Why Uber is The Revenge of the Founders

A version of this article is in the Harvard Business Review

Uber, Zenefits, Tanium, Lending Club CEOs of companies with billion dollar market caps have been in the news – and not in a good way.  This seems to be occurring more and more.  Why do these founders get to stay around?

Because the balance of power has dramatically shifted from investors to founders.

Here’s why it generates bad CEO behavior.

Unremarked and unheralded, the balance of power between startup CEOs and their investors has radically changed:

  • IPOs/M&A without a profit (or at times revenue) have become the norm
  • The startup process has become demystified – information is everywhere
  • Technology cycles have become a treadmill, and for startups to survive they need to be on a continuous innovation cycle
  • VCs competing for unicorn investments have given founders control of the board

20th Century Tech Liquidity = Initial Public Offering
In the 20th century tech companies and their investors made money through an Initial Public Offering (IPO). To turn your company’s stock into cash, you engaged a top-notch investment bank (Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs) and/or their Silicon Valley compatriots (Hambrecht & Quist, Montgomery Securities, Robertson Stephens).

Typically, this caliber of bankers wouldn’t talk to you unless your company had five profitable quarters of increasing revenue. And you had to convince the bankers that you had a credible chance of having four more profitable quarters after your IPO.  None of this was law, and nothing in writing required this; this was just how these firms did business to protect their large institutional customers who would buy the stock.

Twenty-five years ago, to go public you had to sell stuff – not just acquire users or have freemium products. People had to actually pay you for your product. This required a repeatable and scalable sales process, which required a professional sales staff and a product stable enough that customers wouldn’t return it.

Hire a CEO to Go Public
More often than not, a founding CEO lacked the experience to do these things. The very skills that got the company started were now handicaps to its growth. A founder’s lack of credibility/experience in growing and managing a large company hindered a company that wanted to go public. In the 20th century, founding CEOs were most often removed early and replaced by “suits” — experienced executives from large companies parachuted in by the investors after product/market fit to scale sales and take the company public.

The VCs would hire a CEO with a track record who looked and acted like the type of CEO Wall Street bankers expected to see in large companies.

A CEO brought in from a large company came with all the big company accoutrements – org charts, HR departments with formal processes and procedure handbooks, formal waterfall engineering methodology, sales compensation plans, etc. — all great things when you are executing and scaling a known business model. But the CEO’s arrival meant the days of the company as a startup and its culture of rapid innovation were over.

Board Control
For three decades (1978-2008), investors controlled the board. This era was a “buyer’s market” – there were more good companies looking to get funded than there were VCs. Therefore, investors could set the terms. A pre-IPO board usually had two founders, two VCs and one “independent” member. (The role of the independent member was typically to tell the founding CEO that the VCs were hiring a new CEO.)

Replacing the founder when the company needed to scale was almost standard operating procedure. However, there was no way for founders to share this information with other founders (this was life before the Internet, incubators and accelerators). While to VCs this was just a necessary step in the process of taking a company public, time and again first-time founders were shocked, surprised and angry when it happened. If the founder was lucky, he got to stay as chairman or CTO. If he wasn’t, he told stories of how “VCs stole my company.”

To be fair there wasn’t much of an alternative. Most founders were woefully unequipped to run companies that scaled.  It’s hard to imagine, but in the 20th century there were no startup blogs or books on startups to read, and business schools (the only places teaching entrepreneurship) believed the best thing they could teach startups was how to write a business plan. In the 20th century the only way for founders to get trained was to apprentice at another startup. And there they would watch the canonical model in action as an experienced executive replaced the founder.

Technology Cycles Measured in Years
Today, we take for granted new apps and IoT devices appearing seemingly overnight and reaching tens of millions of users – and just as quickly falling out of favor. But in the 20th century, dominated by hardware and software, technology swings inside an existing market happened slowly — taking years, not months. And while new markets were created (i.e. the desktop PC market), they were relatively infrequent.

This meant that disposing of the founder, and the startup culture responsible for the initial innovation, didn’t hurt a company’s short-term or even mid-term prospects.  A company could go public on its initial wave of innovation, then coast on its current technology for years. In this business environment, hiring a new CEO who had experience growing a company around a single technical innovation was a rational decision for venture investors.

However, almost like clockwork, the inevitable next cycle of technology innovation would catch these now-public startups and their boards by surprise. Because the new CEO had built a team capable of and comfortable with executing an existing business model, the company would fail or get acquired. Since the initial venture investors had cashed out by selling their stock over the first few years, they had no long-term interest in this outcome.

Not every startup ended up this way. Bill Hewlett and David Packard got to learn on the job. So did Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore at Intel. But the majority of technology companies that went public circa 1979-2009, with professional VCs as their investors, faced this challenge.

Founders in the Driver’s Seat
So how did we go from VCs discarding founders to founders now running large companies? Seven major changes occurred:

  1. It became OK to go public or get acquired without profit (or even revenue)

In 1995 Netscape changed the rules about going public. A little more than a year old, the company and its 24-year-old founder hired an experienced CEO, but then did something no other tech company had ever done – it went public with no profit. Laugh all you want, but at the time this was unheard of for a tech company. Netscape’s blow-out IPO launched the dot-com boom. Suddenly tech companies were valued on what they might someday deliver. (Today’s version is Tesla – now more valuable than Ford.)

This means that liquidity for today’s investors often doesn’t require the long, patient scaling of a profitable company. While 20th century metrics were revenue and profit, today it’s common for companies to get acquired for their user base. (Facebook’s ~$20 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, a 5-year-old startup that had $10 million in revenue, made no sense until you realized that Facebook was paying to acquire 300 million new users.)

2.     Information is everywhere
In the 20th century learning the best practices of a startup CEO was limited by your coffee bandwidth. That is, you learned best practices from your board and by having coffee with other, more experienced CEOs. Today, every founder can read all there is to know about running a startup online. Incubators and accelerators like Y-Combinator have institutionalized experiential training in best practices (product/market fit, pivots, agile development, etc.); provide experienced and hands-on mentorship; and offer a growing network of founding CEOs. The result is that today’s CEOs have exponentially more information than their predecessors. This is ironically part of the problem. Reading about, hearing about and learning about how to build a successful company is not the same as having done it. As we’ll see, information does not mean experience, maturity or wisdom.

3.     Technology cycles have compressed
The pace of technology change in the second decade of the 21st century is relentless. It’s hard to think of a hardware/software or life science technology that dominates its space for years. That means new companies are at risk of continuous disruption before their investors can cash out.

To stay in business in the 21st century, startups  do four things their 20th century counterparts didn’t:

  • A company is no longer built on a single innovation. It needs to be continuously innovating – and who best to do that? The founders.
  • To continually innovate, companies need to operate at startup speed and cycle time much longer their 20th century counterparts did. This requires retaining a startup culture for years – and who best to do that? The founders.
  • Continuous innovation requires the imagination and courage to challenge the initial hypotheses of your current business model (channel, cost, customers, products, supply chain, etc.) This might mean competing with and if necessary killing your own products. (Think of the relentless cycle of iPod then iPhone innovation.) Professional CEOs who excel at growing existing businesses find this extremely hard.  So who best to do it? The founders.
  • Finally, 20th century startups fired the innovators/founders when they scaled. Today, they need these visionaries to stay with the company to keep up with the innovation cycle. And given that acquisition is a potential for many startups, corporate acquirers often look for startups that can help them continually innovate by creating new products and markets.

4.     Founder-friendly VCs
A 20th century VC was likely to have an MBA or finance background. A few, like John Doerr at Kleiner Perkins and Don Valentine at Sequoia, had operating experience in a large tech company, but none had actually started a company. Out of the dot-com rubble at the turn of the 21st century, new VCs entered the game – this time with startup experience. The watershed moment was in 2009 when the co-founder of Netscape, Marc Andreessen, formed a venture firm and started to invest in founders with the goal of teaching them how to be CEOs for the long term. Andreessen realized that the game had changed. Continuous innovation was here to stay and only founders – not hired execs – could play and win.  Founder-friendly became a competitive advantage for his firm Andreessen Horowitz. In a seller’s market, other VCs adopted this “invest in the founder” strategy.

5.     Unicorns Created A Seller’s Market
Private companies with market capitalization over a billion dollars – called Unicorns – were unheard of in the first decade of the 21st century. Today there are close to 200. VCs with large funds (~>$200M) need investments in Unicorns to make their own business model work.

While the number of traditional VC firms have shrunk since the peak of the dot com bubble, the number of funds chasing deals have grown. Angel and Seed Funds have usurped the role of what used to be Series A investments. And in later stage rounds an explosion of corporate VCs and hedge funds now want in to the next unicorns.

A rough calculation says that a VC firm needs to return four times its fund size to be thought of as a great firm. Therefore, a VC with a $250M fund (5x the size of an average VC fund 40 years ago) would need to return $1 billion. But VCs own only ~15% of a startup when it gets sold/goes public (the numbers vary widely). Just doing the math, $1 billion/15% means that the VC fund needs $6.6 billion of exits to make that 4x return. The cold hard math of “large funds need large exits” is why VCs have been trapped into literally begging to get into unicorn deals.

6.    Founders Take Money Off the Table
In the 20th century the only way the founder made any money (other than their salary) was when the company went public or got sold. The founders along with all the other employees would vest their stock over 4 years (earning 1/48 a month). They had to hang around at least a year to get the first quarter of their stock (this was called the “cliff”).  Today, these are no longer hard and fast rules. Some founders have three-year vesting. Some have no cliff. And some have specific deals about what happens if they’re fired, demoted or the company is sold.

In the last decade, as the time startups have spent staying private has grown longer, secondary markets – where people can buy and sell pre-IPO stock — have emerged. This often is a way for founders and early employees to turn some of their stock into cash before an IPO or sale of company.

One last but very important change that guarantees founders can cash out early is “founder friendly stock.”  This allows founder(s) to sell part of their stock (~10 to 33%) in a future round of financing. This means the company doesn’t get money from new investors, but instead it goes to the founder.  The rationale is that since companies are taking longer to achieve liquidity, giving the founders some returns early makes them more willing to stick around and better able to make bets for the long-term health of the company.

7.   Founders take Control of the Board
With more VCs chasing a small pool of great deals, and all VCs professing to be the founder’s best friend, there’s an arms race to be the friendliest. Almost overnight the position of venture capitalist dictating the terms of the deal has disappeared (at least for “hot” deals).

Traditionally, in exchange for giving the company money, investors would receive preferred stock, and founders and employees owned common stock. Preferred stock had specific provisions that gave investors control over when to sell the company or take it public, hiring and firing the founder etc.  VCs are giving up these rights to get to invest in unicorns.

Founders are taking control of the board by making the common stock the founders own more powerful. Some startups create two classes of common stock with each share of the founders’ class of common stock having 10 – 20 votes. Founders can now outvote the preferred stock holders (the investors). Another method for founder control has the board seats held by the common shareholders (the founders) count 2-5 times more than the investors’ preferred shares. Finally, investors are giving up protective voting control provisions such as when and if to raise more money, the right to invest in subsequent rounds, who to raise it from and how/when to sell the company or take it public. This means liquidity for the investors is now beholden to the whims of the founders. And because they control votes on the board, the founders can’t be removed. This is a remarkable turnabout.

In some cases, 21st century VCs have been relegated to passive investors/board observers.

And this advent of founders’ control of their company’s board is a key reason why many of these large technology companies look like they’re out of control.  They are.

The Gift/Curse of Visionary CEOs
Startups run by visionaries break rules, flout the law and upend the status quo (Apple, Uber, AirBnB, Tesla, Theranos, etc.). Doing something that other people consider insanity/impossible requires equal parts narcissism and a messianic view of technological transformation.

Bad CEO behavior and successful startups have always overlapped. Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Tom Seibel, etc. all had the gift/curse of a visionary CEO – they could see the future as clearly as others could see the present. Because they saw it with such clarity, the reality of having to depend on other people to build something revolutionary was frustrating. And woe to the employee who got in their way of delivering the future.

Visionary CEOs have always been the face of their company, but today with social media, it happens faster with a much larger audience; boards now must consider what would happen to the valuation of the company without the founder.

With founders now in control of unicorn boards, with money in their pockets and the press heralding them as geniuses transforming the world, founder hubris and bad behavior should be no surprise.  Before social media connected billions of people, bad behavior stayed behind closed doors. In today’s connected social world, instant messages and shared videos have broken down the doors.

The Revenge of the Founders – Founding CEOs Acting Badly
So why do boards of unicorns like Uber, Zenefits, Tanium, Lending Club let their CEOs stay?

Before the rapid rise of Unicorns, when boards were still in control, they “encouraged” the hiring of “adult supervision” of the founders. Three years after Google started they hired Eric Schmidt as CEO. Schmidt had been the CEO of Novell and previously CTO of Sun Microsystems. Four years after Facebook started they hired Sheryl Sandberg as the COO. Sandberg had been the vice president of global online sales and operations. Today unicorn boards have a lot less leverage.

  1. VCs sit on 5 to 10 or more boards. That means most VCs have very little insight into the day-to-day operation of a startup. Bad behavior often goes unnoticed until it does damage.
  2. The traditional checks and balances provided by a startup board have been abrogated in exchange for access to a hot deal.
  3. As VC incentives are aligned to own as much of a successful company as possible, getting into a conflict with a founder who can now prevent VC’s from investing in the next round is not in the VCs interest.
  4. Financial and legal control of startups has given way to polite moral suasion as founders now control unicorns.
  5. As long as the CEO’s behavior affects their employees not their customers or valuation, VCs often turn a blind eye.
  6. Not only is there no financial incentive for the board to control unicorn CEO behavior, often there is a downside in trying to do so

The surprise should not be how many unicorn CEOs act badly, but how many still behave well.

Lesson Learned

  • VC/Founder relationship have radically changed
  • VC “Founder Friendly” strategies have helped create 200+ unicorns
  • Some VC’s are reaping the downside of the unintended consequences of “Founder Friendly”
  • Until the consequences exceed the rewards they will continue to be Founder Friendly

The Red Queen Problem – Innovation in the DoD and Intelligence Community

“…it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place. ”
The Red Queen Alice in Wonderland

Innovation, disruption, accelerators, have all become urgent buzzwords in the Department of Defense and Intelligence community. They are a reaction to the “red queen problem” but aren’t actually solving the problem. Here’s why.


In the 20th century our nation faced a single adversary – the Soviet Union. During the Cold War the threat from the Soviets was quantifiable and often predictable. We could specify requirements, budget and acquire weapons based on a known foe. We could design warfighting tactics based on knowing the tactics of our opponent. Our defense department and intelligence community owned proprietary advanced tools and technology. We and our contractors had the best technology domain experts. We could design and manufacture the best systems. We used these tools to keep pace with the Soviet threats and eventually used silicon, semiconductors and stealth to create an offset strategy to leapfrog their military.

That approach doesn’t work anymore. In the 21st century you need a scorecard to keep track of the threats: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, ISIS in Yemen/Libya/Philippines, Taliban, Al-Qaeda, hackers for hire, etc. Some are strategic peers, some are near peers in specific areas, some are threats as non-state disrupters operating with no rules.

In addition to the proliferation of threats, most of the tools and technologies that were uniquely held by the DoD/IC or only within the reach of large nation states are now commercially available (Cyber, GPS, semiconductors, analytics, centrifuges, drones, genetic engineering, agile and lean methodologies, ubiquitous Internet, crypto and smartphones, etc.). In most industries, manufacturing is no longer a core competence of the U.S.

U.S. agencies that historically owned technology superiority and fielded cutting-edge technologies now find that off-the-shelf solutions may be more advanced than the solutions they are working on, or that adversaries can rapidly create asymmetric responses using these readily available technologies.

The result is that our systems, organizations, headcount and budget – designed for 20th century weapons procurements and warfighting tactics on a predictable basis – can’t scale to meet all these simultaneous and unpredictable challenges. Today, our DoD and national security agencies are running as hard as they can just to stay in place, but our adversaries are continually innovating faster than our traditional systems can respond. They have gotten inside our OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act).

We believe that continuous disruption can only be met with a commitment to continuous innovation.

Pete Newell and I have spent a lot of time bringing continuous innovation to government organizations. Newell ran the U.S. Army’s Rapid Equipping Force on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan finding and deploying technology solutions against agile insurgents. He’s spent the last four years in Silicon Valley out of uniform continuing that work. I’ve spent the last six years teaching our country’s scientists how to rapidly turn scientific breakthroughs into deliverable products by creating the curriculum for the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps – now taught in 53 universities. Together Pete, Joe Felter and I created Hacking for Defense, a nationwide program to teach university students how use Lean methodologies to solve defense and national security problems.

The solution to continuous disruption requires new ways to think about, organize, and build and deploy national security people, organizations and solutions.

Here are our thoughts about how to confront the Red Queen trap and adapt a government agency to infuse continuous innovation in its culture and practices.

Problem 1: Regardless of a high-level understanding that business as usual can’t go on, all agencies are given “guidance and metrics (what they are supposed to do (their “mission”) and how they are supposed to measure success). To no one’s surprise the guidance is “business as usual but more of it.” And to fulfill that guidance agencies create structure (divisions, directorates, etc.) designed to execute repeatable processes and procedures to deliver solutions that meet the requirements of the overall guidance.

Inevitably, while all of our defense and national security agencies will tell you that innovation is one of their pillars, innovation actually is an ill-defined and amorphous aspirational goal, while the people, budget and organization continue to flow to execution of mission (as per guidance.)

There is no guidance or acknowledgement that in our national security agencies, even as we execute our current mission, our capabilities decline every year due to security breaches, technology timing out, tradecraft obsolescence, etc. And there is no explicit requirement for creation of new capabilities that give us the advantage.

Solution 1: Extend agency guidance to include the requirements to create a continuous innovation process that a) resupplies the continual attrition of capabilities and b) creates new capabilities that gives us a mission advantage. The result will be agency leadership creating new organizational structures that make innovation a continual process rather than an ad hoc series of heroic efforts.

Problem 2: The word “Innovation” actually describes three very different types of activities.

Solution 2: Use the McKinsey Three Horizons Model to differentiate among the three types. Horizon 1 ideas provide continuous innovation to a company’s existing mission model and core capabilities. Horizon 2 ideas extend a company’s existing mission model and core capabilities to new stakeholders, customers, or targets. Horizon 3 is the creation of new capabilities to take advantage of or respond to disruptive technologies/opportunities or to counter disruption.

We’d add a new category, Horizon 0, which kills ideas that are not viable or feasible (something that Silicon Valley is tremendously efficient at doing).

These Horizons also apply to government agencies and other large organizations. Agencies and commands need to support all three horizons.

Problem 3: Risk equals failure and failure is to be avoided as it indicates a lack of competence.

Solution 3: The three-horizon model allows everyone to understand that failure in a Horizon 1/existing mission activity is different than failure in a Horizon 3 “never been done before” activity. We want to take risks in Horizon 3. If we aren’t failing with some efforts, we aren’t trying hard enough. An innovation process embraces and understands the different types of failure and risk.

Problem 4: Innovators tend to create activities rather than deployable solutions that can be used on the battlefield or by the mission. Accelerators, hubs, cafes, open-sourcing, crowd-souring, maker spaces, Chief Innovation Officers, etc. are all great but they tend to create innovation theater – lots of motion but no action. Great demos are shown and there are lots of coffee cups and posters, but if you look at the deliverables for the mission over a period of years the result is disappointing. Most of the executors and operators have seen little or no value from any of these activities. While the activities individually may produce things of value, they aren’t valued within the communities they serve because they aren’t connected to a complete pipeline that harnesses that value and turns it into a deliverable on the battlefield where it matters.

Solution 4: What we have been missing is an innovation pipeline focused on deployment not demos.

The Lean Innovation process is a self-regulating, evidence-based innovation pipeline. It is a process that operates with speed and urgency, where innovators and stakeholders curate and prioritize their own problems/Challenges/ideas/technology. It is evidence based, data driven, accountable, disciplined, rapid and mission- and deployment-focused.

The process recognizes that Innovation isn’t a single activity (an incubator, a class, etc.) it is a process from start to deployment.
The canonical innovation pipeline:

As you see in the diagram, there are 6 steps to the innovation pipeline: sourcing, challenge/curation, prioritization, solution exploration and hypothesis testing, incubation and integration.

Innovation sourcing: a list of problems/challenges, ideas, and technologies that might be worth investing in. These can come from hackathons, research groups, needs from operators in the field, etc.

Challenge/Curation: innovators get out of their own offices and talk to colleagues and customers with the goal of finding other places in the DoD where a problem or challenge might exist in a slightly different form, to identify related internal projects already in existence, and to find commercially available solutions to problems. It also seeks to identify legal issues, security issues, and support issues.

This process also helps identify who the customers for possible solutions would be, who the internal stakeholders would be, and even what initial minimum viable products might look like.

This phase also includes building initial minimal viable products (MVPs.) Some ideas drop out when the team recognizes that they may be technically, financially, or legally unfeasible or they may discover that other groups have already built a similar product.

Prioritization: Once a list of innovation ideas has been refined by curation, it needs to be prioritized using the McKinsey Three Horizons Model.

Once projects have been classified, the team prioritizes them, starting by asking: is this project worth pursing for another few months full time? This prioritization is not done by a committee of executives but by the innovation teams themselves.

Solution exploration and hypotheses testing: The ideas that pass through the prioritization filter enter an incubation process like Hacking for Defense/I-Corps, the system adopted by all U.S. government federal research agencies to turn ideas into products.

This six- to ten-week process delivers evidence for defensible, data-based decisions. For each idea, the innovation team fills out a mission model canvas. Everything on that canvas is a hypothesis. This not only includes the obvious – is there solution/mission fit? — but the other “gotchas” that innovators always seem to forget. The framework has the team talking not just to potential customers but also with people responsible for legal, support, contracting, policy, and finance. It also requires that they think through compatibility, scalability and deployment long before this gets presented to engineering. There is now another major milestone for the team: to show compelling evidence that this project deserves to be a new mainstream capability. Alternatively, the team might decide that it should be spun into its own organization or that it should be killed.

Incubation: Once hypothesis testing is complete, many projects will still need a period of incubation as the teams championing the projects gather additional data about the application, further build the minimum viable product (MVP), and get used to working together. Incubation requires dedicated leadership oversight from the horizon 1 organization to insure the fledgling project does not die of malnutrition (a lack of access to resources) or become an orphan (continue to work with no parent to guide them).

Integration and refactoring: At this point, if the innovation is Horizon 1 or 2, its time to integrate it into the existing organization. (Horizon 3 innovations are more likely set up as their own entities or at least divisions.) Trying to integrate new, unbudgeted, and unscheduled innovation projects into an engineering organization that has line item budgets for people and resources results in chaos and frustration. In addition, innovation projects carry both technical and organizational debt. This creates an impedance mismatch between the organizations that can be easily be resolved with a small dedicated refactoring team. Innovation then becomes a continuous cycle rather than a bottleneck.

Problem 5: The question being asked across the Department of Defense and national security community is, “Can we innovate like startups in Silicon Valley” and insert speed, urgency and agility into our work?

Solution 5: The reality is that the DoD/IC is not Silicon Valley. In fact, it’s much more like a large company with existing customers, existing products and the organizations built to support and service them. And much like large companies they are being disrupted by forces outside their control.

But what’s unique is, that unlike a large company that doesn’t know how to move rapidly, on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan our combatant commands and national security community were more agile, creative and Lean than any startup. They wrote the book on how to collaborate (read Team of Teams) or adopt new technologies (see the Rapid Equipping Force.) The problem isn’t that these agencies and commands don’t know how to be innovative. The problem is they don’t know how to be innovative in peacetime when innovation succumbs to the daily demands of execution. Part of the reason is that large agencies are run by leaders who tend to be excellent Horizon 1 managers of existing people, process and resources but have no experience in building and leading Horizon 3 organizations.

The solution is to understand that an innovation pipeline requires different people, processes, procedures, and metrics, then execution.

Problem 6: How to get started? How to get leadership behind continuous innovation?

Solution 6: To leadership, incubators, cafes, accelerators and hackathons appear to be just background noise unrelated to their guidance and mission. Part of the problem lies with the innovators themselves. Lots of innovation activities celebrate the creation of demos, funding, new makerspaces, etc. but there is little accountability for the actual rapid deployment of useful tools. Once we can convince and demonstrate to leadership that continuous innovation can solve the Red Queen problem, we’ll have their attention and support.

We know how to do this. Our country requires it.
Let’s get started.

Lessons Learned

  • Organizations must constantly adapt and evolve, to survive when pitted against ever-evolving opposition in an ever-changing environment
  • Government agencies need to both innovate and execute
  • In peacetime innovation succumbs to the demands of execution
  • We need explicit guidance for innovation to agencies and their leadership requiring an innovation organization and process, that operates in parallel with the execution of current mission
  • We need an innovation pipeline that delivers rapid results, not separate, disconnected innovation activities

Office of Naval Research (ONR) Goes Lean

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has been one of the largest supporters of innovation in the U.S. Now they are starting to use the Lean Innovation process (see here and here) to turn ideas into solutions. The result will be defense innovation with speed and urgency.

—-

Here’s how the Office of Naval Research (ONR) was started. In World War II the U.S. set up the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) to use thousands of civilian scientists in universities to build advanced technology weapons (radar, rockets, sonar, electronic warfare, nuclear weapons.) After the war, the U.S. Navy adopted the OSRD model and set up the Office of Naval Research – ONR. Since 1946 ONR has funded basic and applied science, as well as advanced technology development, in universities across the U.S. (Stanford’s first grants for their microwave and electronic lab came from ONR in 1946.)

Rich Carlin heads up ONR’s Sea Warfare and Weapons Department. He’s responsible for science and programs for surface ships, submarines, and undersea weapons with an annual budget of over $300 million per year.

Rich realized that while the Department of Defense DoD spends a lot of money and has lots of requirements and acquisition processes, they don’t work well with a rapid innovation ecosystem. He wanted to build an innovation pipeline that would allow the Navy to:

  • Create “dual-use” products (build solutions that could be used for the military but also sold commercially, and attract venture capital investments.) “Dual-use” products reduce the cost for defense adoption of products.
  • Test if the Lean Innovation process actually accelerates technology adoption and an innovation ecosystem.
  • Use best practices in contracting that accelerate awards and provide flexibility and speed in technology maturation and adoption.

Today ONR has taken the Lean Innovation process, adapted it for their agency, and is running pilots for defense innovation teams.

Lean Innovation is a Process
The Lean Innovation process is a self-regulating, evidence-based innovation pipeline. It is a process that operates with speed and urgency. Innovators and stakeholders curate and prioritize their own problems/Challenges/ideas/technology.

The process recognizes that Innovation isn’t a single activity (an incubator, a class, etc.). It is a process from start to deployment.

The ONR pipeline has all the steps of the canonical innovation pipeline:

Innovation sourcing: a list of problems/challenges, ideas, and technologies that might be worth investing in.

Problem/Challenge Curation: innovators get out of their own offices and talk to colleagues and customers with the goal of finding other places in the DoD where a problem or challenge might exist in a slightly different form, identifying related internal projects already in existence, and finding commercially available solutions to problems. They also seek to identify legal issues, security issues, and support issues.

This process also helps identify who the customers for possible solutions would be, who the internal stakeholders would be, and even what initial minimum viable products (MVPs) might look like.

This phase also includes building initial MVPs. Some ideas drop out when the team recognizes that they may be technically, financially, or legally unfeasible or they may discover that other groups have already built a similar product.

Prioritization: Once a list of innovation ideas has been refined by curation, it needs to be prioritized using the McKinsey Three Horizons Model. Horizon 1 ideas provide continuous innovation to a company’s existing business model and core capabilities. Horizon 2 ideas extend a company’s existing business model and core capabilities to new customers, markets or targets. Horizon 3 is the creation of new capabilities to take advantage of or respond to disruptive opportunities or disruption. We added a new category, Horizon 0, which refers to graveyard ideas that are not viable or feasible.

Once projects have been classified, the team prioritizes them, starting by asking: is this project worth pursing for another few months full time? This prioritization is not done by a committee of executives but by the innovation teams themselves.

Solution exploration and hypotheses testing: The ideas that pass through the prioritization filter enter an incubation process like Hacking for Defense/I-Corps, the system adopted by all U.S. government federal research agencies to turn ideas into products.

This six- to ten-week process delivers evidence for defensible, data-based decisions. For each idea, the innovation team fills out a mission model canvas. Everything on that canvas is a hypothesis. This not only includes the obvious -is there solution/mission fit? — but the other “gotchas” that innovators always seem to forget. The framework has the team talking not just to potential customers but also with regulators, and people responsible for legal, contracting, policy, and finance support.  It also requires that they think through compatibility, scalability and deployment long before this gets presented to engineering. There is now another major milestone for the team: to show compelling evidence that this project deserves to be a new mainstream capability. Alternatively, the team might decide that it should be spun into its own organization or that it should be killed.

Incubation: Once hypothesis testing is complete, many projects will still need a period of incubation as the teams championing the projects gather additional data about the application, further build the MVP, and get used to working together. Incubation requires dedicated leadership oversight from the horizon 1 organization to insure the fledgling project does not die of malnutrition (a lack of access to resources) or become an orphan (no parent to guide them).

Lean Innovation Inside the Office of Naval Research (ONR)
To come up with their version of the innovation pipeline ONR mapped four unique elements.

First, ONR is using Hacking for Defense classes to curate “Problem Statements” (ONR calls them Challenge/Opportunity Statements) to find solution/mission fit and commercial success.

Second, they’re using existing defense funding to prove out these solutions depending on the level of technical maturity. (There are three existing sources for funding defense innovation: COTS/GOTS validation (testing whether off-the-shelf  products can be used); Concept Validation and Technology Advancement; and SBIR/STTR funds – there’s over >$1B per year in the DoD SBIR program alone.)

Third, they are going to use Pete Newell’s company, BMNT and other business accelerators to apply Lean Launchpad Methodologies to build the business case for resulting prototypes and products and to attract private investments.

Fourth, they are going to use grants, purchase orders and Other Transaction Agreements (OTAs) to attract startups and nontraditional defense contractors, speed the award process, and provide startups the flexibility to pivot their business model and prototype/product solution when necessary.

BMNT and Hacking for Defense serve as the essential crosslink for tying together the assets already available in DoD to implement the Lean Innovation process for defense innovation.

Lessons Learned

  • The Office of Naval Research has been funding innovation in universities for 70+ years
  • They are piloting the Lean Innovation Process to move defense innovation forward with speed and urgency
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