Pentagon Advisory Boards Need to Offer 10X Ideas, Not 10% Ones – P.S. You’re Fired

A version of this article – co-authored with Raj Shah and Joe Felter – previously appeared in Defense One.

(UpdateAfter this article was written the Secretary of Defense fired every member of all 40+ defense advisory boards and will start anew. Hopefully the suggestions in this post will help inform how they reconstitute the boards.)


Last week the Biden administration delayed seating several Trump appointees to defense advisory boards. It’s a welcome signal that incoming leaders recognize these groups are essential, not just patronage jobs. But the review needs to go much further than that.

One of the many changes the Department of Defense needs to make is to reimagine the role and makeup of its advisory boards and ask them for 10x advice, not 10% advice.

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The Defense Department is at a crossroads. Incremental improvements are no longer good enough to keep up with China; the Pentagon needs substantive and sustained changes to its size, structure, policies, processes, practices, technologies, and culture. The last administration asked most of the Pentagon’s 40-plus boards for advice on small improvements — with a few notable exceptions, such as the Innovation Board’s Software Study and the work of the National Security Commission for AI — the latter an independent effort chartered by Congress.

This is no longer sufficient. The DoD needs to ask for big ideas, boards who can deliver transformative advice, and it needs to reshape its boards to provide them.

What’s an Advisory Board?
DOD’s Advisory Boards are comprised of individuals outside of the organization who can provide independent perspectives and advice. An advisory board has no official role in managing – they can’t hire, fire, or order people to do things.  All they can do is offer advice.  But with the right membership and senior support, they can have tremendous impact. In the past decades, advisory boards have challenged conventional thinking and nudged leaders towards major policy changes.

Most of the DOD advisory boards are in the services or agencies. For example the Army and the Air Force each have their own Science Board, the military academies each have an advisory board they call the “Board of Visitors.” The office of the Secretary of Defense has 7 advisory boards: Policy, Innovation, Science, Business, Military Personnel TestingWomen in the Services, and Sexual Assault. (Steve had the pleasure of serving on one – albeit for a short time.)

Different Advisory Boards for Different Times
In times where the status quo is sufficient – when your company or country is the leader –  advisory boards are asked for advice about improvement – how to improve your existing systems. You appoint advisors who have detailed knowledge of existing systems and have long term institutional knowledge and connections. And you generally discourage Ideas that might disrupt the status quo.

However, these are not normal times. Incremental improvements no longer assure that our country can compete. For example, rapid innovation in new technologies – cyber, AI, autonomy, access to space, drones, biotech, etc. – is no longer being led by military/government labs, but instead comes from commercial vendors – many of them Chinese. The result is that unlike the last 75 years, the DOD can no longer predict or control future technologies and threats.

So it’s time for DoD leaders and staff to hand off requests for advice about incremental improvements to consulting firms and refocus their advisory boards on critical competitive issues.

The first order of business is overhauling the boards’ membership to support this turn toward rapid innovation. In the past, the DOD has had some extraordinarily effective advisory boards. During the Cold War examples included the Jasons, the Gaither Committee, the Land Panel, and numerous others. More recently the Defense Innovation Board had admirably carried that torch. Unfortunately several advisory boards have become moribund resting grounds for political apparatchiks.Today’s challenges demand the DOD’s advisory boards appoint the best and brightest regardless of party.

We believe the new administration can quickly refocus their boards in three steps: 1) reset the membership of the current DOD Advisory Boards to support rapid innovation 2) Think strategically about the future, and 3) Set high expectations for engagement and implementation.

Reset board membership and structure to support rapid innovation and transformation

  • 1/3 DOD insiders who know the processes and politics and help ensure non-standard solutions actually get implemented. They can steer the board away from dead-ends or incremental solutions.
  • 1/6 crazy DOD insiders – the rebels at work. They are the Uniformed and civilian leaders with great ideas that have been trying to be heard. Poll senior and mid-level managers and have them nominate their most innovative/creative rebels
  • 1/3 crazy outsiders. Innovators and technologists with new, unique insights in the last two years, who are in sync with the crazy insiders to build 10x solutions
  • 1/6 outsiders who represent “brand-name wisdom”. They provide top cover and historical context. Connectivity to large institutions required for implementation at scale

Once the new members are in place, DoD should ask for big and bold ideas in several key areas, including:

Think strategically about the future

  • Technology and innovation: Given finite budgets, how best to evaluate, choose, and scale a plethora of new technologies and new operational concepts?
  • Business practices: Examine and explore entirely new ways of building commercial partnerships and influencing the private sector.
  • Policy: Ensure we understand our adversaries and how they are fusing together military, economic, and private markets to challenge us. What issues require educating Congress and DOD leadership?
  • Human capital: How should we reshape the DoD’s personnel architecture to attract more technologists and fit into today’s more sclerotic career paths?

Finally, DoD leaders should ask for more than ideas; they should engage and lead the boards. They should set high expectations for engagement and implementation, and work up and down the chain to ensure recommendations are achievable. Do we need new authorities, laws, organizations? Do we need to reprogram existing budgets? Acquire new ones?The boards should report to the principals of their sponsor organizations, who should regularly review whether the boards have delivered real value to the mission.

Americans are ready to answer the call to service to help the DoD and the nation reform and strengthen.  The Biden Administration and DoD leadership have the rare opportunity to completely rethink and reset its Advisory Boards.  Successfully taking on this challenge will not only repair strained ties between the public and private sectors but is essential to the future defense of our nation.

Lessons Learned

  • Flush all the political appointees from the advisory boards. (Update: Done- fired everyone not just the new appointees..)
  • Replace them with people with the experience and expertise needed to help the U.S. keep its competitive edge
  • DOD leadership needs to ask and act for transformational, contrarian and disruptive advice
    • And ensure they have the will and organizations to act on it
  • Move requests for advice for incremental improvements to the consulting firms that currently serve the DOD

5 Responses

  1. Steve, You are the best – keep shaking things up – the world need broad spectrum disruption to get to e more stable place.

  2. Your take is interesting and compelling—but what has been done by the Secretary of the DoD in firing all boards is just another part of the Liberal left’s intolerance of the conservative voice, or indeed any voice that challenges them. And as such is a shame—and it is a further shame that you do not recognize that aspect and condemn it. This is a clear effort to pack the boards with only the voice and vision of the progressive left…which can be as dangerous as any threat we face outside of the Nation.Your leadership fails if you do not recognize that aspect.

    • IMO, it is the job of the Management and their Governance to ensure that Policies and Compliance are satisficed.
      These boards are there to provide advice based on external realities, not only on entrenched views no matter how valid those might or might not be.
      Entire cultures fail if they don’t respond to changing realities, little details like the advice to an organization needs sufficient fluidity.

  3. You, as a guy who served in the Army, have an advantage of having been near the bloody edge of the trade — even if you were eavesdropping from Thailand, not a bad place to serve. The most important thing to remember about our military is its purpose: to fight and win our wars.

    If we are strong enough, then our enemies will not engage us. Peace through strength is real.

    When you and I served, the Army was 2-3MM soldiers with about 40% deployed overseas and about half that number in or supporting Vietnam.

    Our military today is far too small with an Army of 430,000 and enormous areas of specialization and a burgeoning tooth-to-tail ratio that means we have very few actual war fighters. We are desperately weak and undersized.

    Our military is currently returning to being a social petri dish as it was under Obama/Biden 4 years ago. Now, it will again be hollowed out and be the locus for social engineering under Biden/Harris/Obama 2.5.

    The new Sec Def is one of the generals who — despite being educated at WP, the C&GS, War College — could not fashion a strategy to beat a third world, light infantry in Afghanistan while we enjoyed absolute air superiority, unlimited violent support, complete signals domination, a cornucopia of supply, and the best trained Army and Marine Corps in the world.

    Why did we fail in A’stan? Because our generals are truly mediocre starting with guys like the new Sec Def. They got beat by guys with 4th grade educations, but who were warriors.

    It — the return to the petri dish — has already started with a 60 day stand down to evaluate “violent extremists” within the ranks, a classification of the political class that did not exist until the DHS’ recent memo warning of a national terrorism alert and the anointing of political opponents as Domestic Violent Extremists.

    Honest to God, the Army can’t identify its shit heads while continuing to operate? WTF does that say about our leadership?

    It is folly to expect a part time, amateur, outside body of unpaid “acceptable” board members to be the portal through which “big ideas” flow into the military.

    We definitely need Big Ideas.

    As you well know any individual can fuck things up, but nobody can fuck things up like a committee — add to it civilians, part time, amateur, and unpaid. Total jug fuck (technical military term).

    Having said that, the solution starts with our strategic vision — once upon a time we tasked ourselves to be able to fight and win two wars simultaneously. Today, we have literally abandoned that though it seems highly likely that that is exactly the challenge we face.

    So, committees? Nope, we need a return to fundamentals. Shoot, move, communicate. Focus on lethality of the force, safety of the troops, and winning two wars at the same time. Right size the force to do that.

  4. Dear Steve,
    Your post is definitely relevant, in the US and in my country, Israel. But there is an implicit apriori assumption underlying your post, which is believing in values. Value of leading the world, value of excellence and expertize, value of absolute truth, value that administration should serve the country and not vice versa. So, i think that it is more critical to figure out how a mass of people, significant percetage of the population, supports leaders who, are self-concentrated, “it’s all about me” kind of leaders, leaders who are motivated by there own interests and glory. Once you figure out this issue, how to restore faith in true values among the majority of the population, the rest is straightforward and hard work.

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