“So, one day, we were in the back of a car with Eric Schmidt on our way back from Langley to DC.”
Hanging out with the then CEO of Google while en route from Langley Air Force Base to the US capital was, admittedly, not an average day in the life of Royal Air Force Group Captain Blythe Crawford. But it nonetheless speaks volumes about his passion for innovation that he and his fellow Pentagon innovators wasted little time in grilling their backseat companion for nuggets large and small.
“We asked him, ‘so somebody comes to you with a new idea at Google, what are the things you think about when you decide whether or not to stop the project or allow it to run?’”, recalls Crawford.
“Schmidt thought for a minute and then replied, ‘there are three questions you’ve got to answer. First of all, ‘does it work?’ Second, ‘does it perform better than what it is replacing?’ and third, ‘are people using it? If you can’t answer all three then you’ve got to consider pivoting to something else.”
Crawford found himself in this envious position because he had been handpicked to be the RAF’s exchange officer to the US Air Force’s Strategic Studies Group, based at the Pentagon – a posting which, perhaps unsurprisingly, he relished. “I absorbed every second of it,” he says.
“The US national culture is very entrepreneurial – everyone bounded into the office enthusiastic about everything they were about to do – it blew me away. I was so incentivised and inspired by how they’ve driven organisational change and I saw it as an opportunity to bind our cultural nuances into something really powerful. If we could combine 50% of that drive and enthusiasm with some of the fantastic talents we have here in the UK then that would be a great combination.”
Now, though, with his stateside sojourn in the rear mirror, Crawford is Station Commander at RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire, an airbase home to more than 2,000 personnel. His priorities, which include innovation, digitalisation and delivering new technology at pace, are rooted in his decades of experience as an aviator but also his lifelong fascination with working out how to do things differently.
“How then, can we use these concepts to deliver the next generation air force at pace?” he asks.
Originally from Ireland, Crawford joined the RAF in 1993 and then spent much of his early career flying Tornadoes as part of the Quick Reaction Alert force at home, in the Middle East and in the Falklands Islands.
“But I’ve always been innovation-minded,” he admits. “My parents used to be infuriated by me spending three hours thinking about a simple task before actually doing it.”
He’s still a thinker, someone who is frequently tapped by his superiors for tasks requiring a step away from the day-to-day fray and an injection of some strategic nous. For example, before crossing the pond he was working on behalf of General Barrons, Commander of the Joint Forces Command, which was focusing on identifying new capabilities for the mid-2030s within a concept known as WITIA – Warfare in the information Age.
“I wasn’t given any money and very few people but was just told to ‘make the magic happen’ so I ended up begging, borrowing and stealing from every desk in what is now STRATCOM,” he recalls. “Because they wanted quick wins and given that we were measured by tangible output we ended up circumnavigating some of the, shall we say, overly-bureaucratic processes we have in procurement and looking at new ways to bring start-ups into the fold, focused on finding new ways of bringing new technology together as a defence capability through collaboration rather than competition.”
One of his team’s priorities was to create a ‘headquarters of the future’, imagining what it would look like, how new technology could be streamlined and implemented quickly and efficiently. “So we went and met with start-ups and businesses and asked them to be involved,” he explains. “We selected some of them to work together in a joint venture and asked them to come up with new ideas and proposals.”
He goes on to identify three key lessons from this experience. “Firstly, there are new ways to approach these challenges – Silicon Valley has proven methodologies to deliver new products at pace; secondly, there are quicker ways of incorporating technology by being prepared to take more risk; and thirdly the collaboration is more important than competition. It’s much better to bring people in at the conceptual phase, give them the vision of where we want to get to and then work together to deliver it. I want to be able to do this right across the board.”
The ‘Red Queen Problem’
Crawford spent three years posted to the US, living in Old Town Alexandria, a short bike ride from the Pentagon, initially working on a new concept of Multi Domain Command and Control and then progressing to working on an innovation strategy for the US Air Force – grappling with challenges similar to those he left behind in the UK.
“The US Department of Defense hierarchy, particularly Bob Work as deputy secretary of defence, recognised that we as the military were faced with what became known as the ‘Red Queen Problem’. Compared to the civilian sector, there was a feeling that while we were supposed be running as fast as we could to stay in the same spot, the challenge was at that time we weren’t even jogging,” he says.
“So we needed to completely change our processes and way of doing things to try and keep up with the pace of technological change and stay ahead of it – and this was the same on both sides of the pond.” To do this, though, requires a cultural shift in innovation, another of those perpetual priorities which bridge the Atlantic.
“A culture of innovation encourages our people to put forward their ideas and give them the opportunity to deliver them on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. However, this communication channel has to be a two-way street. One of the important things we learned is that if there is no feedback loop for new ideas then you run the risk of doing more damage than good,” he points out. “If you encourage your best people to put ideas forward, and then you don’t do anything with them you end up disenfranchising your top people.”
Another challenge, a perennial one for anyone working in this field – military or civilian, public or private – is understanding exactly what you mean by ‘innovation’. Definitions abound but, for Crawford, it is crucial to innovate against something.
“One of the things I have learned through experience is that you have to innovate against something – you can’t just ‘go innovate’. It has to be against an idea, a problem set, or using technology in a new way – it’s a positive change to our people, processes or kit”
Group Captain Blythe Crawford, Station Commander at RAF Leeming
“One of the things I have learned through experience is that you have to innovate against something – you can’t just ‘go innovate’,” he says. “It has to be against an idea, a problem set, or using technology in a new way – it’s a positive change to our people, processes or kit. So one of the first things I did at Leeming was to send out a survey asking people to tell me the top ten things that annoyed them about the RAF. This gave us a list of things we could roll up our sleeves and get our teeth into – demonstrating positive change through tangible output.”
Another contentious point regarding driving innovation is whether this should be achieved top down or bottom up. There are arguments in favour of both approaches but Crawford says an ideal scenario is to combine them. “If you just do top down you end up with a very autocratic organisation that knows where it is going but has a pretty disenfranchised workforce,” he says.
“But if you just do bottom up you end up with a very happy workforce and an organisation that will fail after five years as it has no strategic direction. Most of the cultural change is driven from the bottom up as people have to see to believe – when they see stuff happening they accept the fact that the culture and ethos is changing. Then you can start feeding in the top down strategic direction you want people to go in.”
Crawford goes on to pinpoint five key ingredients to innovate effectively: time, space, education and training, leadership buy-in and resource. “Time is first as it is the one thing we all say we haven’t got enough of, primarily because our support processes are still paper centric and we haven’t fully embraced digitalisation yet,” he explains. “If you fix this, you automatically start building innovation time back into the system.”
He also believes that space is important because you have to take people out of their normal work environment; education and training reflects the fact that proper processes, such as lean start-up methodology, need to be in place for innovation to be de-risked as early in the process as possible – an opportunity to fail fast and fail early, and leadership buy-in is important at all levels of the organisation.
“One of the problems we have in Defence is that we’re hierarchical but agile Silicon Valley organisations are flat,” he points out. “This means that you can have multiple paths to ‘no’ but only one path to ‘yes’ – one person can say ‘no’ and the project is dead, whereas in Silicon Valley you can go to 50 venture capitalists and only one needs to say ‘yes’ and the project is up and running. And the last thing was resource because I think you need to do all the other bits first – this means spending our money efficiently and effectively.”
With his conversation peppered with frequent references to all things Americana, it’s clear that Crawford’s time in the US left a deep impression. That said, he is also keen to stress that his posting to Leeming in November 2018 was more than welcome, as it provided an opportunity to put into practice everything he had seen from the leading proponents of innovation.
The station itself trains, delivers and supports UK and overseas Expeditionary Air Operations and is home to a broad range of units representing every key element of the Service. With squadrons, signals and training units spanning every Group in the RAF, Crawford says that this diverse range of teams makes it an ideal staging ground for testing new ideas and approaches.
“Leeming is a perfect petri dish,” he says. “I have a cross-functional team and everything is behind the wire. As such, we have written a new mission statement for the station – ‘Unleashing, empowering and enabling our people to reach their full potential and create the next generation air force’. I wanted a people and principle focused mission statement, rather than one focused on output as once that is achieved, then what do you do?
“Unleash is cultural, focused around trust, integrity and empathy, all of which are two-way streets, being comfortably with ambiguity, not being afraid to fail and being risk aware rather than risk averse. Empowerment is about delegating to the lowest practical level – we have so much talent in the Service, let it flourish! And enablement is a leadership function, cutting through the red tape to allow your people to drive positive change, and reach their full potential. If all this goes well and is done together, together we can create the next generation air force.”
“Because of where Leeming is situated in the Vale of York, we’ve now renamed it ‘Silicon Vale’ because we’re surrounded by some fantastic tech centres at all our local universities. We have all this talent on our doorstep, providing a huge opportunity to accelerate our capability development at a pace we’ve never done before”
Group Captain Blythe Crawford, Station Commander at RAF Leeming
To this end, Crawford has set up RAF eXperimental (RAFX), an innovation and digital unit which aims to help identify and spearhead new processes and technologies across the RAF – again leaning on lessons identified in America.
“I recognise there is always a tension between what is known as the continuous performance engine – what the Air Force does and delivers on a daily basis – and then those on the innovation front, pushing new ideas and approaches,” he concedes.
“You need to nurture this tension and make sure it is a healthy one, rather than becoming confrontational in any way. So we have created a permanent innovation team made up of what we call ‘Sherpas’ to guide us through the innovation process and using cross functional teams pulled from across the Station. We employ a user-centric design approach to create a Minimal Viable Product, then beta test their proposals to death until we get a refined product that actually works and then we’re at the point where we can scale it.”
RAFX is by no means limited to the confines of Leeming, however. Its reach spreads across northern England, with collaboration underway with a number of universities and other academic centres from across the region.
“When I was travelling round the US I was regularly tripping over British academics, and I had to ask myself, why are we not exploiting this amazing talent at home?” says Crawford. “Because of where Leeming is situated in the Vale of York, we’ve now renamed it ‘Silicon Vale’ because we’re surrounded by some fantastic tech centres at all our local universities from Newcastle down to Sheffield. We have all this talent on our doorstep, providing a huge opportunity to accelerate our capability development at a pace we’ve never done before.”
And as you might expect from a team spearheading innovative change, RAFX has used the experience of the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate reforms, particularly around working practices.
“We set up our own programme on station called Hacking for Recovery, where we looked at ways of working, what we do and what we don’t do, as well as communication methods,” he explains. “We didn’t want to let ourselves drift out of the pandemic and conform to a new normal defined by someone else, but rather we wanted to be in the driving seat – driving change rather than being subjected to it. This way we can define what this ‘new normal’ look like and make that our aim point. We came up with about 19 products, some of which were process reforms whereas others were technology changes.”
No time to press pause
Crawford’s energy and enthusiasm, even via a video call, is tangible – he barely pauses for breath as he lists his myriad priorities – but what’s underpinning this hurricane of activity is his clear and present determination to keep moving forward. To progress. To improve. To strengthen performance.
Next on his list is sustainability and the environment – he and his team are aiming to make Leeming carbon net zero by 2025. “We’ve brought in some of the country’s top academics to look at carbon capture, geothermal energy, water energy, solar and so on,” he explains. “We’ve got a mile and a half of access to the River Swale on station, the fastest flowing river in the UK, so why would I not consider putting water turbines in and use that to power the Station?” Why not indeed.
One thing’s for sure, Crawford’s determination to ask questions and look for new ways of doing things is not about to end any time soon. After all, why break a winning habit?
About the author
Mivy James is Digital Transformation Director at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence