Commentary Search

Leaders must empower Airmen; foster innovation along the way

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Matthew Duncan
  • 90th Operation Support Squadron
In these times of austerity and adverse fiscal conditions, uncertainty is high. Not just for the present situation, but for the future viability of the world's greatest Air Force. Traditional solutions are not well suited for the non-traditional issues imposed upon us. It will be our ability to adapt and overcome, our capacity to create and innovate, that will sustain success in protecting our nation. Released in January of this year, the current AF Vision demands leaders to "...develop innovative Airmen who find better and smarter ways to fly, fight, and win."

Airman at all levels, have been empowered to share their innovative ideas through the re-invigorated Innovative Development through Employee Awareness program, and the results have been nothing short of the excellence demanded of us by our core values.

However, at present, the run on innovation has been throttled back. As of June 30, 2013, the IDEA program has been suspended while a replacement program is in the works.

Despite this, we should not lose any inertia toward developing and embracing innovation throughout the ranks. During the interim, it may be helpful to re-examine the fundamentals of employee innovation, as well as what leaders can do at the tactical, face-to-face level to cultivate new ideas and drive innovation.

Creativity can be viewed as the first step of any innovative process. However, it does not flourish on its own. To be creative and share new ideas, followers must have a culture of trust. This necessitates leaders who are not only open to new ideas, but who are forgiving when a new idea fails. A follower who fears failure will certainly avoid risk and act with self-preservation in mind. Embrace missteps as learning opportunities and solicit your follower's reflections regarding lessons learned.

For tactical leaders, it is critical to build a work-place environment open to effective dialog and the free-exchange of ideas. Allow followers time to network and share ideas amongst others in the organization, and especially with you. The quality of relations between leader and follower is the biggest factor for establishing a culture of respect.

Organizational factors can inadvertently serve as barriers for innovation. Scan the workplace environment for policies and practices that are stilted, outdated or useless. These only serve to limit new ways of thinking and stifle innovation. Review your organizational policies through a critical lens, determine the value added and remove what is unnecessary. Challenge not only yourself to this endeavor, but your subordinates as well.

Generating innovation amongst followers requires growing their innovative capabilities. This requires critical thinking. Aid followers toward gaining awareness of their personal biases and coach them to think dynamically on the issue at hand.

Innovation takes time and learning. Allowing followers the time to explore and experiment with new ideas may be an arduous scheduling endeavor for any leader, but vital for real innovation to occur. Allocate time at work for the follower to run down an innovative idea, and remain flexible in times of experimentation. As with every experiment, ensure that followers record data and capture a timeline. This will allow for great review, reflection, and effective learning.

Take a proactive approach in shaping and influencing a supportive workplace environment for innovation. Top Air Force leaders have set an atmosphere and established a vision for innovation. Continue to drive and sustain innovative followers in your work environment. Champion creativity and innovation and meet the calling to "...develop innovative Airman who find better and smarter ways to fly, fight, and win."