This week the Air Force published its overarching strategy document for the next 30 years titled America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future. It is, in many ways, an admirable document. It acknowledges that in order to remain relevant, address the growing complexity of the future strategic environment and exploit advances in technology in a timely manner, the Air Force must change. As the Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh explains it, “as the pace of change across the globe quickens, many of our processes and paradigms will be made obsolete. The Air Force’s ability to continue to adapt and respond faster than our potential adversaries is the greatest challenge we face over the next 30 years.” In order to meet this challenge, the Air Force as an institution must develop “strategic agility” defined as flexibility, adaptability and responsiveness.
How exactly does the Air Force intend to become strategically agile? The document calls for significant, some might even say radical, changes in personnel policy and education, relationships with Congress, think tanks and industry, the use of technology, the setting of requirements and the generation of capabilities. It wouldn’t be an Air Force strategy document if it didn’t also identify some whiz-bang game-changing technologies in which it might wish to invest. This is not a roadmap, per se, but a set of functional areas, or building blocks. Each has value in its own right.
Unfortunately, it is not clear how the proposed changes and investments in these different areas will work together to create an Air Force that is strategically agile. It is as if the Air Force leadership believes if it demonstrates flexibility, adaptability and responsiveness across these functions the sum of the parts will equal a strategically agile enterprise.
Other organizations, usually private sector companies, facing similar sorts of challenges tend to make the same declaratory statements about the need to become more agile. They also come up with basically the same set of solutions: invest in people, simplify processes, use more productivity enhancing technologies, be more responsive to a changing business environment and find new products. It is not actually that hard to identify things to change. It isn’t even all that difficult for companies to begin the process, sometimes investing billions of dollars in personnel, technologies and infrastructure in an attempt to become strategically agile.
It turns out that what is really hard but separates the quick from the dead is the ability of leaders to get large complex organizations with many constituent parts to move as one and to continue moving until the goal is reached. The analogy employed by one CEO who was successful at creating a new and agile organization, Louis Gerstner of IBM, was getting the elephant to dance. In the 1990s, IBM was on death’s doorstep. Within a few years, IBM was again profitable and it has been on a tear ever since. Gerstner changed IBM from a company that sold computers to one that provided high-end services. That is truly what it means to be agile. The most profound factors in his success story had to do with changes to the company’s leadership, organization and culture. This elephant of many parts had to be made to dance, want to dance, learn the steps and dance as one.
It is here that the Air Force’s 30-year strategy leaves much to be desired. The document devotes only two paragraphs to organizational change, much of that around ways of making better use of technologies that enhance productivity. There are a few sentences about flattening structures. But in general, this part of the discussion is rather unsatisfactory.
Those familiar with the Air Force know just how hard it is to get this behemoth to think of itself as a single entity, to get the parts to move as one and to keep the enterprise on a path to a defined goal. The strategy does speak to the need to integrate better the three components of the Air Force: Active, Guard and Reserve. But this is only a part of the organizational and cultural challenge. The Air Force does so many different things, it has so many component parts and commands, that it can be difficult to get the organization even to hum the same tune much less dance. It would have been useful if the strategy had at least suggested how a simpler, flatter structure might look.
The discussion of Air Force culture not only is brief but seems entirely PC driven, equating cultural change with capitalizing on the diversity of individual Service person’s backgrounds and the need for greater inclusiveness. Both are good things in themselves, but that is not the Air Force culture. In a world in which a smaller and smaller fraction of Air Force personnel fly airplanes or are involved in any way with aerial platforms, and a growing number deal with missiles, satellites and cyber stuff, what exactly is the centerpiece of Air Force culture?
The Air Force does have committed leadership in General Welsh and Secretary James. The question is: do they truly appreciate what it is going to take to get this elephant to dance?
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