An Ecosystem for Innovation and Bold Leadership: DeMarco Banter

082012af_afcosI have heard it, I have read it, I have felt it, I have seen it, and I even smelled it…and I still don’t believe it.  That is until I heard Gen Mark A. Welsh our USAF Chief of Staff say it…


In his piece The World’s Greatest Air Force, Powered by Airmen and Fueled by Innovation—A Vision For the United States Air Force,” Gen Welsh makes the statement : “Now, more than ever, we need bold leaders at every level who encourage innovation, embrace new thinking, and take prudent risks to achieve mission success.”

Historically the USAF is innovation.  Just look at history–think Orville and Wilbur Wright, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell, General Curtis LeMayGeneral Jimmy Doolittle, General Carl SpaatzGeneral George Kenney, Brigadier General Robin Olds, to name only a few. These leaders were not simply concerned with technology, they were obsessed with doing things better…they were obsessed with innovation. 

Innovation is the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, inarticulated needs, or existing market needs. This is accomplished through more effective productsprocesses,servicestechnologies, or ideas that are readily available to marketsgovernments and society. The term innovation can be defined as something original, and as consequence, new that “breaks in to” the market or into society.  “An innovation is something original, new, and important – in whatever field – that breaks in to (or obtains a foothold in) a market or society.”

I am still not sure I see it happening, but I believe the CSAF wants it to happen.  So what’s the problem?  A massive bureaucracy with a very small rudder…a big ship that is it too hard to steer?  Or perhaps it is something else…the ecosystem?

Increasing creativity and innovation are not only on the priority list for the US Air Force, it’s also a strategic goal for corporate America as well.  Despite this growing obsession, DoD is still not good at it. I can’t count the times I have sat in strategy meetings that gathered smart, enthusiastic teams to generate interesting ideas and debate their merits, yet after the meeting… nothing… much… happened?

what_eco_map_lgI have seen good ideas from the most junior Airman.  In fact, I have personally grabbed those ideas and tried to make them reality.  Many times the ideas do grow and become real only to wither and die when leadership changes.  It reminded me of how my wife treats houseplants.  We get them, they bloom, they are beautiful, and then they die.  It is not that my wife does not love the plants and wants them to die, but there is simply a lack of skill in caring and nurturing for these delicate things.  What’s lacking is a strong house plant ecosystem…and what’s lacking in the USAF is the ecosystem for innovation .  We want the ideas, but they sprout and die.  We don’t have the culture to build, or the skills to sustain innovation.

We can of course always learn from unique companies like Apple, and one thing that really stands out is that an organization needs a strong leader to make things happen. The USAF has that in the CSAF.  In the context of innovation, a strong leader must be able to gather input from many different pools of thoughts and interests and then set the direction for the organization. It takes a visionary leader to develop a visionary organization that makes an impact in the world.

A strong leader also understands that the organization itself cannot change the world. Once the direction has been set, a leader must be humble enough to bring in external partners and thus “democratize” innovation to some extent. This is where “old-school” strong leaders often fail.

Studies show that efforts to stimulate intrepreneurship — entrepreneurship within an established company or organization — more often than not fall flat.  According to research at Harvard on innovation models in global companies across diverse sectors, these types of projects fail between 70% and 90% of the time.  This should be a deeply troubling yet motivating statistic.

“There are lots of things that can be done in large organizations but simply aren’t because nobody has the time or resources.” WE continue to do MORE with LESS and find we have No Time To Think (NT3) .

So, it would seem we need to understand as an organization, to be different means we have to start to act differently—and that begins with giving individuals the time and permission to think and then act on those thoughts.

First:   Harvard’s Ten Ways to Inhibit Innovation 

1. A focus on short-term results drives out ideas that take longer to mature.

2. Fear of cannibalizing current business prevents investment in new areas.

3. Most of our resources are devoted to day-to-day business so that few remain for innovative prospects.

4. Innovation is someone else’s job and not part of everyone’s responsibilities.

5. Our efficiency focus eliminates free time for fresh thinking.

6. We do not have a standard process to nurture the development of new ideas.

7. Incentives are geared towards maximizing today’s business and reducing risk.

8. Managers are not trained to be innovation leaders.

9. Managers immediately look for flaws in new ideas rather than tease out their potential.

10. We look at opportunities through internal lenses rather than starting with …needs and problems.

Do we see the Federal Government and the USAF in many of these?  Are we over 50%?

Ecosystem.001The innovation ecosystem is leadership, culture, structure, communication, collaboration, and creative thinking combined with the incentives to keep the ecosystem thriving.

It’s all about leadership.  Leadership is the energy in the ecosystem that drives innovation. Leadership is the most essential ingredient in creating a culture of innovation.  Organizational structure is the bank of the river directing how the water can flow.  But culture is the current in the river.  It moves people and progresses in a certain direction.  If culture is not intentional, it will happen by default.  This is why leadership is paramount.  Leadership creates a culture where innovation is what we do and not simply a miraculous thing that appears exceptionally – every once in a while.

images-9The way I see it, a diversity of thought is essential to broadening perspectives.  We must  engage the next generation, our young leaders who love to bring ideas to work.  Like a bounty hunter,  the USAF must create room for new ideas and actively look for ideas throughout the organization.  Communication is the key in the idea search.  We must then work hard to connect people with projects that are personally meaningful to them and encourage Airmen to learn in areas outside their expertise.  This is collaboration.

Collaboration is of the highest value.  Communication is the process that brings the raw ideas of innovation together, but collaboration makes them better and fully engages the engine of creativity.

Finally, what is the incentive to innovate?  We will always have those that do it simply for the greater good of the organization.  However, that is not sustainable.  Corporate America innovates for profit and a competitive edge.  In the USAF, innovation might initially mean more work for an individual; we need to think through the incentives of innovation and the recognition of great ideas from the highest level—and now we are back to culture and leadership.  If the culture is not there, leadership will not even take take time to recognize the new ideas.

Below are some results from The Hay Group’s Summary Of The 2011 Best Companies for Leadership and Innovation Study—all of this speaks directly to culture and of course leadership. 

94% of innovative companies are prepared to run unprofitable projects to try new things.

100% let all employees behave like leaders, as opposed to 54% of heir peers.

100% manage a pipeline of qualified leadership candidates.

90% let employees bypass the chain of command with an excellent idea.

95% see problems as opportunities.

100% take action when a leader is not collaborating. It’s mandatory!

95% reward leaders based on their ability to build excellent peer relationships.

95% of leaders take time to actively develop others.  Only 48% of leaders in peer organizations do this.

95% of leaders at the best companies are culturally savvy and are able to be effective with diverse teams.

If we are to maintain the title of World’s greatest Air Force, we are going to have to ensure we can come close to matching those percentages above.  The only way we can do that is to develop an ecosystem of innovation.  If we can do that, I know we will be able to provide bold leaders at every level who encourage innovation, embrace new thinking, and take prudent risks to achieve mission success…and continue to make America proud.

“Air power is like poker.
A second-best hand is like none at all — it will cost you dough and win you nothing.” — General George Kenney

4 Replies to “An Ecosystem for Innovation and Bold Leadership: DeMarco Banter”

  1. Hi Bill,
    A great read, thanks for that. I am posting this reply from my phone so I will leave you with one thought for now. This is one that I am pondering in my current role as well. I am not sure how this all fits yet, but managers like waterfall — they make predictable budgets and schedules and are useful for a lot of other things. Agile is what you need to innovate. Agile is a place where requirements, budgets, etc can change quickly. That can work well, but that process is counter to the “usual way we do things”, tends to move faster than a lot of folks want, and can drive the acquisition and budgeting processes and people trying to ” help” with that nuts. Current business practices need to change in order to accommodate agile methods. That means the rules need to change, and the mindset needs to change as well. We are getting there, but like many other areas, it comes in fits and starts….



    1. Ben: Agree–we need agility, but we also need anticipatory leaders–those that can see and predict what is going to happen. I know it sounds like a big bill to fill, but there are leaders out there that use history, strategy, markets, data and intuition to take risks in anticipating the future. This is what happens when we try to jam industrial age thinking into an information age reality. Thanks for the comment Ben.

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