The Department of Defense badly wants to become a more agile, innovative organization. The Pentagon’s leaders look with envy and a little bewilderment at the speed with which private companies, particularly those in the IT space, are able to introduce improved or even new products in a matter of months and even shape market demand. Figuring out the secret sauce for the success of these new high tech companies is the primary reason that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, like Mohammed going to the mountain, has traveled repeatedly to the West Coast and why he created the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIUx) with outposts in Silicon Valley and Boston. Even though the name suggests the kind of secret organization that Winston Churchill created during World War Two to harass the Germans, DIUx’s mission is fairly straightforward: serve as a bridge between those in the U.S. military executing on some of our nation’s toughest security challenges and companies operating at the cutting edge of technology.
Becoming more innovative and agile is no small ambition for the world’s largest enterprise, much less one with 435 members on its board of directors and a set of policies, procedures and governing regulations developed for the last century. There is also the problem of a defense acquisition culture that is highly risk averse. Technology sectors with high levels of innovation also experience greater than average rates of project failures. The Pentagon doesn’t like failure. Edison, who was unsuccessful 1,000 times in the effort to invent the light bulb, would never have been allowed to persevere until success was achieved if he had been working under a DoD contract.
Recent reports suggest that the Pentagon is having a lot of trouble forging bonds with Silicon Valley companies. Not surprisingly, there was a clash of civilizations between the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and techies and the Pentagon’s acquisition system. Although the DIUx only began operating in August of 2015, last month Secretary Carter replaced its director and moved the organization out of Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and directly under his office. Instead of a single leader, the DIUx will now have a quadumverate at the helm. In Carter’s mind, this emulates high-tech start-ups by creating a flat, partnership-style leadership structure. Apparently the unique roles of visionary but rather authoritarian leaders such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk in driving their organizations’ innovativeness and market success escaped the defense secretary.
Ironically, the solution to DoD’s quest lies a lot closer to the Chesapeake Bay than San Francisco Bay. Confronting a new way of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon created a number of specialized organizations to bypass the ponderous acquisition system and rapidly meet the warfighters’ urgent needs. One of the effective innovators among the various entities created over the past decade was the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). Free of many of the budgetary, contracting, reporting and testing requirements of the defense acquisition system and with an orientation towards collaborative work with all parties – other Federal departments, service laboratories and depots, private companies and academia – JIEDDO was able to cut the number of casualties inflicted by IEDs by more than half. JIEDDO figured out how to respond to new IED threats in a matter of months.
Now renamed the Joint Improvised Threat Defeat Agency (JIDA) and placed under the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, the former JIEDDO, albeit smaller and with less money, retains its predecessor’s entrepreneurial culture and agile, creative mindset. In its new incarnation, JIDA is still working the IED problem, albeit from a distance since it no longer has representatives on the ground in Iraq. But it is also working new challenges such as the threats posed by terrorist-operated drones and tunnels. Solving the latter challenge is of extreme interest not only to the U.S. military but to homeland security organizations such as Customs and Border Protection.
JIDA has figured out how to work with Silicon Valley. For example, it teamed up with Stanford University in a Hacking for Defense class created by DoD for the express purpose of solving national security problems by applying the lean startup principles behind so many successful Silicon Valley companies. In the class, students collaborate with JIDA staff members and other end users to work on actual national security problems. JIDA and the class agreed to work on a “Virtual Advise and Assistance Toolkit” to support U.S. allies and partners in countering new IED threats. In less than a semester, the class figured out how to get Iraqi soldiers to adopt a mobile phone app used to document new IEDs created by ISIS and provide that data to JIDA so it in turn can advise and assist local forces in defeating new threats.
The new agency is working with the DoD acquisition bureaucracy to improve its interactions with Silicon Valley companies. This is largely a matter of changing the Pentagon’s culture. JIDA really didn’t do anything different in its interactions with Silicon Valley than it had since its inception in 2006. JIDA’s culture, the way it treats partners from the private sector and academia as equals, how it conceptualizes problems and its willingness to accept incremental solutions based on fast turn-around times, is what resonates in Silicon Valley. But this will be a hard change for the big Pentagon bureaucracy to accept.
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