Diversity for Creativity: Deliberately Cultivating Innovation

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. James E. Roberts
  • 6th Space Warning Squadron

As a squadron commander in today’s evolving space enterprise, I am frequently challenged to “push the envelope,” “go fast,” “think big,” and “drive innovation.” But how do you balance speed and lofty thoughts while pointing toward innovation? One key: building diverse teams.

Developing creative solutions to emerging problems is exciting business! Cultivating an environment where creative solutions are fostered and groupthink is mitigated takes deliberate work. Those familiar with organizational decision-making processes are likely aware of the groupthink theory. This theory speaks to the potential for poor or limited decisions resulting from conformist members of an often homogenous group. The same pitfall that can hamper the boardroom is just as likely to stall a brainstorming session. 

Following a survey Forbes conducted in 2011, they concluded that a diverse and inclusive workforce drives innovation, creativity, and leads to new ideas and out-of-the-box thinking. This is also true in our line of work as Total Force members of the U.S. Air Force. If we aim to effectively devise new ways to counter and defeat a thinking adversary, then we must be deliberate about building teams with diversity of thought and experience. 

As we pursue innovation, we must be diligent about seeking creative input from above, below and laterally. I believe there is value in seeking opinions counter to the status quo as we reach for new ways to execute both old and new missions. Those ideas force us to reevaluate the reason we are marching down our current path. Consider briefly the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures.” At the risk of spoiling the movie, the innovative ideas that propelled our space efforts forward came from bringing in talent from outside the established team. Their contribution to the success of the NASA mission forms the bedrock of where we stand today. While it is not realistic to always achieve consensus, it is possible to give voice to differing ideas while growing an innovative culture. In fact, it is imperative we do so at all levels if we plan to achieve excellence in all we do.

A former commander of mine once commented that everyone joins the Air Force for a reason — often because they have something they can contribute in the service of our great nation. As leaders, it is incumbent upon us to engage those committed to our charge and nurture their contributions. To do less ensures the organization learns less, and we are worse off for it.

To my fellow Total Force Airmen, what contributions are you holding back? Bring forward your ideas — a good idea knows no borders. Now is the time to prepare for the new challenges before us.