Last year I gave a talk about innovation to an Air Force audience. I have done this many times before and knew the minefield I was stepping into. The Department of Defense has achieved the stunning feat of turning Innovation! into a hated buzzword, so every talk starts with a chasm between my audience and me. They sit with folded arms, peering suspiciously at me, almost daring me to try to impress them with technical jargon and Silicon Valley references and heroic admonitions to go ideate and think differently and disrupt, so they can quickly write me off as another expert practitioner of innovation theater.
Instead, I usually leap onto their side of the chasm. I ask them what the word “innovation” evokes, and we immediately begin a vibrant conversation about hypocrisy, hollowness, and the desire to vomit. Then I tell my own stories about trying to innovate within government, dwelling perhaps a little too long on the anger and hurt and frustration. I narrate my victories and defeats and show them my scars. It is my unique style; candid, curmudgeonly, too grim for the tastes of some of my colleagues.
Yet something magical usually happens; as we dive into the gritty reality of how hard it is to actually innovate within government, my audience comes alive. We finally name the frustrations and roadblocks each of them faces. And out of that conversation, at least some of the audience walks away inspired. Deep beneath all the accreted layers, we find that kernel of innovation that is still worth fighting for, that keeps us all going even when it is hard.
This time, though, I met my match. At the end of my talk one officer still had his arms folded over his chest, one boot propped up on a knee.
“I have a question,” he said, with a decisive tone that said this was not a question but a telling. His voice was that of a man who had stared into the innovation abyss. He began to tell his story.
The Maintenance Officer’s Tale
He was a maintenance officer who had once been stationed at an Air Force base in the Pacific. Nothing is so corrosive to airplanes as saltwater, and approaches and landings over the ocean subject airplanes to sea spray. For this reason, some bases in the Pacific regularly rinse airplanes after landing. As you might imagine, washing a four-engine jet aircraft is no small undertaking.
When this officer first arrived at the base, washing planes was an intensively manual process. Multiple maintenance troops had to operate the equipment and spray down the planes. An innovation naturally suggested itself. The group worked hard, fighting many battles, to have an automated aircraft washing system installed. It worked marvelously. A plane could land, taxi to a washing station, and be quickly rinsed back to health—all with little burden on the maintenance troops.
This new innovation worked so well, in fact, that higher headquarters decided the base no longer needed so many maintenance troops. It whittled down the force until those who were left found their time just as encumbered as before.
Then, because the Air Force had not invested appropriately in maintenance for the aircraft washing system, it broke. Funds were not available to repair it. Now the slashed, undermanned maintenance unit found itself working overtime, manually washing airplanes again.
A Perfect Anecdote
The officer had finished his story. A hush fell on the room.
The gauntlet had been thrown down.
“What,” he asked me, “do you make of that?””
I love and hate this anecdote, the way I might a particularly unsettling horror story. It is pitch-perfect, Kafkaesque, capturing so much in a few brushstrokes. Like a timeless myth, it contains a kernel of truth that I see replayed in so many other stories.
I thought of this story when a friend, who had just wrapped up his tour as a Battalion S3 (in charge of Operations and Training), described a failed effort to automate inventory management with RFID tags. The technology sucked, and he found it much easier to revert to making soldiers burrow through the warehouse with a clipboard, pencil, and inventory hardcopies.
I recall all the software tools that my colleagues and I built to automate manual processes in our flying Squadrons—which broke as soon as we left.
The implicit moral in this cautionary tale is that innovating is like opening Pandora’s box. In our efforts to improve things, we unleash terrible second-order effects that can undermine our best intentions. Don’t tamper with something that works, however imperfect. Automation is never to be trusted. Innovators are dangerous charlatans, and it will fall on the old guard to clean up their messes.
A Few Thoughts
The officer’s question was fair. What do we make of this?
I have thought long and hard on this question, and I can’t do much better than the tentative answer I suggested that day.
First, the anecdote does contain a valuable lesson. We need to pay attention. Change is hard, and many nascent innovations fail to live up to their promise or even cause damage. Good leaders must orchestrate the change process to mitigate risks even as they experiment with new ways forward.
With that said, we must not stop innovating.
Martin Luther King Jr., paraphrasing Theodore Parker, famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It was a call to stick with a fight for the long term, through all the ups and downs. The moral universe has its own peculiar logic; no matter how far human efforts might stray, they always steer back to moral right.
At the risk of trivializing the powerful sentiment in that quote, we might generalize it to any kind of change-making endeavor: The arc of innovation is long, but it bends towards improvement. Bad ideas go extinct, or else evolve into good ones. No organization, with its hundreds or thousands of independent, creative, aspiring members, will tolerate badness for long; it will always strive for the best solution according to some internal metric. And yes, organizations sometimes chase bad metrics, but that condition cannot last either. In the long-term, organizations must evolve towards The Right Answer or die.
I told this officer that if he stepped back to look at the problem he faced, automating a repetitive, labor-intensive process like washing airplanes was unquestionably the Right Answer. That is precisely the kind of task that machines exist for, and we have seen in other parts of society the tremendous benefits of freeing up human capital to focus on more interesting, demanding, value-adding tasks.
It was unfortunate that this officer and his colleagues found themselves working overtime, rinsing planes after their machine broke… just as it is unfortunate that my Army friend had such a negative experience with automating inventory management, and that hundreds of tangled PowerPoint and Excel-macro workflows across the DoD break every time their creators move to new jobs.
However, it was also unfortunate that early automobiles were notoriously unreliable, leaving their owners fuming as passerbys mocked them from horseback. In retrospect, that didn’t stop the long progression toward a world of safe, reliable vehicular transportation.
We have frequent glimpses of where the future is headed, because segments of human society are already several steps ahead of the rest of us. As Science Fiction author William Gibson said, “The future is already here–it’s just not evenly distributed.” We should not chase every fashionable new trend, but we should also pay attention when new trends show enduring value and catch on at scale.
Driving a positive innovation through might take years, decades, or generations. You might absorb pain now so that your successors might benefit. You will take your licks. However, if you are on the path towards the Right Answer, your efforts are not in vain. Rather, you are discovering firsthand that you are part of a story much larger than yourself.