My Time as an AFVentures Fellow with Coursera

Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to participate in the AFVentures Fellowship, an 8-week innovation immersion program with the private sector. In addition to hopping on daily fireside chats with some of the best and brightest in the venture capital community, I was embedded with the online learning platform Coursera and got to spend time learning from their team.

As the Air Force and Department of Defense as a whole seek to modernize, it’s essential that our personnel are continuously learning and growing to better grasp and implement new technologies and methodologies within the force. Being a public affairs specialist by trade, I found this fellowship to be one of the most powerful ways to engage with those who may be less familiar with the military and start to build relationships across sectors.

Not only was I able to further develop my marketing skills and better understand private sector perceptions about working with the DoD, but I was blown away by Coursera’s use of best practices I’ve only read about in publications like Harvard Business Review and Forbes up until this point in my career.

I can’t help but be inspired by this experience and hope to bring some form of these methodologies and tools to the DoD in the future.

In this article, I’ll be highlighting subjects like setting guiding objectives, the integral role of brand, strengthening internal communication, institutionalizing the collection and use of feedback, creating space for collaboration, and dedicating team success roles. Lastly, I’ll end on some common best practices I believe to be impactful to any organization’s success.

With much adieu, let’s get started!

Using Objectives to Align & Guide Teams

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Setting objectives is something I harp on all the time as someone who is far more used to busy work than carefully planned actions that feed into a grander strategy. One of the most transformational things you can do for your teams as a leader is to do the work and determine what you would collectively like to achieve.

Without clearly-communicated and easy-to-access objectives for the organization, employees don’t know what to prioritize and whether their actions will move the needle in the right direction. When it comes down to the wire and an employee must choose between developing educational material or paying for a trip to visit a client, they’re going to rely on the goals and priorities of the organization to determine the best path forward. If this information isn’t clear, you risk them making a decision that doesn’t support the organization’s trajectory.

I highly recommend the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) framework and ensuring the team is included in part of the development process to maintain strong ties between departments and foster a sense of ownership and value among employees.

Some resources include:

The Integral Role of Brand

In the military, people assume a brand is logos, colors, and graphics, but that’s merely the packaging an organization comes in. Inside the box is where the magic happens.

The essence of a brand is everything that an organization stands for and stands against. It contains their values, tones, language choice, mission, and more. It’s whether their employees love to come to work every day and how that shows through their interactions with customers. It’s how hearing the name of the organization makes a person feel.

If this is not built and cultivated in a way that ensures all employees are on board and have bought into the brand, it will slowly degrade the organization’s reputation over time. If it’s cared for and every member of the organization is continuously assessing whether or not an action aligns with the brand, everyone will flourish.

Here’s a good branding framework from Melissa Packman I’ve been using with some of my extracurricular marketing work that summarizes quickly who your organization is and what they are not. It’s all about asking the tough questions and choosing priorities.

We help [your target audience],

do/feel/be [what you help them do]

by offering them [the core benefit]

which is better than alternatives because [what makes your offer proprietary/unique].

Source — Click here!

Strengthening Internal Communication

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

This is by far my favorite subject to talk about because it can make or break the ability of an organization to achieve even the basic collaborative tasks. It starts with building a strong brand and setting guiding objectives, but requires that this information is both readily accessible and regularly referenced.

This can be achieved with tech tools like an intranet site like Simpplr, messaging platforms like Slack or Mattermost, and project management software like Smartsheets, Asana or Jira. The technologies don’t stand alone, of course, and require proper staffing in roles like HR, employee communications, and team success, which I’ll talk more about later.

Lastly, it’s essential for those in leadership roles to host regular information sessions to reiterate the strategy and provide updates in progress, while also allowing employees to ask questions and have their voice heard.

This can be achieved with meeting prompts like:

  • Ask for meaningful discussion topics prior to meetings (ex. hiring for diversity, improving communication, etc.)
  • Have an employee share their story for 5 minutes per All Hands call

Systematically Collect and Use Feedback

Similar to setting objectives, an organization must regularly collect and leverage feedback and data from their employees, customers and other stakeholders. This helps inform decision making and influence the allocation of limited resources.

Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash

To assist in this effort, it can help to set a battle rhythm to gather feedback and identify some key performance indicators that signal the health of employees, customers, and other stakeholders. These should align with overall goals of the organization, be collected on a regular basis, and be leveraged when determining priorities and future activities.

These also should be regularly assessed and not given too much weight if they don’t accurately predict value, success, or behavior.

Methods for tracking collecting this feedback include:

  • Annual and Event-Specific Surveys
  • One-on-one conversations

Some best practices include:

  • Don’t just collect feedback for collection’s sake. Take action according to the results.
  • Go over the results publicly! Senior leaders should be reviewing these in commander’s calls, honestly discuss where things are lacking or going well, and commit to taking action.
  • Employees are your most important resource — use this as an opportunity to ensure they feel heard.

Building a Culture of Learning and Skill Development

As you would expect from an education-centered startup, Coursera has learning and skill development as a core component of their culture. They enable both cross-functional collaboration and lateral moves within the organization according to their employees’ career interests and goals. This was exciting to watch in action as different employees shared their own personal learner stories in various meetings and promoted taking classes on Coursera themselves.

As the military seeks to further develop servicemembers and create a digitally advanced force, this approach to promoting continuous learning becomes more and more relevant. It’s clear military members are hungry for this opportunity to grow with efforts like DigitalU, the Airmen Coders, and AF Quarantine University popping up. Now, all we have to do is further reward these activities and provide more flexible career paths for those who seek to stray from the norm.

Creating Time and Space for Collaboration

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Two times a year, Coursera hosts a week-long event called “Make-a-Thon.” It’s similar to the Air Force’s Spark Tank and other events that set aside time for someone to submit an idea that may be outside their day-to-day responsibilities. The primary difference is that it’s a regular, recurring opportunity for employees to pitch ideas, build a team to address problems, and determine if the projects are worth continuing beyond the week of the make-a-thon.

While I’m not advocating for everyone to copy this idea, I am stressing the importance of creating time and space for creativity and experimentation. The trouble we get into in the defense innovation community is believing that the goal is to have these activities spawn organically and take off as the result of creating a culture that allows for it — but that’s a fantasy.

Management must create dedicated time for these activities and promote them as integral to mission success regardless of the outcome. There must be a predictable tempo for it as well, or else people will lose enthusiasm for their projects that may or may not ever see daylight.

Dedicated Team Success Roles

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

One of the coolest things I saw while working at Coursera was dedicated roles on various teams dedicated to ensuring the success of that group. For example, there was a “Head of Global Revenue Enablement” role which was geared toward ensuring the business development and sales team had the most up-to-date information, resources, and materials organized in an easy-to-collect way. By prioritizing the tasks that often go unnoticed until someone randomly decides to pick them up, time is freed up for the rest of the team and headaches are alleviated.

So often in the DoD, we rely on a few people to both execute on the tasks of that business unit and take on the additional duties that keep the team prepared. If we focused on creating a singular role per organization geared toward taking on all those additional responsibilities to prevent the burden from falling on someone who also must execute day-to-day tasks, it would free up time and energy, and allow for better accountability.

Common Best Practices

All in all, this experience led me to recognize some additional best practices that high-performing private sector companies do including the following:

  • Encourage autonomy and ownership
  • Embrace and strive for diversity — especially in leadership roles
  • Measure what matters to drive performance
  • Forget mandatory fun — have real fun

Lastly, I just want to thank Coursera and everyone I got to meet for sharing their insights and allowing me to learn from their collective experience, the Shift team for pulling this amazing fellowship together and building such a strong ecosystem of changemakers, and my leadership at AFWERX for encouraging me to participate and seek out opportunities to challenge myself and grow both personally and professionally.

Staff Sgt. Jordyn Fetter is a U.S. Air National Guard Public Affairs specialist. She is currently in the role of AFWERX Marketing and Communications Manager in San Antonio, Texas, where she facilitates connections across industry, government, and academia to lay the groundwork for innovative concepts and technologies to be integrated into U.S. Air Force operations.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Air Force. The appearance of external links on this site does not constitute official endorsement on behalf of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense. The Air Force does not endorse any non-federal government organizations, products, or services.

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