Breaking down walls with new strategic thinking

Design thinkers Sam Bucolo from the University of Technology, Sydney and RAAF wing commander Jerome Reid. Photographer: Damien Pleming.

The unlikely collaboration of a veteran military officer and an unconventional professor is reshaping the way Australia’s defence forces think about the future.

Jerome Reid and Sam Bucolo have lived very different lives. An Australian Defence Force veteran of more than 20 years, Reid has the military bearing and authoritative voice you’d expect from a former infantry officer and serving Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) wing commander.

Reid joined the Australian Army in 1994. After operational deployments in Iraq, Timor-Leste (East Timor) and Banda Aceh in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, Reid returned to Australia in 2008 to help manage a series of defence workforce reforms, totalling A$3.6 billion over 10 years. Then, in 2015, he “took off the green uniform and put on the blue”, joining the air force as “chief disruptor” with Plan Jericho – a far-reaching program designed to transform the air force from within.

Sam Bucolo also tried to join the air force as a young man. “I did my psych exam and they said, ‘Sorry, Sam. You’re way too creative. You won’t handle the discipline.’”

Bucolo trained as an industrial designer instead. That sharpened his talent for challenging accepted thinking and finding novel solutions – skills he found were not always appreciated. 

“I went into industry and I quickly realised they didn’t want that from me. Industry just wanted me to make something look pretty,” he says.

“What I quickly realised was businesses actually don’t know the business they’re in, so how can they brief someone on the sorts of products and services they need?”

Bucolo went back to university to investigate the role of creativity in organisational success. Today, he is professor of design and innovation at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) and co-founder of the university’s Design Innovation Research Centre (DI:rc).

Reid and Bucolo are leading a collaboration between the RAAF and UTS to reshape the way Australia’s defence forces approach everything from education and training, to acquisition and technological development.

Breaking down the walls

Plan Jericho began when the RAAF concluded its investment in advanced technology needed to be supported by a new style of strategic thinking. Responsible for overseeing a multibillion dollar upgrade to the latest, network-centric fifth-generation aircraft, the then chief of air force, air marshal Geoff Brown, wanted to ensure the RAAF was ready to use its new equipment to full advantage, in a world where potential adversaries were becoming increasingly sophisticated. This program has been continued by the current chief, air marshal Leo Davies.

“We have the most modern fleet of any air force in the world, right now,” says Reid. “But if we don’t start to train our people to operate in a fifth-generation air force, all we will have is a modern air force and modern planes, but we won’t be operating and exploiting the limits of that capability.”

The plan is named “Jericho” after the biblical story of the battle of Jericho, where the Israelites are said to have brought down the city walls with a blast of their trumpets, and in memory of Operation Jericho in World War II, which saw Allied airmen free members of the French Resistance by bombing the walls of a German prison. 

“It’s all about breaking down walls and setting free our thinking,” says Reid, of what has been described as the most significant transformation program in the RAAF’s history.

“Its overriding theme is harnessing the combat potential of the integrated defence force – the army, navy and air force operating together. To us, it is absolutely crucial that air force officers and, broadly, defence officers, think differently about their problems.”

To do that, Plan Jericho sought partners to help the RAAF learn new ways of thinking, starting with some of the world’s largest management consultants.

“We visited ‘the garage’, ‘the hive’, ‘the difference’, ‘the cube’, you name it,” Reid says. “What I realised was, fundamentally, the offering wasn’t that sophisticated … it was essentially a sugar burst. You’d bring it into an organisation, you’d have this fantastic moment of two or three days of hype, people would get all happy about it, and they’d go back to business as usual.”

A colleague heard Reid describe this dilemma over a coffee, and suggested he try the DI:rc. Reid arranged to visit Bucolo’s lab, and their collaboration was born.

Instilling the design mindset

Since 2015, Bucolo has been working with the team from Plan Jericho to instil a design-thinking mindset among air force specialists. Design thinking draws on the practices of designers to unlock creativity and solve organisational and strategic problems. 

In many ways, it’s a new application of proven design techniques: painstakingly defining the problem to be solved, brainstorming ideas, then prototyping and refining potential solutions in a series of rapid iterations, while constantly consulting end users and a multidisciplinary team. What makes it new is a willingness to take creativity out of the studio and into the boardroom, applying design methodologies to a much wider range of questions.

Reid says it’s a very different mindset to the traditional engineering paradigms military officers are trained to use. He describes his own experiences in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami as an example.

“In those situations there’s no script. You walk in somewhere like Aceh and there are 200,000 people dead and there’s no infrastructure and there’s no electricity, and there’s total chaos. Every type of NGO [non-government organisation] in the world is there and there are seven different militaries there.

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“What the military trains you to do is very quickly draw on your experience and your training ... what I now know to be inductive thinking, where you see a problem, you use your experience, you fix the problem and you try to get to a desired alternative future state.”

However, the same training can become a weakness when you need to think creatively, says Reid. “That ability to very quickly arrive at a solution using inductive and deductive reasoning is great when you have very little time, but it’s not the best way to think about highly complex situations when you have time on your side.”

In contrast, design thinking encourages people to look beyond the problem, constantly testing their assumptions to find better solutions.

Reid says it’s brought about a profound change in his own thinking about strategy, which he believes needs to be dynamic and evolving, not static.

“The mental shift I’ve made over the last eight years of my strategy formulation and implementation, is that dynamic strategy is what’s going to win the day … you set your strategy by envisaging an alternative future, then you design a series of prototypes or experiments to both understand and de-risk the attainment of that future.”

Design thinking in action

To show the difference design thinking can make, Reid and Bucolo describe their pilot project: retrofitting the Hawk 127 lead-in fighter jet with the automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B) system. The ADS-B allows jets to operate under the OneSKY program, which will deliver a joint civil-military air-traffic management system for Australia.

Rather than using a traditional spiral acquisition process, with exhaustive specifications driving a scheduled series of upgrades, the team began with a design scrum. By getting a diverse group in the room – including a pilot, an air-traffic controller, a flight engineer, and representatives from both large and small suppliers – they were able to break through traditional thinking and frame the problem in a way that made finding a solution faster and easier.

“We had to overcome a lot of barriers,” says Reid. “Everything from legal to probity to IP … we had so many people saying, ‘That can’t be done.’”

The industry representatives heard from their end users: the pilot who relied on the device to avoid near-misses and the engineer tasked with fitting it into a crammed airframe. 

“There were a lot of light bulbs going on,” says Bucolo. “People saying, this problem’s much bigger than just some integrated electronics. This is a human problem.”

“We got this deep empathy for the end user,” Reid explains.

With an interdisciplinary team working together, they were able to write specifications in a weekend, while cutting the requirements for proposals back to 10 pages. But that wasn’t all they did differently.

Design thinking is helping retrofit the Hawk 127 lead-in fighter jet with new technology.“The other big thing is we didn’t buy a solution upfront. We bought prototyping. We said, ‘We will now fund you with a small amount of money – collectively, less than 10 per cent of total cost – to prototype your solutions with us,’” says Reid. “It’s a complete turnaround of how we normally do business.”

As a result, they have been able to cut the acquisition process from a projected six years to three, while reducing costs by a projected 30 to 50 per cent.

Reid and Bucolo stress this is only a relatively simple example, and there have been failures along the way, but that, too, is part of design thinking. 

“That is the beauty of it,” says Reid. “Every failure we have, as difficult as that has been, we have then reflected on it and learned from it.

“You know the quote ‘Information plus reflection will give you knowledge’? I firmly believe that.”

Their new mindset has the defence community taking notice. In addition to 16 separate programs of work under the RAAF’s Plan Jericho, a further 10 design-thinking projects were completed in 2016, and the Royal Australian Navy has initiated its own design-thinking programs and joined the RAAF and UTS collaboration, with the deputy chief of navy, rear admiral Michael Noonan, as the senior sponsor. 

“What we are now realising is Jericho has become a brand of its own: a brand that is highly trusted by both industry and academia to break down the walls and get things done,” says Reid.

That’s important, because “it’s essentially an initiative that is designed to harness the combat potential of our entire defence force, not just the air force. We believe that the challenge is to create an integrated force … when you’re fighting in a battle, the benefit comes from being totally cognisant of each other’s abilities, skills and capabilities to deliver that integrated combat effect on the ground.”

For Reid, the transformation is “from tactical to strategic, delivered by integration. That’s what Jericho is designed to do.” 

Wing commander Jerome Reid’s three essentials for disruptive transformation

“I have come up with three rules I think that every budding design thinker and strategist must have:

  1. A high-level sponsor, or ‘the mum and dad on your side’, as I call them 
  2. A dedicated problem owner
  3. Dedicated funding and agency to solve that problem

“If you don’t have those three things, you can have everything else in the world – your reform, your strategy, your disruption – it’s not going to work.”

Strategic influencers

Wing commander Jerome Reid
“[English philosopher] Jeremy Bentham, because his idea of a utilitarian ethics system is what drives my thinking … to me, the greatest good for the greatest number, is what it’s all about.”

Professor Sam Bucolo
“Donald Schön, author of The Reflective Practitioner, and the notion of reflective practice. His concept is: see-move-see. You see something, then you act upon it, then you look again. I also have to mention [architect] Buckminster Fuller and his quote, ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’”

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