Kwast: Innovative Culture Could Clash with Constitutionalism

Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, commander of Air Education and Training Command, spoke Feb. 22, 2018, at AWS18. Air Force Magazine photo by Mike Tsukamoto.

The culture of innovation starts in the classroom, and Air Education and Training Command boss Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast considers that culture “essential” not only to USAF’s survival, but to that of any society or organization.

Human nature is innovation’s biggest challenge, Kwast argued. Any systemic endeavor is prone to risk aversion and bureaucracy, which he argued is naturally borne of any organization of two or more bodies.

“Everything that prevents us from being creative is rooted in human nature,” Kwast said, speaking Thursday at AWS18. “Bureaucracy is an extension of the human condition. The more people, the more bureaucracy.”

By design, any organization will have a violent reaction to disruption since innovation could mean the end of what its leaders have held foundational. To deny or abuse innovation is “a visceral survival mechanism.” Such innovation threatens the “values, the heritages, the hero system, the honor, and the dignity” of its current stakeholders. In a constitutional democracy, decision making is handled by leaders elected by those same stakeholders. Could such a system inherently allow for free innovation? Kwast laid out what he thinks is one way to work around the various obstacles present and inherent in the Air Force’s current culture.

Basically, throw some people outside of the culture and let them come up with disruptive innovation.

“You don’t ask the pig to slaughter itself,” Kwast said. You take a handful of innovators and “hide them from the bureaucracy,” giving them money, freedom, and authority. These are people who yearn to improve processes, who aren’t tied to old ones, who constantly want to figure out new ways to do old things. You give them top cover, knowing if current stakeholders sniff the initiative, they’ll try to “kill it.” And you do this several times over, with different groups of people.

Nine out of 10 such initiatives will fail, Kwast allowed.

“But the one that brings you the idea that’s transformational will pay for all the other failures,” he said, adding none of this is what the Air Force teaches its airmen.

But it should.