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Chief Disruption Officer

“Disruption” is commonly thought of as a bad thing…

Disruption: disturbance or problems which interrupt an event, activity or process.

But to teams that yearn for change to their status-quo, like many in the 90th, disruptive innovation can be welcome.

Disruption: radical change to an existing industry or market due to technological innovation.

Disruptive innovation is something that many would not expect to exist inside the government, much less the Department of Defense. While we may occasionally drive innovative technological disruptions through investments, purchasing, or policy, it’s generally industry that is doing the innovative disruption.

There is plenty to disrupt within the government itself, however. When a team decides to expend some time and resources on an experimental new approach to problem solving, explores how policy changes affect outcomes, or tries to implement technology to solve our unique (or not-so-unique) problems, they’re beginning to disrupt the system. When they scale their change larger than their small team they can begin to positively disrupt more broadly.

Chief Disruption Officer (CDO)

I’m appointing a Chief Disruption Officer within my unit, and naming a very unique Lieutenant the CDO - Lt Will Walker. The 90th has always thought differently about adopting technology and leading change, and I want to highlight that role and reinforce that mindset. After all, it is a piece of the hacker mindset.

Will has had a history of positive disruptions within the 90th. I would characterize his approach as:

  1. Observe an inefficiency for which he believes he knows a better solution.
  2. Ask questions broadly, humbly, and persistently, to better understand the inefficiency.
  3. Cement a potential proposal for a solution.
  4. Develop and grow a coalition around that solution.
  5. Implement the solution for a customer, get feedback, iterate.

Will has had mixed success in innovation (and anybody who isn’t experiencing any failure in innovation isn’t trying very hard), but even when his innovation fails to take root it positively disrupts a way of thinking for a group of people.

Recently he was part of a team that, in under a week, developed an application to simplify cargo-pilot on-mission calculations. They prototyped the solution, iterated on it for four days, getting pilot feedback daily. In the end they had an extremely interested group of pilots helping them push the application through the deployment approval process to get it into production. The deployment process is almost certainly bureaucratic and onerous, and I’m excited to see the disruption he’ll ignite there.

Early-on in my command Will attempted to fix our unit website so you could go to it without entering the “www” at the beginning. This is a common enough configuration almost everywhere, but in the DoD it’s rare. He set-out to find out why and to change the status-quo. One major problem with technology in the DoD is that it’s often difficult to figure out who the decision maker is for any one piece of the “stack”. He researched solutions, had multiple proposals, employed his and the squadron’s network to find a contact empowered to make the change. Eventually he found them and began asking questions. That individual reacted extremely negatively to simple and humble questions. These changes disrupted organizations into acknowledging that a problem exists, and that a solution exists, and added support to technological changes they were making. Unfortunately it has resulted in no real change yet.

In the last few months Will has led a team to work closely with developers, understand their automated testing and other continuous integration (CI) concerns, and implement solutions. This was an area he had experience in, and he dove in with likely early-adopters to convince them he could help. He picked a test case, proposed solutions, spent a couple weeks developing a prototype, then demonstrated value and grew the solutions. This work disrupted some of our teams positively, breaking them out of slow processes by giving them a central DevOps force to lean on.

Will and his team did not introduce us to CI, far from it. The 90th has been doing it for years. However, he has helped us see how we can organize around it, make it a central part of our work, and collaborate across the unit.

More recently Will has been working to implement those changes more broadly across our development teams. Many have been interested in the work they’re doing, and they’ve put together a way to share that work asynchronously. They haven’t stopped integrating with development teams to force-multiply them, but now they’ve made a central library of the CI pipelines they’ve made to begin embedding this change more permanently. Even more so, Will and this team have been working on how to continue this type of work even after they inevitably depart the unit. They are working to make the change self-sustaining.

These CI changes are finding a ready audience within the 90th: teams readily see the benefits of shared pipeline tools. Now there is a team and a method for sharing those tools across the squadron. We will see if this effort pays off in the next year by reducing the load on dev teams and speeding their feedback cycles. That would be a welcome disruption to the status-quo.

There are several other examples of Will’s disruptive innovation across the unit, but just to sum them up… After that early DNS-fix disruption my Wing Commander stopped by and wanted to talk to me about Will. I was slightly nervous about what he would say - VIPs were emailing the Wing commander and asking things like, “who does this Lt think he is?” The Wing Commander had read the email chains and said something to the effect of, “Will is asking questions and building an solution proposal, nothing more. This is exactly what we want Lieutenants to do.” Will was causing exactly the type of innovative disruption we need.

Moving Forward

Will will continue to bring credit to himself, his unit, and Air Force cyber, by staying humble, approachable, genuinely curious, and innovative. He must play the ground-game of communicating, communicating, and over-communicating. He must leverage our experts in the 90th broadly, many of whom are genuinely interested in innovations that disrupt their ways of working, even if change is more than a little annoying sometimes. He must continue to push for the better way, but continue to take into account the past-lessons from the unit. He has to lead or mentor teams that rapidly prototype solutions, then demonstrate value. He must ruthlessly drop the solutions that don’t demonstrate value or that cannot meet the needs of users. He must continue to push against bad policy but remain humble to take into account the occasional good reasons for that policy. He has to continue to build coalitions of users around his good solutions.

I’m excited to see where the CDO takes us. This doesn’t represent a change in Will’s duties. It does represent a change our mindset around change and disruption. Will already possesses or successfully navigates the authority he needs to make changes, and already possesses earned-authority within the unit based upon his success. By naming him CDO I hope to increase the visibility and understanding of that earned-authority throughout the unit.

I also hope to inspire the next Chief Disruption Officer…

(Disruption definition from Google and Oxford Languages.)