A Culture of Modernization is a mindset, not a buzz phrase

  • Published
  • By Col. Gregory “GM” Kuzma
  • Headquarters Air Force, Manpower, Personnel, and Systems Directorate

Today, the United States finds itself in a deadly, serious game of global competition.

While our Air Force’s weapon systems and the way we fight have evolved through the years, our adversaries have continued to find ways to match our capabilities. The challenge of navigating government bureaucracy – with decades of institutional inertia – threatens our ability to innovate and modernize the Department of the Air Force across the enterprise; from weapon systems to business systems. This is highlighted in Gen. CQ Brown, Jr.’s “Accelerate Change or Lose” strategic approach and his Action Orders.

These bureaucratic limitations have driven our leaders to make tough decisions and shift our national defense priorities to accelerate change. Our Airmen and Guardians have had to take a hard look within our organizations to find better and more efficient ways to accomplish the mission. This is more than just creating an efficient process at the tactical level by submitting an idea to the unit suggestion box. We need to think bigger by modernizing the way we manage acquisitions, sustainment, and system development across the enterprise, as well as account for the user perspective with human-centered design.

We must revolutionize our approach to a “Culture of Modernization” mindset to maintain our edge in great power competition.

Modernizing our culture goes beyond just focusing our efforts singularly on our amazing weapon systems or high-tech capabilities. In addition to transforming our current business systems, we need to modernize every single aspect of service, particularly under current fiscal constraints. If we are going to continue to fight and win with the military we have, we need to adapt to current and future threats to remain ready for any adversary.

World Class Support

The most effective way to truly develop our Culture of Modernization is by delivering industry-leading technology to our most valuable resource: our people. It has been said that the evolving character of war will require a more complex and adaptive defense enterprise. This means we must empower and encourage our teammates to collaborate across organizations, functional areas, and service components as well as partner with industry. It also means giving our people innovative tools that best support and compensate them appropriately to sustain a high quality of life and job satisfaction. All of this leads to a positive impact on resiliency.

Mission Command

A Culture of Modernization also aligns with the principles of Mission Command: have shared understanding from the bottom up, not only from the top down. Empowering our people means granting more authority and resources to those with the most information and greatest competency closest to the fight to make decisions that are within the command and control framework. We also want to implement an honest and continual feedback mechanism that provides constructive input, in real time. This helps accelerate decision-making and promotes a shared consciousness across the enterprise. Simply put; to positively affect the concept of Mission Command, we must grow workplace cultures that are more forward-thinking, transparent, and human-centric.

Action Order: Airmen

It cannot be understated: the critical importance of our business systems (that take care of our pay, healthcare, and readiness) has a direct impact on recruiting, retention, and talent management. Whether it is innovation, modernization, or transformation, these terms all have one thing in common: it is our people who execute the mission and make it happen. Airmen and Guardians provide the ingenuity, innovativeness, and flexibility of the human mind. Our people determine whether we will succeed or fail. Airmen and Guardians do their best work when their talents are cultivated, coordinated, and celebrated.

Action Order: Bureaucracy

As Airmen and Guardians, we must encourage each other to keep a growth mindset with how we innovate across our enterprise; from weapon systems to business systems. We should professionally challenge the status quo to modernize and adapt to streamline decision-making, eliminate redundancies, and limit bureaucratic layers. In addition, if a system, process, or policy is not living up to the high standard we expect as the premier air and space force in the world, I challenge you to speak up, offer sustainable ideas, and be a part of the solution.

Action Order: Competition

In order to remain the world's greatest Air and Space Force, we must quickly develop and leverage leading-edge technology and increase interoperability. We must break down service silos from a Total Force perspective; effectively integrating active, Reserve, and Guard business systems across the enterprise with concurrent modernization from the beginning. This also means working toward greater interoperability with our coalition teammates to counter near-peer adversaries. Effective teaming with other nations at the strategic level will continue to be a challenge if we do not improve our capacity for working together at the operational and tactical levels.

Action Order: Design

Every Airman and Guardian is an innovator but innovation is not achieved singularly by one person working alone in a vacuum. In fact, it takes everyone on the team at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels to actively challenge the status quo and advocate for interdisciplinary collaboration across organizational boundaries. The Department of the Air Force can improve system design by facilitating a framework to make it easier to innovate while partnering with industry. We must be comfortable with asking our leadership, “is there a more effective way we can support our people and the mission while increasing agility and responsiveness?”

Create an environment conducive for a Culture of Modernization

None of the above lines of effort will be successful unless we forge an environment of psychological safety at every echelon that is conducive to innovation built on communication, transparency, and most importantly, trust. Psychological safety at work does not mean that everyone is nice all the time. It means embracing conflict, owning risk together, and allowing everyone a chance to speak up and offer creative alternatives that can make a difference. When people do not feel comfortable talking about initiatives that are not working, the organization’s culture is not poised to fail fast and grow. When our people are not fully committed to a Culture of Modernization, the organization loses an opportunity to leverage the strengths of all its talent.   

The bottom line: During World War II, aggressive, out-of-the-box, innovative thinking was strongly pursued. Military leaders who “played to win” with calculated risk-taking and pushing the limits of technology, were successful in overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. Many of today’s senior leaders want to aggressively innovate on that scale once again to deliver at the speed of relevance and move fast to improve our systems, processes, and policies beyond just “business as usual.”

If we do not shift to a Culture of Modernization, our Airmen and Guardians will continue to operate within a culture of risk aversion that makes the status quo a safer bet than attempting to challenge it. Machines and equipment are merely the means to accomplish the mission. It is our responsibility to advocate for our people to have the necessary resources to be successful and recognize those who advocate for change. If we do this right, empowered Airmen and Guardians will Accelerate Change through a Culture of Modernization by cutting through bureaucracy with global competition in mind while reshaping our air and space force for the future. We must all be advocates for innovation.

Do you have an idea to help accelerate change? Be a part of a Continuous Process Improvement event, submit an idea on the AFWERX Ideation Platform, propose a solution through Spark Tank, or raise your concern with your chain of command.  

“The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official guidance or position of the United States Government, the Department of Defense or of the United States Air Force.”

Col. Kuzma is currently assigned as the individual mobilization augmentee to the Future Plans director in the Strategic Plans Directorate at Headquarters United States Indo-Pacific Command and is currently TDY as the chief of Information Technology Strategy at Headquarters Air Force, Manpower, Personnel, and Systems Directorate.