Senior U.S. Air Force leaders are embracing and promoting the concept that if their Airmen are not failing, then they are, more than likely, not moving forward.

They believe pushing the envelope is necessary to keep the U.S. Air Force dominant and the occasional failure should be viewed by supervisors not as a negative, but as part of a greater positive.

In this series, we hear senior Air Force leaders give examples of how taking calculated risks and failing throughout their careers taught them valuable lessons, propelled them to future success and made them better leaders.

The Chief Scientist of the United States Air Force Dr. Richard J. Joseph believes failure is rooted in past success of large technological bureaucracies. Video // Peter Ising

Dr. Richard Joseph, Air Force chief scientist

Dr. Richard J. Joseph, Air Force chief scientist, believes failure is a necessary component and result of the scientific method. The failures of ideas and theories, when tested through experimentation and prototyping, inform, and are often the root of, future successes.

However, he also believes that project failures are often rooted in past successes of large technological bureaucracies. Large organizations with far-reaching strategic plans often stifle the creativity, experimentation and risk acceptance necessary to achieve game-changing technological advances.

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U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. March Tighe, 60th Maintenance Squadron gives a briefing to Dr. Richard Joseph, Chief Scientist of the United States Air Force, Washington, D.C., during his visit to Travis Air Force Base, Calif., July 12, 2018. Joseph toured David Grant USAF Medical Center, Phoenix Spark lab and visited with Airmen. Joseph serves as the chief scientific adviser to the Chief of Staff and Secretary of the AF, and provides assessments on a wide range of scientific and technical issues affecting the AF mission.

U.S. Air Force photo // Louis Briscese

While large organizations are necessary for many complex systems and projects, Joseph believes that many Air Force technological research and development programs need to be spun off and protected from bureaucracies.

Shielding these smaller, cutting-edge programs from strict adherence to bureaucratic doctrine and strategic planning fosters innovation by embracing risk and accepting the preliminary failures that lead to development of that one-in-100 idea that could truly be a game changer.

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Dr. Richard J. Joseph, Chief Scientist of the U.S. Air Force, looks through virtual reality goggles at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., Nov. 29, 2018. The harness training was a requirement before flying on a B-52 Stratofortress with the 20th Bomb Squadron.

U.S. Air Force photo // Senior Airman Philip Bryant

Joseph serves as the chief scientific adviser to the chief of staff and secretary of the Air Force, and provides assessments on a wide range of scientific and technical issues affecting the Air Force mission. He has more than 40 years of experience as a physicist, directed energy researcher, senior program manager, national security advisor and executive.


Dr. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics

As the Air Force’s Service Acquisition Executive, Dr. Will Roper oversees Air Force research, development and acquisition activities with a combined annual budget in excess of $40 billion for more than 465 acquisition programs.

Dr. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics reflects on an experience that shapes his view on taking risks in the United States Air Force. Video // Peter Ising

He promotes the concept of “Fail Fast, Fail Forward” as a foundational culture shift necessary to keep the U.S. Air Force dominant.

This philosophy is manifested in his promotion of rapid prototyping and funding innovative ideas through Air Force Pitch Day and AFWERX’s Spark Tank.

Roper believes that by spending money to develop fledgling technologies and ideas quickly, and then prototyping them rapidly, flaws are found much earlier in the development process.

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Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, speaks to a crowd of small businesses, venture capitalists, and Airmen during the Inaugural Air Force Pitch Day in Manhattan, New York, March 7, 2019. Air Force Pitch Day is designed as a fast-track program to put companies on one-page contracts and same-day awards with the swipe of a government credit card. The Air Force is partnering with small businesses to help further national security in air, space and cyberspace.

U.S. Air Force photo // Tech Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr.

This method avoids committing to the huge cost of the much longer traditional system and weapons development and acquisition where flaws are only found years and hundreds of millions of dollars later. Then the Air Force is stuck with that flawed system for decades.

However, in order for “Fail Fast, Fail Forward” to work, Roper believes the Air Force must adjust its attitude towards risk.

He points out that his own success actually points to a persistent flaw in the Air Force’s tolerance for risk – people are only rewarded for taking a risk that pays off. Roper insists that to foster an innovative culture, people must be rewarded for taking a good risk in the first place.

“Why are the people who succeed the only people we cite when we talk about risk taking as a virtue?” Roper said. “I’m trying to be very mindful with Air Force program managers and people taking risk that they get their evaluation and validation for me at the point that they take the risk.”

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