July 21, 2024

The Air Force may say it values innovation and experimentation, but despite significant efforts and “innovation theater,” we fall short.

How do you do more with less? The Air Force, like most organizations, has always had to learn how to operate in an environment with finite resources. Despite a 156.3 billion dollar budget in 2019, there seems to be more mission than money and manning. The answer? Currently, innovation is one of the key buzz words used to address Air Force challenges.

In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment, innovation is needed, especially when addressing the third line of effort in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), which is focused on reforming the Department of Defense for greater performance and affordability. However, there has been far too much abstract discussion about innovation and not enough practical application. Leaders make a costly mistake when they believe ideas and programs are the answer. MIT research fellow Michael Schrage argues in his book, The Innovator’s Hypothesis, that leaders have overdosed on the “idea of ideas,” and instead promotes the  importance of quick and inexpensive experiments, which he describes as actions that go beyond words. The Air Force may say it values innovation and experimentation, but despite significant efforts and “innovation theater,” we fall short.

Why? One barrier is bureaucracy. The Air Force has inflexible rules, regulations, silos (or fiefdoms), and procedures that are not easily changed. Getting beyond ideas and exercising true innovation can cause large established organizations to resist, often quite strongly. Former Chief of Staff of the Air Force General David Goldfein was known for saying , “There is a long line of Airmen waiting to be innovative and tell us how to do things better. There’s an even longer line of old folks, like us, waiting to tell them no.” Hacking into a bureaucratic organization requires creative leaders who know how to cut through red tape without compromising ethics. As much as the Air Force brags about innovation, its leaders are not making the best use of the tools available from academia and the private sector. In this article, I present two such tools – the skills of efficiency thinking and design thinking, both well-suited for novel and creative solutions.

Efficiency Thinking

Efficiency thinking is a structured method that examines how to do the same thing with less, searching for ways to streamline processes or reduce the use of resources like time or money. Theorists and military professionals, from Jomini and Clausewitz to contemporary doctrine, have included economy of force in their list of principles and laws of warfare. Air Force defined the law of the economy of force as “judicious employment and distribution of forces,” which requires efficiency thinking principles. Throughout Air Force history, senior leaders have implemented programs like the Quality Air Force  (similar to Total Quality Management, or TQM, in the public sector) and Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century, now re-branded as the Continuous Process Improvement (CPI). The programs help find efficiencies through methodologies like lean, six sigma, business process engineering, and theory of constraints. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England argued the military needed a culture of continuous improvement, where “wins” from efficiency thinking built on each other, resulting in compounding cost savings and effectiveness.

CPI supports the NDS and Air Force priorities, and it produces cost-saving measures, if implemented successfully. For example, Air Force Material Command’s CPI team successfully used efficiency thinking for consulting, process improvement, and strategic alignment, and played a vital role in the headquarters merger in 2018. Daily, Air Force members experience processes that need improvements, such as deployments, receiving financial payments, or seeking medical attention. A variety of work centers can benefit from CPI tools like the 8-step problem-solving process. The 509th Maintenance Group used the eight-step approach for the B-2 bomber and successfully balanced its finite resources to meet the required flying hour requirements for nuclear deterrence and aircraft availability needs.

However, efficiency thinking falls short when lean methods underproduce or fail across various sectors. A recent review of over fifty efficiency thinking programs in the public sector indicated multiple theoretical and practical difficulties surrounding the programs. Efficiency programs like TQM encourage employees to look for areas of improvement, but often organizations have other conflicting policies that promote inefficiencies, creating friction for everyone involved. Leaders implementing efficiency thinking fail to address the complexity of human behavior and how hard it is to change a culture. With the nature of work rapidly evolving, leaders across the military, industry, and academia all face similar issues and need to adjust quickly because efficiency thinking is not always the answer. So, what do Air Force leaders do when they encounter a problem or challenge that efficiency thinking cannot solve?

Design Thinking  

Design thinking approaches problems differently, which promotes collaboration and creativity, and welcomes divergent and convergent thinking.  Design thinking attempts to shape a current reality or idea in such a way as to gain an advantage in the future, and Air Force leaders must embody and create a culture of design thinking, even in a bureaucracy.

While there are various theories on the origin and inception of design and design thinking in the military, every branch in the Department of Defense is now researching how to use, adapt, and learn from various design thinking methods.  The Army School of Advanced Military Studies and Training and Doctrine Command led the way in the mid-2000s by focusing on design principles and publishing articles, developing doctrine focused on “operational design” for both the Army and joint operations. Military design thinking giants like Alex Ryan, Chris Paparone, and Ben Zweibelson used interdisciplinary approaches to solve complex problems by implementing design thinking.  Additionally, many NATO partners, including Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Poland, Norway, Sweden, and Hungary have established design courses. In just the past few years, many unaltered civilian design methodologies have been introduced to military curricula, including the Air Force.

We must be able to out-think and out-innovate our adversaries

Former Air Force Vice Chief of Staff General Steve Wilson has championed innovation creativity, establishing AFWERX, a program that connects innovators and accelerates results.  Wilson stated, “We must be able to out-think and out-innovate our adversaries” and promoted the use of design thinking. The newly formed Air Force Warfighting Integrating Capability is focused on design to rapidly identify areas for new investment in capabilities for the future fight. Yet, even with top leadership support and interest at the grass-roots level, design thinking faces two main barriers in the Air Force.

The first is the service bureaucracy, but this can be overcome. Last year, I met Air Force leaders that provided the right environment for innovation. I was part of a think tank group at Squadron Officer School, where we practiced the non-linear process of design thinking. Our innovation coaches broke up silos and assigned us to small teams learning lessons from Project Mercury, an Air University innovation lab. My team of five came from unique backgrounds and career fields, and we all had different innovation genomes. We were encouraged to fail (even playing the game “Haha, You Failed!”), break free from the traditional rules, take risks, and welcome ambiguity. Our group embraced the chaos, friction, and disorder instead of fighting it. The results of our five-week project were exciting, but the key lesson I learned was the power of leaders who broke the norms and embraced a new way of approaching problems.

Another barrier for design thinking focuses on how the Air Force views and manages risk, with many calling Air Force leaders “risk-averse.”  Air Force doctrine has been developed to reduce uncertainty and provide routines and standard operating procedures. Design thinking challenges the status quo,  increases ambiguity, and rattles the “frozen middle.” Chief of Staff General Charles Brown recently set expectations for his Air Staff recognizing they would have to make “consequential decisions with imperfect information” and learn how to mitigate and articulate risk, not avoid it. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, in a 2018 AFA keynote, argued real experiments, a willingness to fail, and a strong commitment to core ideas were necessary for new ways of operating to surface. Private sector organizations have budgets and boards that scrutinize spending, but the military answers to Congress and the American people. Risk aversion is not always bad, but it cannot control Air Force leaders.

Design thinking encourages experiments that are simple, inexpensive, rapid, and important. According to innovation expert Schrage, “history suggests remarkably simple, cheap experiments can profoundly transform the sciences.” Design thinking leaders know what ingredients to add or avoid in the kitchen of innovation. Some key ingredients include recruiting teams with diverse backgrounds, providing “top-cover” for the team (especially during failures),  and picking projects that tie to Air Force priorities and needs. They avoid ingredients like hierarchy and trying to solve highly complicated issues. A successful design thinking leader creates an innovative space that leaves rank, ego, and position titles out of the recipe.[i]

Who can we learn from?

There are plenty of examples from which Air Force leaders can learn regarding design thinking and driving innovation, including research from the book The Sociology of Military Science, a recent publication by the Australian Defence Force, an interview with the Joint Special Operations University, a consulting report by Booz Allen Hamilton, and a TedX TelAviv lecture on Israeli design leaders. Taking concepts from leading global design and innovation companies like IDEO, leaders can discover practical innovation tools. There are pockets of excellence where cross-functional teams work together, such as when the Army shifted from the big five to eight teams focused on capabilities like soldier lethality and next-generation combat vehicles in The Army Futures Command. The Army, despite being a large bureaucratic organization, found a simple way to become a “lean, mean organization” capable of rapidly innovating. While not perfect, initiatives like the Defense Innovation Unit and recent RAND studies promote the same message: disruptive innovation is what will win future conflicts.

Additionally, examples from Olay, Bank of America, Stanford Emergency Department, Mobisol, and UberEATS provide additional guidance for Air Force leaders to learn how to drive innovation, especially in the realm of design thinking. CNN recently called Amazon the “most valuable” company on the planet. Bezos’ passion for design thinking is in the DNA of Amazon. For example, at every staff meeting, an empty chair is present. The empty chair represents the customer. This constant visual reminder keeps Amazon leaders focused on the main focal point of the business, the customer. What would happen if the Air Force had a laser focus on readiness and used the framework of design thinking to solve problems? How would the force look if Air Force leaders learned how to drive innovation, despite government oversight, fiscal restraints, and the naysayers? What if instead of being risk-averse, they embraced disruptive innovation and leaned forward?

How the Air Force and Department of Defense spend resources will always be scrutinized. But are we also scrutinizing how well we think and what tools we use? Do we know when to use efficiency thinking and where to implement design thinking?  A good idea, like innovation, means little if it is not tested, implemented, and shared. Air Force leaders must learn how to guide their teams to use new methods of thinking. More importantly, they must break down as many barriers as possible. We need a culture of innovation that is hungry to experiment, seek answers, test ideas, and face failure head-on. Without a drastic change in thinking, the Air Force will fall short of its innovation potential.


RESOURCES NOTE: To learn a more in-depth definition and overview of design thinking, read Cultural Aspects of Design Thinking. For an easy-to-learn framework, consider the 5×5 method, a tool that is adaptable, pragmatic, and scalable. There are also formal courses or certifications (click here for some recommendations) or self-taught learning (click here for excellent books) that teach additional methods. Additionally, when researching potential topics and opportunities to use design thinking, click here. If you want to know what innovation genome you and your team have, check out these resources.

(i) There is a difference between complex problems and complicated problems. Design thinking is helpful for complex problems that tend to be connected to issues like new technologies, changes in culture, or human-centric problems. However, complicated problems, like how a surgeon executes heart surgery, may need to be addressed using best practices and the highest standards.

Elizabeth Vaughan Moyer is a Captain in the Air Force and a doctoral candidate in Strategic Leadership. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: Airmen share the Spark Tank trophy after Air Force and industry leaders declared a two-way tie at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium, in Orlando, Fla., Feb. 28, 2020. The three-day event is a professional development forum that offers the opportunity for Department of Defense personnel to participate in forums, speeches, seminars and workshops with defense industry professionals.

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. James Richardson


  1. To drive innovation, the Air Force senior leadership requires a mechanism for building the tools that later became necessary to begin arms limitation treaties. This is what Air Force leaders are sensing when they say it seems.

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