious: Ask more questions than the number of statements you make. We don’t learn or grow by imparting our boundless wisdom on others (said the guy writing about what others should do). Wonder why. Ask the following questions a lot: “What if…?”, “Why are we…?” “What’s next?”, “Who says?”, and “How might we….?”
- Work out-loud: Benefit from the feedback of others and let them benefit from your experience. Share how you are doing things and how you might do them better. Put lessons-learned out into the universe so that others might stumble upon them. Innovation is more serendipitous collision than choreographed coupling. It’s more like a car crash than a space-station docking.
- Get connected: Restricting the flow of information by secluding us in silos is how institutions starve us of inspiration, insight, knowledge about existing solutions, and access to potential collaborators. Find or create a community who values effort regardless of outcomes. Be inclusive. Connect with those who inspire you. It’s dangerous to go alone.
- Share problems, even when you don’t have solutions: Nobody is drowning in too much information about what’s wrong- Your experience and observations are the first ingredients to a solution, and nobody should expect you to just conjure up an answer. Don’t give your leaders plausible deniability. Give them an opportunity to care. Give them several.
- Act in service of the value you create : Understand the ‘why’ of your job. Care about whether it creates value. Make hell when it does not. You deserve to have purpose. We all do.
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