Storytelling for Innovation Challenges with Lt Col Jennifer “JJ” Snow of the United States Airforce

“Anybody can be an innovator. Some of our youngest innovators have been teenagers. Some of our oldest have been in their 80s. And they have a great idea. They want to be part of a project that makes a difference. They want to have an impact. They get in there with their great ideas. And it’s amazing what comes out of these initiatives.” – Lt Col Jennifer “JJ” Snow, Chief Technology Officer for the United States Air Force AFWERX

Why do stories matter to the innovation process? What values can be instilled in innovators who share stories? How do innovation leaders inspire creators to tell and share their success and failure stories?

We speak with Lt Col Jennifer “JJ” Snow, Chief Technology Officer for the United States Air Force AFWERX. AFWERX seeks to connect with passionate innovators who will create  a better future by advancing the United States Air Force. JJ Snow knows anyone can be an innovator, no matter their age or background. The best innovation stories exude passion, vision, and crosscutting impact.

Lt Col Jennifer “JJ” Snow is the AFWERX Innovation Officer for the U.S. Air Force, SAF-A8I, the Pentagon. She serves as the military representative for technology outreach and engagement bridging the gap between government and various technology communities to improve collaboration and communications, identify smart solutions to wicked problems and guide the development of future technology policy to benefit the US Air Force, Department of Defense, Interagency and Allied partners.

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TRANSCRIPT

This episode is powered by Untold Content’s innovation storytelling training. Increase buy in for your best ideas in this immersive and interactive, story-driven experience. Where your teams refine storytelling techniques for their latest projects, prototypes and pitches—and get inspired by 25 epic examples of impactful innovation stories. Learn more at https://untoldcontent.com/innovationstorytellingtraining-2/.

Katie: [00:00:04] Welcome to Untold Stories of Innovation, where we amplify untold stories of insight, impact and innovation. Powered by Untold Content. I’m your host, Katie Trauth Taylor. Our guest today is J.J. Snow. She is Chief Technology Officer for the United States Air Force AFWERX. She’s also Chief Operating Officer of the Mentor Project, which is created to shed light on the benefits of mentoring. She’s an honorary associate and fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She was a biosecurity fellow at Georgetown University. She has published many articles. She’s led many innovation projects, one of which, you might remember, we featured on this podcast not too long ago, which was the M.V.M Project. A team of physicists and engineers from around the world worked together to design a simplified ventilator system for COVID-19. And they did so in about a month and got it through FDA approval in that amount of time and part thanks to leadership and coordination from JJ. We are so grateful to have you on the podcast once again, JJ. Thanks for being here.

JJ: [00:01:13] Katie, thanks so much. I’m delighted. I’m a big fan of Untold Stories and everything you guys are doing to highlight innovation, not just here in the U.S., but globally as well. So really, really excited to talk with you today.

Katie: [00:01:27] Thank you. So can you tell us a little bit about innovation as it exists inside the Air Force?

JJ: [00:01:33] Sure, I’d be delighted to. We have so many interesting initiatives right now. In fact, if you visit our AFWERX website, you will see all of the upcoming challenges and it touches on a diverse array of topics. In fact, every week, every day is different. We actually have been looking at a number of space challenges. We have the base of the future coming up, which is focused on how do we create modern, resilient bases and this was in my – I’m looking at what happened to Tyndall Air Force base after a hurricane and figuring out how could we create a base that can survive a natural disaster. Keep people that are there safe during the hurricane and then allow the base to actually respond to help the local area and the public in the surrounding areas of the state. And so looking at these new technologies, we’ve reached out to so many interesting innovators. These are hackers and makers. These are academics. These are industry professionals, small businesses up on to the corporations. And it’s global. So we have really, really neat contacts coming in all the time, all kinds of interesting ideas that they’re bringing to bear so that we can figure out that next set of solutions, that next generation of innovation.

Katie: [00:02:53] Yes. And you work with so many partners. So and to build on what J.J. just mentioned, you can go to AFWERX. That’s A F W E R X. A F . M I L. And just explore the site. It’s really a wonderful site. But you reach airmen, you reach industry, academia, and of course, you also have innovation hubs. It’s incredible to me the number of initiatives and the amount of storytelling that AFWERX sparks.

JJ: [00:03:20] Yes. Yes. Well, we’re passionate storytellers. And if you encounter any of our team, at different events, challenges, outreach, any of our networking events, you will get front row seats to the stories that we’re out there telling to inspire people to become innovators. And anybody can be an innovator. Doesn’t matter. Some of our youngest innovators have been teenagers. Some of our oldest have been in their 80s. And they have a great idea. They want to be part of a project that makes a difference. They want to have an impact. And so they just join us in our innovation hubs, these public open spaces. They get in there with their great ideas. And it’s amazing what comes out of these initiatives. I am so inspired on a daily basis by all the amazing bright people that are coming in with these ideas that I would have never thought of.

Katie: [00:04:08] Oh, same here. And I think the fact that you make time as an organization and especially a public entity to explain those stories and to share them, you even call them innovation stories on your site, which is exciting for us, of course, because we’re trying to get more awareness about the power of storytelling in innovation. But that’s an important lesson, I think. So many regions and public leaders, when we take the time to create an identity around the work that we’re doing, through storytelling, I think that really helps accelerate the pace of innovation. Especially, I would imagine, in terms of building relationships with academia and industry and other partners and being able to also tell those stories in a way that speaks to the individual airmen and airwomen and being able to kind of inspire them to see themselves as innovators, right?

JJ: [00:05:04] Exactly. Exactly. And the value of this story is this: when you’re telling a story, you’re making it tangible, you’re making it relatable. You’re allowing people to bring their own stories in and interconnect with what you’re building. So it’s this really amazing tapestry that starts to develop around a project and that starts with the initial story around what we’re looking for. In fact, there was a really great initiative that we worked on with the Iraqis. And in this particular situation, we were dealing with some issues around resettlement specifically. Insurgents had been going in and placing improvised explosive devices in the walls of the new homes that had been built. And as people were moving in, they were getting injured. They were getting killed. We didn’t have enough robots to go through or dogs to go through on a daily basis to make sure that these new homes were safe and secure. And so we immediately reached out to our network and said, look, we really want to get ideas around how to affordably detect if somebody has placed an improvised explosive device in a space. And so we had all of these people come out. And if this was actually a SOFWERX at the time, but it was a joint initiative because all of the services were involved and a lot of interagency partners and our allied partners definitely a big concern because we’re trying to help the Iraqis stand back up and take their country back and get a fresh start. And so I’ll never forget this. We’re all brainstorming and people were putting stickies up on the wall. And there’s a very quiet young man in the back simply says, “bubbles.” And we all kind of turn and look. And I’m thinking, is that his nickname or is that an idea or…? So we just pause. And he said, “Bubbles, we can do it with bubbles.” And his idea was to create a bubble gun that would blow bubbles around the room and trigger these passive infrared devices to go off. Very portable, very cheap. And we thought, well, maybe, I don’t know. So we bought a couple bubble party machines and we bought some remote control cars. And my gosh darn, if it didn’t work, you could do remote control cars for less than twenty dollars, rolling with a bubble machine on top of them. All these bubbles are swirling around and the motion would be picked up by the passive infrared. And if there was a device that was in that house, it would explode. Nobody was hurt. No animals were hurt. We were able to do it really quickly and easily. And this is the type of innovation I’m talking about. None of us would have thought of that. But he had that creative sense to come up with that idea and say, well, I’ve seen this happen in the past. What if and it’s the “what if” that really takes off from the initial story.

Katie: [00:07:56] That’s amazing. And that was an individual Air Force member who came up with that idea, sort of a frontline member?

JJ: [00:08:02] This was a civilian. This was a civilian that came into our facility. So all of our facilities are public facilities. Anybody can walk in and talk to us if they have an idea. They can bring an idea and demonstrate it, they can come be part of our challenges. They can tell their own story and tell us, hey, this is a story that you need to know about. This is how I think I can help. And in some cases, they’re identifying problems that we haven’t even thought about yet. But they see it from a fresh perspective, and that story helps make it real to everybody else. And we kind of coalesce around it. But this was just a young man that decided, hey, I’m going to show up and help make a difference.

Katie: [00:08:40] Was that part of an innovation challenge or was it sort of an open, you know, event of some kind? 

JJ: [00:08:46] It was. It was an innovation challenge. And this one was specifically focused on: how do we help the Iraqis to take back their country? How do we help them to stabilize? How do we help them with a variety of things? Whether that was, you know, reestablishing infrastructure or that was security operations, which this fell into a part of that, or actually rebuilding some of the areas that were hardest hit after the war. What does that look like? How can we help to raise them up so that what’s happening is you’re getting the best of all of the ideas in the room. And it’s affordable. It’s fast. It’s smart. It’s creative. And it’s something that we can apply right then and there. And that’s what these events are designed to do. 

Katie: [00:09:34] Something that I’m hearing, and the way that you structure these challenges, is there’s a clear, overarching storyline. You know, this is the mission. This is the overall vision we need to get to a world where the Iraqis have a stable and safe community. And so having that at the forefront of any kind of innovation challenge and then breaking it down into more specific, you know, areas where that could be technical or it could be communal, there could be so many different solutions that emerge from that. Can you tell us a little bit more about your process of storytelling around your challenges?

JJ: [00:10:09] Sure. And it really depends on the challenge, too, because when you’re crafting a story, you’re crafting a story with the intent that you want to reveal what your hero’s quest is, right? The “why” behind it. Why are we doing this? And that “why” is what’s going to inspire certain people with certain skill sets to come in. You’ve got to get the story right, because they are going to want to contribute to a story that has similar values and ethics and is in an area that they’re passionate about. Another great example was one that we had done again with the joint services. And this was called remote advice assist. This particular capability was developed by the Naval Postgraduate School. And it was a remote communications capability that allowed special operations or security forces from our allied partners or from the U.S. to advise Iraqi forces that were on the ground that had encountered an insurgent force or an enemy force. And so at that point, their troops in conflict, you know, they contact and they’ve actually encountered that enemy force. And they’re calling back for help. The challenge with this, we knew that it was an open source architecture that had been built and sent downrange. But we didn’t know where all the vulnerabilities were. And so we had a few folks. Reach out to us and said, look, we know you have this amazing network of ethical hackers that you’re teaming with. Would you please ask them if they could take a look at this and help? And we did. And we told them the story and we told them how we were using this device to help and for training and for communications. And it was incredible. We had seven hackers come back. They came back in about 48 hours. They had identified all the vulnerabilities. They had identified all the ways to fix the vulnerabilities and harden the system. And they had done it for free because they wanted to make a difference, to save lives, to improve security and to help people. They saw what we were trying. The story we were trying to tell.

Katie: [00:12:18] Yes. Yes.

JJ: [00:12:20] That was, we were telling the story of the future of Iraq. This is a secure Iraq. It’s a safe Iraq. It’s a place that has a positive future that we’re trying to build towards. And so that’s what they keyed in on. How can we help to give the Iraqis back their country? Make it secure, make it safe, and allow them to begin building towards that positive future. And that part of this story was what inspired them to help.

Katie: [00:12:48] That’s incredible. And so you’re… As a leader in AFWERX….. You are clearly always listening for these stories and collecting them and then resharing them. Can you? I would love to hear your perspective then on the ways in which storytelling and story-sharing helps to shape an innovation culture.

JJ: [00:13:06] Oh, goodness. That’s a great question. To hear so many different ways. If you’re telling the right stories. You’re inspiring people to come forward and get involved. And so one of the things that I think we do really, really well in the Air Force and I’m seeing this in a lot of the works models and seeing this with naval acts is that we’re opening our doors and we’re showing everybody that they can be a part of this story. And that story is one that’s built around. Making a positive difference. So the story that I like to tell frequently is that if we’re smart about how we’re layering our technology, how we’re implementing our technology, then eventually we can push leadership and decision makers towards positive-decision making away from conflict-decision making towards diplomatic solutions and away from kinetic solutions that could result in a war. We have the ability, if we’re smart about it, to transform how we relate to each other and how to reduce conflict just by the stories that we tell. And that’s really, really inherent in a lot of the work we do. Because if you have tools that will prevent war or prevent conflict, you never have to get there and get such an important part of what we’re trying to do in the military. Many people don’t realize this. Nobody wants to deploy. Nobody wants to go to war. It’s a really horrible experience. And when you have been exposed to that, you understand that, hey, if we don’t have to do this in the future, let’s not. Let’s find technologies that will help to prevent that. And so that’s one of the stories we’ve been building around that a lot of innovators have been drawn to because they’re passionate about that, too. They want to prevent suffering. They want to build towards a positive future where we’re all coming together to make a difference. And everybody wants to see an end to warfare. Everybody wants to see an end to conflict and tools that will allow us to have positive discussions that help to mitigate any kind of conflict or warfare in the future. And so when and where we can we focus on that. Not all cases allow us to do that. We still are in the business of fighting wars and keeping national security. So there’s a second storyline there that really looks at technologies that then enable us to discreetly discriminately fight wars with as low a number of casualties as possible. We’re really trying to be thoughtful about limiting the effects on the societies and the populations that we’re teaming with or that we’re working in. And that’s another story that also inspires people. And then there’s the science. So many people that come to our events are huge science [unclear wording] or science fiction fans. And when they come into our spaces, you know, they grew up with this. They love to learn. They love to be challenged. They love those wicked problems. And they come into the space with ideas that they have a story that they want us to hear. And they’re telling those stories. And that’s also inspiring everybody in that space. So they’re coming in with their own hero’s quest, you know, why are they motivated around this specific problem? And then at the same time, they’re also telling us a story that’s relatable. They’re telling us a story that is, you know, this is their scene. This is their mantra. This is the narrative that’s making a solution or technology, tangible, familiar, accessible. It’s helping everybody in the room to understand the importance and how they believe it can help to solve a problem that they care about. And then who? Who are they? When someone steps into the room, whether they’re from the Air Force or the Navy or the Army or the Marine Corps or the Coast Guard or they’re inter-agency partners or allied partners or they’re ethical hackers, they’re makers, they’re academics. They’re the public that are coming in to make a difference. Who are they? Are they a team? What? Why are they passionate about this? Are they playing their roles well? Are they humble? Are they focused on doing their best to solve a problem that they care about? That passion translates over to the success of the story. And then the story is what gets you started and the story is what takes you all the way fully through to that successful ending. That’s what we’re trying to cultivate and build around each of these hubs.

Katie: [00:18:07] It’s absolutely incredible the way that, you know, you’ve spoken so beautifully to the ways in which story defines the motivation behind what we do, how it can define and help connect us with others, so you mentioned relatability, and that’s so critical to being able to say here’s who I am, here’s the context that I bring to the table and why I care about this. OK. Now that we’re connected, let’s team up. Let’s collaborate and let’s solve together. I think that’s – those are such powerful. And you made so many excellent points in that description of culture and how you build it. One of the things I also am so respectful about with AFWERX is the actual strategies you’re using to bring stories to life and to help pull people together to innovate together. You have spark tank. You have spark cells. You have the ideation platform. You have the Squadron Innovation Fund. There are obviously there are SBIRs and STTRs. If you’re unfamiliar with those, you should definitely – if you’re listening to this podcast, check them out. They are government grants to solve innovation challenges. And one of the things that just really stood out to me is Spark Tank. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

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JJ: [00:19:21] So that that’s actually a supercool initiative. In this case, it’s almost like a Shark Tank. But what we’re trying to do is inspire people to come forward with their solutions and apply them to a specific wicked problem that we have in the Air Force that we’ve really been struggling with. And this could be our airmen or it might be an industry partner or startup, individual innovator, a group of innovators. When they step into that space, we’re playing the sharks. We’re… Or the sparks, in this case. We’re trying to get them to articulate and talk about what they’re trying to bring forward. How. What problem are they trying to solve? In this case, we really look at four key areas. We’re really looking at, upfront, you know, why or how is your technology the hero that’s going to save my day from whatever wicked problem that I’m dealing with? How is it going to help my customers? Why is it better, smarter, faster, unique compared to other similar solutions out there? What makes it stand out? And so we’re trying to get to that piece of the story. And at the same time, we’re also trying to get them to make it a conversation. I did a lot of briefing. We want to hear the story that, you know, got them in front of us to begin with. What problem were they tackling as an airman? What problem were they tackling as an innovator or a private citizen that they saw it also applied to another problem or multiple problems? We want them to tell us, not brief us, but tell us tell us that story, that conversation that makes the solution, again, personal. It’s relatable. That passion shines through. And when you see that passion shining through, when you see people are really, really focused on making a difference and they really want to find out, can something… Can this be done or we’re already seeing that it can be done. And here’s what we think we can do with it next. That speaks volumes. That’s a really good foundation, like a cornerstone to a story that means you’re moving in the right direction towards a technology that could have some great success. And then we also encourage them to really keep it big-picture. Sometimes we have a lot of folks that come in and they really want to dive deep and get into the tech specs. That’s dangerous. It’s great if you want to try to do that in a spark tank. You only have so many minutes to do your talk. You can get lost in the detail. And that person, that storyteller is trying to throw in way too many details. And if they get bogged down, they can lose their audience. And if they lose their audience, they may miss out on being able to articulate a solution that could really solve a problem. So we’re really trying to get them to think about that even before they step onto the stage. And then the last part is make it visual. Whether that’s through words or develop oh, or images make that technology, that’s a solution accessible to everybody. You can tell me about technology all day long. I can read about it. But until I actually see it and I understand how it works and I understand how it’s solving a problem that I care about… I may not, you know, it may get lost in translation if so many times I see companies that come in that fail to do this. And this is usually one of the feedback pieces that I’ll give them. Make it a story. What’s your narrative coming in? How is it familiar and relatable to me? Do that demo, do that image, help me to get it. Help my audience to get it, because not everybody in the audience is going to be a technologist. In fact, a lot of them probably won’t be. They have a problem. They need a solution. They’re not sure about how to get there. And then the technology piece, if they get too many details, they’ll definitely get lost. So I’ll give you a great example that just happened this week, in fact, yesterday. We did a virtual tech trip that we reached out to the state of Washington. And a fantastic opportunity to virtually see a bunch of companies. Most people did a PowerPoint briefing, and that’s fine. It was great, there were some pictures. One company actually posed in front of their six degrees of freedom, multi material, 3-D printer, this giant robotic arm, and showed us videos of it in action. So they presented and they showed the videos. And wow, that was powerful. Immediately got it. Everybody online got excited about it because you see it in action. The story becomes tangible, relatable. And suddenly people were just across the board on the line. All of the tech scouts got excited because they could see how this could fit into different sectors and different problems that they were challenged with. So those are really key storytelling techniques that we’re appreciating, you know, that we’re looking at when people get in front of us at a Spark Tank. And once they do that, that’s what helps them get to the top of the Spark Tank and get pulled into the winner’s circle at the end because they’ve demonstrated those four different areas.

Katie: [00:24:55] And can you tell me a little bit more about what happens after that point? So in ongoing relationships with industry or startups, how does storytelling change in that part of the relationship as opposed to trying to get that attention and trying to make sure that your mission and your story is clear and that you’re sort of bringing it to life to make people understand without being too in the weeds. So that’s so critical in the beginning of the relationship to really get that attention and to start off on the right foot. But what about after the relationship is really settled at that point and you’re already, you know, say a startup is working directly with AFWERX or the Air Force at that point.

JJ: [00:25:37] So this is where the story gets really exciting because now we’ve matched them with a specific customer. In this case, it’s usually one of our Air Force bases. It might be a specific team or director. It might be with Air Force research labs or Air Force materials command. In this case, they’re now iterating on their solution alongside a customer that has a problem. They believe that this particular solution is the answer for. This is what gets really, really exciting, because you’re in the field, you’re testing this capability out and you’re showcasing that yes, in fact, it can do X, Y and Z over know it can do A, B, but not C or it does all of them. And now we think we can take it to the next level with a bit more funding. That piece is instrumental in taking the story, the initial story, that got them the attention and got them the partnership with the military or government partner and really catapulting it forward towards “OK, here are the different problems that this specific solution can now tackle.” And so instead of having one story that’s really focused on one topic or maybe three topics, when they come in the door, they’re now telling a story that has a crosscutting impact. This is a story about solving problems across spaces. This is a story about how they can move very quickly to provide impact today in a year, sometimes in 18 months, and how they intend to translate that story into action. That’s the next step. And once that happens, things really start to get exciting.

Katie: [00:27:23] Yes, absolutely. I am, again, I’m just… At this point, I have got the biggest smile on my face, so I apologize. I’ve almost lost my train of thought just because I’m so excited about the way that you operate and the way that AFWERX pulls people in and the ways in which, that you really are open to sharing that work. I’m just so grateful for all of the work that you do to lead that and and everyone who’s part of it and everyone who’s touched these challenges and helped work towards the solutions. I just am enamored by it.

JJ: [00:27:55] Thank you!

Katie: [00:27:55] My apologies for this moment where I’m kind of geeking out. 

JJ: [00:28:00] It’s all love. And you can talk to any one of our team members. Absolutely amazing people across the board. I like every day I am humbled to see the work that the AFWERX team is doing. They are just, it doesn’t matter if they’re in contracting, if they’re working Spark tank, if they’re working the AFWERX challenges. It doesn’t matter where they sit. We have an amazing team of people and I’m just so happy to be part and be able to contribute, so I geek out every day, too. So I understand your enthusiasm. 

Katie: [00:28:33] Absolutely. And so again, you can visit the AFWERX website. Definitely follow JJ Snow on LinkedIn. She’s constantly sharing innovation stories. And it’s wonderful to see your leadership in this space. JJ, is there any other piece of advice you’d like to leave for innovators as they aim to solve big challenges and work together?

JJ: [00:28:56] Yes, yes. Yes, definitely. Always seek ways to inspire that creativity. That was something that you really, really struck me because I’ve had multiple people ask this. How do you stay creative? And so it’s something that I’m really passionate about. And one of the things I will do is I will constantly challenge the team that I’m working with to learn. Keep learning. Expose yourself to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and really push them to develop their passions outside of work. Too many people focus just on what’s happening in the workspace. No, no, no. Have those deep hobbies, you know, try new things out. You know, it could be art, it could be music, painting, poetry, science, game theory, different types of sports… You know, get out there and try something new that really pushes you. You push your comfort zone, helps you to see things in a new way. I try to bring in people that think very differently. We’ve had some amazing success with bringing in our ethical hackers. We’ve had some amazing success with various sci fi artists and authors and get them to understand, you know, the different challenges that exist out there around innovation, ethics, philosophy, cultural challenges, how to innovate in a resource-constrained environment. I learned that from Secretary Geurts when he was down at SOFWERX he limited how much money we had around a project because he did not want us to buy a solution. He wanted us to think about how to find a solution and get there smartly. I love that. I absolutely love that. So that would be… That would be the biggest piece of advice that I have if people are seeking to inspire creativity among their team. You know, reach out and challenge yourself in these areas. And also look for other storytellers, people that are mentors that are doing this well already and read about them. Watch videos. I know online. I think the Disney Gallery now has some really great video talks around tech and talent and the different types of creativity involved in bringing projects to life. I’m a huge fan for Dave Filoni. Also, you know, Rich Sheridan is a friend over at Menlo Innovations, I’m reading through one of his books right now, Joy, Inc.. If you have a chance to take a look. Because he is an amazing storyteller and you can learn so much about how to craft your stories to get other people excited and help them craft their story. So that’s – that would be my last piece of advice today.

Katie: [00:31:41] I can’t think of a better way for us to go out into the world after listening to this. JJ, thank you so much. I’m so inspired. May all of us be more creative and more proactive after this conversation. Thank you, JJ, for being here. 

JJ: [00:31:56] Thanks so much for having me today. I am just a huge fan, so I’m looking forward to innovating in future collaborations with the Untold Story team. 

Katie: [00:32:05] Thank you so much, JJ. Same here. 

JJ: [00:32:07] Thanks.

Katie: [00:32:10] Thanks for listening to this week’s episode. Be sure to follow us on social media and add your voice to the conversation. You can find us at Untold Content.

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