Multi-domain innovation finds tactical edge through failures, successes

  • Published
  • By Lori A. Bultman
  • 25th Air Force

New technology brings with it new opportunities to embrace and challenges to overcome. In finding solutions to the latest operational challenges, Airmen may not be successful on their first attempt, and that’s OK.


“Lessons learned from failure often lead to success,” said Brian Cook, Multi-Domain Innovation Division Chief, 25th Air Force. “What seems like a failure at the time, could actually result in future success. The goal is to learn from the failure, not repeat it; to remain resilient and continue looking for opportunities to succeed.”


Innovation is crucial to current and future operations, in relation to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, electronic warfare and cyberspace.


“The primary objective of our multi-domain innovation effort is to facilitate the rapid delivery of multi-domain, cross-functional capabilities that provide effects to air component commanders as quickly, efficiently and cost effectively as possible,” Cook said.


To do that, Airmen must be innovative and willing to try several options before finding the ideal solution to satisfy mission requirements.


“We at 25th Air Force have put the architecture in place so capabilities are positioned for the needed effects in the battlespace, kinetic or non-kinetic,” Cook said. “When there is a less than optimal result, we troubleshoot and enable the support needed to ensure we have optimal results the next time.”


Post-mission, Cook said, it is important that Airmen share information, good and bad, so negative results are not repeated.


“We don’t want others to walk the same path,” he said. “The intent is to succeed quickly.”


But, Cook said, if failure is inevitable, get it over with.


“If less than optimal results are expected, if there will be failures on some level, then we shoot for quick failure,” he said. “No one sets out to fail, but if failure is inevitable, learn and move on.”


While the 25th Air Force multi-domain innovation team has had many successes, Cook gave an example of a recent failure. 


“The team facilitated the rapid delivery of a capability to down-range operators,” he said. “The capability allowed entry into a Combatant Command’s theater and it failed to fully deliver the intended results. The capability was pulled back, lessons learned were shared with developers and in-garrison operators, and the team is currently working to support equipment modifications and a different employment concept to again quickly support the tactical edge.


“Sure, we failed to hit the mark the first time,” Cook said. “No problem. Innovators within Air Combat Command, other Major Commands and 25th Air Force will ensure we leverage the learned lessons to succeed the next time.”


It is important that Airmen are encouraged, even when innovations miss the mark.


“When Airmen are afraid of failing, it can create a barrier to innovation and success,” Cook said.  “If organizations are risk averse, Airmen fear failure. This may prevent mission improvements and advancements from being made. Sometimes you have to take risks.”


There are times when risk and failure acceptance is not wise, Cook said.


“When lives are on the line, you don’t take unnecessary risks,” he said. “But, on other missions, you may be able to.”


A major influencer on Airmen’s willingness to take risks are their leaders, who may or may not be accepting of failure in order to find success. 


“To find successful innovations to support the warfighter, leaders must support their Airmen by allowing them to try new approaches, roll those ideas back if they do not deliver, collaborate with others to find fixes, and share ideas, as well as failures,” Cook said.  “Leaders set the organizational culture for what’s acceptable and allowed, and they must challenge their Airmen and fully embrace their mission dedication and desire to improve outcomes.”


Brig. Gen. James Cluff, vice commander, 25th Air Force, agrees that Airmen should be given the opportunity to innovate and advance capabilities. 


“Across the Air Force, our young Airmen are embracing innovation, and they recognize quickly when an effort isn’t producing the desired effects. But, they can’t be afraid to step up and say, ‘This isn’t working… we need to go in a different direction,’ Cluff said. “The challenge is for those of us in command or senior positions to establish a culture that empowers these innovators to push the envelope and not let initial failures disrupt what could ultimately be a viable combat capability.

“Mr. Cook is spot on – We don’t want to fail, but if we do, let’s fail quickly, learn and move on,” he said. “We can’t be afraid to take some risks – the rewards for our Airmen and our Nation are too great if we succeed.”


The winning edge a warfighter will need tomorrow may be found in the risks an Airman takes while perfecting an innovation through trial and error today. 


“No one wants to fail,” Cook said. “But, it is part of the business. Failure will help us propel forward to possibly better results that we were initially driving toward.”