As the holiday season draws to a close, I realize that — like most inattentive men — it’s the one time of year I re-establish contact with my closest friends through the sterile exchange of self-aggrandizing letters printed in holiday colors and fancy fonts interwoven through an uncomfortable number of vacation photos and images of spirited pets.

Most letters I received get filed pretty quickly, but I’m careful to scan each return address for my annual communique from one particular buddy. It’s not so much for the standard banter about the year in review, but it’s thanks to the unique nature of his greetings and salutations. See, Greg “Box” Cain opens and closes each message with an extended stream-of-consciousness word association based upon our names. I’ll forgo examples built off my nickname, since I’m writing this article for a paper in a community in which I hope to reside for some time. Instead, I’ll give you an example of what Box’s closing might look like.

“Warmest regards,

“Box, Cain, Candy, Corn, Ear, Van Gogh, Painter, Paint, Horse, Pinto, Beans, Gas, Oil, Middle East, Refugee, Red Cross, Red Dawn, Patrick Swayze, Patrick Stewart, Jean-Luc Picard, Captain, Navy, Air Force, Army, Marines, Yuma, Arizona, Cardinals, Bird, Love, Much Love!”

In truth, the flow typically extends many more lines, but I’m sure you get the point by now.

Box’s letters capture my interest because they are unique, personal, creative and weird. They give me insight into his mind and take mine on wild journeys, waking rarely used synapses in the exploration of my own imagination.

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There is power in the kind of relationship we have. Together, we’re more creative and more spontaneous. I guess that’s what made us successful military officers when we worked together trying to tackle some very sophisticated problem-sets in support of operations overseas.

In reflecting, we shared a trust and openness; one that was void of judgment. We challenged each other. Our differences became our strength. Teamwork built from cognitive diversity.

Box and I quickly learned to bring others with a vast array of backgrounds into our group. The “name game” transformed into something much more important. Each person was primed to unleash the power of his or her own mind, exploring new ideas and solutions that would otherwise be hidden.

There exist a growing number of commercial companies — the typical example being from Silicon Valley — that have cracked the code on this concept. Their organizational structure, labor force, processes and procedures, even their incentive and reward programs, are all built from a single core principle.

It’s almost unfortunate that these organizational climates of such companies are also fun, creative and inspirational. They don’t look like work. They appear to be frivolous playgrounds for Millennials. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Today’s world is so complex, integrated and dynamic that traditional organizational processes tend to be too slow and cumbersome to maintain pace. Moreover, organizations are discovering that cognitive diverse teams produce richer solutions faster, and develop products that connect better with customers. It’s the basis for almost all human-centered design and design-thinking methodologies.

The United States Department of Defense has recognized the potential with this business mindset and continues to explore various means for inculcating such approaches into our traditionally rigid structure and training programs.

I am proud to be part of an organization, the U.S. Air Force Academy, which in many ways is leading our military in this arena. The Academy regularly integrates STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), humanities and social science expertise in devising and prototyping solutions to some of our nation’s most challenging problems. We purposely seek opinion, difference and out-of-the-box solutions. And now with the addition of CyberWorx, the Air Force’s newest design center located at the Academy, we’re gaining unstoppable momentum.

Dr. Jim Solti is chief scientist at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Reach him at