In large organizations, creative ideas don’t always make it to the top. The Innovation Department of the Israel Air Force is here to change that. The unit’s goal: To build a culture of ingenuity within the Israel Air Force.

The IAF’s Innovation Department is building the startup culture we all need

Here’s how it works

It started with the launch of “The Platform for Innovation” in October 2014, a platform on the IAF’s internal network. “We started by calling the entire Air Force to send ideas to improve the force,” explained Maj. Omer, commander of the Innovation Department. “Within a short period of time, soldiers and officers from all over the air force submitted hundreds of ideas and suggestions of how to improve the IAF”.

Any soldier, regardless of rank, can submit a military-related idea that sparks their interest, with or without a solution. Often, high-ranking officers will submit a problem and, through the platform, the soldiers of the Innovation Department call for IAF soldiers to propose solutions.

While some projects are sent to experts and companies outside the military, other quick and simple obstacles are solved in-house. A soldier once raised the issue that they spend hours upon hours typing the same data into the computer every day. The department then brought the issue to programmers within the Air Force that already deal with similar matters. The programmers spent half an hour writing a script for a program that saved the soldier’s unit a combined 150 days worth of work.

Another Innovation Department success is how they contributed to dealing with the issue of birds in the Air Force. In aviation, bird risks cost airports and airlines billions of dollars. The officer in charge of bird control in the Air Force presented this challenge to the Innovations Department. Soon after, with the help of the LOTEM IT Division, which deals with IT innovations in the IDF (Zahal), big data, and analytics, they organized a hackathon. Within 24 hours, an application was created that they compare to “Waze” for birds. Through the app, people can report flocks of birds that they spot near airports. The app then collects this data and maps out where all the groups of birds are and what risks they pose to planes.

“Our philosophy is to practice what we preach. In a very hectic development process, in only three months, we developed a platform to manage innovation – a platform that is still being used today by the Air Force.” And they do so with their other projects as well, working at the rate of high tech to fix problems quickly and efficiently.

The IAF’s Innovation Department is building the startup culture we all need

“It’s a pipeline”

“It’s a platform that allows soldiers to talk and share ideas. But that’s just a tool. Changing the culture comes from having people understand that they have a voice,” said  Cpl. Ilan, a soldier in the Innovations Department.

Though the soldiers in the unit aren’t officers, they come with diverse backgrounds and qualifications. Cpl. Ilan founded and invested in startups, while some of counterparts worked at other major companies like SAP, Google, NASA, and IBM.

Taking what the team knows from their past work experience, the department created an accelerator, a popular tool in the startup world. Once a problem is chosen from the platform to the be tackled, a team of soldiers and officers is organized to brainstorm solutions. After ten weeks of working on the issue, they present their idea to a panel of high-ranking officers, including colonels and brigadier generals, who will fund the projects.

One of the projects an accelerator is working on is how to improve the process of enlistment for immigrants. For ten weeks, the group is interviewing representatives from relevant units, including the IDF (Zahal) Manpower Directorate, as well as outside organizations who help immigrants, to better understand the flaws in the system and how they can improve it. At the end, they’ll meet with the a general panel of officers to present the issues they found as well as solutions.

At the moment, the platform and department run solely in the Air Force, but the goal is to expand to the other branches of the IDF (Zahal).