Project Mercury: Building the cadre of innovation

  • Published
  • By Maj. Frank Hartnett
  • Air Command and Staff College

Thirty-five Airmen across Air University and representatives from The Innovatrium—an innovation consulting firm tied to the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business -- gathered at MGMWERX to kick-off Project Mercury.

Air University leadership directed planning for Project Mercury to begin last summer as they documented a need, interest and commitment to making AU a center of gravity for innovation education in the Air Force.

The first cohort of students completed a two-day intensive training session where they were exposed to the Innovatrium’s innovation process. The students formed six teams focused on strategic issues selected by AU’s senior leaders. The teams’ research will span 90 days--culminating with a pitch-day to senior AU leadership where their ideas will be adopted, adapted or discarded.

“Failure is an ever-present theme in innovation,” said Maj. Joe Adams, Air University Fellow. “Most modern thinking on failure focuses on accelerating the process of transitioning from a failing plan to a successful design”

From a historical perspective, military history is filled with stories of Airmen using innovation and adaptation to defeat an opposing force through new thinking.

In World War II, drop tanks were developed to boost fighter range to help defend American bomber aircraft and allowed fighters to roam and destroy the Luftwaffe where ever they were found.

In Vietnam, American Airmen again applied critical thought to gain a tactical advantage in the air during Operation Bolo. During this operation, fighter crews flew routes normally associated with vulnerable fighter-bomber aircraft. This deception proved too tempting for the Vietnamese Air Force and they suffered substantive losses when they were greeted by F-4 Phantom fighters instead of cumbersome fighter-bombers.

“Our legacy was written by aviators and warriors who were never satisfied with the status quo,” said Brig. Gen. Evan Pettus, Air Command and Staff College commandant. “Change and innovation have been a part of Air Force culture since the start. Project Mercury will help us encourage, nurture and accelerate a human effort that has defined us as a military service.”

Project Mercury’s initial focus is on three objectives; First, develop a strategy to make AU the center of gravity for Air Force innovation education. Second, train the initial cohort of innovation-certified faculty members and finally select the first group of coaches-in-training to complete a train-the-trainer program. These three introductory goals were carefully selected to quickly build momentum and set the project on a sustainable path, much like Project Mercury did for the human spaceflight program, its namesake.

“The biggest challenge most organizations face when embracing a new direction is knowing where to start,” said Bill DeMarco, Leadership Department academic chair and Project Mercury director. “Project Mercury has been designed to provide a starting point that will continue to fuel adaptation and innovation long after the first class concludes.”

As Project Mercury further develops, a total of 150 AU faculty will get certified as professional innovators. This new cadre of creative leadership comes at a watershed moment as the nation turns its attention to great power competition.

“Our Air Force continues to deliver masterful airpower, but in the past two decades our efforts were largely defined by our time spent in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Pettus. “Our national defense strategy provides a clear new direction: our edge has eroded and we need to restore our advantage. Our goal for efforts like Project Mercury is to help develop the next generation of Airmen that will lead our force into the future and reestablish an unrivaled competitive advantage for our nation in air, space and cyber space.