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The Quest for Innovation Continues

In 2018, squadrons received funding for the first time specifically for innovative ideas. The goal was to come up with many small innovations that would add up to big overall savings in time and capital. The 2018 innovation funding was so successful, funds have also been approved for fiscal year 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Mauricio Campino)

In 2018, squadrons received funding for the first time specifically for innovative ideas. The goal was to come up with many small innovations that would add up to big overall savings in time and capital. The 2018 innovation funding was so successful, funds have also been approved for fiscal year 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Mauricio Campino)

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- In the quest for innovation and the ability to meet increasing requirements with decreasing resources, game-changing technologies and paradigm-shifting discoveries are relatively few and expensive to incorporate. However, constant marginal adjustments and increased mastery within our spheres of influence can produce groundbreaking results in the long run.

I read a story recently retold by Dr. Jeremy Hawkins, head of the Kinesiology Department at Colorado Mesa University, about a young merchant from Boston who was caught up in the California gold rush in 1849. He sold what he could and sought his fortune in the rivers of California, where he was told there were “nuggets so big that one could hardly carry them.” After days and weeks of searching for these nuggets, the young man felt he had nothing to show for his work except a large pile of rocks.

In frustration, he cried out, “There’s no gold here. I’m going back home.” An experienced prospector stopped and took some time to mentor the young man. “There’s gold all right,” the man told him. “You just have to know where to find it.” He picked up a couple of rocks and smashed them together. One of them split open, revealing several flecks of gold sparkling in the sunlight.

With a smile, the old prospector offered the small pieces of gold to the young man, but the young man scoffed, motioning at the bulging leather pouch fastened to the prospector’s belt, “I’m looking for nuggets like the ones in your pouch, not just tiny flecks.”

The prospector offered the pouch to the young man for him to look inside, and he smiled again when the young man looked at him in disbelief. Rather than a pouch full of nuggets, he discovered that the old prospector had accumulated his fortune in tiny gold flecks. “Son, it seems to me you are so busy looking for large nuggets that you’re missing filling your pouch with these precious flecks of gold.”

In 2018, for the first time, squadrons received funding specifically for innovative ideas. These relatively small amounts of Squadron Innovation Funds (SIF) were provided as a way to decrease the barriers to implementing marginal changes and to increase incentives for units to seek ways to improve operations. Some of our projects promise to save resources in the future. A new shelving system in a maintenance squadron will significantly decrease the time and labor required to load and unload deployment gear. A Microsoft Excel course for another squadron helped service members master their sphere of influence and gain new tools to accomplish daily tasks more efficiently. These marginal changes represent precious flecks of gold, which, over time, have the potential to accumulate vast savings.

Some of the stones we crack open may not have any gold inside. Several of our ideas failed to come to fruition this year; however, the SIF program was successful enough Air Force-wide that we can expect to receive SIF in fiscal year 2019 too. As we do, I encourage you to not pass up the precious flecks of gold that may be gained by mastering our sphere of influence and finding ways to make small improvements to daily operations. I encourage you to pay attention to the various types of investments we might make, depending on the constraints impacting operations.

Consider:
    - Physical Capital: the THINGS we can buy to make us more productive
    - Human Capital: the SKILLS and ATTRIBUTES we develop
    - Social Capital: the RELATIONSHIPS we can improve to decrease costs and increase output
    - Organizational Capital: the STRUCTURE of operations and INCENTIVES it creates
    - Technology: the KNOWLEDGE and SYSTEMS that get things done

Investments in each of these types of capital can increase capabilities and decrease future costs. These investments might be viewed as the rocks we break open to search for gold, and fundamental in our search is a recognition of which types of rocks we should be breaking open. We could spend a lot of money cracking open the wrong types of rocks, while mastery of our systems, responsibilities and spheres of influence will inform us where we are most likely to find the most gold flecks.

As we charge into FY 2019 and seek to be our nation’s premier airlift wing, remember that innovation doesn’t have to be drastic. A lot of flecks of gold adds up to a lot of gold. Investment can occur across many types of capital, and mastery within our spheres of influence will inform us where the most gold is likely to be found.

    Air Power, Eagle Wing. Dover Pride.