A Culture of Innovation

In the summer of 1987, U.S. Special Operations forces were called upon to deploy to the Persian Gulf to protect oil tankers from attack during the Iran-Iraq War. The operation was called Prime Chance, and it serves as a splendid example of problem-solving within a culture of innovation.

Helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) deployed to conduct nighttime search and destroy missions while flying a mere thirty feet above the water using night vision goggles. MH-6 and AH-6 “Little Bird” helicopters bounced across the Gulf, frigate – to – frigage, destroyer – to – destroyer, hunting Iranian ships laying mines. It was the first time U.S. helicopters had flown night vision goggles in a combat role.

But, the 160th SOAR encountered a problem. Due to a lack of fuel capacity, the Little Birds were only capable of flying for approximately two hours, what is known as station time. Two hours was not enough time to fly from the ship to the target and return. Less innovative organizations would have considered two-hour station time a fixed limitation. They would have tried to work around the limitation. Yet, the 160th SOAR had cultivated a culture of innovation. They were the world leaders in R&D of new aviation technology and tactics. Every soldier in the unit took great pride in being an innovative problem – solver.

At first, the only solution they could come up with was to ditch the helicopters once the mission was complete. They told superiors they could fly to the target, destroy it, and then literally ditch the Little Bird in the Gulf. An unarmed helicopter with more endurance could then pull the pilots from the Gulf and return to the ships. Naturally, this was not the ideal solution, but it was the only one they had at the time. They sought and obtained POTUS approval to ditch the helicopters in the Gulf.

Still, Little Bird pilots continued to brainstorm more acceptable solutions. The situation the 160th Little Bird pilots found themselves faced with led to the first helicopter air-to-air refuel. Little Bird pilots filled five-gallon fuel cans with aviation fuel and stored them in the crew compartment of the helicopter. When they ran low on fuel they would enter a circular holding pattern over the water. One pilot would then release his seatbelt and shoulder harnesses. He would snap a safety line to an anchor point on the helicopter, and then exit the aircraft and shuffle down the skid to the back of the helicopter. He would open the fuel port and pour five-gallon cans of fuel into the tank, thus extending their station time – an innovative way to solve a problem.

In the years that followed, 160th pilots developed fuel probes, which enabled them to conduct air-to-air refuel operations with a tanker. Those advancements later enabled 160th SOAR to launch attacks deep into Afghanistan from ships floating in the Arabian Sea.

During my career as an Army helicopter pilot, I commonly saw conventional aviation units list all constraints and limitations during the initial planning stages of a mission. In fact, the identification of limitations and constraints is a stated step in mission planning.

It is important to identify constraints and limitations, but it’s what we do with them that matters. The identification and subsequent acceptance of limitations immediately constrains potential options when trying to solve a complex problem. A closer look at the culture of the 160th SOAR revealed attributes that fostered innovation at the organizational level.

Innovative organizations possess, but are not limited to, these four cultural attributes: Vision, Trust, Collaboration, and a Supportive Atmosphere.

Vision: To create a culture of innovation, leaders must share a vision of how innovative behavior will enable the organization to grow and evolve in the ever-changing environment of the 21st Century. Helping employees to picture an atmosphere that celebrates ideas that will make the organization more agile as they try and succeed in a very competitive market is empowering. It is a leader responsibility to cast the vision.

Trust: When employees brainstorm new ideas, they assume risk. If they do not feel safe that they can fail without jeopardizing their career, it will smother innovation. Not all ideas will work. Many times, employees develop incomplete concepts. They are onto something, but it will require careful consideration and collaborative development to give it a chance. If they fear they will be judged negatively for a failed offering, it will deter them from presenting new ideas. Trust is a two-way street – leader to led, and led to leader.

Collaboration: From time to time, individuals develop game-changing technologies, procedures, or tools, but their creations are almost always more capable when the development process is collaborative. Creating a climate of collaboration is a leader responsibility. Early in my career, I heard a quote that was attributed to General Creighton Abrams. Allegedly, he said, “Just imagine how great our Army could be if everyone did their very best and did not care who got the credit for it.”

That quote stuck with me. I have always tried to foster an environment that harnesses the collective potential of the organization verses one or two individuals. Later in my career, I served in the Pentagon as the War Plans Division Chief. In that capacity, I witnessed very talented, intellectually gifted officers, who resisted collaboration. They poured their heart and soul into strategic documents, but seemed to have an overwhelming desire to ensure they got all the credit for their work. I often wondered how much better their work could have been had they been willing to subject their project to the scrutiny and ideas of others.

Supportive Atmosphere: How an organization responds to innovative ideas will determine the willingness of its members to confidently offer them. In the summer of 1988, a U.S. Army attack helicopter battalion participated in war games at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. The desert was miserably hot, causing the pilots to struggle with dehydration.

Within that organization, was a young pilot who did not easily fit into the unit’s personality. Nevertheless, he was a shrewd problem-solver at a time when regulations and strict adherence to policies ruled the day. “Aviation is dangerous business,” leaders would say. “We can’t have people trying to work around the rules. Someone will get killed that way.”

One morning, as the pilots made their way to the helicopters, this young pilot took two IV bags with him. He had emptied them and refilled them with water. He attached a snap link to the top of the bags and affixed them to the roof of the helicopter above his head. He then ran the hose from the IV bags down to his chest. As he flew that day, he could release the crimped end of the hose and suck water from the IV bags.

When the pilots returned from their mission at the end of the day, they saw what he had done and laughed at him. After they had sufficiently chastised him, they said he could not do it again, because pilots are not allowed to alter the airframe. “I didn’t alter anything,” he countered. “I merely hung the bags from an attachment point with a snap link.”

Nevertheless, he was told not to do it again. That was the summer of 1988. The following summer, Michael Eidson was riding the Hotter’N Hell 100-mile bike race in Witchita Falls, Texas. There were few water stations along the scorching hot course, so Eidson slipped an IV bag into a tube sock and placed it in his cycling jersey. He then ran the thin hose up over his shoulder, so he could hydrate as he rode the course. Hands-free hydration was born. Today, the U.S. Army issues Camelbak hydrations systems to all soldiers, yet the first guy to invent the idea was chastisted.

The difference in the cyclist and the pilot was the response of those around him. Eidson started a trend. Cyclists loved the idea and immediately began replicating it. The pilot was rebuked in a condescending way. If you desire innovation in your organization, you must ensure that both good and bad ideas are equally considered. When an idea doesn’t work, leaders must be supportive and encourage the next great idea.

Establishing a culture of innovation requires leadership. Leaders must see the potential of harnessing the innovative power of their entire organization and share that vision. Trust, collaboration, and a supportive climate are essential in bringing out the best in employees. The 21st Century environment is evolving at an unprecedented rate. Successful companies understand the need for speed and agility. A culture of innovation is sure to maximize the collective potential of your business.

Jimmy Blackmon is a retired U.S. Army Colonel and the author of PALE HORSE: Hunting Terrorists and Commanding Heroes with the 101st Airborne Division. Jimmy is a professional speaker, leadership coach, and the Co-Owner of Out Front Leadership.