An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Navigating change

  • Published
  • By Col. Mike Hornitschek
  • Air Mobility Wing commander
The Air Force is an ever-changing, adapting organization. Sometimes our change is in response to a changing enemy, other times change occurs due to policy and resource adjustments driven from within our government. One example is the recent repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, another is making adjustments to our end strength and annual funding levels as our nation aligns Department of Defense funding levels with the fiscal realities facing our country today. A comprehensive strategic review is currently being conducted to meet mission requirements with a focus on preserving essential tasks and eliminating duplication. This is first and foremost about trying to do the same with less, but also about being prepared to do less with less if that's what critical analysis and common sense tell us we must do.

What this means to us is that our future workforce and installations will probably look and operate differently tomorrow than we are used to seeing them today. Not all the details have been determined at this point, but we recognize the need to evolve in order to meet budget and manpower shifts.

As part of my responsibility to teach leadership here at the Scott Campus of Leadership University, I asked my 375 AMW leadership team to read a book that shows how communities deal with change. The book, called "Our Iceberg is Melting," and written by John Kotter who is a favorite award-winning author of mine from Harvard Business School, is a simple fable about a penguin who discovers a serious problem in his colony's iceberg home that threatens their very existence and the steps that he takes to get the others to also recognize the issue and come up with a plan to solve their collective predicament.

At the core of the story is a message about the fear of change. Change is hard, sometimes very hard. The character Fred knows he needs to do something, but there are many obstacles in his way. Kotter bases his book on an eight step process for leading change, and these steps are very relevant to us today.

First, Fred has a sense of urgency to fix the problem, but there are many who either don't believe there's a problem or that they need to solve anything too fast. I'm sure we can all relate to this as change comes in our own organizations. For instance, we know we'll see fewer dollars and possibly fewer people to execute our mission, so how do we work together to solve the issues that will create for us?

Second, to effectively lead change we need to create what Kotter calls the "guiding coalition." This is a group of people who assemble bringing with them the expertise and know how to develop solutions. We are fortunate in our military today that we have many experts in our civilian, officer and NCO ranks who can do just that. We pride ourselves in developing these change agents and trust that they consider all sides to an issue before developing the way forward.

However, change cannot occur with just a small group of advocates. We need to do what Kotter says comes next, which is to develop a change vision. Fred, the penguin, initially sought to show the problem to those he trusted and then they showed it to a group who could fix it, and then they had to get the cooperation of the entire colony before moving forward. They could only do this by first developing an accurate description of the future they wanted to create.

Fourth is the need to communicate the vision for buy-in; sometimes this can be the most difficult step in creating change. A strong advertising campaign can assist to get the word out. Sometimes we need to teach new behaviors by modeling them ourselves, as with Fred and the guiding coalition. They didn't want to cause panic with their situation, but they did need to create a sense of urgency and cooperation about a new way of life for them. That is the same for us. As leaders in our organizations, we don't want to create panic about our resources, but we do want everyone to understand what is happening and why ... and then be empowered to help create the solution. After all, at the end of the day we still owe the American people an effective Air Force on alert, ready to defend the nation.

Fifth is to empower broad-based action by removing any obstacles to change such as systems or structures (could be rules or policies) that undermine the vision. This is where we encourage responsible risk-taking and nontraditional ideas, activities and actions. For Fred and the colony, all they'd ever known was life on this iceberg. But to survive, they needed to implement a new thought process--that they didn't have to stay on just their one familiar iceberg. They could live on any iceberg they wanted. Now, that was change indeed. We will need to be creative like that as we partner with our communities to assist in ways that still support our Airmen, their families, and overall quality of life.

Step six is to generate short-term wins such as a plan for visible performance improvements. Reward those who help come up with ways to implement the new way forward. Most people will support the action once they understand the purpose and then see how they fit into making it successful. For the penguins, it was all about recognizing those who volunteered to scout out a new home in the harsh Antarctic environment. That took risk and personal effort.

Even though we think we are communicating our message, Kotter says we need to keep at it until change occurs, that brings us to step seven which is to re-invigorate the process with new projects, themes, and change agents. The penguins moved to their new home and found new challenges. The idea though was not to stay just on one iceberg. They agreed to be nomads so that when the time came they would all be prepared to move again. This kept them from focusing on life before and comparing all the good and bad. With this approach, they kept moving forward. They even looked for new members to be on their leadership coalition, which ensured those involved in change management could help bridge the last and final step of the process. I feel this could be the most critical step for us, so that we don't let how we did things in the past keep us from the solutions of the future.

Finally, Kotter says the last process is to incorporate change into the culture. While the Air Force over its history has been a highly adaptive organization, we need to continue articulating the connections between the new behaviors and organizational success and develop the means to ensure leadership development and succession. We've seen that today with how Air Mobility Command implemented the Comprehensive Airman Fitness and physical fitness cultures ... and we will need all hands on deck as we navigate the new resource-driven changes ahead for us as well.

We fully support the DoD's efficiency efforts and are committed to gaining the greatest value from taxpayer investments in our nation's defense--I never want my or your family to have to worry about an attack from the air, space, or cyberspace, so we must adapt . Tough decisions are being made ... decisions that affect people. I just ask that we all take the time to understand the issues and communicate those to our workforce. I plan to address this more fully in next week's commander's call (Nov. 10). Until then, ask yourself if you are prepared to lead change, because the Air Force needs change leaders today more than ever to keep us relevant and effective in our ever rapidly changing world.