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Maintaining an 'Appropriate Questioning Attitude'

F. E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. -- In the critical business of nuclear operations and especially at an ICBM strike unit like ours, it is absolutely essential every team member always maintains an "appropriate questioning attitude." This is one of those fundamental necessities that must be ingrained in our culture and exercised daily in every evolution, task, posting, or operation -- whether it is a maintenance operation, security operation, support operation, etc. You may have also heard of this concept referred to as "trust but verify" or "critical self assessment." Essentially, all these names roughly describe the same desired and very necessary practice and behavior that is critically complementary to our strict compliance requirements and culture. This is so important, Maj. Gen. C. Donald Alston, 20th Air Force commander, made it the centerpiece of his recent guidance to all of us in his "Twentieth Air Force Vector: The State of the Force and Priorities to Enhance our Culture of Critical Self-Assessment" -- a mandatory reading item for all Mighty Ninety team members. As this is so important, I wanted to share with you a few of my own thoughts about what this means so we can ensure we are doing all we can to foster and sustain this critical practice in our culture.

Maintaining an appropriate questioning attitude does not mean we question authority. Rather, it means that while strictly complying with requirements, every teammate is constantly assessing their actions for correctness, completeness, potential pitfalls to avoid and independently verifying the actions and decisions of others on the team to ensure success. This ensures every teammate is critically thinking and engaged in the planning, execution and debriefing of every operation -- and that we always leverage the most we possibly can out of our most valuable and potent weapon system -- our people. We have an incredibly intelligent, adaptable, well trained and capable force of Airmen, civilians and contractors and when we are all engaged in this manner, no force on the globe can match us.

A good illustration of the power of critical self assessment, trust but verify, and maintaining an appropriate questioning attitude at the tactical level was demonstrated in an experiment Navy Vice Admiral Timothy Giardina, United States Strategic Command deputy commander, recently shared with me. He told me about an experiment he had read about where a set of switches were configured on a panel and individuals were asked to verify all the switches were correctly configured in accordance with technical guidance. One set of switch verifiers were simply directed to verify the configuration and note any errors. A second set of switch verifiers were asked to do the same, but also told there was at least one misconfigured switch. When comparing how well each group was able to find the misconfigured switches, the second group which was told they would find at least one misconfigured switch performed dramatically better than the group without this input. In fact, the second group found something like 90 percent more misconfigured switches than the first group. Same qualified people, same set of properly and improperly configured switches, same guidance except for the one tiny input provided to the second group. So why would this make a difference? I would argue it was because the second group had a clear expectation of finding an error, were more motivated in the independent verification, and were critically thinking and engaged in the operation to maximize success. Think about how much more highly effective we would be if each of us took the same attitude and practiced it across every task in every mission area within the wing every day.

We also need to exercise critical self-assessment in the larger sense where we need to move from the tactical questions of "am I doing things right," to operational and strategic questions of "am I doing the right things" to produce our desired end-state of rock-star quality nuclear combat capability commensurate with the highest possible nuclear surety standards.

There is certainly much more in General Alston's Vector that we all need to read and heed -- like taking responsibility to understand the "why" behind what we do, communicating effectively with our teammates to better execute our mission -- but his centerpiece of critical self assessment is certainly the foundation of his Vector and our success. You are the expert at what you do, are intelligent, well trained, and a vital member of this team -- we need you critically thinking and engaged in everything you do to keep the Mighty Ninety the premier nuclear strike unit we are today. Thanks for all you do and keep up the great work!