What We Can Learn About Government Innovation from DARPA

Map of the world.
If you ever see this in real life, thank DARPA.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has already changed the course of history. DARPA was where the internet, the graphical user interface, the voice assistant, and GPS were pioneered, changing how we work, play, and live. Here’s what we can all learn from DARPA’s approach to innovation management and product design strategy.

Be Ambitious

Nothing DARPA does can be considered “small.” A quick browse of the papers cited on DARPA’s website yields discussions of thought-controlled bionic limbs, analysis of how something goes viral on social media, advanced mathematics, and ways to study social groups based on cellular phone data. The agency sets high goals for every project, not least because it knows the value of research.

Trust Your Team

Unlike many organizations, public and private, DARPA limits the approvals and hurdles needed for a project to launch. Part of this is that almost no one is a long-term employee at the agency; generally, when you join a project, an “expiration date” is printed on your badge from three to four years from your start, so you only have so much time. Another part of this is the team regularly deals with the frontiers of science, which would make a traditional approval structure difficult. So DARPA doesn’t bring in anybody it doesn’t trust.

Budget Properly

Few of DARPA’s projects have the kind of “defense industry” money you might expect. It generally only commits, on the high end, perhaps $150 million to a project over its lifespan, and that only if the resulting research is promising. From a product development strategy perspective, DARPA’s ultimate goal is to prove the product is possible and viable; if so, then others will take over to build it, freeing the agency up to move on to other projects.

Drone.
Much of the technology that’s changed our world has its roots in DARPA.

Failure Comes With The Job

Despite their massive influence, DARPA’s most famous technologies comprise, at best, less than 1% of their projects. The agency is generally pursuing up to 200 projects at any given time, and range from vehicle design to medical technology. Few, if any of these, result in a viable product, but inside the agency, that’s expected and even welcome. It’s better, in their view, to confirm it’s possible or impossible now than to spend more money on that later. Besides, failure is often the catalyst for future innovation.

Collaboration Matters

While some projects are top secret, many more are not only public, DARPA is actively recruiting academics, corporations, and the general public to contribute. Sites like Challenge.gov and CitizenScience.gov regularly feature DARPA projects, often with prizes available, to find and encourage those already actively exploring the problems the agency is looking to solve. This isn’t just good innovation strategy; it helps engage citizens and keeps the agency from duplicating work already being done elsewhere.

DARPA’s approach to change management can seem challenging to emulate in a private organization or even one without the Department of Defense behind it. But as you can see, at root, its core values are the basics of innovation strategy, and any organization can bring them to bear. To learn more about government innovation and change management, join our newsletter!

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