Take bold risks in pursuit of innovation, creativity

  • Published
  • By Christopher J. Warner, Deputy Chief
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Over the years as a public affairs leader and technician, I have given a lot of thought to what acceptable risk is and why we take it, both on the military and civilian side. In the end, I have come up with this: Taking risk is necessary to drive innovation and make teams grow.  

Personal and professional growth comes through challenge and discomfort.

The challenge becomes: How do you systematically push teams, and ourselves as leaders and technicians, without breaking the mission or causing catastrophic failures? I don’t believe there is a perfect answer for this, but I do know it is very specific to each organization and its mission and team members. Point being, it takes experimentation as a leader and is fluid at best – and requires flexibility and grace on everyone’s part to be successful. 

Every time I’ve completed a permanent change of station to a new organization, I look closely at what the mission is from my point of view, how it is being executed, listened to how teammates view processes, and honed in on the “we have always done it that way” attitudes and processes.

Once I understand the battlespace I am operating in, I ask a lot of questions about why we are doing things the way we are and if tactics, techniques, and procedures are outdated or just simply don’t make sense. I challenge the team to figure out what makes sense creatively and operationally to take bold risk and change it. Then I challenge them to take ownership and pride in it.

More times than not, processes and attitudes are outdated because team members have become complacent from doing it too long, felt stifled, weren’t properly equipped or not allowed to try something new. This could be for numerous reasons, but most times, fear from leadership and team members is the driving factor for not taking bold risk.

Bravery and bold risk-taking harness that fear – not giving into it and the unknowns.

The federal government, especially military organizations, loves its rules and policies and we sometimes create unnecessary red tape, which then kills creativity and innovation. By not challenging preconceived notions and accepting status quo, we inadvertently block new and better ways of executing the mission.

The quote from Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” resonates deeply with me as a person, PA professional and leader who embraces risk-taking – “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Risk-taking is taking the path less traveled. It’s knowing that some of your peers may point you out for being different. It’s knowing that failure is a strong possibility. But…

It’s also knowing you tried something new and learned valuable lessons for the future. It’s learning from those possible failures to develop new future solutions. It’s championing your teams’ innovative ideas or creative methods to attack the mission from a new angle. Simply put, it’s listening to your team!

Risk-taking is winning!

I have a mantra as a PA technician and leader: How do we get to ‘yes,’ all while being legal, moral and ethical? This has always served me and the teams I lead well because we get after the mission and take bold risk while doing it.

I talked about failing – this is key to taking risk, but it must be done correctly and in a way that builds teams and doesn’t break them.

To ensure my teams take the risk, I give them the room to safely fail. How do you safely fail, you may ask?

Failing safely means you support their risky endeavor, with sideboards of course, and know going into it what the pitfalls and objectives are. Once you take said risk, let it play out to see if it fails or succeeds. If it fails, analyze why and assess if it can be adjusted or chalk it up to a good old college try. If it succeeds, analyze why and assess if it can be replicated and figure out what went right to repeat and make it a new process or creative method for success.

What you don’t do is criticize or admonish a team for taking that risk or creative idea. The team must know that if what it did was legal, moral and ethical, it is safe and failing equals growth.

Many Team Wright-Patt members have seen this model play out in many PA products and projects we have implemented behind the scenes to drive creativity and quality storytelling and imagery.

Risk-taking is winning!

I am extremely proud of my 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs teammates and their numerous risk-taking achievements they have taken over the years. Their creative drive has driven me to be a better leader and champion. 

I challenge each and every leader to champion a risk their team wants to take, fully knowing it is not easy, but risk-taking is winning – because it makes teams grow.