• Bobby Lansing

Breaking Culture: 2. Mindset for Success

When I returned to Active Duty in the Air Force in January 2018, I was tasked to stand up a software development organization with minimal personnel and resources. I had given myself an additional task, which was to prove that culture within the Air Force could be innovative. I knew that this was a daunting task as stagnant as Air Force bureaucracy can be, but a worthwhile task to say the least.

As you will see, success is not without failure, but by following Agile principles, I set up an organization with a focus on collaboration. No ideas were stupid and no ideas were ignored. I also tried (with some success) to avoid altering my own behavior. In meetings and discussions with other people, I like to bring up half-considered ideas. I feel it is an important part of being unafraid to fail and shows to others that it is acceptable to try new things in this type of environment. However, my past experience in the military had taught me that I had a tendency to become a “yes” man, avoiding conflict with higher-ranking officers. I deliberately put myself in an uncomfortable position, to be honest with my coworkers.

In his book Leading Change, Dr. John Kotter outlines the 8-step process for instituting change in an organization. While I don’t think there is a single formula that if applied will produce innovation or change, I do think these items are excellent considerations to apply:

  1. Create a sense of urgency

  2. Build a guiding coalition

  3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives

  4. Enlist a volunteer army

  5. Enable action by removing barriers

  6. Generate short-term wins

  7. Sustain acceleration

  8. Institute change


We failed this model in a few ways. We did not build the perfect guiding coalition. In the government, there are so many regulatory bodies and rules, that a guiding coalition requires experts and authorities from high levels who can remove significant barriers in a timely manner. As well, resources are always a fight, and having advocates in high places can make that fight significantly easier. Our guiding coalition consisted of a few stagnant bodies, who could not remove barriers or even see ways around them. This is a significant issue for organizations like the government because you can develop the best technology, but if the cybersecurity experts don’t approve it, you won’t be able to deploy that technology. The experts need to be on board from the beginning with the right mindset and understanding of the vision.

As well, the guiding coalition must understand that in a truly Agile process, the vision and execution may change many times throughout a project. Mapping milestones at the beginning of a project is a fruitless endeavor, because so many things may change after the project start that may make the milestone overcome by events (OBE). A vision backed by organizational agility is the key to success here. This is why I feel most people can be innovative, it is simply a mindset and ability to embrace a little chaos and lack of control.

By the time I left the organization, we were successful innovators in the military. We had just started the broader task of evangelizing our mindset and spreading innovative efforts to other parts of the organization. I will spend more time in the future talking about how to avoid becoming the innovation unicorn, but as you can imagine, it requires high-level advocacy and a massive mindset change.

Let me know in the comments how your innovation efforts have failed or succeeded and what factors played a part in that outcome.

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