In this week’s #AFSTRAT instalment, Squadron Leader Chris Kourloufas takes a deep dive into creative forces. Looking past the rhetoric of ‘creative geniuses’, Kourloufas dismantles the realities of creative success and highlights the necessity of failure tolerance. Moving forward, isolated solutions will no longer be enough, with cross-domain creativity being vital for lasting long-term impact. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) must also ensure that people know that their actions matter, no matter how small the idea. However, for an organisation that can pay for failure in blood, the challenge exists for RAAF to reach beyond the status quo and ‘dangerous comfort’ to a culture of psychological safety and disruptive innovation.
The Air Force Strategy (AFSTRAT) 2020 directs command teams to be novel, creative and think critically to challenge the status quo. This is necessary in order to adapt to the continually changing geopolitical environment as well as to maximise air and space power effects for the government. Statements like these will excite and inspire progressive and creative thinkers. It may also draw criticism from the realists who will ask, ‘why isn’t this happening already?’ This article explores creativity in the RAAF and examines what may have hindered such creative forces in the past. This is discussed with the view to understand how we can realise the strategic vision set out before us by the Chief of Air Force (CAF). I first discuss the nature of creativity, then the difficulty of challenging the status quo, the catalysts for change and finally present some concepts that may support the strategic vision.
The Nature of Creativity
When bringing to mind creative success, we are likely also to tie this with creative ‘geniuses’. This perception is not only misguided, but it also limits the opportunity to take on a creative pursuit. The reality is that a creative breakthrough is not something bestowed upon someone; rather, it is obtained through maximising simple factors of success. So how can the orthodox be unorthodox?
The first factor is the sheer volume of creative ideas. Creativity is a random and unpredictable process. Put into an artistic context, for every masterpiece that hangs in a museum, there are likely hundreds of studies made by the artist – all perfecting an element or playing with concepts until they made the critical, creative breakthrough. These studies are a glimpse not only into the creative process that leads to critical acclaim, but also an insight into the hidden failures, or weaker ideas, that never made the canvas. Put another way, a predictor of a breakthrough idea is the volume of work. So, if creating original ideas is what the RAAF wants, then we need to be doing lots of it. I would ask; how often do we allow ourselves to be creative, and secondly, what do we create? In my experience, being creative is something we are often asked to do – usually within the military appreciation (i.e. planning) process and complex decision making. I wonder whether we genuinely create or simply follow a template or process out of ease. Or does our technical mastery merely equate to reaching into previous examples and applying worn-out tactics? This is perhaps where military art comes into the fore. It might seem like a worn-out cliché, but creativity remains the critical element to future success within the profession of arms.
Picasso created more than 1,800 paintings, 1,200 sculptures, 2,800 ceramics and 12,000 drawings (as well as countless prints, rugs and tapestries). Only a fraction of these works have been considered worthy of acclaim. Mozart composed more than 600 pieces before his death at 35, with a handful considered amongst the greatest of all time. In his book Originals, Adam Grant recommends tripling your usual output of ideas to unleash originality.
The second factor is the intersection of a broad array of ideas or concepts. Military professionals must maintain a wide scope of experience and knowledge on topics other than just warfare. Single-discipline breakthroughs are becoming less frequent, and this is apparent within the academic community – where multidisciplinary collaborations are the norm with most publications (and even degrees) being a combination of fields. The most creative and innovative breakthroughs occur at the intersection of fields. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) reports that disruptive technologies rarely create an impact in isolation. It is the convergence or overlap of technology domains with the physical, information or human domains where disruptive and breakthrough advances will occur. This is partly because of the exponential number of possible combinations of concepts that occur within the intersection of fields. Knowing this, and actually being willing to apply it, will increase our chances of a creative breakthrough. This is another way to view what AFSTRAT calls ‘horizontal integration’. CAF implores us to look past the artificial barriers we have constructed (e.g. Force Element Groups, mustering/specialisation, service, group), and come up with new and creative ways to generate effects for the government. These need not be high-tech innovations; breakthrough ideas are typically new combinations of existing ideas. These innovations are the ones that make you think, ‘why hadn’t anyone ever thought of that before?’ Innovation can occur within doctrine, tactics, employment of technology or new technologies. Put another way by the author and director of the Centre for Security, Innovation and New Technology, Audrey Cronin; ‘technology need not be exquisite to have a broad and long lasting impact’. In my experience as an engineer, the creative process is the easier bit. Once we have an idea, we have more to overcome before it is a reality.
The difficulty in challenging the status quo
It is often hard to rationalise being original with military pursuits because many lessons are paid for in blood. We are conditioned to take the tried and true approach rather than the road less travelled. This is passed down through doctrine, regulation, procedure, or tacit knowledge. As acknowledged by the CAF, we have created narrow ‘silos of tactical excellence’, with these ingrained ways of thinking rewarded by accolades and promotion.
Our coveted and comfortable conservatism to follow the status quo is growing more dangerous due to the non-linear strategic threat environment. The current context of competition between superpowers, proxies and non-state actors coupled with the explosion of technology and sharing of information cannot be appreciated fully through our conservative lens. The strategy update drops us all into a contradictory situation: leaving the comfort of the known, and venturing into the risky unknown, which may threaten an individual’s status and reputation. This paradigm makes it dangerous for the individual’s career, wellbeing, and social status to speak up and make a change.
The difficulty in making this strategy a reality will be the resistance from those who stand to lose the most from leaving the status quo. This will be felt hardest from those in the middle – a well-demonstrated phenomenon known as ‘middle status conformity’. The hesitation by those in middle management in taking ideas in original directions has been quantified by psychologists Michelle Duguid and Jack Goncalo. In their studies, those in the middle-generated 20-25 per cent fewer ideas and 16 per cent fewer original ideas than those in the high or low-status positions. As Grant states, ‘the fall from the middle is too far for some’.
Practice may make perfect, but it does not change the status quo
The technical masters the organisation has produced to date may fail to recognise the incompatibility of their experience with future complex problems. This is because our experience and intuition that comes from this practice only help us when cause and effect are consistent. That is, our intuition is not reliable when dealing with complex and non-linear situations. Put another way, blind obedience to process for the sense of security that it offers us may expose us to danger. This strategy update, therefore, is striking at the core of our organisational psyche and perceived competence and will thus feel dangerous and uncomfortable. Instead of reacting to the discomfort by being dismissive of the call to challenge ourselves, we must ask ourselves two questions, ‘what is the cost of our comfort?’ and, ‘are we defending national interests or the status quo?’
The obstacles to military creativity are numerous and presented comprehensively by Milan Vego. They include: the military hierarchical command structure; authoritarianism; bureaucracy; templated approaches to operations; conformism; service parochialism; dogmatic views on war and peacetime activities, and, intolerance of divergent views
Catalysts for change
For the workforce to act, it must first see the need to change. The catalysts for change may be extrinsic (e.g. imposed by/reacting to government direction, public pressure, technology advancement or adversary actions) or intrinsic (e.g. workforce dissatisfaction with the status quo). For extrinsic motivations, a strategy of risk management and opportunity seeking is employed by the organisation. That is, resources allocated toward the pursuit of proactive measures to manage risk or seize opportunity from the top down. To address intrinsic motivations, Adam Grant offers a model for dealing with dissatisfying situations that is relevant to this discussion. He states that there are four reactions to a dissatisfying situation: exit, voice, persistence, and neglect. He positions them against two axes; control (or agency to act) and commitment (Table 1).
At its core, the 2020 AFSTRAT signals that there is a high degree of agency in addressing dissatisfying situations. As such, the key variable is the commitment of the individual to the organisation to do something – thus emphasising two options more for the workforce to consider – ‘exit’ or ‘voice’. That is, those with high commitment to the organisation will stay and voice their dissatisfaction, those with low commitment will eventually exit. ‘Exit’ in my observation may take the form of a posting, deployment, or separation from service. Leadership is a key factor in influencing commitment and control – especially the type of leadership that is adaptive to complex situations and fosters ‘psychologically-safe’ organisations.
Supporting the Originals
It is worth noting that challenging the status quo is difficult in any organisation; however, there are many ways the RAAF can support critical thinkers and originals willing to voice their concerns and make a change.
Encouraging creative dissent
Your first responsibility as a leader is to create atmosphere. Major General (Ret.) Duncan Lewis AO DSC CSC
The creative dissent necessary to challenge an unhealthy reliance on the status quo must be encouraged. As discussed, challenging the status quo is risky from a social perspective with those that attempt to speak up or change the status quo being met with resistance by those who have the most to lose from change. To meet this challenge, quality leadership that views the complex challenges holistically and is willing to work toward positive strategic outcomes is required. It is a style of leadership that does not seek to force-fit ready-made solutions to every situation. This leadership is hard to come by in a military-driven to ‘solutionise’. Ronald Heifetz calls this type of leadership ‘Adaptive leadership’. This style empowers those around the leader. Empowerment is different to delegating. An emphasis on this leadership style is critical to supporting those people who are inspired to challenge the status quo. As previously discussed, many of the challenges before us will not be solved by applying the tried and true methodologies – this is precisely the context to apply adaptive leadership and manage complexity.
Second, direct supervisors have the most influence on the individual’s sense of commitment and control when dealing with a dissatisfying situation. This is an important insight when developing organisational reforms to support this strategy. That is, supporting leaders to instil a sense of loyalty or commitment to the organisation may be the catalyst to individuals speaking up. Ultimately, what is good for the individual is good for the organisation. The people need to know the bigger picture as well as know that their actions matter. This will help the people who care enough to do something about it. The vision for the organisational culture must be one that fosters an environment of psychological safety.
According to authors, Hans van der Loo and Joriene Beks, ‘Psychological Safety’ is a term gaining interest worldwide. They describe it as ‘feeling at home’, whereby there is a foundation of connection and trust, boldness and authenticity.
The recent RAAF safety month theme of, ‘Creating High Performance Teams’ and the introduction of the psychological safety concept to the workforce is a positive step. Generating such an environment enables an individual to seek opportunity and take a risk. It promotes a perception that ‘I may fail, but I’m not a failure’. It enables people to speak up when circumstances are unsafe. It is what supports innovators to pick themselves up and try again – to keep creating until they have found an effective and original solution. Furthermore, importantly, as summarised by Air Commander Australia, it is the enabler to high performance and effectiveness in complex and dynamic operational environments.
Finding ways to break down artificial barriers helps RAAF tap into the potential that already exists within its organisation. At an organisational level, greater flexibility is needed to facilitate secondments, out of category postings, industry placements, and academic collaborations so that our smart and motivated people can bring value to a new problem or combat domain. Another suggestion by Grant is shifting from exit interviews to entry interviews. That is, instead of waiting to ask employees leaving the unit/service their ideas on improvements, ask those with fresh insights and not encumbered by unit or service culture. It is also worth reflecting on how creativity is measured and valued within the recruitment process.
Interestingly, researchers at Michigan State University found that the odds for Nobel Prize winners relative to typical scientists were proportional to their engagement with the arts. Specifically, those who used their artistic pursuit to view their scientific work through another lens were most likely to be leaders in their fields. For example, a scientist with painting as a hobby was 7x more likely to win a Nobel prize than the typical scientist. For performing arts as a hobby, the likelihood was 22x greater (Grant, 2016). Valuing candidates who also have artistic pursuits alongside their specialist domain is another way to build a workforce willing to come up with original ideas.
At an individual level, we can challenge ourselves to get out of our comfort zone. This can be as simple as peering over the partition and finding out what our colleague is up to or going to the mess and talking with someone new. How can we expect to challenge the status quo if we are unwilling even to hear a new perspective or are too confronted by someone’s opinion? Activities that encourage us to take a new perspective are also valuable – like learning another language, exploring another culture, trying out a new cuisine or taking up a creative hobby. A great initiative is Jericho’s Maker Labs – where Airmen are provided the equipment and skills to tinker with modern manufacturing technology.
Maintaining a positive narrative
A narrative must be maintained that compels every airman/woman to try to effect change. Unless we can convince our workforce that the status quo can be changed, they will not believe that there is control in a dissatisfying situation. More can be done to promote real examples and tangible outcomes as a witness to the great work the originals are doing already. It will take time because this is a generational change and trust must be slowly and carefully earned.
What do we measure?
The organisation needs to protect the innovators from adverse impacts that may arise from speaking up and attempting to change a counter-productive or unsafe status quo. It will need to carefully build a tolerance for the right kind of failure and dissent within its performance and reporting system. We must not only reward successful ideas but work out how to protect those who try and fail. The nature of creativity means that failure and fruitless ideas outnumber successful ideas. Perhaps we judge personnel performance by the attributes and behaviours that enable creativity and critical thinking that contribute to strategic outcomes.
The innovation process
Investing in refining the Capability Life Cycle process to be effective for accelerated innovation is necessary. In my experience, we have useful processes for prototyping but less effective mechanisms for converting the prototypes into sustainable capabilities or enablers. The link between Jericho-type initiatives and the Integrated Investment Program can be strengthened and articulated in a better way to those who seek to innovate. We must persist with making the process adequately robust and capable of producing outcomes that remain relevant when eventually delivered.
The RAAF is being challenged to shift its locus of organisational security from the status quo to the psychological safety borne from leadership. This means we will know when the tried and true is not enough, or even dangerous, we will feel safe speaking up and be empowered to do something about it. This reframes the AFSTRAT from an existential crisis to an opportunity for us to better serve the nation. Once we see opportunity for change and cultivate psychologically safe teams, the addition of creativity will spark innovation. Many initiatives and concepts have been presented that will either promote critique of unhealthy status quo or support creativity to innovate. Achieving the vision set out by AFSTRAT will lay the foundations for the RAAF to better contribute air and space power effects for the next generation.
Squadron Leader Chris Kourloufas is an Aeronautical Engineering Officer in the RAAF. He holds a Master of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a Master of Engineering Research. He currently works within Logistics Branch - Air Force in a role dedicated to Maintenance Strategy and Innovation. His creative pursuits include Jazz improvisation and landscaping.
 F. Johansson, The Medici Effect (Boston, MA: Havard Business Review Press, 2017).  A. Grant, Originals (London: WH Allen, 2016).  M. Vego, ‘On Military Creativity,’ Joint Force Quarterly 70 (2013), pp. 83-90.  Grant, Originals.  Johansson, The Medici Effect.  NATO, Science and Technology Trends 2020-2040: Exploring the S&T Edge (Brussels: NATO Science and Technology Organisation, 2020).  A.K. Cronin, Power To The People (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).  M.M. Duguid, and J.A. Goncalo, ‘Squeezed in the middle: The middle status trade creativity for focus,’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 109, no. 4 (2015), pp. 589-603  Grant, Originals.  Vego, ‘On Military Creativity.’ pp. 83-90.  Hans van der Loo and J. Beks, ‘Psychological Safety: an introduction,’ Psychological Safety, 6 May 2020.  Grant, Originals.  Johansson, The Medici Effect.