return to thinking skills page

“Doing the right thing” versus “Doing things right”
(Courtesy photo)
“Doing the right thing” versus “Doing things right” – A Framework for Post-ORI Innovation

Commentary by Lt. Col. Daniel Gillen
4th Space Launch Squadron

8/22/2012 - VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Col. Lavanson Coffey III, the 30th Launch Group commander, submitted a commentary July 16 about "doing the right thing" where he discussed the importance of not cutting corners and always doing what's right. Unfortunately, we're more focused today on "doing things right" than "doing the right thing." This has become apparent as we prepare for the upcoming inspection. "Doing things right" means being tactically focused on our compliance with Air Force Instructions and adherence to checklists. "Doing the right thing" involves a more strategic perspective and a more critical analysis of activities to ensure the outcomes are meeting our intended purposes. Through a process of strategic innovation we can transition from "doing things right" to "doing the right thing," a shift which will ultimately result in organizational efficiencies and increased job satisfaction.

Have you ever taken an online training course, turned in your certificate, and then returned to your job having learned nothing new? How often does that happen? Why does this keep happening? This is an example of being tightly focused on "doing things right." Someone said (or wrote in an AFI) that we must complete this training to be compliant, so we all take the training. We check the box that we're compliant, and we pass the inspection. Is this the right thing to do? How about our other mandatory inspectable programs and the checklists we run on a regular schedule just to document compliance?

As we prepare for the upcoming inspection, we are reviewing our programs for compliance regardless of whether or not being compliant is meeting the intent of the established program. I think this is unfortunate, but this is a resultant effect of Air Force Space Command culture and its focus on Inspector General inspections as report cards for commanders. We cannot change this today, but we can start preparing for change in the near future.

Today we're confronted with diminishing budgets and our leaders are begging for innovation. But how do we change? How do we spawn innovation? We must start by identifying the things we're doing wrong. A great way to do this is to identify activities or programs that are not achieving their intended outcomes; stop worrying about "doing things right" and think strategically about what is "the right thing to do."

Innovation is difficult, but with effective leadership and determination, innovation is possible. My favorite framework for innovation is the three-box construct, often attributed to Vijay Govindarajan, a professor of International Business at the Tuck School at Dartmouth College. Very simply, the actions organizations take can be categorized in one of three boxes: box number one is managing the present; box number two is selectively abandoning the past; and box number three is creating the future. Box one is about improving current processes while box two and three are about innovation, breakout performance and growth. Many organizations restrict their activities and strategic thinking to box number one, as leaders emphasize today's metrics, because this is what we're evaluated on. As we prepare for the upcoming inspection, we have to keep doing box one activities, because those are what will determine our inspection results.

Effective strategy cannot be just about what we need to do to improve today's short term results. Strategy must include boxes two and three; it must be about innovation and long term sustainment.

As we prepare for the inspection, we must start filling up box two with ideas. This is actually quite simple. Every program we identify that has wrongly-focused implementation and is clearly missing its intended goals must be thrown into box two. In other words, if a program is focused on "doing things right" but is no longer "doing the right thing," we must put that program and associated activities in box two. I imagine once this inspection is over, box two will be overflowing with ideas.

Then comes the fun part ... the hard part yes, but also the fun part. We must implement box two and start filling box three; that is, we must stop doing what is wrong (selectively abandoning the past), and we must create the future. Which programs are no longer necessary? Which programs need an entirely new implementation strategy? Which laws or policies need to be changed or rescinded? We'll never know until we start filling box two with ideas.

As soon as the inspection is over, we must wisely implement box two and get to work on box three. The key to effective innovation as we implement new programs and strategies as part of box three is also determining the appropriate grading criteria for these new programs so that we stop inspecting ourselves on tactical compliance with wrongly focused AFIs and policies. This is how we move from "doing things right" to "doing the right thing," and the result will be a better Air Force: a more efficient organization with improved job satisfaction as a result of pervasive bottoms-up innovation.

Best of luck as you carry out your inspection preparations. Keep in mind the simple framework of "doing the right thing versus doing things right." Fill up box two with your ideas, and once the inspection is over, don't be afraid to selectively abandon the items in box two and create an innovative future in box three. I know the first item I'm dropping in my box two is IG readiness inspections ... this is one Air Force program that needs drastic implementation innovation.