The Necessary Tension | Mission & Innovation


Coming off a terrific Air Force Association Air and Space Warfare Symposium in Orlando, I want to extend my congratulations to the members of Project Arcwater on their Spark Tank 22 win. Project Arcwater is an Agile Combat Employment initiative that eases current logistics challenges by providing off-the-grid power using solar energy and atmospheric water harvesting. We’ll be tracking and shepherding this effort, as well as the other finalists/semi-finalists, to maintain momentum and help these Airmen’s ideas reach their potential. Thanks to everyone who submitted ideas this year!

“Let me start by saying that the stress [between mission and innovation] is neither abnormal nor nefarious.”

I want to use this message to address the actual execution of leading with innovation. Leaders, from senior positions down to front line supervisors, might notice an understandable, yet visceral, tension between the mission and innovation. Let me start by saying that the stress is neither abnormal nor nefarious. It is friction created when commanders are committed to leading their Airmen to accomplish the mission, and many of our Airmen executing the mission believe that there is a better way to meet the commander’s intent. Both have the same goal, but the precious commodity at play here is that of time. We’re fully engaged in mission execution, so any time away from that—whether spent pursuing innovative ideas or other activities—is time away from the job.

 At the same time, there is a tension between the perceived “innovators” (those who work in Spark Cells or receive special attention and resources to innovate) vs. perceived “non-innovators” (those who are not specifically designated as “innovators,” yet are just as valuable to the mission). The “innovators” are garnering recognition for their efforts and sometimes being given time to work on their ideas during duty hours. On the other hand, the “non-innovators” are relied upon to complete the mission—and are perhaps shouldering more daily responsibilities. Leaders need to be attuned to and able to lead through the morale/cohesion impact caused by this tension.

 The tension between mission and innovation also has a positive aspect.

The tension between mission and innovation also has a positive aspect. It creates a competitive process that winnows which innovations are worthwhile. Ultimately, it is up to the leadership to advocate for those “best of breed” ideas that have the most mission impact. Leaders have the responsibility to be bolder about managing Airmen’s time, eliminating wasteful or less valuable activities to do the primary mission while preserving space for their Airmen to continue to innovate. It does not mean giving innovators carte blanche at the expense of other Airmen . . . it is a challenging tight rope, and as leaders, we all need to ensure we find the sweet spot for success.

General David Allvin

Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force