How DARPA’s Culture Leaves No Room for Incremental Innovation and a lot for Breakthrough Innovation?

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Internet, Stealth Aircraft, artificial limbs, a flat screen display are all the inventions that are children of DARPA. Time and again, if there is one organization that never settled for incremental innovation and always hunted a breakthrough, then that is DARPA. It has a long-standing glorious history of 6 decades of delivering never-seen-before inventions to the military and civilian world that changed them for better.

6 decades is no joke. Accidents don’t happen for such a long time. So what is the secret? It’s the processes that DARPA follows and the culture it possesses which automatically first attracts people to join the organization and second propels them with zeal to find and deliver a breakthrough invention.

In today’s post, we would have a look at the DARPA’s culture making it evident that the organization always hunts breakthroughs and never indulge in finding incremental inventions. We will cover the different processes they follow in other columns. So without further ado, let’s dive right in.

A Fixed Tenure

One of the key features of DARPA culture is that researchers come there for a fixed tenure of five years. In that time they have to meet the end goal for which they joined the organization.

An ID card that an employee gets, has his end-of-tenure date written on it. This short tenure of a program manager, directors, deputy directors, etc. constantly reminds everyone that their time to accomplish the goal is limited.

The sense of  time ticking away  is “the  heart of  the  whole  thing. It  is  an  impetus to  venture  into  the  unknown, to  get  people  to  put  something forward,  to  build  the  prototype  warts and  all.

~~ Mike Walker, Program Manager, Information Innovation Officer

DARPA Promotes High Turnover Rate

A high turn over rate is considered as a huge problem by almost all the organization around the globe. At DARPA, however, it is intentional. Its annual turn over rate is 25% which means all the old employees you meet on your first day at DARPA, you won’t see them at the end of your tenure.

DARPA’s philosophy is totally opposite to the conventional thinking of hiring and retaining, that most of the organizations possess. While organizations around the globe think the departure of an old experience employee as a loss of vital technical knowledge, DARPA considers staying of an old experience employee as a promotion of risk aversion which stands in the way of breakthrough innovation.

DARPA believes that an experienced employee sticks to the past failures and use it as a weapon to prove why something can’t be done. It could be impossible back then. However, in the era of fast-paced technological progressions, it could be possible.

 The  longer you’re  in  one  place,  the  more  tendency you  have  to  become  risk-averse. You  start to  refine what  you’re  doing as  opposed to  throwing out  what  you’re  doing and starting fresh.

~~ Stefanie  Tompkins, Director, Defense  Sciences Office

The Mission: Prevent and Create Technological Surprise and Change the World

Ok, before we both move ahead, I have a question to ask. May I? Thanks! You’re so kind. So tell me, won’t you like to be the part of an organization that gives you a chance to change the world for better by using your technical expertise? Do let me know your answer in the comment box.

If there is one thing that attracts the finest of the finest from academia and industry to DARPA for a short tenure and further fuel them to come up with jaw-dropping inventions than that is their mission statement.

DARPA’s mission is to “change the world” and it invites people to be a part of “shaping the future”. This mission statement attracts and energizes everyone to put efforts into creating something that will affect the well-being of citizens around the globe and increase the chances of their survival by multifold.

Further, the mission in conjunction with short tenure increases the urgency of finding a solution as a large part of the organization’s work is for American Soldiers.

If  you  pass up  the  opportunity  to  be  part of  the  solution, you  become  part of  the 5 problem  for  the  rest  of  your  life.

~ a program manager at DARPA

The Only Marching Orders are Create Innovation

If there is one thing that seems non-existent in some organization or which has a scarcity of, then that is “trust” and “autonomy”. Plus, trust and autonomy are twins. One can’t be born without another. If there is trust only then there would be autonomy or vice versa.

 Get the  best people, then  trust them.

~~ Chappell, Director, Microsystems  Technology  Office

At DARPA, trust is a vital factor in their workflow. The key to innovation at DARPA is that everyone has the freedom to take actions without asking for permission from his program manager.

There  are  no  marching  orders. The  marching  orders are: create innovation.

~~John Launchbury, Director, Information Innovation Office

DARPA will reject your idea if

it’s not too risky! Yes! While many organizations accept and execute ideas that are less risky, DARPA does exactly the opposite. If an idea is not too ambitious or far-reaching, their probability of rejection increases. Nothing can provide you a better view of how ideas are perceived and analyzed at DARPA than what people at leadership has to say about them. Have a read:

No  idea is  too crazy. The  reaction  is  never, ‘That’s  impossible.’  We  say,  ‘How  would  you  do  that?  How would  you  get there?  Write  down  the  steps.

~~Barry Pallota, Deputy Director, BTO  Office

If  you’re  on  the fence,  err  on  the  higher-risk side. Why  study  the  feasibility  of  a project for  six months  if  you  can  get  further  and learn  more  by starting the  work?

~~Stefanie  Tompkins, Director, Defense Sciences Office

If  half  the  people  don’t respond to  a  publicly-announced  challenge  saying  it’s  impossible,  we  haven’t  set the  bar high enough.

~~John Launchbury, Director, Information Innovation Office

If  it’s  not transformative, change it.

~~BTO  Program  Manager  Matt Hepburn

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