Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 5 – Chris Brose

We just held our fifth session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern WarJoe FelterRaj Shah and I designed a class to examine the new military systems, operational concepts and doctrines that will emerge from 21st century technologies – Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy.

Today’s topic was The Challenges of Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare.

Catch up with the class by reading our summaries of Class 1 here, Class 2 here, Class 3 here and Class 4 here.

Our guest speaker was Christian Brose, author of The Kill Chain and now the head of strategy for Anduril Industries.

Some of the readings for this class session included:Brookings webinar moderated by Michael O’Hanlon with Christian Brose, Mara Karlin and Frank Rose, The New Revolution in Military Affairs: War’s Sci-Fi Future.

War Made New
The required reading for this class was Chris Brose’s book The Kill Chain. We thought the students would find having the author discuss the thinking behind the book enlightening. It was.

There are few people as qualified as Chris Brose to opine on the state of national defense. Before Brose moved into the civilian world at Anduril, he was the staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee overseeing all the programs, policies, and resources of the Department of Defense, as well as confirming the Department’s senior civilian and military leaders. He was also responsible for leading the production, negotiation, and passage of the 2016-19 National Defense Authorization Acts. He previously was the senior policy advisor to Senator John McCain supporting his work on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And before the Senate he was senior editor of Foreign Policy magazine and served as policy advisor and chief speechwriter to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

This entire class session was a talk by Chris and Q&A with the students. It would be easy to just put up the video and the transcription in this blog and be done with it. But that would do a real disservice to the insights that Chris offered.  I’m going to extract and paraphrase a few below, but I urge you to read the transcript and watch the video.

Why Did Chris Write The Kill Chain?
Chris was increasingly concerned that the United States was falling behind our adversaries and nobody was paying attention to the extent of the problem.

Chris observed that the reality is that we are being disrupted in a way that most Americans and most members of Congress don’t fully understand and appreciate. China has specifically and explicitly focused on undermining the core assumptions on which the United States has been planning to project military power for 25 to 30 years. The assumption was that we would:

  • be able to fight on timelines of our choosing
  • control the timing and tempo of military competition and operations
  • be able to build up forces and operate from sanctuaries that an adversary couldn’t contest
  • be able to move combat power into places that we needed it
  • have military technological superiority over any competitor
  • be able to move and shoot and communicate with near impunity and qualitatively
  • dominate even quantitatively superior adversaries

These assumptions are no longer true.

The Defense Industry
Since the end of the Cold War our defense industry has become increasingly concentrated, consolidated, uncompetitive and essentially hollowed out. We have gotten extremely good about building a force around very small numbers of very expensive exquisite, heavily manned and hard to replace military systems. We built up a system to produce a certain type of military power at a time when that whole business model is being disrupted and undermined — much as Blockbuster Video’s business model was undermined by Netflix and Apple.

Disruptive Technology
The new technologies and capabilities that will be central to military advantage in the future – artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous systems, distributed networking, advanced manufacturing, and commercial space, etc. are technologies largely driven by commercial innovation and commercial companies.  The future will be dominated by large quantities of small or cheaper, more autonomous, more intelligent military systems. This is also true of things that are not military platforms: networking, the movement of information, and the weaponization of data.

The Threat Landscape
We don’t know what the world is going to look like. We don’t know what our competitors are going to do. We don’t know what new technologies are going to be developed next month or next year or next decade. And we ultimately don’t know how we’re going to want to organize ourselves and build operational concepts to employ these new technologies.

We need to have more humility around the best way to experiment and feel our way through the future. And take account for what will inevitably happen: We’re going to get things wrong. We’re going to fail to predict the future and we’re going to need to end up in places we didn’t foresee.

We’ve got to get out of the trap of trying to define the requirements for our inputs. We need to value new, innovative, completely unpredictable and surprising capabilities, concepts and organizational Innovation that allow us to solve these problems differently.

Our system is not designed to do that. Our system is designed to try to predict the future in ten, 20 or 30 years. Then write requirements to what we think it’s going to look like and then throw a lot of money at industry to deliver that future on very long timelines. “Shockingly” many of those things are irrelevant when they show up, if they ever show up at all.

Changing Acquisition
As a buyer of technology and capability, the Department of Defense now can decide to buy different capabilities to match this new world. They can create different incentives for different types of industries to work with them and for them. They can create incentives for private capital that’s sitting on the sidelines to flow back into the Defense sector in a way that hasn’t happened for a very long time.

The only way we’re really going to change is by trying to create more and more pockets in the defense portfolio and programs that are open to real competition. We have a system that’s geared around valuing and buying inputs rather than defining what we want our outcomes to be. We need pockets of marketplace-type behavior where actual systems are competed out based on outcome-oriented metrics. And we buy new things more regularly.

The DOD and Congress can create incentives to take advantage of the willingness and ability of leading technology developers to solve these problems. However, they won’t create a new commercial ecosystem if they continue to dole out small SBIR account grants and million-dollar OTA’s (door prizes for showing up) while the same five national defense contractors they’ve been paying for the past three decades still get the billion-dollar programs. The DOD has to write checks to new vendors for programs at scale.

Making Change Happen
The DOD admits they have a problem. They admit they need to do things differently. Now we get down to the difficult questions of execution and implementation, which is where they have foundered in the past. They haven’t ended up in this position due to a lack of people saying the right things. We’re here because they have failed to do so many of the things they have said (in many cases for decades).

From an organizational standpoint, change won’t come internally. Major kinds of organizational reforms tend to originate outside of bureaucratic institutions. It’s going to take an external act, such as the Secretary of Defense coming in to work with the Congress, to essentially say we do need to do things differently. It is going to involve more risk and the only people in our system capable of doing it are our senior leaders, whether they’re confirmed by the Senate or elected by the American people.

Read the entire transcript of Chris Brose’s talk here and watch the video below.

If you can’t see the Chris Brose’s talk click here 

Student Takeaways From Chris’ Talk

Lessons Learned

  • The military advantages we had as a nation in the 20th century are gone
    • China has systematically negated each of our strengths
    • Our nation is no longer guaranteed to win a war
  • Our Defense industry has built expensive and exquisite systems that are few in number and now extremely vulnerable
    • That’s no longer the correct model
    • AI, machine learning, autonomous systems, distributed networking, advanced manufacturing, commercial space, etc. are largely driven by commercial innovation and companies
  • The Department of Defense has given lip service to change but institutional inertia – measured by actual spending – is holding us back
    • We need to rapidly pivot to using new contractors at scale
  • The DOD needs to rapidly integrate commercial tech into new capabilities that
    • Replace attrited assets
    • Enhance existing capabilities
    • Create new capabilities and concepts that leapfrog our adversaries

Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 4 – Bridge Colby

We just held our fourth sessions of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern WarJoe FelterRaj Shah and I designed a class to examine the new military systems, operational concepts and doctrines that will emerge from 21st century technologies – Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy.

Today’s topic was Defense Strategies and Military Plans in an Era of Great Power Competition.

Catch up with the class by reading about all the class sessions here.

Our guest speaker was Bridge Colby, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ point person for articulating his vision for the National Defense Strategy. Some of the readings for this fourth class session included: National Security Strategy, 2018 National Defense Strategy, National Military Strategy Summary, The Age of Great-Power Competition, The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied America’s Expectations, The Administration’s Policy Toward China, The End of American Illusion. Trump and the World as It is, Indo Pacific Strategy Report 2019

In this session we provided the students with an appreciation of how the United States National Security Strategy arrived at the conclusion that we are in an era of great power competition with Russia and China. Next, we introduced the National Defense Strategy (NDS) which describes how the military supports the overall National strategy. The NDS observed that we not only faced non-nation states (terror organizations,) but going forward we have to plan for 2+3 adversaries (China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and the non-nations states.) The NDS provided an outline of what we need to do (called Lines of Effort) to transform our military.

If you can’t see the slides click here.

Joe Felter (who was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia) began the lesson providing background and context for understanding – What happened? Why did we shift our strategies and military plans? And what do these plans look like today.

Great hopes for international security
In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, it marked the symbolic end of the Cold War. The United States emerged as the dominant power in the international system and its Cold War rivals appeared to be moving down a path of reform. We had great hopes for an international security environment that would advance common interests among large and small nations through international cooperation and engagement. Russia at the time showed promising signs of moving closer to democracy.

The break-up of former Soviet states put the country on the path of increasing liberalization and reform. Former Warsaw Pact nations expressed interest in working with and aligning more closely with its former rivals. Several joined NATO. Meanwhile, China’s economy was growing at an extraordinary rate and becoming more integrated with countries across the region and beyond. All prevailing theories of modernization predicted that this growth and would lead to increasing liberalization and reform in China. It was considered to be on a trajectory towards becoming a “responsible stakeholder” willing to play by the rules of the established order. Beyond these encouraging developments with our former Cold War rivals the US assumed a position of unparalleled military dominance. Shortly after the fall of the wall this overmatch and dominance of US military power was put on display during Desert Storm where the US achieved quick and decisive victory destroying the world’s 4th largest Army in 100 hours of ground combat.

Optimism turns into reality
Fast forward to 2017. Conditions were far from where we hoped in the heady optimism following the Cold War. Putin’s Russia is intent on undermining the US and West in any way it can –  aggression in the Crimea and Ukraine and destabilizing activities in Syria; Venezuela and beyond. Adding to this are it’s state sponsored poisonings and assassinations, cyber-attacks against nations and election meddling in the U.S. and other countries. In China Xi Jinping and the CCP pursuing a deliberate whole of government approach to projecting influence if not dominance of the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. Disappointingly, the liberalization and reforms so many assumed would accompany its rapid economic growth did not occur.  

The CCP explicitly states its intention for China to be a dominant power with benchmarks and years identified. For example, President Xie leads the Central Military Commission that in 2012 committed to building a military that can dominate the region and “fight and win global wars by 2049.” To do this, China is pursuing a military build-up of an historic scale with a seven-fold increase in its defense budget in the last two decades. It is investing in high tech weaponry to close the gap and in many cases extend their advantage in a range of military capabilities and technologies. Beijing engages in predatory economics – driving states into significant debt burdens forcing them to make “debt- for equity” swaps in places that undermine their sovereignty Its Belt and Road Initiative makes infrastructure and other investments with a clear nationalist agenda. It is increasing its de facto project power projection capabilities by developing and establishing access to a network of dual use ports, airfields, and other facilities across region

Some argue that China is even in the early stages of establishing a strategically located naval base in Cambodia which course co-instructor Joe Felter raised the official alarm following a visit to the southern port while serving as a senior official in the Department of Defense. China’s militarization of features in the South China Sea is perhaps the most egregious example of its illegal efforts to build military capabilities and extend the PLA’s ability to project power. Despite Xie’s promise to President Obama in Jing Peng Rose garden 2015 and the international tribunal ruling by the Hauge in 2016 that its claims have no basis in international law, China continued to fortify its illegal claims building runways, radars, missile sites, storage facilities and other improvements. See time-lapse videos of the reefs turning into a military base here and here.

The U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy
These were the conditions we confronted in 2017 when the current National Security Strategy (NSS) and National Defense Strategy was developed. These strategies reflected the realization we are in long term competition with Russia and China and must make a clear-eyed assessment and treat these competitors for who they are and not as we want them to be. As the NSS states Just as American weakness invites challenge, American strength and confidence deters war and promotes peace. The 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) pulled no punches. It was a real wakeup call for the military and the country. As Bridge Colby said in his talk to the class, “others described it as the first realist document we’ve had as a country in a long time.” Bridge points out that after the Berlin Wall fell we were the sole superpower and the country really didn’t need a defense strategy. We had so many resources relative to the plausible threats that we could essentially overwhelm any adversary. Besides explicitly acknowledging we are in long term strategic competition with Russia and China. It said that our regional priorities would shift from the Middle East to Indo-Pacific and China. And China is recognized as the more powerful and potentially dangerous threat. The National Defense Strategy outlined three major lines of effort that the Department of Defense needed to execute to face these new 2+3 challenges: 

  • Line of Effort I: Build a more lethal force
  • Line of Effort II: Strengthen Alliances and Build partnerships
  • Line of Effort III: Reform the Defense Department

And the US has made important progress across all three of these lines of effort. (Our students heard this quarter about some of the efforts aimed at reforming the Department of Defense – requirements and acquisition reform from Will Roper, new innovation organizations like the JAIC (Joint Artificial Intelligence Center,) from General Shanahan, AFWERX, Kessel Run, NavalX,…and they’ll hear more later this quarter from General Raymond about standing up a new service branch – the Space Force.) So how are we doing so far? First the bad news. China is making gains and many are at the expense of state sovereignty across the region which in some cases will be difficult to reverse (ie Hong Kong.) Under Xi and the CCP, China is structurally set up in many ways to compete more effectively e.g. with its coherence and continuity of leadership, civil/academic/military fusion. Other examples include how China’s State-Owned Enterprises can be employed by the CCP for coordinating and projecting influence more efficiently. But there is good news that bodes well for the outcome of this long term competition.  The US has a vision that is largely shared and embraced by those that wish to see the region remain free and open and for the rules-based order to endure. Significantly we are not asking states to choose between the US and China- but rather to choose their own sovereignty and a vision for future. Our challenge, however, is to ensure our actions match our strategy- demonstrating that the US is a reliable partner and will deliver on its stated goals and objectives. Bridge Colby gave us some compelling insights on the 2018 National Defense Strategy and participated in an informative Q&A session with our students. He provided an insiders account of the development of the National Defense Strategy and an informed assessment of its execution.

Read the transcript of Bridge Colby’s talk here and watch the video below.

If you can’t see the Bridge Colby talk click here

Lessons Learned

  • The National Security Strategy arrived at the conclusion that we are in an era of great power competition with Russia and China
  • The National Defense Strategy (NDS) describes how the military supports our nations overall strategy
    • It observed that we still face non-nation states (terror organizations,) but have to plan for 2+3 adversaries – China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and the non-nations states
    • Our regional priorities shifted from the Middle East to Indo-Pacific
    • China is recognized as the more powerful and potentially dangerous threat
  • We want our adversaries to choose diplomacy not war. To do so, we..
    • are developing a lethal force (the NDS Line of Effort I) to decisively defeat adversaries in future conflict
    • this ensures no state calculates it can successfully use force against the US to achieve its objectives
    • and therefore it must rely on diplomacy and other means short of war
  • The US has a significant advantage in its network of alliances and partners
    • Strengthening these alliances and building new partnerships (the NDS Line of Effort II) will be critical to our ability to compete effectively

Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 3 – Anja Manuel

We just held our third session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern WarJoe FelterRaj Shah and I designed a class to examine the new military systems, operational concepts and doctrines that will emerge from 21st century technologies – Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy. Today’s topic was Sourcing, Acquiring and Deploying Technology for Modern War.

Catch up with the class by reading about all the class sessions here.

Class 3:
Our guest speaker for session 3 was Anja Manuel, former State Department official, founding partner of Rice, Hadley, Gates and Manuel and author of This Brave New World: India, China and the United States. Some of the readings for the session included: Esper’s Convenient LieHow to Win the Tech Race with ChinaThe Age of Great-Power Competition.

If you can’t see the slides click here.

Winning the Wars We Knew
Joe Felter, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, started the class showing excerpts from General MacArthur’s famous Duty, Honor, Country speech given to the Corps of Cadets at West Point in May 1962. In what would be his final address to his alma mater, MacArthur admonished these future leaders of the United States military that, “Through all this welter of change, your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable: it is to win our wars. Everything else in your professional career is but corollary to this vital dedication. You stand as the Nation’s war-guardian, as its lifeguard from the raging tides of international conflict.”

Back in MacArthur’s day, fighting a conventional conflict akin to the wars America experienced in the 20th century was certainly not expected to be easy. Confronting the massive armored formations of the Soviet Union in the Fulda Gap or engaging in a proxy war fought in another theater would be costly and difficult to prevail (not to mention the specter of escalation to a nuclear exchange). But with known adversaries and technologies the weapon systems and operational concepts we expected to rely on to win our future wars were, however, easier to anticipate and simpler to define. 

For example, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor the U.S. knew how – and largely where – to respond. The country mobilized its resources and industrial base, raised powerful military forces and projected power – directing it at a defined enemy and the enemy’s industrial base. In conventional state-on-state warfare, the operational and tactical level activities that support a strategy to win are often clear. You mass fire power on objectives. You destroy the enemy’s military and industrial capabilities and seize terrain. All those things are missions that the military can get their head around. 

In MacArthur’s time we defeated our enemies and drove them to unconditional surrender. We did so by using the superior power (both quantity and quality) of our weapons and how we employed them. 

After WWII the weapons and defense systems we acquired and deployed reflected this experience. In the 1950’s we leveraged our industrial capacity and innovated by producing five new fighter designs and three new classes of aircraft carriers, and nuclear-powered attack and ballistic submarines.

As we pointed out in previous class sessions, in the 20th century, requirements were known years ahead of time and the DoD built incrementally better versions of the same platforms. (Although our experience in Vietnam would foreshadow the issues of unconventional warfare the U.S. faced in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Winning our wars remains-as MacArthur characterized- the military’s fixed and inviolable mission. However, the conditions we will fight in the future are much different, than in the wars we prevailed in during MacArthur’s time. How we prepare for and fight future wars must reflect these new realities of modern war. Adaptability has always been an essential attribute of successful militaries. 

We will discuss these ideas further in later class sessions.

Two Acquisition Paradigm Shifts 
Raj Shah, former head of the Defense Innovation Unit, pointed out that men and women in uniform have signed up to support national security with the equipment that they are given and must make do with what you give them. These men and women are quite resourceful to achieve the mission as best they can with the gear they have.

However, if we give them equipment that fails to keep up with the threat or state of the art, our warfighters bear a cost (ultimately with their lives) that they and the nation will pay.  So, it’s incumbent on us to think about the ramifications of these acquisition decisions.  It’s better to take risk in the hallways of the Pentagon than on the battlefield – risk aversion in the former will force risk acceptance in the latter, with potentially grave consequences.

There are two paradigm shifts going on in the DOD. The first, the transition from buying a small number of exquisite systems versus large number of low-cost systems. And the second, the shift from the DOD contracting everything from defense primes to building software themselves or serving as the integrator for off-the-shelf commercial systems.

To illustrate the escalating cost of military hardware, Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed famously graphed out how much each airplane costs. On the bottom left, a Wright brothers plane in 1910 cost ~$5,000 in today’s dollars. If you follow the cost line up and to the right, the F 22 Raptor – is a $300 million a plane (if you include all the R&D costs).

Augustine’s tongue-in-cheek conclusion was that if we followed this trend line, by 2050 the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. And that aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and the Navy for three and a half days a week, except on a leap year when it will be available to the Marines for that extra day. 

While Augustine was being facetious, the consequence of escalating costs of these exquisite systems plays out in the way he described. The Air Force said we needed 750 F-22s to meet all the threats. They ended up buying 187. They said they needed 132 B-2 bombers. They ended up buying 21. We design these world-beating systems, but because they’re so expensive, and it takes so long to build them, and the threats change before they get deployed, we’re going to be left behind.

The same story is being played out in our satellites in space. The National reconnaissance office builds satellites the size of school buses and they can do more than any other countries. But we just have a handful of them — all of them big, fat targets. But Planet Labs and SpaceX are launching thousands of satellites that individually aren’t as good, but collectively illustrate the trend of mass commodity versus exquisite. 

At the same time, the Department of Defense has finally realized how important software is. In fact, many of our most advanced airplanes and ships are really software delivery vehicles, meaning the software, not hardware, is the primary driver of capability. Over the last few decades, the ability of the DoD to design and even understand modern software design had atrophied. The good news is that DoD has recognized this and has announced a new policy for acquiring software, and have start building ‘software factories’ with names like Kessel Run (USAF) and Kobiyashi Maru (Space Force). Raj had a front row seat in this revolution: 


If you can’t see the video click here.

Many of the innovations that will shape future conflicts will increasingly occur in the commercial technology base. Advancements in these technologies will be driven by consumer demand and the potential for profit- not government directives. Requirements are not known years ahead of time. So, the DoD needs a new way of engaging and acquiring these fast evolving technologies. Fortunately, real progress is happening across the DOD. There had been a wellspring of new initiatives and reform. Hopefully the most successful of these initiatives will be broadly scaled across the department and federal government. These positive trends include: Software color of money reform, Middle-tier acquisitions, Other Transaction Authorities (OTAs), Commercial outreach organizations, SIBR reform, software factories, talent pipelines, rapid prototyping, digital engineering, and more (it’s a very exciting time to be a reformer in the DoD). But these initiatives will need to overcome institutional barriers to scale; our hope is that Congress, uniformed leaders, political appointees, and traditional contractors will continue to work together to improve the ability of democracies to deter and prevail against potential adversaries.

Guest Speaker – Anja Manuel
Anja Manuel is the author of This Brave New World, an overview of the political and economic relationships between India, China and the US.

If you can’t see Anja Manuel‘s talk click here 

Lessons Learned

  • 20th Century U.S.-centric rules for war were built around known adversaries and technologies
    • The conditions we will fight in the future are much different 
    • The Vietnam War would foreshadow the issues of unconventional warfare the U.S. faced in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • The Department of Defense is coming to grips with two major transitions
    • from buying a small number of exquisite systems to a large number of low-cost systems
    • from the DOD contracting everything from defense primes to building software themselves or serving as the integrator for off-the-shelf commercial systems


Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 2 – Max Boot

We just held our second session of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern War. Given the tech-centricity of Stanford and Silicon Valley, Joe Felter, Raj Shah and I designed a class to examine the new military systems, operational concepts and doctrines that will emerge from 21st century technologies – Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy.

Catch up with the class by reading our summary of all the class sessions here..

Our guest speaker this session was Max Boot, author of War Made New.

Class 2:

Some of the pre-class reading included watching the Secret History of Silicon Valley and reading selected chapters of Max Boot’s book, War Made New.

If you can’t see the slides click here. The text below refers to the slides.

The Technology-to-Weapons-Cycle
Our second lecture was a discussion of how new technology turns into new weapons and new doctrine. Simply stated, this cycle is a repeatable pattern that has been occurring for hundreds if not thousands of years. Our proposition to the class is that once the pattern is understood we can manage it and hopefully accelerate it.

As an example of the technology to weapons cycle, we used the evolution of farm tractors with treads to tanks. Late in the 19th century, manufacturers of farm equipment put treads on tractors to navigate muddy fields. Once this technology innovation occurred, the British, French, and Germans envisioned a military use for it in World War 1. Tanks would be used to defeat the machine-gun and to penetrate layered trench defenses so infantry and cavalry could advance. The British were the first to use tanks on the battlefield in mass attacks. However, the early versions of tanks performed poorly at the battle of Flers-Courcelette in 1916 and Cambrai in 1917. In hindsight, they failed because: 1) the technology was at the beginning of its S-Curve (immature technology and features, buggy, prone to breakdown etc.) and 2) there was no prior learning of how to coordinate the use tanks on the battlefield (they lacked a doctrine.)

In the years that followed, incumbents in the U.S. Army, both internal (existing leadership) and external (existing contractors,) used these early WWW1 failures as rationale to keep the status quo – in this case horses/cavalry. Over the next 20 years, tank technology matured, and it was the Germans who fielded the Panzer III (each with radios,) as part of a combined arms doctrine that integrated tanks with infantry, artillery and air support. Slides 3-9

The result was that in May 1940 five panzer divisions crossed through the Ardennes and France fell to the Germans. After another half a century of refinement in tank warfare and doctrine U.S tanks would overwhelm the Soviet equipped Iraqi Army at the battle of 73 Easting.

As the history of the tank shows, often the ones who best exploits new technologies isn’t the inventor, or the first user of a new class of weapon (which in this case was Britain in World War 1.) Rather, it was the German Army that honed the operational concepts (Blitzkrieg, combined arms) and added complementary tools (radios in tanks, tactical air support.) We could have illustrated the same disruptive technology-to-weapon cycle by describing the introduction of the long bow, gunpowder, the airplane, or even the use of rocks versus clubs. In all cases, the story is the same. This technology-to-weapons-to doctrine innovation cycle is illustrated in the diagram below. Slide 10.

Institutional Inertia is a Social Problem
Looking at this diagram, one might think that after going through this cycle once, it would be easy to continuously adopt new technologies and weapons. But the painful lessons from nations that lost wars teach us that technology/weapons leadership is ephemeral. It’s inevitable that the cutting-edge systems that leading nations build ultimately become legacy systems. They’re superseded by other nations that move more quickly through this adoption cycle.

Services, agencies and careers are built around acquiring, operating, supporting and fighting with legacy systems, and this hinders adoption of the next innovation cycle when it’s time to adopt the next wave of disruption.

This institutional inertia is as much a social problem as it is a technical one. General/Flag Officers achieved their rank because of their ability to lead people and manage known processes. Unconsciously most are most comfortable with technology and doctrine they learned in their 20s. When visionaries start promoting what at first looks like a technological toy, leadership perceives them as bringing disorder to a well-ordered system.

As a result, institutional inertia (social, budget, capacities, careers, contractors, et al) hinders the adoption of the next-generation disruptive technology and weapons allows adversaries to leapfrog the leaders.

This is an age-old story. Unfortunately, it’s now a story about us.

Multiple Disruptive Technologies At Once Versus Multiple Adversaries – With a Limited Budget
Today, the U.S. Department of Defense faces a proverbial Gordian knot – there’s not just one or two disruptive technologies potentially changing warfare but at least ten; Cyber, AI, Machine Learning, Autonomy, Space, Hypersonics, Biotech, Semiconductors, Directed Energy and Quantum. And unlike the last century, most of these innovations are no longer driven by military weapons labs that have a lock on the technology but are coming from commercial companies.

Compounding this problem of multiple new technologies is today’s reality that the DOD is facing multiple adversaries. The Department of Defense has to decide which of these technologies and new weapons will be most important across these five: China, Russia, North Korea, Iran and non-nation states. For example, weapons and doctrine needed to continue to project power in the South China Sea will be different than those needed to protect the Baltic States or counter a regional threat in the Mideast.  And we need to do all of this with a finite defense budget, most of which is being spent on legacy systems in 88 major defense acquisition programs. Trying to kill one of these to free up money for new weapons development is a major political problem. (Slides 10-13)

We closed the lecture by observing that the DOD may be best served if it developed an Innovation Doctrine to guide its leadership through these decisions. The question we left for the students was: What else might we do?

Guest Speaker – Max Boot
Max Boot is the author of War Made New, a book that describes many of these technology to weapons cycles.

If you can’t see the Max Boot video, click here.

Our student take-aways from Max Boot’s talk are below:
Lessons Learned

  • The cycle of disruptive technology into weapons is a repeatable and predictable pattern
    • Technology Innovation >Visionaries > Early prototypes > Inertia from Status Quo > Early Adoption > New Operational Concepts/Doctrine > Offset strategy/win war
  • Institutional inertia is a social problem
    • Most people are comfortable with certainty
    • Our current requirements and acquisition system (Planning-Programming-Budgeting System) is built on assuming certainty
      • At its core is a 1960’s belief that quantitative analysis and cost accounting can reduce uncertainty and make choices of weapons systems predictable 10, 20 years in the future
      • This focus on outputs and optimization “worked” when technologies, threats and adversaries were known
      • It fails when facing unknowns. Todays threats need an agile system that can build incrementally and iteratively, and deliver with speed and urgency
  • Today ten major disruptive technologies have emerged
    • Each will create new weapons and doctrine
    • Most are coming from private companies and are widely available
  • Each of our 2+3 adversaries will require a different mix of weapons/doctrine
  • Prioritizing these new technologies and weapons is challenging
    • Our defense budget is limited
    • Yet it has 88 major defense acquisition programs, most of them legacy systems
    • Killing any of them will likely require a coordinated Justice Department and DOD effort
  • The DOD needs an Innovation Doctrine to guide the integration of disruptive tech into weapons systems, operational concepts, doctrine, new organizational designs and an agile acquisition system

Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Class 1 – Ash Carter

We just had our first week of our new national security class Technology, Innovation and Modern War. Given the tech-centricity of Stanford and Silicon Valley, Joe Felter, Raj Shah and I thought it was natural to design a class to examine the new military systems, operational concepts and doctrines that will emerge from 21st century technologies – Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy.

Read about all the class sessions here.

Our students, a mix between international policy and engineering, will be the ones in this fight. If the past is a prologue, they’ll go off to senior roles in defense, policy and to the companies building new disruptive technologies. Our goals are to help them understand the complexity and urgency of the issues, offer them a model to understand the obstacles and path forward, and to inspire them to help lead the transformation of the Department of Defense to meet 21st century challenges.

Our guest speaker this class was Ash Carter the 25th Secretary of Defense.

The pre-class reading included: Christian Brose, The Kill Chain, Michele Flournoy and Gabriele Chefitz: Sharpening the US Military’s Edge and the 2018 summary of the National Defense Strategy.

Lecture 1:
This post describes our lecture slides below.

If you can’t see the slides click here. The text below refers to the slides.

The Big Picture
Context is important. We started the class illustrating the sweep of the rise and fall of empires and nations over the last 500 years. (Slide 17) The takeaways were that:

  1. National power is ephemeral
  2. China is the only nation that declined in national power and eventually recovered it – though it took half a millennium
  3. The rise of the United States as a national power was incredibly steep, however its trend over the last two decades is not heading in the right direction and is about to intersect with the rise of China

While the class is focused on how new technologies will shape new weapons and doctrine, the national power of a country (its influence and footprint on the world stage) is more than just its military strength. It’s the combination of a country’s diplomacy (soft power and alliances,) information/ intelligence and its military and economic strength. (This concept is known by its acronym, DIME.) (Slide 18)

It’s worth considering the reasons why nations decline — they lose allies, a decline in economic power (the UK in the 20th Century); they lose interest in global affairs (China in the 15th Century); internal/civil conflicts (Russia in the 20th Century.) We zeroed-in on one of the other reasons, and the purpose of this class – a nations military can miss disruptive technology transitions and new operational concepts (Slides 21-22).

And that has happened to us. For 25 years as the sole Superpower, the U.S. neglected strategic threats from China and a rearmed Russia. The country, our elected officials, and our military emotionally committed to a decades long battle to revenge 9/11. Meanwhile, our country’s legacy weapons systems had too many entrenched and interlocking interests (Congress, lobbyists, DOD/contractor revolving door, service promotion of executors versus innovators) that inhibited radical change. The 2018 National Defense Strategy changed that, becoming a wakeup call for our nation (Slide 25.)

All this was a prelude to introducing the class’s three parts (Slide 27):

  • The first part provides a broad overview of how new technology turns into weapons and doctrine.
  • Part two does a deep dive on AI, machine learning, autonomy, cyber and space (and will touch on biotech, microelectronics, quantum and hypersonics) and how each can be applied in the service of national security.
  • The third part of the class gives students hypothetical problems and asks them use 21st century technology to create operational concepts and doctrines that can solve them.

Technology to Weapons to Doctrine
As we described how the U.S. specifies and buys weapons systems to students accustomed to Amazon and the “make it happen now” culture of Silicon Valley, we could hear the “you got to be kidding me,” even over zoom. We described the theory versus current practice of defense requirements, acquisition and budgeting in Slides 28-32. And we repeated the obvious (that the system is broken) and the not so obvious – the U.S. is still using a McNamara-era requirements and acquisition system designed by financial managers from Ford and imposed on the DOD in the early 1960s. One observation that often goes unnoticed is that the government audit agencies – GAO, DoDIG – are also part of the problem, as they work hard in assuring compliance with bad strategy. (Best comment from a student, “It strikes me that our acquisition system isn’t broken – it’s obsolete. Built for a world that no longer exists.” An even more sobering comment was, “Was this system designed by the Chinese to ensure we can’t innovate?”)

Having a new technology and weapon doesn’t describe how it’s used to fight or win a war. Each new generation of technology (spears, bows and arrows, guns, planes, etc.) inevitably created new types of military systems. Shooting a gun instead of a longbow didn’t win a conflict; it required the development of a new operational concept and doctrine to learn; who mans it, what other activities are needed to work with it, how to sustain it, and how to use it to win. (Operational Concepts are the Minimum Viable Products of the practical application of a doctrine against a specific enemy in a specific environment.) Slide 33

New adversaries like ISIS in Iraq created the need for a new doctrine i.e. the 2006 Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24.

New types of disruptive technologies/weapons (China/Russia A2/AD, China’s  DF-21D and DF-26B) can create the need for new doctrine.

(Ironically, China building military bases on top of reefs in the South China Sea had nothing to do with new technology. It was simply a disruptive operational concept that used 20th-century dredging ships and a gamble that the U.S. wouldn’t interfere. That move alone negated 75 years of U.S. weapons and doctrine in the Pacific, and we’ll spend 10s of billions of dollars to solve the problem. The Marine Corps Force Design 2030 has revamped its operational concept to meet the new reality.)

Today, the Department of Defense can’t create doctrine, new operational concepts and new organizational structures against new technology and new types of warfare fast enough. Therefore, the purpose of this class – how to think about it systematically.

Incremental technology improvements in commercial companies and the Department of Defense tend to follow an S-curve – an initial systems capability is low as it undergoes shakedown and debugging, but climbs rapidly, then plateaus until it is replaced with another incremental improvement. However, unlike commercial systems, weapon systems are matched with a doctrine of how they are used. And incremental improvements in weapons typically result in incremental improvements in doctrine. And because of the complexity of the DOD requirements and acquisition system, the incumbent contractors are typically the same. New startups/companies rarely break into the system. (There’s something wrong when the cost of entry of Palantir, SpaceX and Anduril as new DOD contractors required billionaire founders.) Slides 35-37

Unlike incremental technology improvements. disruptive technology is on a completely different S-curve than existing technology and forces the creation of new doctrine and operational concepts. In theory, incumbent contractors of old technology/weapons should be at a disadvantage over the suppliers for new technology systems as disruption offers opportunities for a new generation of contractors and suppliers. However, as we’ll describe in later classes, the role of Congress, incumbent contractors, lobbyists, still favor the existing prime contractors. Slides 38-41


It’s sobering to consider what our existing legacy systems are versus where they need to be in the next two decades. It’s worth looking at the chart below for a while. Whether we want to or not this is where the new technologies are going to take us. Even if the chart is just directionally correct, each one of those transitions requires billions of dollars, new weapons and new doctrine. Slide 41

In both commerce and Defense, they are visionaries who can look at technology (that to others appears like a toy,) and they can imagine it fully formed a decade into the future with the new operating concepts against new threats/opportunities. Examples include the Blitzkrieg (Von Manstein), or the Nuclear Navy (Admiral Rickover,) or AirLand Battle (Creighton Abrams,) or Andrew Marshall at ONA, or Elon Musk at SpaceX. Executors (those focus on running existing organizations) often dismiss visionaries because, truth be told, most are hallucinating. But the few that are right, change the world or win wars. The biography of John Boyd (the author of the OODA loop) and his observations on “Be versus Do” in a military career is still a great read. Slide 42

The Impact of New Technology and How the DOD Will Acquire It
As an introduction to this class session, one of the assignments was to watch the Slaughterbot video, a dystopian (but technically possible) future of autonomy and AI.

As a nation the U.S. invests large % of its GDP in research and development; however, the source of those dollars has shifted from government to private industry. (The large rise in federal R&D in the 1960s was the investment in NASA and the space program.) While federal R&D is focused on the national interest, a lack of a national industrial policy or incentives for commercial R&D has those R&D dollars optimizing the greatest financial return. Slide 45

“No bucks, no Buck Rogers” describes the role that Congress plays in providing funding for all military expenditures. In the last two decades a federal budget was passed on time just four times. This plays havoc with having a predictable way to pay for new things. Slides 49-51

A glimmer of hope is occurring across the DOD. An insurgency has arisen in the services and combatant commands that has essentially said, “We can’t wait until our acquisition system is fixed, so we’re going to bypass it.” All the services have incubators, Accelerator’s, and SBIR programs. And they’re even making an end-around to a broken acquisition system. First driven by the Army, and now rapidly being used by the other services, a new way to write contracts, called Other Transaction Authorities (OTAs,) has emerged to bypass the years of paperwork. (Time will tell whether the existing acquisition bureaucracy beats this down or if it truly can sustain a breakout from traditional contracting and gets embraced by visionary leadership.) Slides 47 and 52

Guest Speaker – Ash Carter – SecDef


If you can’t see the Ash Carter video, click here

In the beginning of every class we ask our students for their feedback and thoughts about our guest speakers. Our student take-aways from Secretary Carter’s talk is below:

Lessons Learned

  • Technology by itself doesn’t win wars. It has to be built into a weapons system.
    • Today, many of the advanced technologies that will be used in 21st weapons are being built by private companies not the department of defense
  • Weapons by themselves don’t win wars. To be effective they have to be integrated into an operational concept/doctrine
    • Operational concepts/Doctrine describes how a weapon is used, who uses it, what else/who else needs to be used with it, how it’s maintained, etc. And the expected results when used
  • The way we describe what weapons we need (the requirements) and the way we buy them (the acquisition process) is built on a mid-20th process designed by accountants
    • Today, there are 88 Major Defense Acquisition Programs (billion+$’s.) Almost all are legacy systems – designed to fight 20th century wars
      • For example, the F-35/B-21/KC-46 aircraft, Ford-Class Carriers, Columbia-class SSBN, Virginia-class SSN, M-1 tank upgrades, etc.
    • In its attempt to minimize financial risk it has metastasized into a process that cannot field a major weapon system in less than a decade
    • The process does not differentiate between programs that are incremental improvements, versus those that are disruptive
    • The pushback to do something different i.e. the Marine Corps Force Design 2030 illustrates the institutional inertia to change -even when clearly needed
  • Existing technologies – can be described with an S-Curve
    • These systems start out with teething problems, mature, and then are replaced by better systems solving the same problem
    • Unlike commercial products, military technology/weapon systems have an associated doctrine – how it is used
    • Doctrine gets incremental improvements
    • Most often incremental weapons systems are built by existing contractors
  • Disruptive technology also goes through their own S-Curves, but they solve different problems/create new capabilities
    • Disruptive technology create new doctrine and in a perfect world, new suppliers

Technology, Innovation, and Modern War – Introduction

I’m teaching my first non-lean start up class in a decade at Stanford next week; Technology, Innovation and Modern War: Keeping America’s Edge in an Era of Great Power Competition. The class is joint listed in Stanford’s International Policy department as well as in the Engineering School, in the department of Management Science and Engineering.

Why This Course?

Five years ago, Joe Felter, Pete Newell and I realized that few of our students considered careers in the Department of Defense or Intelligence Community. In response we developed the Hacking for Defense class where students could learn about the nation’s emerging threats and security challenges while working with innovators inside the Department of Defense (DoD) and Intelligence Community to solve real national security problems. Today there is a national network of 40 colleges and universities teaching Hacking for Defense. We’ve created a network of entrepreneurial students who understand the security threats facing the country and engaged them in partnership with islands of innovation in the DOD/IC. The output of these classes is providing hundreds of solutions to critical national security problems every year. This was our first step in fostering a more agile, responsive and resilient, approach to national security in the 21st century.

Fast forward to today. For the first time since the start of the Cold War, Americans face the prospect of being unable to win in a future conflict. In 2017, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave a prescient warning that “In just a few years, if we do not change the trajectory, we will lose our qualitative and quantitative competitive advantage.” Those few years are now, and this warning is coming to fruition.

New emerging technologies will radically change how countries will be able to fight and deter threats across air, land, sea, space, and cyber. But winning future conflicts requires more than just adopting new technology; it requires a revolution in thinking about how this technology can be integrated into weapons systems to drive new operational and organizational concepts that change the way we fight.

Early in 2020, Joe Felter (previously Assistant Secretary of Defense for South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania and Hacking for Defense co-creator) and I began to talk about the need for a new class that gave students an overview of the new technologies and explored how new technologies turn into weapons, and how new concepts to use them will emerge. We recruited Raj Shah (previously the managing director of the Defense Innovation Unit that was responsible for contracting with commercial companies to solve national security problems) and we started designing the class. One couldn’t hope for a better set of co-instructors.

The Class
War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. Ever since someone picked up a rock and realized you could throw it, humans have embraced new technology for war. Each new generation of technology (spears, bows and arrows, guns, planes, etc.) inevitably created new types of military systems. But just picking up the rock didn’t win a conflict, it required the development of a new operational concept learning how to use it to win, i.e. what was the best way to throw a rock, how many people needed to throw rocks, the timing of when you threw it, etc. As each new technology created new military systems, new operational concepts were developed (bows and arrows were used differently than rocks, etc.). Our course will examine the new operational concepts and strategies that will emerge from 21st century technologies – Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning and Autonomy. We’ll describe how new military systems are acquired, funded, and fielded, and also consider the roles of Congress, incumbent contractors, lobbyists, and start-ups.

This course begins with an overview of the history of military innovation then describes the U.S. strategies developed since World War II to gain and maintain our technological competitive edge during the bipolar standoff of the Cold War. Next, we’ll discuss the challenge of our National Defense Strategy – we no longer face a single Cold War adversary but potentially five – in what are called the “2+3 threats” (China and Russia plus Iran, North Korea, and non-nation state actors.)

The course offers students the insight that for hundreds of years, innovation in military systems has followed a repeatable pattern:  technology innovation > new weapons > experimentation with new weapons/operational concepts > pushback from incumbents > first use of new operational concepts.

In the second part of course, we’ll use this framework to examine the military applications of emerging technologies in Space, Cyber, AI & Machine Learning, and Autonomy. Students will develop their own proposals for new operational concepts, defense organizations, and strategies to address these emergent technologies while heeding the funding and political hurdles to get them implemented.

The course draws on the experience and expertise of guest lecturers from industry and from across the Department of Defense and other government agencies to provide context and perspective. Bookending the class will be two past secretaries of Defense – Ash Carter and Jim Mattis.

Much like we’ve done with our past classes; – the Lean LaunchPad which became the National Science Foundation I-Corps (taught in 98 universities) and Hacking For Defense (taught in 40 schools,) – our goal is to open source this class to other universities.

As Christian Brose assesses in his prescient book “The Kill Chain”, our challenge is not the lack of money, technology, or capable and committed people in the US government, military and private industry – but of a lack of imagination. This course, like its cousin Hacking for Defense, aims to harness America’s comparative advantage in innovative thinking and the quality of its institutions of higher education, to bring imaginative and creative approaches to developing the new operational concepts we need to compete and prevail in this era of great power rivalry.

The syllabus for the class is below:

Technology, Innovation and Modern War

Part I: History, Strategy and Challenges

Sep 15: Course Introduction
Guest Speaker: Ash Carter 25th Secretary of Defense

Sep 17: History of Defense Innovation: From Long Bows to Nuclear Weapons and Off-Set Strategies.
Guest Speaker: Max Boot author War Made New

Sep 22: DoD 101: Sourced, Acquiring and Deploying Technology for Modern War.
Guest Speaker: Anja Manuel ex State Dept, responsible for South Asia Policy

Sep 24: US Defense Strategies and Military Plans in an Era of Great Power Competition
Guest Speaker: Bridge Colby ex Deputy Asst Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development

Sep 29: The Challenges of Defending America in the Future of High Tech War
Guest Speaker: Christian Brose, author The Kill Chain, head of Strategy for Anduril

Oct 1: Innovations in Acquisitions in Modern War
Guest Speaker: Will Roper Asst Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics

Part II: Military Applications, Operational Concepts, Organization and Strategy 

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
Oct 6: Introduction
Guest Speaker: LTG General Jack Shanahan (ret)  fmr Director Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC)

Oct 8: Military Applications
Guest Speaker: Chris Lynch (CEO Rebellion Defense, ex head Defense Digital Service/Nand Mulchandani(CTO of the JAIC)

Oct 13: Introduction
Guest Speaker: Maynard Holliday

Oct 16: Military Applications
Guest Speaker: Michele Flournoy

Oct 20: Introduction
Guest Speaker: Michael Sulmeyer

Oct 22: Military Applications
Guest Speaker: Sumit Agarwal

Oct 27: Introduction/Military Applications
Guest Speaker: General John Raymond, Commander U.S. Space Force

Oct 29: Applying Innovaton to Future Plans
Guest Speaker: Admiral Lorin Selby, Chief of Naval Research

Part III: Building an integrated plan for the future (Student group project)

How to build a plan for future war
Nov 3:
Guest Speaker(s): COCOM and Joint Staff Planners

Nov 5: Conops planning
Guest Speaker: Maj. General Mike Fenzel

Nov 10: Budget and Planning/Mid Term Presentation
Guest Speaker: Congressman Mike Gallagher

Group Presentations Dry Runs and Instructor Critiques
Nov 12: All six teams

Group Presentations
Nov 17: All six teams
Guest Critique:  US Indo-Pacom TBA

Course Reflections
Nov 19: Defending a Shared Vision for the Future
Guest Speaker General (ret) James Mattis 26th Secretary of Defense

Hacking 4 Recovery – Time to Take A Shot

Rise Up

“Let’s do something to help with the pandemic.” In April, with the economy crashing, and the East Coast in lockdown, I heard this from Stanford instructors Tom Bedecarre and Todd Basche, both on the same day. And my response to them was the same, “I can’t sew masks and I don’t know how to make ventilators.” But after thinking about it, it dawned on to me that we could contribute – by creating a class to help existing businesses recover and new ones to start.

And so, Hacking for Recovery began, starting first at Stanford and next offered by University of Hawaii for the State of Hawaii.

After teaching 70 teams – 50 at Stanford and 20 in Hawaii – 275+ entrepreneurs – we’ve proven three things: 1) people can take control of what happens to their lives/careers during and after the pandemic, 2) in five days teams can make extraordinary progress in validating a business model and, 3) this process can be replicated in other areas of the country that need to recover and rebuild businesses.

Here’s how it happened.

I realized we had the ability to rapidly launch a large number of companies on the path of validating their business models. We could offer a 5-day version of the Lean LaunchPad / Hacking For Defense / National Science Foundation I-Corps class that’s trained tens of thousands of entrepreneurs. The class already existed. I had been teaching it at Columbia University for the last seven years. Brainstorming with my Stanford co-instructor Steve Weinstein, we streamlined the material for a virtual class, and told Tom and Todd we could do it.

In two months, they recruited 200 students (50 teams) on 6 continents and in more than a dozen countries. What united the students was their belief that while the pandemic had disrupted their lives, here was an opportunity to shape their own future.

To support them we found 31 mentors, and 4 great Teaching Assistants. The entire course – from team recruitment to the actual class sessions – was hosted online through Zoom.

We ran the Stanford class three times, each in 5-day sessions. (The syllabus is here.)

The teams were able to do customer discovery via video conferencing (getting out of the building without physically getting out of the building) averaging 44 interviews in 5 days. In aggregate they interviewed 2,259 customers. But it just wasn’t the aggregate numbers that were impressive it was how much they learned in five days.

The results?

200 students will never be the same. Rather than bemoaning their circumstances, they decided to rise up and take their best shot. Immersed in a rapid-fire hands-on experience, and surrounded by mentors and subject matter experts, every team not only changed the trajectory of their company but left having learned a methodology for high-speed business model validation to help jump-start a business idea in these chaotic times and beyond.

The topics the teams worked on mirrored the opportunities created caused by the pandemic and sequestering. Over 40% were working on telemedicine, 28% in remote education or remote work. Other teams tackled problems in travel, small business, sustainability, etc. The 50 team concepts at Stanford fell into these categories:

  • 21 Health/Telemedicine
  • 9 Education
  • 5 Remote Work
  • 3 Travel
  • 3 Sustainability
  • 3 Small Business
  • 6 others

More than 15 of the teams have already committed to continue to pursue their startup ideas and are applying to accelerators and seeking funding.

When the sessions at Stanford were completed, we helped the University of Hawaii and Maui Economic Development Board STEMworks launch the Hawaii version of Hacking 4 Recovery – to rebuild the State’s economy, which has been uniquely devastated by the coronavirus lockdown. 20 teams just finished their program. With more to come. Other regions can do the same.

Take a look at a selection of the presentations below from Stanford’s cohorts. Considering some of the teams consisted of incoming freshmen, their progress is kind of mind blowing.

While we enabled 70 teams to start companies, what we really generated was hope – and a path to new opportunities.

AntiCovidAI – a novel mobile app to detect COVID-19 symptoms. Team included Stanford undergrad, Stanford alum, DCI Fellow, Stanford staff member and a graduate student taking courses at Stanford. We had 21/50 teams focused on health/telemedicine concepts

Nightingale – a telemedicine platform connecting nurses to caregivers to close the home healthcare gap.

Diffusion – led by a Stanford Ph.D, this team is developing a sensor to prevent head and neck injuries from falls, especially for seniors in nursing homes.

Edusquared– this team of 4 women who just graduated high school and are entering Stanford in September created an educational subscription box for young Special Ed students. 9 of the teams worked on Education concepts.

Work From Anywhere – the team designed a service to help people move to new locations as remote working allows employees to work from anywhere. 5 teams developed concepts related to Remote Work.

Eye-Dentify – was led by a Knight Hennessy Scholar who wants to help bring eyecare to remote underserved areas. Many of the teams focused on social impact.

Escape Homework – team developed an “Escape Room” platform to make remote learning for k-12 students  fun and engaging. (Post class, the team wrote a blog post describing their experience in the class. Worth a read here.  And they shared their page on virtual educational resources here.)

Voyage – was a global travel advisory platform for pandemic information.

Parrot – fun language app – crossing Duolingo with TikTok. Four rising Stanford sophomore women.

All 50 Stanford presentations are here: Session 1, Session 2 and Session 3.

Total Stanford participants: 200 (Men 51%, Women 49%)
Representing a broad cross-section of the Stanford Community:

  • undergrads  25%
  • graduate  14%
  • Summer Session Students  10%
  • Alumni  30%
  • Faculty/Staff  2%
  • DCI Fellows  3%
  • Other/misc.  16%

Thanks to the instructors who taught the class: Tom Bedecarre, Steve Weinstein and Pete Newell and to the guest lecturers: Mar Hershenson, Tina Seelig, and Heidi Roizen.

In addition to the instructors, each team had mentors who volunteered their time: Jim Anderson, Adi Bittan, Teresa Briggs, Rachel Costello, Phil Dillard, Freddy Dopfel, Mimi Dunne, Dave Epstein, Eleanor Haglund, Joy Fairbanks, Susan Golden, Rafi Holtzman, Pradeep Jotwani, Phillipe Jorge, Vera Kenehan, Robert Locke, Kris McCleary, Radhika Malpani, Stephanie Marrus, Allan May, Rekha Pai,Don Peppers, Alejandro Petschankar, Kevin Ray, Heather Richman, Eric Schrader, Craig Seidel, Kevin Thompson, Wendy Tsu, Lisa Wallace. Plus another 27 subject matter experts as support.

And when a class with a million moving parts appears seamless to the students it’s directly proportional to the amount of work behind the scenes. Without our teaching assistants who volunteered their time none of it would have happened: Head TA’s: Valeria Rincon / Jin Woo Yu and TA’s Nicole Orsak and Diva Sharma.

Lessons learned

  • While we enabled 70 teams to start companies, what we really generated was hope and a path to new opportunities
  • With the open source curriculum available here, it’s possible for any school or region to get a version of this class ready in 8-10 weeks
    • The 5-day format of the class works well
    • It can stand alone or complement the 10-week or 14-week courses
  • Having teaching assistants are critical to managing the admin side of marketing, recruiting, team formation, communications and overall support for the teaching team
    • Team formation requires heavy lifting of emails/team mixers/team – as well as match-making by TA’s and instructors
  • Having a large pool of mentors and subject matter experts is important in 5-day crash course, to support teams looking for interview subjects and contacts for customer discovery

Teaching Lean Innovation in the Pandemic

Remote education in the pandemic has been hard for everyone. Hard for students having to deal with a variety of remote instructional methods. Hard for parents with K through 12 students at home trying to keep up with remote learning, and hard for instructors trying to master new barely functional tools and technology while trying to keep students engaged gazing at them through Hollywood Squares-style boxes.

A subsegment of those instructors – those trying to teach Lean LaunchPad, whether in I-Corps, or Hacking for Defense – have an additional burden of figuring out how to teach a class that depends on students getting out of the building and talking to 10 to 15 customers a week.

400 Lean Educators instructors gathered online for a three-hour session to share what we’ve learned about teaching classes remotely. We got insights from each other about tools, tips, techniques and best practices.

Here’s what we learned.

When I designed the Lean LaunchPad/I-Corps/Hacking for Defense class, my goal was to replace the traditional method of teaching case studies and instead immerse the students in a hands-on experiential process that modeled what entrepreneurs really did. It would be guided week-to-week by using the Business Model Canvas and testing hypotheses by getting out of the building and building Minimum Viable Products (MVPs). After trial and error, we found that having eight teams presenting in a three-hour block was the maximum without exhausting the instructors and the students. That format, unwieldy as it is, remained the standard for a decade. Over time we started experimenting with breaking up the three-hour block with breakout rooms and other activities so not all students needed to sit through all the presentations.

When the pandemic forced us to shift to online teaching, that experimentation turned into a necessity. Three hours staring at a Zoom screen while listening to team after team present is just untenable and unwatchable. Customer discovery is doable remotely but different. Teams are scattered across the world. And the instructor overhead of managing all this is probably 3X what it is in person.

While we were making changes to our classes at Stanford, Jerry Engel was smart enough to point out that hundreds of instructors in every university were having the same problems in adapting the class to the pandemic. He suggested that as follow-up to our Lean Innovation Educators Summit here in Silicon Valley last December, we should create a mid-year on-line Summit so we could all get together and share what we learned and how we’re adapting.  And so it began.

In July, 400 Educators from over 200 universities in 22 countries gathered online for a Lean Innovation Educators Summit to share best practices.

We began the summit with five of us sharing our experience of how we dealt with the online challenges of:

If you can’t see the presentation slides click here

But the core of the summit was gathering the collective wisdom and experience of the 400 attendees as we split into 22 breakout rooms. The one-hour discussion in each of the rooms covered:

  • What are your biggest challenges under COVID-19?
  • How is this challenge different now than during “in-person” learning?
  • What solutions have you tried?
  • What was most effective?

The output of the breakout sessions provided a firehose of data, a ton of useful suggestions, teaching tips and tools.I’ve summarized the collective notes from the breakout session.

Customer Discovery and Minimal Viable Products
The consensus was, yes you can “get out of the building” when you physically can’t. And it’s almost good enough.

  • Discovery can be done via Zoom or similar remote platforms and in some ways is more effective – see here
  • During Covid most people no longer have gatekeepers around them
    • Sending lots of cold emails works (at least in COVID times)
  • You could find the best mentors and the best sponsor for a given project
  • Building and demonstrating hardware MVPs is a challenge
    • One solution is to send a design file to a fab lab to be printed
    • If you would normally have your potential customer hold, feel or use the product, make sure you video a demo someone doing that
  • For software MVPs create video demo snippets of less <1 minute to illustrate each of your features
  • It’s critical to offer a “How to do customer discovery remotely” and “how to build remote MVPs” workshop

Class Structure
3-hour long classes are challenging in person and require a redesign to be taught online.

  • Keep students engaged by having no more than four teams in a presentation room at one time
    • Have other teams in breakout rooms and/or with other instructors
      • Breakout rooms must be well thought out and organized
      • They should have a task and a deliverable
  • Break up lectures so that they are no longer then 15 minutes
    • Intersperse them with interactive exercises (Alex Osterwalder is a genius here, providing great suggestions for keeping students engaged)
    • Work on an exercise in class and then talk more to it in office hours
    • Avoid canned video lectures
  • Be more prescriptive on “what is required” in the team presentations
  • What’s the goal for the class?
    • Do you want them to test the entire Canvas or …
    • Do you want them to work on product market fit?
      • Teams will naturally gravitate to work on product/market fit
  • Vary the voices at the “front” of the room
  • Guest speakers – previously extraneous but needed now to break up the monotony
    • But if you use guests have the student’s whiteboard summaries of what they learned
    • And have the guests be relevant to the business model topic of the week
  • Understand that while students attend your class they actually pay attention to their mentors
    • Recruit mentors whose first passion are helping students, not recruiting or investing in them
    • Ensure that you train and onboard mentors to the syllabus
    • Have the mentors sit in on the office hours and classroom
  • Invite lurkers, advisors, and others “invited” to show up and chime in
  • Be prepared for the intensity of the preparation required as compared to pre-COVID times
    • Recruiting students and forming teams is especially hard remotely
    • Double or triple down on the email and other outreach
    • Hold on-line info sessions and mixers

Teaching Assistant
Having a Teaching Assistant is critical

  • If your school won’t pay for one, get some unofficial “co-instructors”
    • They don’t have to be a teacher–use an admin or a student intern
  • They are critical to managing the admin side of marketing, recruiting, team formation, communications and overall support for the teaching team.
  • Team formation requires TA heavy lifting of emails/team mixers/team
    • as well as match-making by TA’s and instructors
  • During class TA’S need to be focused on chat, breakout room and presentation logistics
  • Don’t assume (or let your TA assume) that prior practices will work in a virtual environment.
  • Be prepared to try different approaches to keep class moving and engaged
  • Pre-class write up a “How to TA in a Remote Class” handbook
    • Go through it with your TA’s before class
  • Use security in advance; avoid open entry (Zoom Bombing)

Student Engagement
Zoom fatigue came up in almost every breakout session. Some of the solutions included:

  • Play music as students arrive and leave
  • Recognize that some may be in different time zones – take a poll in the first class session
  • Start each class session with an activity
    • Summarize key insights/lessons learned from their office hours and customer discovery
    • For those using Zoom – use the Whiteboard feature for these summaries
  • Have students turn on their camera on to ensure the class they’re engaged
    • And have their microphone off, their full name visible, and a virtual background with their team ID
  • Create deeper connection with the students
    • ask them to anonymously submit a statement or two about what they wish you knew about them
    • ask the students to bring something to class that tells us something about them
      • have them bring it to the breakout rooms to share with their teammates and others
  • Randomly cold call
    • Don’t be afraid to call out students by name, as Zoom format makes raising hand or asking a question more awkward
    • Ask their advice on what someone else just presented or what they learned from the other team
    • After doing this a couple of times, everyone will become active (so not to get called on)
  • Require additional student feedback on chat – critical to keeping engagement high
    • Focus on quality of feedback over just quantity.
    • Have the students and mentors use chat during team presentations to share contacts, insights
  • Dial back the radical candor– take the edge off as the students are already stressed
  • Offer longer office hours for teams

(All the breakout session slides are here.)

When the National Science Foundation stopped holding their annual conference of I-Corps instructors, it offered us the opportunity to embrace a larger community beyond the NSF – now to include the Hacking for Defense, NSIN, and Lean LaunchPad educators.

When we decided to hold the online summit, we had three hypotheses:

  1. Educators would not only want to attend, but to volunteer and help and learn from each other – validated
  2. Instructors would care most about effective communication with students (not tools, or frameworks but quality of the engagement with students) – validated
  3. Our educator community valued ongoing, recurring opportunities to collaborate and open source ideas and tools – validated

The Common Mission Project is coordinating the group’s efforts to create an open forum where these instructors can share best practices and to curate the best content and solutions.

A big thanks to Jerry Engel of U.C. Berkeley, the dean of this program. And thanks to the Common Mission Project which provided all the seamless logistical support, and every one of the breakout room leaders: Tom Bedecarré – Stanford University, John Blaho – City College of New York, Philip Bouchard – TrustedPeer, Dave Chapman – University College London,  James Chung – George Washington University, Bob Dorf – Columbia University,  Jeff Epstein – Stanford University, Paul Fox – LaSalle University Barcelona,  Ali Hawks – Common Mission Project UK, Jim Hornthal – U.C. Berkeley,  Victoria Larke – University of Toronto,  Radhika Malpani – Google,  Michael Marasco – Northwestern University,  Stephanie Marrus – University of California, San Francisco,  Pete Newell – BMNT/ Common Mission Project US, Thomas O’Neal – University of Central Florida,  Alexander Osterwalder – Strategyzer, Kim Polese – U.C. Berkeley,  Jeff Reid – Georgetown University,  Sid Saleh – Colorado School of Mines,  Chris Taylor – Georgetown University,  Grant Warner – Howard University, Todd Warren – Northwestern University,  Phil Weilerstein – VentureWell,  Steve Weinstein – Stanford University, Naeem Zafar – U.C. Berkeley, and the 400 of you who attended.

Looking forward to our next Educator Summit, December 16th online.

The video of the entire summit can be seen here

What Can A Startup Do in 5 days? Watch this

With a terrific crew of instructors, TA’s, and mentors, we successfully concluded Session 1 of our Hacking 4 Recovery summer series – with 20 teams sharing their final presentations last night. Slides for these presentations are in this folder, and we will be editing and sharing videos of each presentation shortly.


  • Alivia – Telemedicine service bringing healthcare to middle income people in Peru
  • AllAboard – Remote onboarding services to help organizations establish a sense of belonging
  • AntiCovidAI – Mobile app for testing COVID-19
  • BBOM Preschool – Teaching social and emotional learning (SEL) to preschoolers
  • Collegiate Cost Busters – Delivering innovation to make college education more affordable to all
  • COVered – Crowdsourcing app to monitor risk for visiting public spaces
  • CoworkingSpace – Redefining coworking spaces in the post-pandemic world
  • Cratiso – Sourcing diverse patients for clinical trials
  • Florence Health – Telemedicine app to prevent hospitalization of congestive heart failure patients
  • HomeDoc – Central hub for connecting telemedicine platforms for nursing homes
  • Mango Lango – Mobile app that allows small businesses to reopen safely
  • MatchBook – Hiring platform structured similarly to dating apps
  • MemLove – Helping people grieve for lost loved ones
  • MUSTA – Telemedicine platform for patients in the Philippines
  • Remote Daily – Simplified employee feedback for small businesses
  • Resilience Gym – Online education and virtual reality to enhance mental health
  • – Mobile app for making reservations to visit your local stores safely
  • Sani-Team – Consulting service to help local restaurants reopen safely
  • – Cross-cultural education platform using international films
  • Voyage – Global travel advisory platform for pandemic information


Educators Summit: Lessons from Teaching in the Pandemic

SAVE THE DATE for the Lean Innovation Educators Summit:
Lessons from Teaching in the Pandemic
July 24, 10-noon Pacific, 1-3pm Eastern, 6-8pm London

As educators the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us all.

We’ve faced the challenges of teaching remotely, while virtually managing students scattered across the world, keeping students enthusiastic and engaged via video, helping them conduct customer discovery when they can’t get out of the building, and rolling with uncertain teaching schedules now and in the future. We’ve all been making it up as we go and have begun to see a glimmer of patterns of what’s worked and what hasn’t. 

Since the Pandemic we’ve taught three classes remotely – Hacking for Defense, Hacking for Oceans and our first of three Hacking for Recovery classes. I know I’ve learned a ton – some surprisingly good and some just surprisingly.

But more importantly there are hundreds of educators who have also learned valuable lessons. If you’ve learned something you’d like to share, or would like to hear how others are modifying their pedagogical approaches for the pandemic, you’re invited to join us virtually and collectively in this two-hour on-line session (with an additional one hour of breakout sessions for follow-up discussions on topics of interest.)

Some of the topics we’ll cover include:

  • Converting and scaling existing programs and classes
  • Standing up new programs from scratch
  • Improving diversity and inclusion in tech innovation education
  • Addressing K-12 opportunities
We invite you to submit your own instructional innovations for a virtual poster session. We will also be having subgroup discussions to engage in active give and take.

So save the date for the Lean Innovation Educators Summit on July 24th, 2020.

This session is free to all, but limited to Innovation educators. You can register for the event here and/or learn more on our website. We look forward to gathering as a community of educators to shape the future of Lean Innovation Education in the COVID-19 era. 

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