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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Duct tape and baling wire: 3 ugly truths about innovation

While the term “innovation” conjures countless possibilities of sleek new technologies, the reality is far less attractive. In practice, the path to innovation is a bumpy one, with roadblocks, potholes and flat tires along the way. That said, even the ugliest innovations serve a purpose when it comes to real-world, operational systems.

A prime example of “ugly” innovation in action can be found in Army and Air Force undergraduate aviation training programs. By applying commercial entertainment gaming technologies and methodologies, these programs are delivering faster training times, reduced instructor-to-student ratios and even improved student engagement. Bottom line: It doesn’t have to be pretty to solve a problem

The Air Force’s experimental Pilot Training Next program achieved significant and rapid changes to the way students trained by embracing a divergent mindset and taking advantage of small groups to test innovative approaches. PTN resulted in a comprehensive training reboot that graduated 70% of the first class and 80% of the second class after six months of training -- less than half the time required for traditional training.

What was the secret? The program embraced these three ugly truths about innovation to set trainees on a path to success:

Failing is part of the process

With an agile project management approach, teams are given the structure to “fail fast” as they try out new ideas and technologies within a specific amount of time, or sprint. Rather than working from a rigid plan with specific checkpoints along the way, the best innovation happens with the end goal in mind. Even though reaching the holy grail may be unlikely, an immutable orienting objective keeps teams on track regardless of what direction they take. As the director of operations for the first PTN class said, “Failure is not an option; it’s a mandate.” Innovation will not happen without at least embracing the possibility of failure.

Intent often outweighs contract specifics

The traditional contracting structure is often at odds with innovation projects because they tend to pivot from one idea to another as the team proves or disproves project hypotheses. These regular shifts create risks for contracts, which tend to be rigid and time-consuming to change. The reality is that contracts cannot keep pace with developmental changes when it comes to innovation. Instead, innovation teams should focus on fostering a mutual understanding of project intent, allowing contracting professionals to think creatively about how to accelerate procurement and subcontracting actions while staying aligned to the team’s overall mission.

Diverse skillsets can create communication gaps

Research has shown that both breadth and depth of expertise are necessary to derive value from innovations and that teams composed of diverse individuals perform better. That said, diversity can be a double-edged sword for innovation.

For instance, in projects with a lean staffing plan, the team often relies on one or two people with particular expertise, making the team susceptible to single points of failure. To avoid falling into this trap, teams need clear and open communication so they can leverage their previous expertise while also growing their understanding and skill sets. Unfortunately, clear communication isn’t always easy among individuals with different backgrounds. For instance, an IT expert and an aviation specialist have two completely different understandings of the acronym IP: internet protocol or instructor pilot. Fortunately, acronyms are an easily identified source of misunderstanding that can be quickly remedied with a data dictionary. Other misunderstandings may be harder to identify and resolve.

Diverse staffing can also make it difficult to ensure the team understands the big picture of the solution they’re developing. Like an artist who is painting one tile in what will become a mosaic, team members may feel isolated or unsure how their contribution affects the system, especially in large, distributed projects. Regular touchpoints are crucial to resolve this situation by communicating early and often about the program’s vision, mission and goals as well as the approach being taken to reach those goals.

Innovation in operational training environments is possible if teams embrace failure, focus on overall intent and tap into the power of diversity. While it may look more like duct tape and baling wire than bright new ideas and sleek products, the willingness to try new ways to solve problems will result in better solutions and more innovative projects across the federal government. So set your sights on that holy grail, but don’t be afraid to find a new path to get there.

About the Author

Joyner Livingston is director of training solutions at SAIC.

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