Innovation from the Bottom-Up: How Design Thinking Can Transform the Air Force Culture

Editor’s Note: The design movement is beginning to take root across a spectrum of military and non-military organizations. Recently we published a Podcast on the military design movement, an article on strategic design, and a three part interview series on military design. Today we continuing this conversation from a corporate perspective.


Incorporating Silicon Valley’s design thinking methods can revolutionize the way the Department of Defense approaches innovation. 

Approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes

By Anthony Barrs

The first thing you notice are the Post-It notes. Seemingly millions of little yellow squares cover the walls, tables, whiteboards, and windows. On closer inspection, you notice that some contain sketches, others have a few words jotted with a Sharpie.

This is the Berkeley Haas iLab, a deconstructed space tucked into an unused corner of the University of California’s football stadium that looks more like an architecture studio than a business school classroom – but the similarity between the two disciplines is not accidental. It represents the culmination of a broad shift, coined design thinking, that is taking place in innovation labs around the world as companies, universities – and even militaries – look to develop the next generation of products and services.

But to understand the Post-It notes and design thinking, it helps to return to the 1980s, a decade that introduced radical technological disruption that captured market share from powerful incumbents, like IBM and HP, and shifted it to entities which were virtually unknown – like Apple and Microsoft. It was in this world of technological upheaval that a small Palo Alto, California-based design firm started to re-think how companies create new products.

These concepts borrowed heavily from the world of design, architecture, and anthropology, softer sciences that made business initially skeptical. But slowly, over time, technology firms – and eventually traditional industries – started to explore this new process for driving nimble innovation.

And that once small Palo Alto firm? Today it is IDEO, a $100M+ powerhouse in the innovation world.

A New Mindset
Design thinking flipped the innovation narrative. Historically, R&D invested money into top down initiatives and pushed the products they designed into the market and onto consumers. Design thinking, by contrast, seeks to start at the bottom – with the users – and gain insights into how those users complete tasks.

To gather these insights, researchers engage in what is sometimes referred to as the “empathy” stage of the process, which takes its cues from anthropological research – ethnography. Weeks are spent observing potential users, talking with them, asking questions, and painstakingly notating how these customers solve problems – step by step.

Take my coffee making process every morning. I walk into the kitchen, pull the coffeemaker forward, fill the carafe with water, deposit that water into the machine’s reservoir, close the lid – and so on. To many of us, these processes are so customary, they are invisible; but to a design thinker, each of these incremental steps matter. Each tiny action is an opportunity to remove pain from the process and create a better experience.

These bottom-up insights are powerful. They can be clustered into trends that start to paint a clearer composite of the typical user experience; and that, in turn, allows companies to create products that speak organically to the customer. The user pulls the innovation, rather than a lab pushing technology.

Ultimately, these insights from users are used to brainstorm dozens of new potential products that remove pain points from the user experience. When Walgreens, the pharmacy chain, finished collecting insights to inform the redesign of their stores, they built entire prototype shops from foam board to test the flow and feel of the new experience.

Those foam stores and other quickly designed prototypes that test ideas are not built to create the product, but rather as a proxy of the product’s functionality to determine whether the user actually responds positively. Walgreens did not build the new store, they built a quick and easy mock-up so they could test hypotheses and fine tune.

The user is at the center. Their needs pulling the product design. Until that pain point is removed, the team keeps recycling through the process.

The appeal of the design thinking process is its simplicity. But it is only in the last two decades that a growing chorus of American firms outside of Silicon Valley have really started to take note. As IDEO grew, other innovation consultancies sprang up: Frog Design, Lunar, Gravity Tank, and hundreds of others. The largest companies, mainstays like Ford, IBM, Visa, and CVS Health also started to bring the design and innovation process in-house with labs which are focused exclusively on this new applied innovation approach.


The Cost of Innovation
The rise of the innovation lab has not been without its skeptics, however.

By its very nature, design thinking is rooted in the concept of embracing failure and waste as a gateway to innovation. For lean organizations focused on efficiency, the design thinking culture can run counter to business orthodoxy. For this reason, many firms which opened innovation labs set them up to have an arm’s length relationship with the core of the business. For example, Liberty Mutual, an insurance company, rebranded its space Solaria Labs, and placed it in a separate WeWork building away from their main offices.

But it turns out, the failure and waste are critical. Research from UC-Davis’ Dean Simonton looked at decades of breakthrough innovations and discovered that the most radical and transformative innovations do not come from people and teams that are inherently brilliant, but rather those that produce the most output. In other words, innovation is a numbers game.

Produce more ideas, more prototypes, more tests, and you are increasingly likely to emerge with something extraordinary. The path to innovation passes through waste and failure.

Innovation researchers often refer to this notion of breakthroughs that sit on the fringes of extensive exploration as the “long tail.” According to an analysis out of MIT, it is embracing this broad and seemingly wasteful approach to innovation that ultimately leads to the game changers. But finding these breakthroughs requires time and a wide net.


Forging a Path Forward
It is nearly forty years since IDEO introduced the bottom-up design thinking innovation principles to California – and nearly a decade since the concept started to gain traction across American enterprise. But while everything from the Apple mouse to Proctor and Gamble’s Swiffer can trace its genesis back to this innovation process, it had yet to emerge in one of the most innovation-focused enterprises in the United States: the $77 billion-dollar Department of Defense R&D complex.

Until recently.

Travis Air Force Base sits in a rural bit of California’s rolling hills midway between San Francisco and Sacramento. It holds the distinction of being the nation’s closest base to Silicon Valley – and perhaps unsurprisingly, the first base to have an Innovation Office and Officer.

Over the past two years, Tony Perez – a KC-10 pilot and a co-creator of Travis AFB’s grassroots innovation efforts – is slowly building a design thinking space, not all that different from Berkeley’s iLab, with the hopes of creating the same level of bottom-up innovation in the Air Force that is being leveraged in the private sector to drive next generation products and services.

Last year, the Travis Innovation Office saw its first success when it used design thinking to create an iPad bracket for the flight deck of a C-17 cargo plane. The original suction-cup mounts were frequently falling off due to the C-17’s aggressive take-offs and landings. According to Perez, by using the design thinking approach, the entire pain point was resolved by a cross-functional team lead by Technical Sergeant Nate Harris and the maintenance back-shop. In two weeks, this team produced a solution that cost $180 per aircraft – a remarkably quick and inexpensive turnaround for a Department of Defense project. And the new bracket? It works perfectly. Moreover, it represents the kind of small scale wins that Tony Perez thinks can prove the effectiveness of this innovation process to the Air Force.

This iPad project was a small endeavor, but it also was a part of a broader campaign by the Air Force to inspire more of this bottom-up innovation. Called Spark Innovation Cells, the vision is to have Spark offices at all Air Force bases that can empower airmen to drive solutions to challenges they face every day – whether an ineffective iPad mount, or possibly a payroll system workflows.

Over time, these small-scale innovations will roll up into bigger transformations. Accordingly, the Air Force is investing in laying the foundation for that opportunity.

Over the past two years, the Air Force has rolled out a suite of new innovation approaches, which they call AFWERX (@AFWERX). This initiative includes everything from private sector style innovation hubs, to “Spark Tank” – a riff on ABC’s hit show Shark Tank – where teams pitch defense-oriented products to a panel of judges for a chance at winning funding for their ventures. Already, AFWERX has produced some early stage innovations like an artificial intelligence solution that provides the C-5 Galaxy aircraft fleet with a predictive maintenance capability.

But ultimately, it is not really about the iPad mount or the artificial intelligence – it runs deeper. These efforts – Spark Innovations, Spark Tank, AFWERX, and others – are about reigniting a collaborative and bottom-up approach to innovation. It is about putting the user – airmen –  and their experience at the center of new military products and services. It is about casting the widest net of ideas possible – from an empowered DoD – that can drive the next generation of breakthrough innovations.

Anthony Barrs is a corporate strategist and co-founder of Hyperlane, an infrastructure innovation startup. He is currently pursuing an MBA at the University of California – Berkeley focusing on applied innovation and design thinking.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the US Government.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply