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Wing’s Chief Innovation Officer reflects on a year of progress

Elev-8 Scott; Innovation; Scott AFB

A Danville, Va., native, 1st Lt. Brad Worley is the first, full-time Chief Innovation Officer for the 375th Air Mobility Wing. (U.S. Air Force photo by Christine Spargur)

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE - Last August, 1st Lt. Brad Worley became the 375th Air Mobility Wing’s first, full-time Chief Innovation Officer. In the year since taking the position, Worley has established a foundation for the wing’s innovation efforts and helped create a maker space.

Worley, a communications officer with prior enlisted service, reflects back on his year as the wing’s CIO.

What are some of the achievements over this last year in innovation for the wing?
A year ago, our all-volunteer team was given a conference room with a chair, a small cabinet for a desk, some borrowed monitors, and a laptop. Slowly over this past year, the Elev-8 Scott team pieced together a maker space to provide a place for Airmen to think through their ideas and experiment. We’ve also spent a lot of time networking, locally and nationally, and built up a list of available resources. We had a vision. We did all this in anticipation of Phase 2 of our strategic plan.  

What impact has the pandemic had on the wing’s innovation efforts?

It definitely delayed us in getting after some of the Phase 1 initiatives. But, it also brought the Elev-8 Scott team together and helped us to connect with more innovators from around the Air Force. For example, we partnered with the Air Force Rapid Agile Manufacturing Platform, the Air Force Maker Force, and other Spark Cells to acquire 100 gallons of hand sanitizer and 400 face shields. We also worked together to develop custom designs like the touchless door handle modifiers. This collaboration helped us to understand the problems presented by the pandemic and to provide solutions. 

Across the wing, we’ve seen Airmen at all levels step up and implement new ways to maintain operations, which really speaks to the culture we are trying to grow as most of these efforts didn’t involve our office. Everyone just accepted the challenge, stepped up to the plate, and hit it out of the park. It’s been truly amazing to watch Team Scott work these past few months.

As the CIO, how do we foster a culture of innovation in the wing?
Culture is a funny thing. On one hand it doesn’t want to change, but, on the other, it is ever evolving. Our strategy has been to do a phased “crawl, walk, run” approach. In Phase 1, we built the foundations for how we can grow, mature, and sustain an innovative culture. We asked, “Who does innovation?” It’s all of us.

We recently started Phase 2. Phase 2 is about providing the right resources and expertise at the right levels to allow our Airmen to do what they do best – make things better. There are three elements to Phase 2. First, we want to expand our maker space. Our current space is small with limited but quickly growing capacity. We are looking to find a larger location that allow more Airmen to come together to talk through ideas and experiment. The second element is the Rapid X Team chaired by the wing commander. This team will focus on how to put mature ideas quickly into action by removing barriers, identifying resources, and, when needed, elevating them to higher levels. The third piece of Phase 2 is establishing unit innovation representatives, who will partner with Elev-8 Scott to bring innovation capabilities directly to where Airmen work. They will be trained to help their unit members brainstorm, define problems and solutions, tap into resources, and collaborate with other agencies. These unit reps are going to be on the front lines of innovation within the units.

You asked how we foster a culture of innovation. The first step is to understand innovation is not for innovation’s sake. Instead, it often precedes understanding and, in the end, must provide new value. When I first came in, there were still a few typewriters in use. I don’t think I got an email account till I was a staff sergeant. My first leave was submitted on a paper form. Now, there is a computer on almost every desk. We check email all day long. If you would have told someone 20 years ago we would be operating this way, there is no way anyone would have believed you. I guess the point is that oftentimes people think of innovation as some huge leap forward when innovation usually happens in small increments without us realizing. We just need to create an environment that provides the freedom and security to explore opportunities. This, however, doesn’t come without some risk of failure.

Sometimes we avoid failure because it makes us uncomfortable. When you understand how to learn from it, failure can be an invaluable tool. That said, it is equally important to understand how we look at success and its relationship to failure. We all strive to be successful as evident in the list of accomplishments in award packages and performance reports. What you don’t see in the bullets are the many attempts it usually takes to get to the final outcome.

Eureka moments are far and few. Instead, success typically comes from trial and error. A success-focused mindset can inadvertently stifle innovation by preventing us from taking risks for fear of failure.  People should be encouraged to keep going when they try something and it doesn’t work. What we learn from failure may lead to another, better solution. Failure isn’t always the end. If done right, failure is a great opportunity to discover something new.   

What are you working on now?
I’m slowly realizing my time here is short. I have a few projects I really want to focus on like completing the educational partnership. The touchless DBIDS scanner is another project I’d like to get further refined. My main goal is to put the support mechanisms in place for Phase 2 and to provide a good foundation for my replacement to take Elev-8 Scott to the next level.

Worley is scheduled to transition to a new assignment to Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany, this fall.  He plans to continue to work on innovation efforts there for the Air Force.