That distinction often surprises people, but it’s something CMSgt Ian Eishen, command chief for the 412 Test Wing Edwards Air Force Base, California, and co-founder of the i.Lab at Beale Air Force Base, understands very well.
For several years, Ian has worked to integrate design thinking, emerging technologies and innovation across multiple units in the U.S. Air Force to solve some of the tough problems airmen face with speed and agility.
He stopped by the KZSU studio at Stanford to chat with me and Tom Dioro on a recent episode of The Innovators Radio Show and Podcast about this mission-driven approach to innovation, and some of the lessons and successes that have come from it.
Learning how to innovate quickly is critical, Ian explained: “What the nation is asking us to do and what the world needs us to do is completely different.”
That’s because unlike years ago, today, information and technology move at lightning speed. This makes it hard to stay competitive. As recently as the late ’90s and early 2000s, Ian said, “it was OK for us to have a system that looked forward 10 years, figured out what the Air Force needs to do 10 years from now, and then translated that into actual tasks our airmen need to know and spent four or five of those years developing curriculum to get us ready for that future fight.
“Today, it’s really difficult to figure out what’s going to happen tomorrow. We can guess … but what we need to be prepared for and the wide amount of information we need to know to be prepared for anything is just too much. Also, the dynamics on the battlefield are constantly changing. We don’t have that five-year time frame anymore, to train and get ready and practice and exercise. We have to prepare airmen, soldiers, sailors and marines to react dynamically, to think on their feet, take everything they know and move forward based on that.”
Here’s how they’re doing it: “Instead of trying to pick the main topics that airmen needed to memorize, skills that they needed to know, we started focusing on processes. How might we develop entrepreneurs within the military knowing that the future of the military is going to be complex, it’s going to be dynamic and it’s going to be difficult for us to completely understand right away? There’s going to be a need for all members enlisted or officers to understand a situation and use all the tools they have to prototype, iterate, experiment over and over again until they solve that problem.”
At Beale Air Force Base, where Ian co-founded the i.Lab, airmen work to make sense of massive amounts of data and create insights that can be used on the battlefield. Learning how to do it effectively requires experimentation.
Looking to have place where airmen can test and try different things with no effect on the battlefield, Ian’s team built a “sandbox” with brightly colored furniture and fun decor.
The place didn’t look like it belonged in a military organization but it was inside a classified facility, which turned out to be a mistake.
“Even though this space didn’t need do any sort of classified work, the physical location limited what we were allowed to do,” Ian explained. “Six months later, we looked back and realized we had some successes over that period, but none of them could be attributed to the location or to our really cool Star Wars decor and light fixtures. So we changed our entire playbook and moved into a triple-wide trailer out in the parking lot and this thing, you know carpets were stained, walls were dirty. We cleaned it up as best we could, but it’s a 40-year-old triple-wide trailer.”
It was the best decision they could have made, Ian says, because location and furnishings don’t make innovation happen. “You have to have the mission and the culture and the drive and the system and all those things that come behind it.”
Creating a space where the airmen could experiment was just one part of the challenge, though.
“You can’t change a 320,000-person organization overnight. It starts with the culture and trying to move that forward. There isn’t a chain of command to collaboration. There’s people who know things and people who know other things. So we’ve tried to create as many mechanisms as possible for collaboration.
“We’re asking our younger troops to use their problems and the knowledge of their problems to help us look toward the future and then trying to create the mechanisms so that young airmen can actually get ahold of that strategist sitting at headquarters and give them their ideas.
For more about Ian’s work helping the Air Force innovate at startup speed, listen to the full conversation here or skip to the time stamps below.
3:14: It doesn’t matter what your field is when it comes to mission completion
6:37: Why entrepreneurs are driven by curiosity
8:58: What it takes to keep up with the pace of change
12:10: Finding a different way of addressing a critical no-fail mission
13:59: No fancy digs required to innovate
19:34: Harnessing a passion for problem-solving
36:17: Why we need entrepreneurs in the military
41:08: How the culture is changing
53:17: Speed in decision-making: How to move faster than the lifespan of a problem
59:29: Why collaboration has no chain of command
The Innovators Radio Show and Podcast highlights the best and brightest mission-driven entrepreneurs — people dedicated to making the world a better place. The show airs Mondays at 11 am PT/2 pm ET on Stanford University radio station KZSU, 90.1 FM, and is streamed at kzsu.org, Past episodes are archived here.