The Lessons from DARPA Continue
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) celebrated its 50th anniversary in April of this year, and we should all take notice.
The agency was created when Russia’s Sputnik touched off fear that the United States was falling behind in science and technology, and over the years DARPA has given us surveillance satellites, the Internet, stealth technology, guided munitions, unmanned aerial vehicles, night vision, body armor and unmanned drones.
Its beginnings can seem pretty ancient, but the fact is that DARPA is still busy responding to today’s reality of warfare, and what is instructive for all of us is that the nature of armed conflict is eerily similar to business conflict.
Consider the words of Gordon R. England, deputy secretary of defense, at a ceremony on the 50th anniversary. Listen to them as a description of the global, commercial marketplace:
The post-Cold War, post-9/11 era is faster, more complex and less predictable than the challenging periods of the past. As it was in the last century, technology is an integral part of the solution to emerging challenges … but things have fundamentally changed. Technology is more widely available than ever before. Adversaries have ready access to leading-edge science and technology … it’s out there, on the Internet … with detailed application instructions in multiple languages. But while some things have changed, … some haven’t. Just as it was in 1958, the answer is still to always stay ahead of everyone else in technology.
The New Playing Field
Let’s carry the analogy a bit further. Consider that even the strongest institutions (nations, corporations) can be undone by schemes cooked up in Afghan caves or San Jose garages. New, previously unknown competitors come seemingly out of nowhere—in warfare, no easily identified standing armies in uniforms, but rather loosely knit networks of conspirators; in business, no easily identified blue suits and white shirts, but rather bean bag chairs, foosball and fast food.
What is the appropriate response?
At the 50th celebration, Vice President Dick Cheney, who has observed all this as a congressman, defense secretary and business executive, made this telling remark: “So we need to keep pressing for absolute superiority in speed, agility and access to information.”
It appears that every organization, whether a government, corporation or nonprofit, faces a similar playing field. It’s global; it moves very fast; it changes in unpredictable ways; and it’s filled with opportunities and huge risks. Good information, the ability to change quickly and the capacity to move swiftly are the only rational responses.
The DARPA Way
“DARPA's only charter is radical innovation. We try to imagine what a military commander might want in the future and then change people's minds about what is technologically possible.”
–Anthony J. Tether, Director, DARPA
You may not at first see parallels between your organization and DARPA, which has been described as “100 geniuses connected by a travel agent.” Given the nature of corporate innovation today, however—ad hoc individuals and groups are being gathered worldwide to solve individual problems, and R&D units are becoming leaders of outside researchers—there are lessons here.
DARPA has only 240 employees on the inside who enlist project team members on the outside. The organization is flat—only one layer of management between top and bottom. It is temporary home to world-class scientists and engineers from industry, universities and government labs—and they stay only three to five years, so that the agency is regularly reinvested with fresh thinking.
Unbounded thinking is encouraged, failure is not punished, and thinking big is the norm, but at the same time there’s an emphasis on producing a result. Program managers are selected for their technical excellence, their entrepreneurial spirit and because they are “freewheeling zealots in pursuit of their goals.” Because they are around for only four to six years, they feel free to change direction from the one their predecessors used.
One other salient fact: With little overhead and no physical facilities such as labs, there’s little institutional impediment to focusing purely on innovation. How often do existing fiefdoms in corporations and other organizations stifle any attempt to do something differently?
DARPA officials meet regularly with military and civilian leaders in the Department of Defense to ask, “What keeps you up at night?” DARPA then seeks to match solutions from its far-out research to these critical, near-term needs. The agency thus has its eyes on technologies of the future—what the next generation of commanders will need—but also its ear to the ground for solutions to current problems.
DARPA listens to its “customers” for their critical needs, and these national defense needs are quite real. It is open to ideas from anywhere. It eschews top-down command and control and grants enormous responsibility to the people doing the actual work. It combines anything-goes thinking with a process that drives its people toward results.
Actually, these organizational characteristics show up often enough in genuinely innovative organizations. Perhaps, then, it is safe to recognize them as first principles of innovation.
Faisal Hoque is chairman and CEO of BTM Corporation. BTM innovates business models and enhances financial performance by converging business and technology with its unique products and intellectual property. © 2008 Faisal Hoque