Connecting the dots

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Richard E. Dawson
  • 1st Special Operations Contracting Squadron commander
Growing up, you probably did a “connect-the-dots” exercise at school, where you started with a piece of paper comprised of numbered dots. Only after you connected all of the dots with lines could you see the complete picture and how each line, or step of the process, contributed to the image as a whole.

At times, our Air Force can seem like a large “connect-the-dots” environment, with Airmen of different specialties performing different tasks, yet often losing sight of the bigger picture. It is incumbent upon leadership to ensure Airmen of all levels connect the dots, or understand how their work fits into the larger picture and contributes to mission accomplishment.

In my profession of contracting, we work with hundreds of contractual requirements for multiple customers, and it is all too easy at times to view those requirements as a random collection of “dots.” I admit, some of the items purchased may not seem glamorous or make eye-popping award bullets (portable toilet cleaning contract anyone?). However, while some may view a particular purchase or action as mundane, in reality it is vitally indispensable in a “connect-the-dots” scenario required for overall mission accomplishment. It is a leadership challenge to link all requirements to mission accomplishment.

In a previous deployment, I supervised a contracting team working with a contract for the procurement of metal pipes. Frustrations were mounting as we faced issues sourcing a company to quickly produce pipes in the needed diameters, thickness and grade of steel required. Furthermore, the unit needing the pipes was growing frustrated with the timelines. I explained to the team how this purchase was actually an important link in the chain of mission success.

The pipes were an integral part of a cooling system constructed to cool an interior hangar temperature in a hot desert environment allowing other Airmen to maintain remotely piloted aircraft, which enabled other Airmen to launch and fly those RPAs that aided in surveillance and intelligence collection over contested territory, which facilitated yet other Airmen to conduct mission planning against enemy combatants, which… you get the picture.

For the contracting team the dots were now connected, and the why was explained. What began as just a purchase for pipes, took on a new sense of urgency and a higher level of importance.

Helping Airmen connect the dots or better understand the “why” for the majority of the actions we ask of them is a leadership challenge. The big mission impact linkage is easy, while other actions require more thoughtful diligence from leadership. That portable toilet-cleaning contract I joked about earlier, though non-glamorous, is crucial for maintaining sanitary conditions for every person who needs to utilize the facilities and helps to safeguard the health of an entire workforce.

The work that our Airmen accomplish every day; both high-visibility or routine and glamorous or mundane, must be linked to the mission. Every Airman performs vital tasks that when viewed in the whole suddenly seem more important than when viewed in isolation. It is incumbent upon leadership to help Airmen at all levels to “connect the dots.”

What dots are you helping to connect?