Disciplined Innovation at the U.S. Air Force Academy

It can be difficult for leaders of large companies and academic institutions to find ways to be nimble and flexible. The U.S. Air Force Academy shows how its students learn to adapt and innovate even within a large, complex organization.
Disciplined Innovation at the U.S. Air Force Academy
IN HIS 2010 ARTICLE WITH FastCompany magazine, Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that he was “trying to build an idea factory” within a bureaucratic system that “does not like new ideas.” That’s an apt description for what it takes to promote innovation within a military organization such as the United States Air Force. For that reason, the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) is probably one of the last places most people would look for a curriculum that embraces innovation.

But at the Department of Management at the USAFA, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, we have worked to become the “idea factory” that Mullen describes, even though we pursue a different mission than most other business schools. While other business schools teach their students to maximize financial returns while limiting cost and risk, we teach cadets to maximize an idea’s performance, sustainability, and suitability for the mission above and beyond a concern over profits. Where most business students learn to invest the most resources in an organization’s best-performing units, our cadets learn to identify, invest in, and improve units that are struggling, so that the Air Force can better carry out its larger mission. Moreover, we have a vested interest in cadets’ preparation because they will work for our organization, not for external employers.

But business students and military cadets have one important thing in common: Both must become innovative thinkers who can adapt quickly and per-form well within future organizations, especially when faced with situations or crises that they’ve never seen before and that have no prescribed solutions. That’s the thinking behind our curriculum, which takes what we call a “disciplined approach to innovation.”

As part of this approach, we’ve created a technological innovation capstone, where students develop new technologies for military or civilian use. The two-course sequence uses the best practices of the military’s research and development process, while working across disciplines and reaching out into the community. In the process, we’ve learned that it’s possible to train individuals to be flexible, adaptable, and innovative, even within entrenched systems that are resistant to change.


Our program in technological innovation is supported by the USAFA’s broad core curriculum, which combines equal parts science and engineering with the humanities and social sciences. Thus, all cadets earn bachelor of science degrees, regardless of their majors. This broad academic foundation ensures that our management majors are well-prepared should they opt to take the capstone sequence in their senior years.

Our department also incorporates programs and partnerships among faculty and students from science, technology, and management. Such programs include our operations research major that is offered jointly with the departments of economics and geosciences, mathematical sciences, and computer science. The operations research program culminates in a yearlong capstone where cadets work with a nonprofit or a U.S. Department of Defense organization. These students have worked on internal projects such as a satellite system evaluation and a war-gaming analysis for homeland defense, as well as external projects for the City of Colorado Springs Police Department and AlloSource, a bone- and tissue-harvesting nonprofit based in Denver.

We also have been an equal partner in the USAFA’s systems engineering major, for which we offer courses such as project management, finance for engineers, systems analysis, and operations management. Our systems engineering students work on multidisciplinary teams to complete a number of senior capstone design projects.


Some of the work done in our interdepartmental programs has become the basis for projects in our technological innovation capstone, where we’re able to push beyond the boundaries of traditional military research and development into the areas of prototyping, iteration, technology implementation, and commercialization. In the fall semester, students work alongside science and engineering majors on senior design projects as they learn fundamentals of innovation such as opportunity recognition, market analysis, financial analysis, and value propositions. Students also learn to adopt a systematic approach to technological innovation in order to push their ideas through a complex system and transform those ideas into hands-on applications. Cadets from technical majors bring technologies they are working on to the capstone, where they learn with, and from, management majors about how to assess these technologies’ viability and market potential. In the spring, the students develop the most promising ideas for entry into venturing competitions.

To create the capstone, we had to make several big changes to our program. To make sure that cadets were prepared, we made more room in the curriculum for them to engage in technical and scientific study beforehand, either by integrating these opportunities into traditional business courses or by substituting technology and engineering courses for business courses. We also reviewed courses preceding the capstone to ensure students learned the skills they would need to complete their projects.

Cadets in the capstone are free to develop product and service ideas for either military or private sector projects. Concepts for military use have included unmanned aircraft prototypes, 3-D printing for aircraft replacement parts, body cooling technologies, underwater person-to-person communication technology, and training simulations for special forces units. Those with private sector application include methods to convert biodiesel into energy, a dishwasher that doesn’t require a water connection, pH-enabled exercise recovery drinks, and customized snowboard covers. In the past four years, we have sent 92 cadets, distributed among 22 teams, to 26 venturing competitions nationwide, and they have brought home a combined US$18,000 in prize money.


Traditional business students can turn their ideas into actual startups, but Air Force cadets are prohibited by Air Force regulations from launching companies.

We overcome that limitation by partnering with local incubators to commercialize our students’ ideas. In 2005, members of our management faculty also established Falcon-Works, a Colorado nonprofit innovation hub that develops products for individuals with special needs, which adds a component of social entrepreneurship to the curriculum.

Our cadets have worked with FalconWorks to develop products like PointScribe, a tablet designed to help children diagnosed with autism and visual attentive disorders learn to form letters and eventually write full words and sentences; ExoGrip, a hand exoskeleton that helps patients with neuromuscular damage to their arms; and a platform to help children with neuromuscular issues regain balance and core strength. A recent project is NeuMimic, which leverages Xbox Kinect to allow physical therapists to remotely monitor the progress of their patients and encourage independent rehabilitation.

In 2005, the PointScribe team won second prize at the venturing competition at Colorado State University. Their technology was licensed by FalconWorks to a local therapy products startup, and those licensing fees continue to support additional FalconWorks projects. The following year, a student team developed a national franchising plan for the device, which won first place in the nonprofit division of the University of Colorado-Denver’s business plan competition. In 2012, the engineering students who developed ExoGrip and the management students who created their business plan won the Camino Real Venturing competition at the University of Texas-El Paso.

In 2014, the USAFA signed a partnership intermediary agreement with Rocky Mountain Innovation Partners, to provide another way to commercialize innovations from the USAFA’s courses and research labs. Through this partnership, we hope to generate licensing revenue for the Air Force.

We’ve begun teaming with other local universities as well. In 2014-2015, USAFA engineering mechanics majors and management majors teamed with MBA students from Colorado State University. Together, they developed the business case for BridgeWatch, an anti-corrosion technology that extends the life of bridges and other infrastructure. BridgeWatch has attracted the attention of the Colorado Department of Transportation, which is interested in its corrosion prevention capability and its potential for monitoring bridge integrity with fewer costly visual inspections.

Through such cooperation, we’ve seen our innovation program thrive. When we launched the technological innovation capstone course in 2005, it consisted of only ten cadets and met in a conference room. Now enrollment exceeds 130 per semester and draws cadets from not only management, but also chemistry, physics, computer science, biochemistry, operations research, and cybersecurity—particularly those involved in other courses or independent study projects where they are developing new technologies.


One of the most rewarding parts of developing this program is that we’ve done so on an extremely limited budget—we typically spend less than US$15,000 a year on the capstone, primarily to fund student travel to competitions. The management department has supported other aspects of the course by working closely with other disciplines, which allows us to incorporate projects and use equipment supported by funds that the USAFA allocates to other departments. We have no innovation center, no prototyping lab, and no overhead.

As our cadets enter into active duty, they will enter career fields where they will apply, directly or indirectly, the knowledge and skills they take from our technological innovation courses. Whether they are flying aircraft, launching satellites, or operating in cyberspace, they will have an appreciation of the innovation process. They might even become part of the Air Force’s development and acquisition of new technologies that allow the Air Force to achieve its national security objectives.

It has taken a great deal of effort to develop our disciplined approach to innovation, and our faculty have learned to think differently, act innovatively, and approach the curriculum with an entrepreneurial spirit. The fact that we’ve been able to grow our technology innovation courses and bring ideas to market shows that innovation is possible even with a small budget and in slow-to-change environments—whether military, corporate, or academic.