My Experience With Innovation in the Air Force Military Culture

A friend on Facebook posted something about work that triggered this memory.

When I was in the Air Force, a higher ranked officer who was teaching me got annoyed that I wasn’t taking notes on a physical paper notepad and instead was taking notes on “notepad.exe” on a computer. I told him I type much faster than I hand write (about 90-100 WPM), my handwriting is horrible, and that I can easily do word searches for future reference.

He’s a nice guy outside of the military, but my “uniqueness” did create some tension (and in other military settings as well). We had to step outside, and he basically told me, “just do what I tell you to do. Don’t shake the boat.” And I basically was stubborn and said, “Why do I have to do things more inefficiently because you personally don’t prefer it? That doesn’t make any sense.” He ultimately threw his hands up in the air and said, “Whatever, do whatever the hell you want.”

There are numerous people that don’t care about “truth” or the most efficient way of doing things, and prefer to be “comfortable” in status quo. The military, and I’d argue unhealthy, large bureaucracies in general, are filled with those kinds of people. They want to do things the “easy” way because that’s how things have always been done, and not necessarily care about the productive end goal. And when someone comes around questioning things to make things more efficient, it makes them very uncomfortable because it exposes them to everyone else that “their way of doing things” is inherently less efficient and wasteful.

Why push yourself to be more efficient, when the military bureaucracy actually punishes you for not “going with the flow?” In bureaucracies and traditions, you’re punished for being innovative. You want to “keep your head low” and “don’t shake the boat” in order to maintain your job, and not potentially piss off someone higher up in the food chain who can easily make your life miserable. So stay invisible and don’t take any risks that could potentially put yourself in a negative light. You’ll never get in trouble for doing things the way they’ve always been done, but you’ll get in trouble if you try something different and it fails.

I don’t blame individuals in the military system for the learned behavior as I entirely empathize being on the “innovative” side of things while being in the military. I created a lot of friction because I cared more about doing things efficiently (requiring innovation) rather than maintain status quo. That made a lot of people uncomfortable and caused a lot of tension. If I had to make a career in the military, I would just shut my mouth, shake my head, and “just follow orders.”

However, for me to give up being innovative would had required me to essentially “give up” inside and die to my innovative nature. On the other hand, I was an idiot for creating more tension than was ultimately productive, and thinking I could change anything as a 2nd Lieutenant. But then again, I didn’t want to be in the military in the first place, knew it was a bad fit, but was required to go in anyway based on the threat of “force enlistment” so I think I carried resentment into the organization as well.

And that resentment has carried into the fact that it’s now my tax dollars supporting such a wasteful government program. It’s difficult for me to figure out how a tax-funded, bureaucratic, government organization can ever run lean with constant innovation. If it’s difficult for even private corporations to do it, how much harder must it be for government organizations?