Defense Innovation Board: Optimize Pentagon For Speed, Not Cost

As a 20th century organization designed to acquire weapons and fight wars at the lowest possible cost to taxpayers, the Defense Department is rigidly hierarchical, bureaucratic and stifling to the sorts of innovation it sees as critical to fighting future wars.

The Defense Innovation Board (DIB), which met Oct. 24 outside Washington, D.C., is tasked with finding ways to enable and nurture innovation and disruptive thought inside the military, which has an infamous aversion to nonconformity.

Aerial view of the Pentagon, Arlington, VA

It was the fifth meeting of the board – made up of technology giants and scientists – since its first last October. So far it has made 12 recommendations to the Defense Department on how it can become more innovative, recruit forward-thinking and tech-savvy personnel and begin to tolerate outside-the-box thinking.

Alphabet [GOOG] [Chief Executive Eric Schmidt said that during site visits over the past year to military installations in the United States and abroad, it is clear there exists a “hunger for change” within all ranks. In that light, Schmidt said he “is quite optimistic this model is working,” referring to the innovation board.

Milo Medin, vice president of access services for Google Fiber at Alphabet, said DoD is optimized not for speed of innovation but to minimize cost.

“During visits, problems were presented in terms of speed. How do we make decisions faster?” Medin said. “How do we reduce the time cycles to adapt to adversary moves, emerging technologies and surprises?”

Crucial to solving that problem is figuring out how to evolve requirements over the life of lengthy development programs during which technology changes rapidly. Organizations like the DoD Strategic Capabilities Office and the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental are doing that in a microcosm, but the Defense Department needs to scale their agility up, he said.

“There is a lot of apparatus that is optimized for cost,” Medin said. “But, I actually think if you optimize for speed, you’ll get cost as a byproduct because it’s generally very hard to spend money quickly … Programs that take far longer are much more likely to have significant cost overruns … We have to change the pace of innovation in the department and getting everybody focused on the right variable, I think, is going to yield good results if we can accomplish that.”

Marne Levin, chief operating officer of Instagram, called for creating a new career field within the Defense Department and the military services focused on innovation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

“We can all appreciate that the conflicts of the future will have a technology demention and can agree meeting these challenges will require the department of Defense to establish STEM skills as a core competency,” she said.

And yet, there is no formal process to recruit, train, promote and retain tech talent within the Defense Department or the services, with few exceptions. The recommendation is that a military occupation specialty be established for tech jobs as there is for pilots or infantrymen, she said. Instagram is part of Facebook [FB].

The DIB recommends establishing STEM-focused career paths within DoD and the services so that recruits interested in those fields are not frustrated by a promotion process that excludes them. Without a clear career path, tech-focused recruits are “systematically disadvantaged in the promotion process,” she said.

Jennifer Pahlka, executive director of Code for America and former U.S. deputy chief technology officer, said the Pentagon’s current up-or-out personnel advancement system is limiting to personnel who develop innovative ways of doing things in a particular job and then are forced to abandon that position for another in order to advance in rank, she said. The current system is designed to “make everyone interchangeable,” which is antithetical to innovation, she said.

“There is no shortage of innovation in the Defense Department,” she said. “There is no shortage of innovative people … who are forward leaning and care deeply about this institution and its capabilities and want to make the institution more competitive. DoD does not have an innovation problem, it has an innovation adoption problem.”

To deal with that issue, the DIB recommends creating an “elevator” where personnel with innovative ideas or strategies can appeal to superiors for permission to chase and develop that idea. A committee of five to seven officials would weigh each proposal and bless those deemed worthy of investigation.

“This is not to designed to train people to be innovative but rather to empower the innovators that already exist in the military and there are so many of them,” Pahlka said.

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson agreed the Defense Department’s problem is not a lack of innovation but an aversion to adopting the innovation and supporting innovators already within its ranks.

“We’re too complex. We’re too hard. We’re too bureaucratic. We’re too regulated. We’re too risk averse. We’re too stovepiped and we’re too easy for other to catch up to and pass us up unless we change,” Wilson said.  “I think we, broadly across the department walked away from accepting risk the way we used to and we’ve got to change the way we do that.”

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