Roadmap for Uncertainty: Implementing Modernization and Operationalizing Change

  • Published
  • By Dr. Ethan Sneider
  • Department of the Air Force AI Accelerator
Uncertainty in new environments is normal. An environment might be a new job, orienting to a new geographic location, or becoming familiar with a new leadership structure or goal that needs to be met. Encountering new environments is a given.
So why, then, are most people uncomfortable in new environments? If new environments are expected - encountered in both professional and personal settings - what helps make someone comfortable in operating in new and changing environments? Moreover, what are the factors that determine whether a person is not only comfortable, but finds success with change and new environments?
The Phantom Fellowship Program at the Department of the Air Force-Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Accelerator (DAF-MIT AIA) is a great case study for how to be successful in new environments. The resulting mental model titled “The Roadmap for Uncertainty,” as derived from the Phantom Program, shows how success is a simple matter of having the right tools readily available.
In the face of growing strategic competition, innovation and technological transformation in the DOD is critical in maintaining a competitive edge over our adversaries. These transformation efforts represent a focused urgency to change the way the DOD fights to stay efficient and competitive. The DAF-MIT AIA is uniquely positioned within DOD's transformation efforts to create a state-of-the-art pipeline for AI technology to give the United States a competitive advantage in the defense and civilian sectors. The Phantom Program derives value in building Phantom fellows’ AI acumen and, upon returning to their respective home-units, graduated Phantom fellows act as linchpins in harnessing and applying AI technologies in a military environment.
Upon entering the program, Phantom fellows experience a totally new work environment: new job duties, new location, and new leadership structure. This requires Phantoms to contend with varying degrees of uncertainty to be successful in the program, and ultimately provide value back to their home-units and DOD writ large.
The AIA is leveraging the “Roadmap for Uncertainty” to help Phantoms navigate their new environment. This roadmap was developed by Phantom program manager, Dr. Ethan Sneider, and is used to empower personnel who find themselves facing challenging new circumstances.  
Roadmap for Uncertainty
The roadmap is comprised of three guiding principles:
  • Radical Accountability
  • Continuity
  • Transparency
 Radical Accountability
            Individuals must assume personal ownership of their entire workstream. A workstream includes the following considerations: who will complete the required work; how will the work be completed; and when and how to track progress. One should take on an internal locus - that being, work only gets done if the individual does it themselves. In addition to and related with self-empowerment for work completion is ownership of time. What is the schedule to complete the work? If one owns the decision-making and also has the power to act, then one should also assume ownership of when the work is completed. An individual that owns their time, and is accountable to themselves, should be able to optimize their schedule and tighten their Orient Observe Decide Action (OODA) loop.
            A new environment for an individual does not mean that the environment is new. Research, reference, and re-purpose relevant artifacts from historical precedents. Continuity books are written for a reason! Seek out the nearest knowledge management archives/program - knowledge management is often an underused, yet key resource. The work of and collaboration with many is crucial for the adoption of innovative technologies. Moreover, structuring work with consideration for future adoption is paramount; this solidifies the golden feedback loop of engaging the past and building for the future. Not all decisions require rapidity. Measure speed with reason. Instead of focusing on how it can be done now, consider how what is done now affects future implementation and survivability.  
            In new environments, it can be hard to determine if requirements are being met, or how to satisfy expectations. Determine, first, the baseline for what work needs to be done and to whom one needs to report. Proactively engage the person that is evaluating work outcomes and define a plan for how to meet any stated objectives. When operating in an uncertain environment, knowing how one is being evaluated should not be an unknown. Build out the foundation for evaluation and the plan for how to meet requirements. Layers of accountability, to include conceptualizing how individual and team/group dynamics intersect with building out the foundation for evaluations and meeting objectives, provides measurable value and clear lines of effort. Tracing how work is ingested and prioritized, the process for accountability, and the flow of communication represents critical structure to what can be a seemingly difficult task for management of performance and expectations.
Taken together, the sum of the parts of the roadmap forms the comprehensive action plan for how to maintain a pro-active approach to thriving in uncertainty.

Model of the three tenets to dealing with uncertainty