Commentary by Col. Mike Finn
50th Network Operations Group commander
Problem solving is becoming the most valuable tool in the leadership toolkit and, consequently, the ability to think is becoming the most desirable trait. Leaders must be able to quickly balance the equation of innovation and compliance in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, or VUCA, environment.
This is a time of unprecedented change. In fact, the rate of change is accelerating and will continue to accelerate for the foreseeable future. The advances in technology that drive this change will continue to have significant impact on our operational environment and culture.
Technology will also continue to transform the way we communicate on the battlefield, in our operations centers and with our staffs. It will also provide new, and often unexpected, capabilities for our forces and for our adversaries.
Leaders at all levels will be challenged in a VUCA environment to adapt technology to gain a competitive edge, increase efficiency, and harness the power of information. Leaders must be agile and innovative, continuously evolving tactics, techniques, procedures, and processes to assure mission success.
However, military discipline demands adherence to instructions, technical orders, and policy. Compliance is absolutely necessary to ensure safety and security, as well as command, control, and coordination of our operational forces.
Furthermore, these directives form the basis for legal, moral, and ethical conduct of our Airmen across the spectrum of operations. For military operations, compliance with directives is particularly important in a VUCA environment and during times of high operational and personnel tempo. Compliance reduces the risk of accidents that could jeopardize the safety and security of our people, equipment, and missions and it gives some measure of predictability in an otherwise unpredictable environment.
This contradiction puts our leaders in a seemingly unfair position that requires them to choose between agility and compliance. However, leaders cannot choose but must use their heads to find a way to be adaptive and enforce directives. They must find innovation within the bounds of compliance. This will require new levels of ingenuity, creativity, and problem solving on a daily basis.
When leaders find, or are presented with, directives that are out of synch with the reality of the current environment they must be committed to changing the directive through legitimate means and at the appropriate level of authority. A culture of compliance dictates that leaders cannot choose to ignore or change directives beyond their authority.
To assist our leaders, the Air Force, as an institution, must also be adaptive and restructure its directives to include agility while preserving safety and security. This, too, will require a certain degree of ingenuity and creativity not typically associated with staff work or Air Force directives. Nonetheless, “baked in” flexibility is critical to the freedom of action required by field commanders and team leaders to assure the mission in an environment of accelerating change.
Finding balance between agility and compliance will be increasingly difficult, inherently unstable and absolutely necessary. The VUCA environment will test our intellect and leadership skills in new ways and it is incumbent of every Air Force Airman, civilian, and contractor to meet these challenges squarely and with our brains fully engaged.
I recommend the following books for more information on how technology has changed world business and culture and the dramatic impact it may have in the not-too-distant future: The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurtzweil, and Radical Evolutions by Joel Garreau.