Last year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) released a twenty-four page report simply titled “Innovation at DARPA.” A member of my own informal innovation network tipped me off to the fascinating document thanks to a tweet of a CNN article. The famous @DoctrineMan summed it up this way: “Be brief, be brilliant, be gone. The secret to DARPA’s success.”

I eagerly pored over the whitepaper to discover the groundbreaking secrets of the mythical organization that brought us the internet, stealth aircraft, and GPS. I envisioned discovering these genius scientists’ radical recipe that I could bring to my squadron, something I was so sure would be different than the way we do business in the military. After all, DARPA’s mission is innovation. While the military’s focus on defending the nation and advancing its interests in the world involves innovation sometimes, it is the sole focus at the relatively small DARPA.

Much to my surprise, the evaluation doesn’t contain a secret recipe easily translatable to a military unit. Instead, the tenets DARPA identify as crucial to their innovation culture are overwhelmingly similar to those that already exist—at least in name—in the US armed forces.

DARPA’s “Sources of Success”

The whitepaper reads like an advertisement for one of the coolest places to work in the world: patriotic people with the desire, know-how, and funding to imagine impossible projects, and then bring them to fruition to positively impact humankind. DARPA is a small but complex organization with a simple mission: both “avoiding and creating technological surprise” for the defense of the nation. The “Innovation at DARPA” report states they owe decades of results to four “sources of success,” three of which are remarkably similar to military characteristics:

  1. Limited tenure and the urgency it promotes
  2. A sense of mission
  3. Trust and autonomy
  4. Risk-taking and tolerance of failure

Most experienced service members will recognize strong similarities between a typical military unit and DARPA. It is a worthwhile exercise to compare, contrast, and evaluate the degree to which the two organizations meet these tenets of innovation both in word and in practice. Where are they different? Where are they the same? After a general analysis of each “source of success,” a series of discussion questions are posed to help the reader consider solutions relevant to his or her organization.

Limited Tenure and the Urgency it Promotes

When DARPA program managers, office directors, and deputies receive identification cards, they “prominently” display an expiration date four or five years into the future. This serves as “a constant reminder to them and their colleagues that time to accomplish important work is limited,” creates a sense of urgency, and is “probably the single most distinctive feature of DARPA’s culture and [among] the most important contributors to continuing innovation.”

This same basic construct colors any Navy assignment I’ve ever been a part of. Military orders contain a start and stop date, usually anywhere between two and five years, clearly defining the time you have to learn a new command, job, and develop expertise. Just when you have the hang of it and become the expert, your orders require a transfer to a different command where you will start all over.

Although the construct is similar between the two organizations, the outcomes are often very different due to a key difference: the sense of urgency. DARPA’s new hires know they have only a certain amount of time to develop a game-changing idea into a working prototype, their legacy on lasting positive change. Military members usually spend the first part of a tour integrating into a new command, learning a new job, and finding their “swim lane.” By the time they reach their “check-out job” that will earn them their “high water fitness report,” members routinely concentrate on accomplishing the mission, maintaining the status quo, and not doing anything to get themselves fired. Change, innovation, or process improvements that disrupt the status quo seem like something to avoid, creating a culture of risk aversion (more to come on that).

DARPA clearly sees the upside of a high rate of turnover:

Many organizations see the departure of talented people as a loss of important technical knowledge—the organization’s memory of what it knows. At DARPA, people think more about the downside of having a long technical memory: that some of what is remembered may be wrong or outdated and stand in the way of important innovation. Long-time employees sometimes use the fact of a past failure to prove that something can’t be done, but what was once impossible may be feasible now thanks to the development of new tools and technologies, or the increased urgency of a need. Hiring people who are ignorant of past failures sometimes opens the door to breakthrough success.

Similarly, military units routinely lose some of their most experienced and long-tenured personnel as members are transferred and move on with their careers. In order to prevent the loss of important technical knowledge, members leave a proud training legacy of “preparing their replacement.” This ensures the traditions of the unit and “long technical memory” are sustained over time. The downside of this compared to DARPA is that new arrivals are indoctrinated into the status quo. This is what works. We can’t change because we tried that three years ago when I checked in and it didn’t work. DARPA realizes that in today’s world rapid changes in technology, knowledge, or capability often allow something to be done today that couldn’t be done three years or even three months ago.

A Sense of Mission

This is the area where the military and DARPA are the most connected. An overwhelming majority of the US military’s all-volunteer force shares a strong sense of patriotism, service, and professionalism to support and defend the Constitution. Similarly, DARPA’s “vital mission draws people to the agency . . . [who] are inspired and energized by the effort to do something that affects the well-being and even the survival of their fellow citizen (and often the citizens of the world), as opposed to the ‘innovations’ that might make a commercial product a bit more salable.”

While both organizations draw talent thanks to this patriotic sense of mission to “change the world,” the mundane, day-to-day grind of bureaucratic tasks in the military often saps this passion. Units are busy getting through the day, the week, or the deployment with the status quo intact. This demanding routine makes it difficult to step back and think about the long term, invest the significant effort it takes to innovate, or positively change existing processes.

Trust and Autonomy

Debatably, the third concept that is found both at DARPA and the military is “trust and autonomy.” One DARPA director summarizes the agency’s model: “Get the best people, then trust them.” This “bottom up” model allows creative ideas to bubble out of passionate program managers, who are inspired by their own ideas and are invested in seeing them to prototyping and implementation. There are rigorous approval processes to ensure taxpayer dollars are well spent. Nevertheless the agency’s leadership professes that to achieve the most innovative results, it must completely trust those they’ve hired to autonomously oversee projects through during their limited tenure.

The concept of “trust and autonomy” exists in the military, always in theory and sometimes in practice. My own service prides itself on a long tradition of “command by negation,” codified in the Joint Publication 3-32, Command and Control for Joint Maritime Operations. The Navy is not alone in this commitment to allowing independent initiative for subordinates within a commander’s intent: it is the foundation of the Army’s Mission Command doctrine. Leaders provide big-picture direction to subordinates that allows individual initiative and independent operation to meet the commander’s intent. This system is rooted in the days of sailing ships or far-flung armies with slow or no means of communication, and is predicated on trust and autonomy. The Navy ostensibly remains committed to that sacred trust and independence of its unit leaders in today’s technological world of perpetual connectivity, but leaders’ autonomy is often eroded in practice by micromanagement from upper echelons.

Another interesting aspect is each organization’s ability to screen new employees. The best of the best want to join DARPA for their shot at a humanity-changing project. Similarly, thousands of brave and dedicated volunteers join the armed services each year envisioning that their commitment will impact the world in at least some small way. Military commanders face a challenge that those at DARPA do not: they rarely have the opportunity to select or even screen their subordinates; personnel are simply assigned by a bureaucratic process. Leaders at DARPA can create teams of world-class scientists from piles of applicants who are experts in their field. In the military, as former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld infamously said: “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish you had at a later time.” This creates difficult and unique leadership challenges for many military leaders that a DARPA program manager would never have to deal with.

Facing these challenges, how can commanders “get the best people, then trust them”? Commanders have little choice but to place their faith in the volunteers and the military institutions themselves—recruiting practices, the training pipeline, and the assignment process. They must build a culture of trust that leads to autonomy, which then can foment creativity and innovation. If the military institutions do not meet their end of the bargain, commanders must provide feedback to the machine—not an easy process. Absent changing DoD or service-level policy, leaders must create an environment where their troops can learn and improve. This requires comfort with failure, something DARPA delineates as their fourth and final principle of innovation.

Risk-taking and a Tolerance of Failure

This crucial part of DARPA’s innovation success is where the two models diverge most strikingly. DARPA sees failure as a part of achieving the impossible, as they profess here:

DARPA is committed to cutting-edge innovation, the kind of work that will change the world. That level of ambition—trying to do things that have never been done before,  working at the edge of the possible—necessarily brings with it the possibility and in fact the likelihood of failure.

Openness to new ideas, risk-taking, and tolerance of failure are essential elements of DARPA innovation. Proposals are rigorously scrutinized, but no idea is dismissed out of hand as too bold to consider. . . . Ideas are more likely to be rejected because they are not far-reaching enough than because they are too risky and ambitious.

According to a DARPA official, “If none of our programs fail, we’re not stretching far enough.” This completely counters the culture in a large majority of military organizations, and understandably so. At DARPA a failed project could mean millions of dollars down the drain and some bruised egos, but some positive lessons learned might help inform other avenues of advancement. “’Failure’ doesn’t mean the whole thing collapses,” A DARPA office director says. “Even if the end result isn’t what you were hoping for, technologies developed along the way may have great value. They feed into the ecosystem; something new is known. [emphasis added].”

In fact, DARPA even rewards failure. They awarded the 2011 Program Manager of the Year Award to the leader of a Hypersonic Technology Vehicle that literally crashed and burned multiple times, not because of the vehicle’s success but for the lessons learned from the fiery failures. This action speaks much louder than the institutional rhetoric of promoting risk-taking without backing it up as some organizations do.

Military professionals will be the first to point out that people would die if they embraced failure or didn’t mitigate risks. No one wants to be the one to inform a family that their service member was killed or injured; our institutional controls are inherently designed to prevent failure and reduce risk. Naval Aviation has implemented a robust Operational Risk Management Program for many years, training aircrew to make risk decisions at the right level and accept no unnecessary risk. We’ve been successful at identifying what risks are necessary, but unlike DARPA we usually err on the side of caution. This conservatism is expertly explained in a Strategy Bridge piece by Brad DeWees, who wonders if “the military mind is compatible with the values that make innovation possible.”

So how can commanders toe the line between protecting their people, achieving mission accomplishment, and still creating a culture of innovation that encourages risk-taking and embraces failure? The Navy Maritime Patrol Community’s Patrol Squadron Five “Mad Foxes” are setting out to do just that with their “Principles for Tactical Innovation” applied to the P-8A Poseidon aircraft. By adding a few specific qualifiers to DARPA’s keys to success, an internal document shows that they arrive at a model that could lead to a culture of military innovation in one of their internal documents:

Risk taking is encouraged in the appropriate domains. Safety culture and adherence to published operating procedures underpin everything we do. However when it comes to areas such as tactical employment, dogma should be challenged through a questioning approach. Audacious thought tempered by prudent execution is our touchstone. Failure is embraced as part of the learning process. In seeking better modes, failure will be more common than success. Failure hidden is without gain and a waste of resources, but failure shared in the pursuit of warfighting excellence provides exceptional learning. Celebrate the process and communicate the lessons, both in success and failure.

Will military leaders accept calculated risk and embrace failure as part of the learning process? Many skeptics say no, since risk aversion creates a vicious cycle in the promotion of leaders within the military. Analyst William Bell once said, “officers get promoted by stating their belief in courage, selfless service, and candor, but acting with timidity, extreme tact, and self-centered service. The senior leadership would have to repudiate their own successes to accept risk aversion as a problem. In general, most have been co-opted by the system, or they could never have become senior leaders. This is not a prescription for successful reform.”

A Common Goal

A comparison of DARPA’s innovation culture and the military’s generates many questions, and not a lot of answers. How can military leaders translate high turnover and limited tenure into DARPA’s sense of urgency, achieving consistent innovation to reach breakthrough success? How should leaders work to “bottle” the inherent sense of mission found early in service member’s careers and continue to draw upon it as their subordinates face the common reality of difficult deployments or daily bureaucratic drudgery? How can military leaders best build trust and autonomy with the aim of increasing a culture of innovation? Does each service need to handle risk-taking and tolerance of failure differently, and is it possible to promote risk-taking in training for the sake of learning, without inadvertently increasing risk-taking in combat, when such actions are less desirable?

Despite missions deeply rooted in national defense, DARPA has the luxury of focusing almost exclusively on innovation. While the military lacks this luxury, it is clear that there is considerable scope for improving innovation culture, and these questions provide a strong starting point. Hope springs from the organizations’ commonalities. DARPA’s and the military’s innovation tenets are very similar. Logically, if DARPA succeeded with these tenets the military can too, as long as they implement some cultural and process improvements. But striving to support innovation cannot be “in name only,” as Joshua Waddell notes in his recent Marine Corps Gazette piece “Innovation and Other Things that Brief Well.” It will fall upon innovative military leaders and those who support innovation to ensure that the hard questions are asked, analyzed, and answered. Our Nation’s future depends on it.


Lt. Cmdr. Jared Wilhelm is a Navy P-3C instructor pilot and Command Innovation Leader currently assigned as the Administrative Officer of Unmanned Patrol Squadron 19 (VUP-19) in Jacksonville, Florida, the first to bring the MQ-4C Triton to the Fleet. He completed multiple maritime patrol deployments across Africa, Central America, South America, and Europe as an instructor and mission commander, and won the 2011 Admiral Clark Award for Innovation in Aviation Safety. A 2014 Olmsted Scholar, he holds an MS in systems engineering and analysis from the US Naval Postgraduate School and an MA from the US Naval War College with a National Security and Strategic Studies (Latin American) Focus. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect the official position of any US government or other organization.


Image credit: John F. Williams, US Navy