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  • From ‘fail-safe’ to ‘safe-to-fail’

    Is it possible to reconceptualise the value of failure to the RAAF and its operational effectiveness? In this new #FailureWins post, Christopher Kourloufas examines the notion of complex failure and its valuable counterbalance known as ‘intelligent failures’. In doing so, he explores ‘safe to fail’ experimentation concepts and how they can enhance Air Force professional mastery. Failure is neither always bad nor always good – what matters is the context. Any response to failure must be tuned to the context within which it occurs. Especially if we want to encourage positive behaviours of our people and teams in the increasingly complex operational environment. Is it possible to reconceptualise the value of failure to our organisation and operational effectiveness? The focus of this piece is complex failure, and its valuable counterbalance known as ‘intelligent failures’. What I’m not talking about are the preventable failures - those caused by deviations from accepted procedures (See ‘types of failure’ insert). Air Force relationship with failure Failure within the Air Force is generally not an option that is welcomed. Failure is indeed bad in certain contexts. However, given the complex and uncertain nature of military operations, jumping to simple explanations can neglect the nuance of the situation, opportunities for learning and ways of gaining advantage. Our understanding of failure is coloured by our experience in training, aviation safety and risk management settings. For instance, trainees passing or failing against performance metrics for fitness, weapon safety and courses. In an aviation safety setting, failure is dealt with in a dry, technical way – part failure, procedural failure, system failure. And within risk management, failure is related to the non-achievement of an outcome. Failure is something to be detected, reported, analysed and managed. And the risk of failure is to be controlled (to avoid it) or mitigated (to respond to it). All of this adds up to a strong, negative conception of failure for the aviator. It encourages failure avoidance at all costs – which leaves opportunity on the table, could lead to hiding failure or potentially punishment for individuals responsible for failure. In spite of nice sentiments about learning from failure’s lessons and the sprinkling of thought leaders within the organisation that embody this, the brutal fact is that it simply is not valued by the organisation. For instance, failure is dealt with in a superficial way in both the leadership and learning doctrines, providing little nuance for the military professional. Other hints come from examining how we view the success of our people. Success is fundamental to our promotion, performance reporting and awards systems. We format individual reporting narratives with templates like ‘Did-Achieved-Demonstrated’ and previously ‘Situation-Task-Action-Result’. What this emphasises, is that behaviour is valued on the basis of achievement, results and demonstrable outcomes. This prevents the possibility to set conditions for a possible future whose results may not be apparent for some time. The preference then is for the present, the status-quo. The shallow narratives that we craft, however, leave the reader with no appreciation of the means for how these results came about. They are also prone to cognitive biases, for example, the ‘narrative fallacy’ which is the tendency to link unrelated events into a narrative and impose a pattern of causality. This cognitive trap typically overestimates the role of skill and underestimates the role of luck as factors of success. The challenge How is this resolved against the overwhelming body of evidence that has said for decades that ‘failure’ is neither a synonym for ‘incompetence’ nor always bad? There is a conflict between what is known within contemporary literature as being productive and our reflexive response to failure. And how do we progress from here, so that we can actively promote and nurture valuable ‘intelligent failure’ that acts as a counterbalance to complex failure? The complexity-failure relationship Our operations and capabilities grow ever more complex – and this is especially apparent within competition below the threshold of conflict. Competition is about gaining and maintaining relative advantage. It is a non-linear (temporally and in effect), continuous process that is not addressed via technological superiority. The expectation from our political and military leadership is that we must advance national interests in contexts that challenge our mental ‘map’ of the world. This is because ‘[our] map is not the actual territory’. What that means for us, is that we are spending more time at the ‘frontier’ of the profession of arms – where we leave the solid ground of ‘best practice’ and even ‘good practice’. Productive reactions to complexity flow in the order of ‘probe-sense-respond’. It is about pushing forward through the darkness of our understanding and illuminating as far forward as we can. This can be thought of as an experimental process during which we will of course face failure– but we can fail intelligently, too. ‘Safe to fail’ experiments The good news is that we don’t have to be scientists to carry out experiments at the frontier to generate novel practices. There is room for experimentation at all levels of the Air Force and in every workplace. Intelligent failures which result from experiments at the frontier provide valuable new knowledge that can help us leap ahead of a competitor or adversary. These experiments are small and pragmatic, they outline a direction and not a destination and have a focus on learning and sharing ideas. It’s a good idea to design the experiment so that the stakes are lowered as far as possible – and in some instances consequences may even be reversible. Experiments can be playful or run in parallel. Taking small, pragmatic steps toward a new direction can help constrain uncertainty and illuminate new ground of the frontier. The preferred direction could be called ‘mission command’ in the military sense; and in the business world, a shared vision of the future guides these experiments. Importantly, safe to fail experiments must be underpinned by Psychological Safety – the absence of interpersonal fear. That is, team members have a safe space to give constructive, critical feedback to surface errors and identify novel opportunities for improvement. Safe to fail experiment considerations I offer the below approach to carrying out experiments at the frontier adapted from the body of knowledge referenced so far. These experiments are investments into understanding a possible future state. Importantly, having a window into a potential future informs planning, management and decision making. I know from experience as a structural integrity engineer, however, that experiments will never be fully representative of real life and all the possible conditions faced in the future. Safe to fail experiments are also crucial investments in our people’s capacity to deal with ambiguity, uncertainty and complexity. It is imperative, then, that we continue to empower our professional masters to boldly explore uncharted territories. The value of failure to the Air Force We have an opportunity to reframe failure in a way that better prepares us for complexity and enables us to seize advantage that comes from ambiguity and novel situations. This is possible through the design and conduct of “safe to fail” experiments that produce intelligent failures. These valuable failures enhance decision making and help us navigate at the frontier of our professional mastery. As well as enriching our decision making, these experiments are productive ways to grow the capacity of our aviators to grapple with ambiguity and complexity. As members of the profession of arms, it is our responsibility to continue to courageously illuminate new frontiers so that we can further national objectives. [T]he only thing I know for sure after all of this research is that if you’re going to dare greatly, you’re going to get your ass kicked at some point. If you choose courage, you will absolutely know failure, disappointment, setback, even heartbreak. That’s why we call it courage. That’s why it’s so rare. - Brene Brown in Dare to Lead, 2018 Biography In an attempt to avoid the Dunning-Kruger Effect, Chris is sticking to what he knows – failure. As a structural integrity engineer, he has had a career focused on detecting, analysing and learning from failures. Understanding what can go wrong and influencing decision making at all levels of the Air Force has been crucial in keeping our personnel safe and capabilities effective.

  • Conference: Accelerating the Transition to a Networked, Integrated Force - Program and Presentations

    Accelerating the Transition to a Networked, Integrated Force National Gallery of Australia 24 March 2022 Final Report Dr Robbin Laird Link to the final report on Defense.Info Download Final Report Synopsis and Program Download PDF Presentations Welcoming Remarks and Formal Close AIRMSHL Geoff Brown AO (Retd) Sir Richard Williams Foundation Introduction and MC John Conway Sir Richard Williams Foundation Keynote Address General Kenneth S. Wilsbach Commander, Pacific Air Forces Accelerating the Transition Air Vice-Marshal Robert Chipman AM, CSC Head Military Strategic Commitments Indo Pacific Context Lieutenant General Steven R. Rudder Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific and Commanding General Fleet Marine Force 5th Gen Information Environment Major General Susan Coyle AM, CSC, DSM Head of Information Warfare Multi Domain operations Threats and Opportunities Air Vice-Marshal Chris Deeble AO, CSC (Retd) Executive Director, Strategy, Northrop Grumman Australia Not Just Platforms’ – Architectural & Policy Considerations Enabling Truly Effective 5th Gen Joint C2 Rod Equid Chief of Enterprise Focus Areas, Raytheon Australia The Italian Air Force, a 5th gen. Air Force and beyond Lieutenant General Aurelio Colagrande Italian Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff Acquiring and Sustaining Next Gen Capabilities Tony Dalton AM Deputy Secretary National Naval Shipbuilding UK Perspective Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston KCB, CBE, ADC Chief of the Air Staff Army Perspective Brigadier Ian Langford, DSC and Bars (PhD) Acting Head Land Capability (representing Chief of Army) Getting the bigger picture - Networking the Force Tom Rowden Vice President International Strategy and Business Development Lockheed Martin Rotary and Mission Systems Future Trends Peter Jennings PSM Executive Director, Australian Strategic Policy Institute Navy Perspective Commodore Darron Kavanagh AM CSC, RAN Director General Warfare Innovation – Navy Air Force Perspective Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld AO, DSC Chief of Air Force

  • Book Review: How to Lead a Quest - and reframing the conversation of failure

    Through this book review in support of our #FailureWins series, TCB editor Luke Webb explores Dr. Jason Fox’s book on How to Lead a Quest and how it can help Air Force build better language and mental concepts around failure. If Air Force truly wants to seek the edge, it needs to have an appetite for the right kind of failure – but this doesn’t mean tolerating every kind of failure, something that’s already in the blood of aviation professionals. Failure in the context of aviation sounds like blasphemy. The idea that ‘failure’ could be permitted in mission- & safety-critical contexts rightfully can be on the nose, and hearing how ‘failure is part of success’ (or some other digital philosophical epithet) can cause the boiling of AVTUR-blood. I’d contend that it’s the lack of nuance around the word failure that is so unhelpful. The cult-like sentiment around pursuing failure as a means to grasping success is popular in the tech-media scene. Here failure means you have to apologise to a group of vapid teens because of a change to an app’s feature. To extrapolate that implied meaning to the world of airpower seems insulting. In aviation, failure can mean a devastating conversation with the loved ones of colleagues and friends who were lost because of a split-second mistake. In the military, it can change the entire course of a campaign – even the moral imperative to fight. And yet, if Air Force is desirous of maintaining “the edge”, it must be on the forefront of trying new things. Of innovating. Of, at times, failing. But it’s not an easy gambit for an organisation that has matured (perhaps corporate-speak for atrophied?) in several aspects of its business. In the context of #FailureWins, I felt compelled to review one of my favourite books on the topic – How to Lead a Quest by Melbourne academic Dr. Jason Fox. It’s not an airpower piece, but I’ve found it one of the most accessible, implementable, and entertaining business books I’ve read that deals with untangling the realm of complexity faced by pioneering leaders. Fox offers it as a ‘handbook for pioneering executives’, and provides a series of practical actions, frameworks, and rituals to apply in a variety of workplace settings (including my favourite “Beacon Words”, where he gives an example of his word for the year being pirate). He also offers several concepts to help pioneering leaders in their work, particularly around ‘quest-augmented strategy’ - where corporate experimentation is central to organisational learning, which in turn drives intelligible work that’s future-focused. Another is around crafting experiments: since reading his work, I’ve recast my own language around innovation and new pursuits as ‘experiments’ as a way of removing cultural cringes to ‘innovation’ and ‘learning from failure’. His work is vast but efficient at unpacking the complicated, visceral pulses that so often trigger our grimace-face when we experience failure (especially in an organisational setting). Rather than approach the topic from a growth or benefits perspective, Fox looks at innovation from the lens of organisational atrophy and death - the inevitable consequence of group human endeavour of an organisation that fails to keep pace. Not just from a product or service perspective, but how organisations have a tendency to default to rote decision making slowly but surely. Where justifications and rationalisations based in past thinking become a quiet, but powerful corporate gospel. Innovation – grounded in a practice of crafted corporate experimentation – is vital for ensuring the core of an organisation doesn’t succumb to entropy. Fox has much to say about innovation, framed as pioneering leadership (hence the title How to lead a Quest). But perhaps some of the more exigent insights he offers are around failure. He has mixed views about it: “Another extreme has also crept into the vernacular – that of celebrating failure. It’s certainly preferable to the alternative, in which failure is shameful, but celebrating failure might be taking things a bit too far. The real thing to celebrate is learning.” The Layers of Fell In the context of leading a quest against organisational irrelevance, “one thing that is consistent” with this nonlinear new way of working is failure. But, in the same breath, he asserts that failure is a spectrum, and expresses a model which he refers to as the Nine Layers of Fell (“failure + Hell = Fell” … he is a bit of a wordsmith). The deeper layers are forms of failure that should not be celebrated; the mid-layers are forms that should be the focus of change, and the upper layers are matters that should be ‘celebrated’ (or, at least, learned from). They’re a spectrum of organisational failure modes that can emerge from undertaking the messy, experimental work of quest-augmented strategy; however, they’re also instructive to safety- and mission-critical organisations that need to differentiate between hazardous operational failures, and ‘just’ embarrassing corporate failures. Ninth layer – Corruption & deviance: This isn’t about deviance from SOPs; it’s the deliberate violation of values, and actions that put the whole organisation at risk for personal gain. Fox says this “demands immediate inquisition – into not just why and how an individual or team did this, but also why and how they were able to”. Eight layer – Apathy: Fox defines apathy as the non-participation in meaningful progress and where people simply go through ‘the default motions.’ It’s characterised by ‘not rocking the boat’ or ‘computer says no’ and is “perhaps the most insidious and common failure among enterprises”. Seventh layer – Pessimism and wilful ignorance: “Pessimism is where people prejudge something before collecting or reviewing the evidence”. Fox sees this form of failure as only slightly better than apathy, but also draws a distinction with scepticism where judgement is reserved until the evidence is reviewed. Scepticism is engaged in the process by “leveraging doubt effectively” through asking questions, but not blocking progress. Sixth layer – Distraction: In this form of failure, “people are busy doing the work…it’s just they’re focused on the wrong things”. Fox highlights that one of the causes of such failure can be performance measures that are skewed towards business-as-usual activities, rather than incorporating work designed to advance the organisation’s capability. Fox refers to this as the Delusion of Progress. Fifth layer – Process inadequacy: Where there is an active intent to pursue both BAU and meaningful work to adapt to the future, existing processes can be a letdown. It’s where people are frustrated with current systems and processes and can lead to using workarounds (itself another potential source of failure in some contexts). Fourth layer – Lack of ability: This is where Air Force mostly excels owing to its approach to training and education. However, it’s worth considering that “the world is changing fast, and we are required to learn faster than ever before”. Whilst a robust training program ensures BAU activities are catered for, how well is the whole learning ecosystem – training, education, integration of strategic intelligence and lessons learned (or just recorded?) into the intellectual life of the organisation - keeping up with new technology, new applications of these technologies, and the nature of the tactical and operational threat? It’s a challenge that’s found in several of AFSTRAT’s lines of effort. Third layer – Failed experiments: As Fox frames corporate innovation through the lens of experimentation, it follows that experimentation will lead to many failures. That’s the point of experiments – find what works (and why) and find what doesn’t (and why). But it’s not an open slather invitation to be sloppy; such experiments must be subject to analysis and feedback to pinpoint flawed methodologies or biases. It’s celebrating what’s learned from failures that’s crucial. Second layer – Considered quitting: Part of our cultural avoidance of failure is the sunk-cost fallacy of ‘quitting is never an option’. But sometimes it’s worth actually celebrating the ending of a particular endeavour when the evidence-base points to it being no longer relevant. Fox points out that it’s not “about stopping – it’s about letting go so that you can progress”. Placing cultural currency on the courage to invest resources into other meaningful pursuits is “something definitely worth celebrating”. First layer – A lack of perfectionism: This is perhaps one that will be most difficult to accept in an aviation world, at least on the surface. Operational excellence and adherence to detailed procedures are hallmarks of safety-critical professionals. However, as any safety system specialist will agree, mistakes will happen, and it’s the learning from errors and incidents that builds safety capability. And there is space for celebrating this level of failure in recognising and encouraging the learning from mistakes. A facet of the US space program that potentially saved years during the space race was Werner von Braun’s focus on encouraging the reporting of failure and mistakes. So what? In a nation where tall poppies are ripe for the cultural plucking, failure is like crack cocaine for talking heads and copy editors. This cripples our public sector organisations from taking already uncomfortable experimental steps towards a more relevant form. Air Force is subject to the same dynamics. But being able to unpack the variety of meanings that sit behind ‘failure’ can: Establish a class of leadership styles that can be recognised within the Air Force organisation as pioneering leaders – in addition to formulaic/operational executing leaders Empower Air Force’s pioneering leaders to make the case – with compelling language – to engage in systematic activity without a known outcome. E.g., an experiment. Enable Air Force as an organisation to build narratives that deflect criticism of failures because they’re engaged in experiments. Plan Jericho is a vehicle that uses narratives of exploration and development to carve-out experimental space. Potentially the next wave of this approach is Jericho-like constructs at the Group, Wing & Squadron levels – led by pioneering leaders. The more we discuss the many shades of failure, the more we can remove the cultural sting that sits behind the word. In an era of developments such as grey-zone aggressions, Air Force needs to build an appetite for the right kinds of failure – ultimately, to avoid the truly fatal failure forms. Luke Webb is a Melbourne-based aerospace engineer, casual academic & science communicator. He is the Chair of the Melbourne Branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society, and one of the editors of The Central Blue.

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  • Partnering | Williams Foundation

    PARTNERING We offer unique opportunities to participate and partner in our work. Whether you're seeking to participate on an individual basis, or to align your organisation with our endeavours, we have a range of membership and partnering packages designed to suit your needs. Corporate Partners & Sponsors Read More Membership ​ Read More Knowledge Network ​ Read More

  • Operations Team | Williams Foundation

    Operations & Central Blue Team Supporting the Foundation are a highly dedicated and professional team of business managers, editors and social media managers. The volunteer Central Blue editors are highly experienced and passionate Air Force officers. Under their stewardship The Central Blue has grown into a high quality forum for serving members and interested thought leaders to present their ideas. Catherine Scott Business and Events Manager Catherine's professional background began in Information Management/Librarianship. During her career, Catherine has worked in a range of professional positions including General Manager for the Institute For Regional Security, Senior Reference Librarian at the State Library of NSW, policy research in the Australian Government, and project management roles in website and events management. ​ Current voluntary positions include President of Gift of Life Inc. She is also on DonateLife's Community Engagement Group and Eye and Tissue Advisory Committee. ​ Catherine holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree, a Graduate Diploma in Information Management, Librarianship and a Master of Business Administration Dr Ross Mahoney Social Media Manager / Editor The Central Blue Senior Historian City Architecture and Heritage Team Brisbane City Council Ross has over a decade of experience within the heritage and education sectors in both Australia and the United Kingdom. In the UK, he worked for the Royal Air Force Museum and the University of Birmingham while in Australia he has worked for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University based at the Australian War College. Ross' research interests include military history, with a specific focus on the history of air warfare, transport history, and urban history. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. Ross is also the editor and owner of 'From Balloons to Drones,' an online scholarly platform that seeks to provide analysis and debate about air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in their broadest sense. He is also a Vice-President of the Second World War Research Group and a Director of the Group’s Asia-Pacific Regional Group. Jo Brick Editor, The Central Blue Group Captain Jo Brick Jo Brick is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and is a graduate of the Australian Command and Staff College. She holds a Master of Laws, and a Military and Defence Studies (Advanced) (Hons) from the Australian National University; and a Master of International Security from Deakin University. Jo’s interests are in civil-military relations and strategy; airpower and armoured warfare; military ethics, and international law. Jo also is a member of the Military Writers Guild. Follow Jo on Twitter @clausewitzrocks Jenna Higgins Editor, The Central Blue Squadron Leader Jenna Higgins ​ Jenna Higgins is an Air Combat Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force who specialises in Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance, and Electronic Warfare. She is a co-editor of The Central Blue and a member of the Military Writers Guild. In 2016 she was the Australian Defence Force Global Voices youth defence delegate, and more recently, a member of the Institute For Regional Security’s Future Strategic Leaders Program. She has a bachelor’s in physics and politics, and a master’s in strategy and security from UNSW@ADFA, and a master’s in aerospace systems from Kingston University, London. Her interests are primarily in national security and defence policy, and understanding strategic culture. You can find Jenna on Twitter @Jenna_Ellen_. Dr Ulas Yildirim Editor, The Central Blue Squadron Leader Ulas ‘Ulie’ Yildirim Deputy Director Force Structure Design Royal Australian Air Force ​ Ulas ‘Ulie’ Yildirim is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and is a graduate of the Australian Command and Staff College. He holds a Bachelor of Engineering (Hons) from UNSW and a Master of Strategic and Defence Studies from ANU. He is currently completing a PhD in Engineering from RMIT whose focus is analysing the impact of alternative aviation fuels on gas turbine performance. Ulie’s interests are in civil-military relations and strategy; and strategic culture effects on organisational decision making. Follow Ulie on Twitter @lightningulas

  • Williams Video | Williams Foundation

    Williams Video Catch the latest series of interviews & conversations with leading military leaders and thinkers. Our series include: Requirements of a Sovereign Defence Space Capability Conference Next Generation Autonomous Systems Conference Chief of Air Force Strategic Intent interviews ​ ​ ​ ​ Requirements of a Sovereign Defence Space Capability Conference In Canberra on 1 December 2021, the Foundation hosted a conference that examined the core requirements of a sovereign Defence Space capability, including the priorities for future investment. It highlighted the need for a coordinated effort across Government and industry to design, build, operate, and sustain a sovereign Defence Space capability. In these short vignettes, speakers from this Conference summarised the key points from their snap presentations. ​ ​ ​ Next Generation Autonomous Systems Conference This conference, held in Canberra on 8 April, explored force multiplying capability and increasingly complex requirements associated with uncrewed systems. It covered potential roles for autonomous systems set within the context of each environmental domain, providing Service Chiefs with an opportunity to present their perspective on the effect it will have on their Service. ​ ​ ​ Interview with Chief of Air Force To coincide with his July 2020 Strategic Intent release, the Chief of Air Force (Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, AO, DSC) spoke with the Williams Foundation in this 3-part series. He covers a range of topics, including his top-5 priorities, Australian industry capability, collaboration and innovation opportunities, and workforce development ambitions. He speaks with former CAF Air Marshal (Retd) Geoff Brown AO in this interview setting in lieu of a live audience due to COVID restrictions. ​ ​

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