The Courage to Innovate in Large Organizations

10-Hardest-Life-Fish-BowlInnovation in any large organization requires courage–courage from senior leaders right down to the front line worker. If done with courage and clear vision, then leaders can develop a true culture of innovation–a “startup mentality”–even in the public sector. Is it really possible to have a “startup” in a huge global enterprise? The answer is “yes,” and I’m actually running one today. Furthermore, the “startup mentality” is absolutely vital if our massive, global operation is going to succeed in the next 50 years. Let me explain.

About two years ago, the Air Force embarked on a massive reorganization. We created a new global Center headquarters to centrally manage all the resources for all 77 Air Force bases around the world. For a military force so tied to their bases–land based air power needs bases to operate–this as an enormously complex undertaking. Culturally, organizationally, and operationally, the reorganization of the Air Force was a big risk. The opportunities to improve how we manage Air Force bases, to save money and ensure we meet the Air Force’s the highest priorities are equally enormous. We have a tremendous opportunity to something truly amazing.

My piece of this global enterprise is located here in Hawaii, and we serve alongside our teammates from several other regional “business units” with the same parent headquarters. Our mission is to be “solutions architects” for our primary customer (Pacific Air Forces), as well as the other Airmen in the Pacific. Our headquarters is in San Antonio, Texas, five times zones and 3,700 miles away. To be sure, we’re not entirely breaking new ground: the other uniformed Services embarked on similar centralization efforts a decade ago. Also, we have the benefit of working within the umbrella of a very large organization–the Air Force.  As an optimist, I see even drastic change as an opportunity to do something amazing. Even well conceived and managed change breeds chaos–it disrupts people from their routines, establishes new communication and resource lines of authority, and forces us to look at delivering products and services in new ways. As painful as it is, disruption is a necessary catalyst for innovation in large organizations, especially in the public sector.

Starting from Scratch is an Opportunity

Rather than seeing change–even tumultuous change–as a reason to give up, we have to look for the opportunities when change happens. Each of us has those moments when we think, “I could do this so much better”, change is our opportunity to bring those ideas to life. In our case, being 3,700 miles from our nascent headquarters and co-located with our primary customer were also benefits because we could implement change on our end and then prove it worked before pitching it to the enterprise. When we had good ideas and shared them with our teammates around the globe we became influencers to the entire Air Force. Because our team was and is agile in turning our ideas into reality, and then sharing those ideas with our off-island teammates, we have the chance to be a big influence on the way our enterprise does business.

Having the Courage to Innovate

Of course, nothing happens without strong leadership supporting a culture of innovation–and that must come within and without. Most importantly, our “C-suite” leadership back in San Antonio allowed us to innovate and share. It is a courageous choice for the CEO of a new global organization to provide broad guidance and give us all freedom to innovate. We are very lucky to have leadership with that courage. Secondly, our teammates around the world had the courage to share ideas with us and each other. Big change breeds stress and the natural human tendency is to retreat to protect what’s left. Not so with our global teammates: they constantly share ideas, proposed solutions, and challenged the status quo. Finally, our own Pacific team had to overcome our own distress at successive “reorgs” and look for opportunities to lead. Our little, but mighty, diverse team of sixty professionals came together to take a proactive stance. This sort of courage and collaboration can be very powerful. The result was people were free to take some risks and look for alternatives to the status quo. That is the heart of innovation: the willingness to try something new and seek a better solution to an old problem. It takes courage to innovate, courage inspired by courageous leaders.

Change is Hard-It’s Harder if You Don’t Innovate

Innovation, then, is led with courage by leaders willing to accept some measure of risk. That leadership can’t operate in a vacuum; all our good ideas would have been meaningless if we’d kept them to ourselves. Furthermore, if we’d have gone beaming off on our own instead of seeking solutions to problems common across the enterprise then our off-island teammates would be justified in writing us off as kooks. But we didn’t. We took good ideas from others, we shared successes and failures, we fought for feedback, and we took risks. Massive change is incredibly difficult, but it’s impossible without courage from leaders at all levels to try something new and take risks. That’s a lesson for any large organization, no matter what you do.

Mickey's Rules for Leaders eBook CoverMickey believes everyone can reach high levels of performance if inspired and led. During his 28 year US Air Force career Mickey commanded thousands of Airmen, managed portfolios worth billions of dollars, and worked with military, civil, and industry officials around the world.  He is a Distinguished Graduate from the Eisenhower School at National Defense University in Washington DC.

Mickey is the author of seven books, including Leading Leaders: Inspiring, Empowering, and Motivating Teams and The 5 Be’s For Starting Out. He’s a frequent contributor to industry publications and writes for his own Leading Leaders blog, People Development Magazine, and


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