The Innovation Insurgency Scales – Hacking For Defense (H4D)

Hacking for Defense is a battle-tested problem-solving methodology that runs at Silicon Valley speed. We just held our first Hacking for Defense Educators Class with 75 attendees.

h4d-ed-classThe results: 13 Universities will offer the course in the next year, government sponsors committed to keep sending hard problems to the course, the Department of Defense is expanding their use of H4D to include a classified version, and corporate partners are expanding their efforts to support the course and to create their own internal H4D courses.

It was a good three days.


Another Tool for Defense Innovation
Last week we held our first 3-day Hacking for Defense Educator and Sponsor Class. Our goal in this class was to:

  1. Train other educators on how to teach the class at their schools.
  2. Teach Department of Defense /Intelligence Community sponsors how to deliver problems to these schools and how to get the most out of student teams.
  3. Create a national network of colleges and universities that use the Hacking for Defense Course to provide hundreds of solutions to critical national security problems every year.

What our sponsors have recognized is that Hacking for Defense is a new tool in the country’s Defense Innovation toolkit. In 1957 after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite the U.S. felt that it was the victim of a strategic technological surprise. DARPA was founded in 1958 to ensure that from then on the United States would be the initiator of technological surprises. It does so by funding research that promises the Department of Defense transformational change instead of incremental advances.

darpa-iqt-h4dBy the end of the 20th century the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) realized that it was no longer the technology leader it had been when it developed the U-2, SR-71, and CORONA reconnaissance programs in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Its systems were struggling to manage the rapidly increasing torrent of information being collected. They realized that commercial applications of technology were often more advanced than those used internally. The CIA set up In-Q-Tel to be the venture capital arm of the intelligence community to speed the insertion of technologies. In-Q-Tel invests in startups developing technologies that provide ready-soon innovation (within 36 months) vital to the IC mission. More than 70 percent of the In-Q-Tel portfolio companies have never before done business with the government .

In the 21st century the DOD/IC community have realized that adversaries are moving at a speed that our traditional acquisition systems could not keep up with. Hacking for Defense combines the rapid problem sourcing and curation methodology developed on the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq by Colonel Pete Newell and the US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force with the Lean Startup practices that I pioneered in Silicon Valley and which are now the mainstay of the National Science Foundations’ I-Corps program. Hacking for Defense is a problem-solving methodology that offers the DOD/IC community a collaborative approach to innovation that provides ready-now innovation (within 12-36 months).

Train the Trainers
Pete Newell, Joe Felter and I learned a lot developing the Hacking for Defense class, more as we taught it, and even more as we worked with the problem sponsors in the DOD/Intel community.u-pitt-h4d Since one of our goals is to make this class available nationally, now it was time to pass on what we had learned and to train other educators how to teach the class and sponsors how to craft problems that student teams could work on.

(If you want a great overview of the Hacking for Defense class, stop and read this article from War on The Rocks. Seriously.)

sponsor-guide-coverWhen we developed our Hacking for Defense class, we created a ton of course materials (syllabus, slides, videos). In addition, for the Educator Class we captured all we knew about setting up and teaching the class and wrote a 290-page educator’s guide with suggested best practices, sample lesson plans, and detailed lecture scripts and slides for each class session. We developed a separate sponsor guide with ideas about how to get the most out of the student teams and the university.

The Educator Class: What We Learned
One of the surprises for me was seeing the value of having the Department of Defense and other government agency sponsors working together with the university educators.  (One bit of learning was that the sponsors portion of the workshop could have been a day shorter.)

Two other things we learned has us modifying the pedagogy of the class.

First, our mantra to the students has been to learn about “Deployment not Demos.” That meant we were asking the students to understand all parts of the mission model canvas, not just the beneficiaries and the value proposition. We wanted them to learn what it takes to get their product/service deployed to the field, not just have another demo to a general. This meant that the minimal viable products the students built were focused on maximizing their learning of what to build, not just building prototypes. While that worked great for the students, we learned from our sponsors that for some of them getting to deployment actually required demos as part of the means to reach this end. They wanted the students to start delivering MVPs early and often and use the sponsor feedback to accelerate their learning.

This conversation made us realize that we had skewed the class to maximize student learning without really appreciating what specific deliverables would make the sponsors feel that the time they’ve invested in the class was worthwhile. So for our next round of classes we will:

  • require sponsors to specifically define what success from their student team would look like
  • have students in the first week of class present what sponsors say success looks like
  • still encourage MVPs that maximize student learning, but also recognize that for some sponsors, learning could be accelerated with earlier functional MVPs

u-sd-h4dOur second insight that has changed the pedagogy also came from our sponsors. As most of our students have no military experience, we teach a 3-hour introduction to the DOD and Intel Community workshop. While that provides a 30,000-foot overview, it doesn’t describe any detail about the teams’ specific sponsoring organization (NSA, ARCYBER, 7th Fleet, etc.). (By the end of the quarter every team figures out how their sponsor ecosystem works.) The sponsors suggested that they offer a workshop early in the class and brief their student team on their organizations, budget, issues, etc.  We thought this was a great idea as this will greatly accelerate how teams target their customer discovery.  When we update the sponsor guide, we will suggest this to all sponsors.

Another surprise was how applicable the “Hacking for…” methodology is for other problems. Working with the State Department we are offering a Hacking for Diplomacy class at Stanford starting later this month. And we now have lots of interest from organizations that have realized that this problem-solving methodology is equally applicable to solving public safety, policy, community and social issues internationally and within our own communities. We’ll soon launch a series of new modules to address these deserving communities.

Lessons Learned

  • Hacking for Defense = problem-solving methodology for innovation insurgents inside the DOD/Intel Community
  • The program will scale to 13+ universities in 2017
  • There is demand to apply the problem-solving methodology to a range of public sector organizations where success is measured by impact and mission achievement versus revenue and profit.

The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency Goes Lean

We tend to associate the government with words like bureaucracy rather than lean innovation. But smart people within government agencies are working to change the culture and embrace new ways of doing things. The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) is a great example.NGA

The NGA, an organization within the U.S. Department of Defense, delivers geospatial intelligence (satellite imagery video, and other sensor data) to policymakers, warfighters, intelligence professionals and first responders.

A team from their Enterprise Innovation Office has joined us at NYU as observers at our 5-day Lean LaunchPad class, while another team is in Silicon Valley with the Hacking for Defense team learning how to turn their hard problems into partnerships with commercial companies that lead to deployed solutions.

The Innovation Insurgency
Over the last year the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) has become part of the “Innovation Insurgency” inside the U.S. Department of Defense by adopting Lean Methodology inside their agency.

In July the NGA hosted the inaugural 2016 Intelligence Community Innovation Conference with attendees from across the Department of Defense and public sector. At the conference Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. Paul Selva said, “Implementing innovation [in the government and large organizations] is like a turning battleship, you may have an upset crew with cooks having to clean up spilled food and sailors falling out of beds but that ship can turn with effort. The end result is often that change can happen but it is going to come at the cost of disruption and difficulty.”

The good news for the country is that the leadership of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency has decided to turn the ship now.

To connect to innovation centers outside the agency, their research group has set up “NGA Outpost Valley” (NOV), an innovation outpost in Silicon Valley. The NOV is building an ecosystem of innovative companies around NGA’s hard problems to rapidly deploy solutions to solve them.

To promote innovation inside the NGA, they’ve staffed an Enterprise Innovation Office (EIO) to coach, educate and advise the entire agency, from core leadership to the operational edges, with methods and concepts of validated learning through rapid experimentation and customer development.

The NGA has adopted Lean Innovation methods to make this happen. The process starts by collecting agency-wide ideas and/or customer problems, collecting a group insight, and sorts which problems are important enough to pursue. The innovation process uses the Value Proposition canvas, customer development and the Mission Model Canvas to validate hypotheses and deliver minimum viable products. This process allows the agency to rapidly deliver projects at speed.

NGA Lean Innovation

To help start this innovation program the NGA’s Enterprise Innovation Office has had their innovation teams go through the already established Innovation-Corps classes at the National Security Agency (NSA), and they’re about to stand up their own Innovation-Corps curriculum inside the NGA. (The Innovation-Corps (I-Corps for short) Program is the Lean Innovation class I developed at Stanford and teach there and at Berkeley, Columbia and NYU. It was first adopted by the National Science Foundation and is now offered at 54 universities, and starting last year taught in all research agencies and the DOD.)

This past week a team from the NGA’s Enterprise Innovation Office observed the 5-day Lean LaunchPad class I’m teaching at NYU.  Their goal is to integrate these techniques into their own Lean innovation processes. From their comments and critiques of the students, they’re more then ready to teach it themselves.

At the same time the NGA Outpost Valley team was in Silicon Valley going through a Hacking for Defense workshop (we call a “sprint.”) Their goal was to translate one of their problems into a language that commercial companies in the valley could understand and solve, then to figure out how to get the product built and deployedLike other parts of the Department of Defense (the Joint Improvised Threat Defeat Agency (JIDA) and the Defense Innovation unit Experimental (DIUX),)  NGA’s Outpost Valley team is using a Hacking for Defense sprint to build a scalable process for recruiting industry and other partners to get solutions to real problems deployed at speed.

Putting lean principles into NGA’s acquisition practices
As part of the Department of Defense, the NGA acquires technology and information systems through the traditional DOD’s acquisition system – which has been described as the antitheses of rapid customer discovery and agile practices. The current acquisition system seldom validates whether a promised capability actually works until after the government is locked into a multiyear contract, and fixing those problems later often means cost overruns, late delivery, and under performance.  And as any startup will tell you, the traditional government acquisition processes create disincentives for startups to participate in the DOD Market. Few startups know where and how to find opportunities to sell to the DOD, they seldom have the resources or expertise to navigate DOD bureaucratic procurement requirements, and the 12 plus months it takes the government to enter into a contract makes it cost prohibitive for startups.

NGA researchA year ago Sue Gordon, the deputy director of the NGA, sent out an agency-wide memo that said in part, “…we must build speed and flexibility (agility) into our acquisition processes to respond to those evolutions. It is our job to acquire the technologies, data and services that NGA and the NSG need to execute our mission in the most effective, efficient and timely manner possible …”

In addition to NGA’s internal Lean Innovation process and innovation outpost in Silicon Valley, they are starting to use open innovation and crowdsourcing to attract commercial developers to tackle geospatial intelligence problems.

This week the NGA posted its first major open Challenge  – The NGA Disparate Data Challenge– on, the U.S. government’s open innovation and crowdsourcing competition. Government agencies like the NGA can use the site to post challenges and award prizes to citizens who  find the best solutions. Putting a challenge on a crowdsourcing platform is a groundbreaking activity for the agency and opens the possibility for a number of benefits. 

  • Presenting a problem instead of a set of requirements to startups leaves the window open to uncover unknown solutions and insights
  • Setting up the challenge in two stages hopefully gets startups to participate while learning about the NGA and its technical needs
  • Asking for working solutions offers the potential for minimal viable acquisition to quickly validate who can solve the problem prior to committing large sums of taxpayer funds
  • Finding solutions at speed by shrinking the timeline for determining the viability of a solution without the need for executing any large scale contract.

The NGA Disparate Data Challenge has two stages.

  • Stage 1: teams have to demonstrate access and retrieval to analyze NGA provided datasets. (This data is a proxy for the difficulties associated with accessing and using NGA’s real classified data.)  Up to 15 teams who can do this can win $10,000.  And the winners get to go Stage 2.
  • Stage 2: the teams demo their solutions and other features they’ve added against a new data set live to an NGA panel of judges, in hackathon style competition. First place will take an additional $25,000; second $15,000; and third $10,000 with an opportunity to be part of a competitive pool for a future pilot contract with NGA.

NGA’s challenge is its first attempt to attract startups that otherwise would not do business with the agency. It’s likely that the prize amounts ($10-$25K) may be off by at least one order of magnitude to get a startup to take their eye off the commercial market. Curating a crowd and persuading them to work together because the work meets their value proposition is hard work that takes incubation not just prizes. However, this is a learning opportunity and a great beginning for the Department of Defense.

Challenges in Embracing Innovation in Government Agencies
Innovation in large organizations are fraught with challenges including; building an innovation pipeline without screwing up current product development, educating senior leadership and (at times intransigent) middle management about the difference between innovation and execution, encouraging hands-on customer development, establishing links between department and functional silos that don’t talk to each other (and often competing for resources), turning innovative prototypes and minimum viable products into deliverable products to customers, etc.

Government agencies have all these challenges and more. Government agencies have more stringent policies and procedures, federally regulated oversight and compliance rules, and line-item budgets for access to funding. In secure locations, IT security can hinder the simplest process while a lack of access to a physical collaboration space and access to data, all set up additional barriers to innovation.

The NGA has embraced promising moves to bring lean methods to the way they innovate internally and acquire technology. But what we’ve seen in other agencies in the Department of Defense is that unless the innovation process is run by, coached and scaled by innovators who have been in the DOD and understand these rules (and have the clearances), using off-the-shelf commercial lean innovation techniques in government agencies is likely to create demos for senior management but few fully deployed products. (The National Security Agency has pioneered getting this process right with the I-Corps@NSA.)

Lessons Learned

  • Lean Innovation teams are starting up at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA)
    • NGA has an Innovation Outpost in Silicon Valley working on it’s first hacking for Defense Sprint 
    • NGA is experimenting with open innovation with its first problem on
  • The goal of Lean in government agencies should mean deployment not demos
    • In order to successfully deliver products with speed and urgency, this requires coaches and instructors who have been the customer: warfighters, analysts, operators, etc.
    • It will take innovation built from the inside as well as acquisition from the outside to make it happen

Why the Navy Needs Disruption Now (part 2 of 2)

The future is here it’s just distributed unevenly – Silicon Valley view of tech adoption

The threat is here it’s just distributed unevenly – A2/AD and the aircraft carrier

This is the second of a two-part post following my stay on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Part 1 talked about what I saw and learned – the layout of a carrier, how the air crew operates and how the carrier functions in context of the other ships around it (the strike group.) But the biggest learning was the realization that disruption is not just happening to companies, it’s also happening to the Navy. And that the Lean Innovation tools we’ve built to deal with disruption and create continuous innovation for large commercial organizations were equally relevant here.

This post offers a few days’ worth of thinking about what I saw. (If you haven’t, read part 1 first.)

The threat is here; it’s just distributed unevenly – A2/AD and the aircraft carrier
Both of the following statements are true:

  • The aircraft carrier is viable for another 30 years.
  • The aircraft carrier is obsolete.

Well-defended targets
Think of an aircraft carrier as a $11 billion dollar portable air force base manned by 5,000 people delivering 44 F/A-18 strike fighters anywhere in the world.

The primary roles of the 44 F/A-18 strike fighters that form the core of the carrier’s air wing is to control the air and drop bombs on enemy targets. For targets over uncontested airspace (Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, etc.) that’s pretty easy. The problem is that First World countries have developed formidable surface-to-air missiles – the Russian S–300 and S-400 and the Chinese HQ-9 – which have become extremely effective at shooting down aircraft. And they have been selling these systems to other countries (Iran, Syria, Egypt, etc.). While the role of an aircraft carrier’s EA-18G Growlers is to jam/confuse the radar of these missiles, the sophistication and range of these surface-to-air missiles have been evolving faster than the jamming countermeasures on the EA-18G Growlers (and the cyber hacks to shut the radars down).


This means that the odds of a carrier-based F/A-18 strike fighter successfully reaching a target defended by these modern surface-to-air missiles is diminishing yearly. Unless the U.S. military can take these air defense systems out with drones, cruise missiles or cyber attack, brave and skilled pilots may not be enough. Given the F/A-18’s are manned aircraft (versus drones), high losses of pilots may be (politically) unacceptable.

Vulnerable carriers
If you want to kill a carrier, first you must find it and then you have to track it. In WWII knowing where the enemy fleet located was a big – and critical – question. Today, photo imaging satellites, satellites that track electronic emissions (radio, radar, etc.) and satellites with synthetic aperture radar that can see through clouds and at night are able to pinpoint the strike group and carrier 24/7. In the 20th century only the Soviet Union had this capability. Today, China can do this in the Pacific and to a limited extent, Iran has this capability in the Persian Gulf. Soon there will be enough commercial satellite coverage of the Earth using the same sensors, that virtually anyone able to pay for the data will be able to track the ships.

During the Cold War the primary threat to carriers was from the air – from strike/fighters dropping bombs/torpedoes or from cruise missiles (launched from ships and planes). While the Soviets had attack submarines, our anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capabilities (along with very noisy Soviet subs pre-Walker spy ring) made subs a secondary threat to carriers.

In the 20th century the war plan for a carrier strike group used its fighter and attack aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from the cruisers to destroy enemy radar, surface-to-air missiles, aircraft and communications (including satellite downlinks). As those threats are eliminated, the carrier strike can move closer to land without fear of attack. This allowed the attack aircraft to loiter longer over targets or extend their reach over enemy territory.

Carriers were designed to be most effective launching a high number of sorties (number of flights) from ~225 miles from the target. For example, we can cruise offshore of potential adversaries (Iraq and Syria) who can’t get to our carriers. (Carriers can standoff farther or can reach further inland, but they have to launch F-18’s as refueling tankers to extend the mission range. For example, missions into Afghanistan are 6-8 hours versus normal mission times of 2-3 hours.)

In the 21st century carrier strike groups are confronting better equipped adversaries, and today carriers face multiple threats before they can launch an initial strike. These threats include much quieter submarines, long-range, sea-skimming cruise missiles, and in the Pacific, a potential disruptive game changer – ballistic missiles armed with non-nuclear maneuverable warheads that can hit a carrier deck as it maneuvers at speed (DF-21d and the longer range DF-26).d21d range

In the Persian Gulf the carriers face another threat – Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FIAC) and speedboats with anti-ship cruise missiles that can be launched from shore.

The sum of all these threats – to the carrier-based aircraft and the carriers themselves –  are called anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.

Eventually the cost and probability of defending the carrier as a manned aircraft platform becomes untenable in highly defended A2/AD environments like the western Pacific or the Persian Gulf. (This seems to be exactly the problem the manned bomber folks are facing in multiple regions.) But if not a carrier, what will they use to project power?  While the carrier might become obsolete, the mission certainly has not.

So how does/should the Navy solve these problems?

Three Horizons of Innovation
One useful way to think about in innovation in the face of increasing disruption / competition is called the “Three Horizons of Innovation.” It suggests that an organization should think about innovation across three categories called “Horizons.”

  • Horizon 1 activities support executing the existing mission with ever increasing efficiency
  • Horizon 2 is focused on extending the core mission
  • Horizon 3 is focused on searching for and creating brand new missions
    (see here for background on the Three Horizons.)

Horizon 1 is the Navy’s core mission. Here the Navy executes against a set of known mission requirements (known beneficiaries, known ships and planes, known adversaries, deployment, supply chain, etc.) It uses existing capabilities and has comparatively low risk to get the next improvement out the door.

In a well-run organization like the Navy, innovation and improvement occurs continuously in Horizon 1. Branches of the Navy innovate on new equipment, new tactics, new procurement processes, more sorties on newer carriers, etc. As fighter pilots want more capable manned aircraft and carrier captains want better carriers, it’s not a surprise that Horizon 1 innovations are upgrades – the next generation of carriers – Ford Class; and next generation of navy aircraft – the F-35C. As a failure here can impact the Navy’s current mission, Horizon 1 uses traditional product management tools to minimize risk and assure execution. (And yes, like any complex project they still manage to be over budget and miss their delivery schedule.)

Because failure here is unacceptable, Navy Horizon 1 programs and people are managed by building repeatable and scalable processes, procedures, incentives and promotions to execute and the mission.

In Horizon 2, the Navy extends its core mission. Here it looks for new opportunities within its existing mission (trying new technology on the same platform, using the same technology with new missions, etc.) Horizon 2 uses mostly existing capabilities (the carrier as an aircraft platform, aircraft to deliver munitions) and has moderate risk in building or securing new capabilities to get the product out the door.

An example of potential Naval Horizon 2 innovations is unmanned drones flying off carriers to do the jobs fighter pilots hate such as serving as airborne tankers (who wants to fly a gas tank around for 6 hours?) and ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), another tedious mission flying around for hours that could be better solved with a drone downlinking ISR data for processing on board a ship.

However, getting the tanker and ISR functions onto drones only delays the inevitable shift to drones for strike, and then for fighters. The problem of strike fighters’ increasing difficulty in penetrating heavily defended targets isn’t going to get better with the new F-35C (the replacement for the F/A-18). In fact, it will get worse. Regardless of the bravery and skill of the pilots, they will face air defense systems evolving at a faster rate than the defensive systems on the aircraft. It’s not at all clear in a low-intensity conflict (think Bosnia or Syria) that civilian leadership will want to risk captured or killed pilots and losing planes like the F-35C that cost several hundred million dollars each.

Management in Horizon 2 works by pattern recognition and experimentation inside the current mission model. Ironically, institutional inertia keeps the Navy from deploying unmanned assets on carriers. In a perfect world, drones in carrier tanker and ISR roles should have been deployed by the beginning of this decade. And by now experience with them on a carrier deck could have led to first, autonomous wingmen and eventually autonomous missions. Instead the system appears to have fallen into the “real men fly planes and command Air Wings and get promoted by others who do” mindset.

The Navy does not lack drone demos and prototypes, but it has failed to deploy Horizon 2 innovations with speed and urgency. Failure to act aggressively here will impact the Navy’s ability to carry out its mission of sea control and power projection. (The Hudson Institute report on the future of the carrier is worth a read, and a RAND report on the same topic comes out in October.)

If you think Horizon 2 innovation is hard in the Navy, wait until you get to Horizon 3. This is where disruption happens. It’s how the aircraft carrier disrupted the battleship. How nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines changed the nature of strategic deterrence, and how the DF-21/26 and artificial islands in the South China sea changed decades of assumptions.  And it’s why, in most organizations, innovation dies.

For the Navy, a Horizon 3 conversation would not be about better carriers and aircraft. Instead it would focus on the core reasons the Navy deploys a carrier strike group: to show the flag for deterrence, or to control part of the sea to protect shipping, or to protect a Marine amphibious force, or to project offensive power against any adversary in well-defended areas.

A Horizon 3 solution for the Navy would start with basic need of these missions (sea control, offensive power projection – sortie generation) the logistic requirements that come with them, and the barriers to their success like A2/AD threats. Lots of people have been talking and writing about this and lots of Horizon 3 concepts have been proposed such as Distributed LethalityArsenal Ships, underwater drone platforms, etc.

Focussing on these goals – not building or commanding carriers, or building and flying planes – is really, really hard.  It’s hard to get existing operational organizations to think about disruption because it means they have to be thinking about obsoleting a job, function or skill they’ve spent their lives perfecting. It’s hard because any large organization is led by people who succeeded as Horizon 1 and 2 managers and operators (not researchers). Their whole focus, career, incentives, etc. has been about building and make the current platforms work. And the Navy has excelled in doing so.

The problem is that Horizon 3 solutions take different people, different portfolio, different process and different politics.

People: In Horizon 1 and 2 programs people who fail don’t get promoted because in a known process failure to execute is a failure of individual performance. However, applying the same rules to Horizon 3 programs – no failures tolerated – means we’ll have no learning and no disruptive innovations. What spooks leadership is that in Horizon 3 most of the projects will fail. But using Lean Innovation they’ll fail quickly and cheaply.

In Horizon 3 the initial program is run by mavericks – the crazy innovators. In the Navy, these are the people you want to court martial or pass over for promotion for not getting with current program. (In a startup they’d be the founding CEO.) These are the fearless innovators you want to create new and potentially disruptive mission models. Failure to support their potential disruptive talent means it will go elsewhere.

Portfolio: In Horizon 3, the Navy is essentially incubating a startup. And not just one. The Navy needs a portfolio of Horizon 3 bets, for the same reason venture capital and large companies have a portfolio of Horizon 3 bets – most of these bets will fail – but the ones that succeed are game changers.

Process: A critical difference between a Horizon 3 bet and a Horizon 1 or 2 bet is that you don’t build large, expensive, multi-year programs to test radically new concepts (think of the Zumwalt class destroyers). You use “Lean” techniques to build Minimal Viable Products (MVPs). MVPs are whatever it takes to get you the most learning in the shortest period of time.

Horizon 3 groups operate with speed and urgency – the goal is rapid learning. They need to be physically separate from operating divisions in an incubator, or their own facility. And they need their own plans, procedures, policies, incentives and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) different from those in Horizon 1.  

The watchwords in Horizon 3 are “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”

Politics: In Silicon Valley most startups fail. That’s why we invest in a portfolio of new ideas, not just one. We embrace failure as an integral part of learning. We do so by realizing that in Horizon 3 we are testing hypotheses – a series of unknowns – not executing knowns. Yet failure/learning is a dirty word in the world of promotions and the “gotcha game” of politics. To survive in this environment Horizon 3 leaders must learn how to communicate up/down and sideways that they are not running Horizon 1 and 2 projects.

Meanwhile, Navy and DOD leadership has to invest in, and clearly communicate their innovation strategy across all three Horizons.

Failure to manage innovation across all three Horizons and failure to make a portfolio of Horizon 3 bets means that the Navy is exposed to disruption by new entrants. Entrants unencumbered by decades of success, fueled by their own version of manifest destiny.

Lessons Learned

  • Our carriers are a work of art run and manned by professionals
    • Threats that can degrade or negate a carrier strike group exist in multiple areas
    • However, carriers are still a significant asset in almost all other combat scenarios
  • Speed and urgency rather than institutional inertia should be the watchwords for Horizon 2 innovation
  • Horizon 3 innovation is about a clean sheet of paper thinking
    • It’s what Silicon Valley calls disruption
    • It requires different people, portfolio, process and politics
  • The Navy (and DOD) must manage innovation across all three Horizons
    • Allocating dollars and resources for each
  • Remembering that todays Horizon 3 crazy idea is tomorrow Horizon 1 platform

Thanks to the crew of the U.S.S. Vinson, and Commander Todd Cimicata and Stanford for a real education about the Navy.

Why the Navy Needs Disruption Now (part 1 of 2)

The future is here it’s just distributed unevenly – Silicon Valley view of tech adoption

The threat is here it’s just distributed unevenly – A2/AD and the aircraft carrier

Sitting backwards in a plane with no windows, strapped in a 4-point harness, wearing a life preserver, head encased in a helmet, eyes covered by googles, your brain can’t process the acceleration. As the C-2 A Greyhound is hurled off an aircraft carrier into the air via a catapult, your body thrown forward in the air, until a few seconds later, hundreds of feet above the carrier now at 150 miles per hour you yell, “Holy Shxt.” And no one can hear you through the noise, helmet and ear protectors.

I just spent two days a hundred miles off the coast of Mexico aboard the U.S.S. Carl Vinson landing and taking off on the carrier deck via a small cargo plane.nimitz class carrier

Taking off and landing is a great metaphor for the carrier. It’s designed to project power – and when needed, violence.

It’s hard to spend time on a carrier and not be impressed with the Navy, and the dedicated people who man the carrier and serve their country. And of course that’s the purpose of the two-day tour. The Navy calls its program Outreach: Americas Navy. Targeting key influencers (who they call Distinguished Visitors,) the Navy hosts 900/year out to carriers off the West Coast and 500/year to carriers on the East Coast. These tours are scheduled when the carriers are offshore training, not when they are deployed on missions. I joined Pete Newell (my fellow instructor in the Hacking for Defense class) and 11 other Stanford faculty from CISAC and the Hoover Institution.

I learned quite a bit about the physical layout of a carrier, how the air crew operates and how the carrier functions in context of the other ships around it (the strike group.) But the biggest learning was the realization that disruption is not just happening to companies, it’s also happening to the Navy. And that the Lean Innovation tools we’ve built to deal with disruption and create continuous innovation for large commercial organizations were equally relevant here.

The Carrier
U.S. aircraft carriers like the Vinson (there are 9 others) are designed to put the equivalent of an Air Force base anywhere on any ocean anywhere in the world. This means the U.S. can show the flag for deterrence (don’t do this or it will be a bad day) or to control some part of the sea (to protect commercial and/or military shipping, or protect a Marine amphibious force – on the way or at a place they will land); and project power (a euphemism for striking targets with bombs and cruise missiles far from home).

On an aircraft carrier there are two groups of people – the crew needed to run the carrier, called the ship’s company, and the people who fly and support the aircraft they carry, called the Air Wing. The Vinson carries ~2,800 people in the ship’s company, ~2,000 in the Air Wing and ~150 staff.

Without the Air Wing the carrier would just be another big cruise ship. The Air Wing has 72 aircraft made up of jet and propeller planes. The core of the Air Wing are the 44 F/A-18 strike fighters.

The F/A-18 strike fighters are designed to do two jobs: gain air superiority by engaging other fighter planes in the air or attack targets on the ground with bombs (that’s why they have the F/A designation). Flying on missions with these strike fighters are specially modified F/A-18’s – EA-18G Growlers that carry electronic warfare jammers which electronically shut down enemy radars and surface-to-air missiles to ensure that the F/A-18s get to the target without being shot down.

Another type of plane on the carrier is the propeller-driven E-2C Hawkeyes, which is an airborne early warning plane. Think of the Hawkeyes as airborne air traffic control. Hawkeyes carry a long-range radar in a dome above the fuselage, and keep the strike group and the fighters constantly aware of incoming air threats. They can send data to the fighters and to other ships in the battle group which identifies the location of potential threats. They can also detect other ships at sea.

The other planes in the carrier’s Air Wing are 16 helicopters: 8 MH-60S Nighthawk helicopters for logistics support, search and rescue and special warfare support; and 8 MH-60R Seahawks to locate and attack submarines and to attack Surface targets. seahawk helicopterThey carry sonobuoys, dipping sonar and anti-submarine torpedoes. And last but not least, there is the plane that got us on the carrier, the C2-A Greyhound – the delivery truck for the carrier.

You’re not alone
Carriers like the Vinson don’t go to sea by themselves. They’re part of a group of ships called the “carrier strike group.”  A strike group consists of a carrier, two cruisers with Tomahawk cruise missiles which can attack land targets, and two destroyers and/or frigates with Aegis surface to air missiles to defend the carrier from air attack. (In the past, the strike group was assigned an attack submarine to hunt for subs trying to kill the carrier. Today the attack subs are in such demand they are assigned by national authorities on an as-needed basis.) The strike group also includes replenishment ships that carry spare ammunition, fuel, etc. (The 150 staff on the carrier include separate staff for the strike group, Air Wing, carrier, surface warfare (cruisers with tomahawk missiles) and air defense (Aegis-armed destroyers.)

strike groupThe strike group also receives antisubmarine intelligence from P-3/P-8 anti-submarine aircraft and towed arrays on the destroyers, and additional situational awareness from imaging, Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and radar sensors and satellites.

Before our group flew out to the carrier, we were briefed by Vice-Admiral Mike Shoemaker. His job is aviation Type Commander (TYCOM) for all United States Navy naval aviation units (responsible for aircrew training, supply, readiness, etc.) He also wears another hat as the commander of all the Navy planes in the Pacific. It was interesting to hear that the biggest issue in keeping the airplanes ready to fight are sequestration and budget cuts. These cuts have impacted maintenance, and made spare parts hard to get. And no pay raises make it hard to retain qualified people.

Then it was time to climb into our C-2 Greyhound for the flight out to the aircraft carrier. Just like a regular passenger plane, except you put on a life vest, goggles, ear plugs, and over all that a half helmet protecting the top and back of your head while enclosing your ears in large plastic ear muffs. Then you and 25 other passengers load the plane via the rear ramp, sit facing backwards in a plane with no windows and wait to land.

On the U.S.S. Vinson
Landing on an aircraft carrier is an equally violent act. When you make an arrested landing, a tail hook on the plane traps one of the four arresting cables stretched across the deck, and you decelerate from 105 mph to zero in two seconds. When the plane hit the arresting wire on the carrier deck, it came to a dead stop in 250 feet. There was absolutely no doubt that we had landed (and a great lesson on why you were wearing head protection, goggles and strapped into your non-reclining seat with a four-point harness). As the rear ramp lowered, we were assaulted with the visual and audio cacophony of crewmen in seven different colored shirts on the deck swarming on and around F-18s, E2Cs, helicopters, etc., all with their engines running.

flight deck shirts

Captain Doug Verissimo and his executive officer Captain Eric Anduze, welcomed us to the carrier. (One of my first problems onboard was translating Navy ranks into their Army/Air Force equivalents. For example, a navy captain equals an Air Force/Army Colonel, and a rear admiral is a brigadier general, etc.)

flight deckThen for the next two days the carrier’s public affairs officer led us on the “shock and awe” tour. In four years in the Air Force I had been stationed on four fighter bases, three of them in war zones, some with over 150 planes generating lots of sorties. But I had to grudgingly admit that watching F­-18s landing on a 300-foot runway 60 feet above the water, on a pitching deck moving 30 mph at sea – one a minute – at night – was pretty impressive.  And having us stand on the deck less than 50 feet away from these planes as they landed trapping the arrestor wires, and launched via a catapult was a testament to the Navy’s PR acumen. Most of crew on the flight deck are in their late teens and maybe early 20s. (And for me, hard to believe 4 decades ago in some other life I was doing that job.) Standing on the deck on a Navy carrier, it’s impossible not to be impressed with the precision choreography of the crew and the skill of their pilots.

Our group climbed the ladders (inclined at a 68-degree angle – there are no stairs) up and down the 18 decks (floors) of the ship. We saw the hangar deck where planes were repaired, the jet engine shop, jet engine test cell, arresting cable engine room, the bridge where they steer the ship, the flag bridge (the command center for the admiral), the flight deck control and launch operations room (where the aircraft handler keeps track of all the aircraft on the flight deck and in the hangar), and the carrier air traffic control center (CATCC).LPO

At each stop an officer or enlisted man gave us an articulate description of what equipment we were looking at and how it fit into the rest of the carrier.

(What got left out of the tour was the combat direction center (CDC), the munitions elevators, ships engines and any of the avionics maintenance shops and of course, the nuclear reactor spaces.)

During lunch and dinners, we had a chance to talk at length to the officers and enlisted men. They were smart, dedicated and proud of what they do, and frank about the obstacles they face getting their jobs done. Interestingly they all echoed Vice-Admiral Shoemaker’s observation that the biggest obstacles they face are political –  sequestration and budget cuts.

Just before we left we got a briefing from the head of the Carrier Strike Group, Rear Admiral James T. Loeblein about the threats the carrier and the strike group face.

Then it was off to be catapulted back home.IMG_8187

It’s clear that the public affairs office has a finely tuned PR machine. So if the goal was to impress me that the Navy and carriers are well run and manned – consider it done.

However, it got me thinking… new aircraft carrier’s cost $11 billion. And we have a lot of them on order. Given the threats they are facing are they going to be viable for another 30 years? Or is the aircraft carrier obsolete?

Tomorrow’s post will offer a few days’ worth of thoughts about carriers, strike groups and how the Navy can continue to innovate with carriers and beyond.

Lessons Learned – part 1 of 2

Thanks to the crew of the U.S.S. Vinson, and Commander Todd Cimicata and Stanford for a real education about the Navy.

The Mission Model Canvas – An Adapted Business Model Canvas for Mission-Driven Organizations

As we prepared for the new Hacking for Defense class at Stanford, we had to stop and ask ourselves: How do we use the Business Model Canvas if the primary goal is not to earn money, but to fulfill a mission? In other words, how can we adapt the Business Model Canvas when the metrics of success for an organization is not revenue?

H4D screen top

Alexander Osterwalder and I think we have the answer – the new Mission Model Canvas.

Here are our collective thoughts.


The Lean Startup is the way most innovators build startups and innovate inside of existing companies. As a formal method, the Lean Startup consists of three parts:

The Business Model Canvas has been a great invention for everyone from startups to large companies. Unlike an org chart, which describes how a company executes to deliver known products to known customers, the Business Model Canvas illustrates the search for the unknowns that most new ventures face. The 9 boxes of the canvas let you visualize all the components needed to turn customer needs/problems into a profitable company.

From Revenue Streams to Mission Achievement
The Business Model Canvas has served all of us well in thinking about building businesses – and therein lies the problem. In a business the aim is to earn more money than you spend. What if you’re a government or a military organization or part of the intelligence community? In these cases you don’t earn money, but you mobilize resources and a budget to solve a particular problem and create value for a set of beneficiaries (customers, support organizations, warfighters, Congress, the country, etc.)

For these organizations, the canvas box labeled Revenue Streams doesn’t make sense.Business Model Canvas no revenue In a mission-driven organization such as the defense and intelligence community, there is no revenue to measure. So the first step in building a canvas for mission-driven organizations is to change the Revenue Stream box in the canvas and come up with a counterpart that would provide a measure of success.

We’re calling this alternative Mission Achievement. Later in this post I’ll explain how we’ll measure and describe Mission Achievement, but first our Mission Model Canvas needs four more tweaks.

  • Customer Segments is changed to Beneficiaries
  • Cost Structure is changed to Mission Cost/Budget
  • Channel is changed to Deployment
  • Customer Relationships is changed to Buy-in/Support

Mission_Model_CanvasThe rest of this blog post explains the how and why of these changes to the canvas.

Customer Segments Change to Beneficiaries
At first glance, when developing a new technology for use in the defense and intelligence community, the customer appears obvious – it’s the ultimate war fighter. They will articulate pains in terms of size, weight, form fit, complexity and durability. But there are other key players involved.  Requirement writers and acquisition folks look at systems integration across the battlefield system, while contracting officers, yet another segment, will count beans, measure the degree of competition and assess the quality of market research involved. The support organizations need to worry about maintainability of code or hardware. Does legal need to sign off for cyber operations?  So yes, war fighters are one customer segment, but others need to be involved before the war fighter can ever see the product.

So the first insight is that in the defense and intelligence community mission models are always multi-sided markets with the goal of not just building a great demo but getting the product adopted and deployed.

Second, in the defense and intelligence communities almost all of the mission models look like that of an OEM supplier – meaning there are multiple layers of customers in the value chain. Your product/service is just part of someone else’s larger system.

So to differentiate “customers” from the standard business model canvas we’ll call all the different customer segments and the layers in the defense and intelligence value chain beneficiaries.

The Value Proposition Canvas
Of all the nine boxes of the canvas, two important parts of the model are the relationship between the Value Proposition (what you’re building) and the beneficiaries. These two components of the business model are so important we give them their own name, Product/Market Fit.osterwalder books

Because of the complexity of multiple beneficiaries and to get more detail about their gains and pains, Osterwalder added an additional canvas called the Value Proposition Canvas.  This functions like a plug-in to the Mission Model Canvas, zooming in to the value proposition to describe the interactions among these beneficiaries, war fighters, etc. and the product/service in more detail. Using the Value Proposition Canvas with the Mission Model Canvas lets you see both the big picture at the mission model level and the detailed picture of each beneficiary at the “product/market fit” level.

Value prop zoom bus modelIn the defense and intelligence community mission models, there will always be multiple beneficiaries.  It’s important that each beneficiary gets its own separate Value Proposition Canvas.


Distribution Channel changes to Deployment
In the commercial world we ask, “What type of distribution channel (direct sales, app store, system integrator, etc.) do we use to get the product/service from our company to the customer segments?”  For the Department of Defense or Intelligence organizations, we ask instead:

  • “What will it take to deploy the product/service from our current Minimum Viable Product to widespread use among people who need it?” (What architecture components can they innovate on and what can’t they?)
  • “What constitutes a successful deployment? (number of users, units in the field, time to get it into the field, success in the field, etc.)”
  • “How do we turn a Horizon 3 innovation into something that gets adopted by a Horizon 1 organization?”

Customer Relationships changes to Buy-In/Support
In an existing business, Customer Relationships is defined as establishing and maintaining a relationship to support existing customers. In a startup we redefined Customer Relationships to answer the question:  How does a company get, keep and grow customers?

For the defense and intelligence communities, we have modified Customer Relationships to mean, “For each beneficiary (customer segment), how does the team get “Buy-In” from all the beneficiaries?”

Customer discovery helps you understand whose buy-in is needed in order to deploy the product/service (legal, policy, procurement, etc.) and how to get those beneficiaries to buy-in? (Funding? Mandates? User requested? etc.) In addition, the long-term support and maintenance of new projects need to be articulated, understood and bought-into by the support organizations.

At the Pentagon a favorite way to kill something is to coordinate it to death by requiring buy-in from too many people too early. How to determine who are the small group of critical people to get buy-in from – and how to determine who are the next set required to sustain the iterative development of future MVP’s – is one of the arts of entrepreneurship in the defense and intelligence community.

Revenue Streams changes to Mission Achievement
Mission Achievement is the value you are creating for the sum of all of the beneficiaries / the greater good.

It’s important to distinguish between the value for individual beneficiaries (on the Value Proposition Canvas) and overall Mission Achievement. For example, Mission Achievement could be measured in a variety of ways: the number of refugees housed and fed, the number of soldiers saved from roadside bombs, the number of cyberattacks prevented, the increased target surveillance of sensor fusion, etc.  None of these are measured in dollars and cents. Keep in mind, there is only mission achievement if it delivers value to the end beneficiary.

Lessons Learned

  • In the defense and intelligence community the metrics of success are not revenue but mission achievement
    • We’ve modified the Business Model Canvas into a Mission Model Canvas
    • Changed Revenue Streams to Mission Achievement
    • Changed Customer Segments to Beneficiaries
    • Changed Cost Structure to Mission Cost/Budget
    • Changed Channel to Deployment
    • Changed Customer Relationships to Buy-in/Support
  • Organizations without specific revenue goals can now use a version of the Business Model Canvas

Hacking for Defense @ Stanford – Making the World a Safer Place

Introducing Hacking for Defense – Connecting Silicon Valley Innovation Culture and Mindset to the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community
Hacking for Defense is a new course at Stanford’s Engineering School in the Spring of 2016. It is being taught by Tom Byers, Steve Blank, Joe Felter and Pete Newell and is advised by former Secretary of Defense Bill PerryJoin a select cross-disciplinary class that will put you hands-on with the masters of lean innovation to help bring rapid-fire innovative solutions to address threats to our national security. Why? Hacking for Defense poster

Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, CIA, NSA
What do all these groups in the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community (DOD/IC) have in common? Up until the dawn of the 21st century, they defined military technology superiority. Our defense and intelligence community owned and/or could buy and deploy the most advanced technology in the world. Their R&D groups and contractors had the smartest domain experts who could design and manufacture the best systems. Not only were they insulated from technological disruption, they were often also the disrupters. (During the Cold War we used asymmetric technologies in silicon and software to disrupt the Soviet Union’s lead in conventional weapons.) Yet in the last decade the U.S. Department of Defense and Intelligence Community are now facing their own disruption from ISIS. al-Qaeda. North Korea. Crimea. Ukraine. DF-21 and Islands in the South China Sea.

Today these potential adversaries are able to harness the power of social networks, encryption, GPS, low-cost drones, 3D printers, simpler design and manufacturing processes, agile and lean methodologies, ubiquitous Internet and smartphones. Our once closely held expertise in people, processes and systems that we once had has evolved to become commercial off-the-shelf technologies. 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.

Its Not Just the Technology
Perhaps more important than the technologies, these new adversaries can acquire and deploy disruptive technology at a speed that to us looks like a blur. They can do so because most have little legacy organizational baggage, no government overhead, some of the best software talent in the world, cheap manpower costs, no career risk when attempting new unproven feats and ultimately no fear of failure.

organizational capabilitiesTerrorists today live on the ‘net and they are all early adopters. They don’t need an office in Silicon Valley to figure out what’s out there. They are experts in leveraging Web 2.0 and 3.0. They are able to collaborate using Telegram, Instagram, Facebook, Skype, FaceTime, YouTube, wiki’s, IM/chat. Targeting, assessments, technology, recipes, and tactics all flow at the speed of a Lean Startup.  They can crowd-source designs, find components through eBay, fund through PayPal, train using virtual worlds and refine tactics, techniques and procedures using massive on-line gaming. All while we’re still writing a Request for a Proposal from within the US Government procurement and acquisition channels.

technology capabilities

We’re Our Own Worst Enemy
In contrast to the agility of many of our adversaries, the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community have huge investments in existing systems (aircraft carriers, manned fighters and bombers, large satellites, etc.), an incentive system (promotions) that supports the status quo, an existing contractor base with major political influence over procurement and acquisition, and the talent to deliver complex systems that are the answer to past problems.

Efficiently Being Inefficient
Our drive for ultimate efficiency in buying military systems (procurement) has made us our own worst enemy. These acquisition and procurement “silos” of excellence are virtually impenetrable by new ideas and requirements. Even in the rare moments of crisis and need, when they do show some flexibility, their reaction is often so slow and cumbersome that by the time the solutions reach the field, the problem they intended to solve has changed so dramatically the solutions are useless.

The incentives for acquiring and deploying innovation in the DOD/IC with speed and urgency are not currently aligned with the government acquisition, budgeting, and requirements processes, all of which have remained unchanged for decades or even centuries.

The Offset Dilemma – Technology is the not Silver Bullet
Today, many in the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community are searching for a magic technology bullet – the next Offset Strategyconvinced that if they could only get close to Silicon Valley, they will find the right technology advantage.

It turns out that’s a massive mistake. What Silicon Valley delivers is not just new technology but – perhaps even more importantly – an innovation culture and mindset. We will not lose because we had the wrong technology.  We will lose because we couldn’t adopt, adapt and deploy technology at speed and in sufficient quantities to overcome our enemies.

Ultimately the solution isn’t reforming the acquisition process (incumbents will delay/kill it) or buying a new technology and embedding it in a decade-long procurement process (determined adversaries will find asymmetric responses).

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

Stanford’s new Hacking for Defense class is a part of the solution.

Hacking for Defense (H4D) @ Stanford
In Hacking for Defense a new class at Stanford’s School Engineering this spring, students will learn about the nation’s emerging threats and security challenges while working with innovators inside the Department of Defense (DoD) and Intelligence Community. The class teaches students entrepreneurship while they engage in what amounts to national public service.

Hacking for Defense uses the same Lean LaunchPad Methodology adopted by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health and proven successful in Lean LaunchPad and I-Corps classes with 1,000’s of teams worldwide. Students apply as a 4-person team and select from an existing set of problems provided by the DoD/IC community or introduce their own ideas for DoD/IC problems that need to be solved.

Student teams will take actual national security problems and learn how to apply Lean Startup principles to discover and validate customer needs and to continually build iterative prototypes to test whether they understood the problem and solution.

Most discussion about innovation of defense systems acquisition using an agile process starts with writing a requirements document. Instead, in this class the student teams and their DOD/IC sponsors will work together to discover the real problems in the field and only then articulate the requirements to solve them and deploy the solutions.

Each week, teams will use the Mission Model Canvas (a DOD/IC variant of the Business Model Canvas) to develop a set of initial hypotheses about a solution to the problem and will get out of the building and talk to all Requirement Writers, Buyers (Acquisition project managers) and Users (the tactical folks). As they learn, they’ll iterate and pivot on these hypotheses through customer discovery and build minimal viable prototypes (MVPs). Each team will be guided by two mentors, one from the agency that proposed the problem and a second from the local community. In addition to these mentors, each H4D student team will be supported by a an active duty military liaison officer drawn from Stanford’s Senior Service College Fellows to facilitate effective communication and interaction with the problem sponsors.

Today if college students want to give back to their country they think of Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or Americorps. Few consider opportunities to make the world safer with the Department of Defense, Intelligence Community and other government agencies. The Hacking for Defense class will promote engagement between students and the military and provide a hands-on opportunity to solve real national security problems.

Our goal is to open-source this class to other universities and create the 21st Century version of Tech ROTC. By creating a national network of colleges and universities, the Hacking for Defense program can scale to provide hundreds of solutions to critical national security problems every year.

We’re going to create a network of entrepreneurial students who understand the security threats facing the country and getting them engaged in partnership with islands of innovation in the DOD/IC. This is a first step to a more agile, responsive and resilient, approach to national security in the 21st century.

Lessons Learned

 Hacking for Defense is a new class that teaches students how to:

  • Use the Lean LaunchPad methodology to deeply understand the problems/needs of government customers
  • Rapidly iterate technology to produce solutions while searching for product-market fit
  • Deliver minimum viable products that match DOD/IC customer needs in an extremely short time

The class will also teach the islands of innovation in the Department of Defense and Intelligence Community:

  • how the innovation culture and mindset operate at speed
  • advanced technologies that exist outside their agencies and contractors (and are in university labs, and commercial off-the-shelf solutions)
  • how to use an entrepreneurial mindset and Lean Methodologies to solve national security problems

Sign up here.

Blank’s Rule – To predict the future 1/3 of you need to be crazy

In a rapidly changing world those who copy the past have doomed their future.

When companies or agencies search for disruptive and innovative strategies they often assemble a panel of experts to advise them. Ironically the panel is often made up of people whose ideas about innovation were relevant in the past.

I’ve seen this scenario play out in almost every large company and government agency trying to grapple with disruption and innovation. They gather up all the “brand-name wisdom” in an advisory board, task force, panel, study group, etc.  All of these people – insiders and outsiders – have great resumes, fancy titles, and in the past brilliant insights. But unintentionally, by gathering the innovators from the past, the past is what’s being asked for – while it’s the future that’s needed.

You can’t create a blueprint for the future. But we know one thing for sure. The future will be different from the past. A better approach is to look for people who are the contrarians, whose ideas, while they sound crazy, are focused on the future. Most often these are not the safe brand names.

If your gathered advisory board, task force, panel, study group, etc., tasked with predicting the future doesn’t have 1/3 contrarians, all you’re going to do is predict the past.


In the 1950’s and 60’s with the U.S and the Soviet Union engaged in a full-blown propaganda war, the race to put men in space was a race for prestige –  and a proxy for the superiority of one system of government over the other.

In 1961 the U.S. was losing the “space race.” The Soviets had just put a man in orbit and their larger rockets allowed them to launch larger payloads and perform more space spectaculars than the U.S. The new President, John Kennedy looked for a goal where the U.S. could beat the Soviet Union. He decided to raise the stakes by declaring that we would land a man on the moon “before the decade is out” (brave talk before we even got someone into orbit.) This meant that NASA had to move quickly to find the best method to accomplish the journey.

NASA had panels of experts arguing about which of two options to use to get to the moon: first they considered, direct ascent; then moved to another idea, Earth-orbit rendezvous (EOR).

Direct ascent was basically the method that had been pictured in science fiction novels and Hollywood movies for a decade. moon rocketA giant rocket would be launched directly to the moon, land and then blast off for home. But there were three problems:

  • direct ascent was the least efficient way to get to the moon and would require a giant rocket (the Nova) and
  • the part that landed on the moon would be 65 feet tall (requiring one heck of a ladder to the surface of the moon.)
  • it wasn’t clear that a rocket this big could be ready by the end of the decade.

So NASA settled on the second option: Earth-orbit rendezvous. Instead of launching a whole rocket to the moon directly, Earth-orbit rendezvous would to launch two pieces of the spacecraft – one at a time – using Saturn rockets that were then in development. These pieces would meet up in earth orbit and send a ship, (still 65 feet tall as in the direct flight mode), to the moon and back to Earth. This idea was also a decade old – it was how they proposed building a space station. The advantage of Earth-orbit rendezvous to go to the moon was that it required a pair of less powerful Saturn rockets that were already under development.

If you can’t see the movie click here

All the smartest people at NASA (Wernher Von Braun, Max Faget,) were in favor of Earth-orbit rendezvous and they convinced NASA leadership this was the way to go.

But one tenacious NASA engineer, John Houbolt believed that we wouldn’t get to the moon by the end of the decade and maybe not at all if we went with Earth-orbit rendezvous.

Houbolt was pushing a truly crazy idea, Lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR). This plan would launch two spaceships into Earth orbit on top of a single Saturn rocket. Once in Earth orbit, the rocket would fire again, boosting both spacecraft to the moon. Reaching orbit around the moon, two of the crew members would climb into a separate landing ship they carried with them – the lunar excursion module (LEM). The LEM would detach from the mother ship (called the command module), and land on the moon.landers The third crew member would remain alone orbiting the moon in the command module. When the two astronauts were done exploring the moon they would take off using the top half of the LEM, and re-dock with the command module (leaving the landing stage of the LEM on the moon.) The three astronauts in their command ship would head for home.
The benefits of Lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR) were inescapable.

  1. You’d only need one rocket, already under development, to get to the moon
  2. The part that landed on the moon would only be 14′ tall. Getting down to the surface was easy

Yet in 1961 LOR was a completely insane idea. We hadn’t even put a man into orbit, let alone figured out how to rendezvous and dock in earth orbit and some crazy guy was suggesting we do this around the moon. If it didn’t succeed the astronauts might die orbiting the moon. However, Houbolt wasn’t some crank, he was a member of the Lunar Mission Steering Group studying space rendezvous. Since he was only a mid-level manager he presented his findings to the internal task forces and the experts dismissed this idea the first time they heard it. Then they dismissed it the 2nd, 5th and 20th time.John Houbolt

Houbolt bet his job, went around five levels of NASA management and sent a letter to deputy director of NASA arguing that by insisting on ground rules to only consider direct ascent or earth orbit rendezvous meant that NASA shut down any out-of-box thinking about how to best get to the moon.
Luckily Houbolt got to make his case, and when Wernher Von Braun changed his mind and endorsed this truly insane idea, the rest of NASA followed.

We landed on the moon on July 20th 1969.


I recently got to watch just such a panel. It was an awesome list of people. Their accomplishments were legendary, heck, every one of them was legendary. They told great stories, had changed industries, invented new innovation platforms, had advised presidents, had won wars, etc. But almost none of them had a new idea about innovation in a decade. Their recommendations were ones you could have written five years ago.

In a static world that would be just fine. But in a corporate world of continuous disruption and in a national security world of continuously evolving asymmetric threats you need to have crazy people being heard.

Or you’ll never get to the moon.

Lessons Learned

  • Most companies and agencies have their own John Houbolts. But most never get heard. Therefore, “Blank’s rules for an innovation task force”:
  • 1/3 insiders who know the processes and politics
  • 1/3 outsiders who represent “brand-name wisdom”
    • They provide cover and historical context
  • 1/6 crazy insiders – the rebels at work
    • They’ve been trying to be heard
    • Poll senior and mid-level managers and have them nominate their most innovative/creative rebels
    • (Be sure they read this before they come to the meeting.)
  • 1/6 crazy outsiders
    • They’ve had new, unique insights in the last two years
    • They’re in sync with the crazy insiders and can provide the insiders with “cover”

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