I've been writing about the importance of agility in our industry (and my version of what that looks like) for over three years now. Over that time I've touched on processes, how teams work together, information flow, the shift to always on, the importance of breaking down silos, barriers to being nimble, generating ideas and innovation, corporate structures, attracting the best talent, examples of companies working in interesting ways, agility in content, interesting new models, developing a different mindset and more. It's become a popular subject of-course. And rightly so. But a theme that has been consistently important to me over that time is the need to not simply focus on process-change but also on all the stuff that surrounds it. Culture, resourcing, structures, and the very fabric of how people work day-to-day. If you don't change those things, you'll never fundamentally change anything.
When I was following rabbit holes and reading around How We Nearly Lost The Internet, I happened across a description of DARPA's key characteristics. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency exists to develop new technologies and funded ARPANET (the first computer network and predecessor to the internet) as well as supporting a number of other fundamental technologies in their earliest stages. This list of characteristics (DARPA being an organisation with innovation embedded at it's heart) reads like a manifesto for much of what I've been talking about: awesome talent; small, nimble, non-hierarchical teams; empowered front-line staff; diverse inputs; failing fast; strong knowledge flow and collaboration; distributed talent networks; flexible resourcing and organisational structures; marrying the problem, not the solution; combining long-term vision with short-term focus; great product/project/programme managers with vision; support for radical innovation. I thought it would be useful to reproduce them here in full, so here they are:
- Small and flexible: DARPA has only about 140 technical professionals; DARPA presents itself as “100 geniuses connected by a travel agent.”
- Flat organization: DARPA avoids hierarchy, essentially operating at only two management levels to ensure the free and rapid flow of information and ideas, and rapid decision-making.
- Autonomy and freedom from bureaucratic impediments: DARPA has an exemption from Title V civilian personnel specifications, which provides for a direct authority to hire talents with the expediency not allowed by the standard civil service processes.
- Eclectic, world-class technical staff and performers: DARPA seeks great talents and ideas from industry, universities, government laboratories, and individuals, mixing disciplines and theoretical and experimental strength. DARPA neither owns nor operates any laboratories or facilities, and the overwhelming majority of the research it sponsors is done in industry and universities. Very little of DARPA’s research is performed at government labs.
- Teams and networks: At its very best, DARPA creates and sustains great teams of researchers from different disciplines that collaborate and share in the teams’ advances.
- Hiring continuity and change: DARPA’s technical staff is hired or assigned for four to six years. All key staff i.e. Office Directors and Program Managers are rotated to ensure constant infusion of fresh thinking and perspectives.
- Project-based assignments organized around a challenge model: DARPA organizes a significant part of its portfolio around specific technology challenges. It foresees innovation-based capabilities and then works back to the fundamental breakthroughs required to make them possible. Although individual projects typically last three to five years, major technological challenges may be addressed over longer time periods, ensuring patient investment on a series of focused steps and keeping teams together for ongoing collaboration.
- Outsourced support personnel: DARPA extensively leverages technical, contracting, and administrative services from other DoD agencies and branches of the military. This provides DARPA the flexibility to get into and out of an area without the burden of sustaining staff, while building cooperative alliances with its “agents.” These outside agents help create a constituency in their respective organizations for adopting the technology.
- Outstanding program managers: The best DARPA program managers have always been freewheeling zealots in pursuit of their goals. The Director’s most important task is to recruit and hire very creative people with big ideas, and empower them.
- Acceptance of failure: DARPA pursues breakthrough opportunities and is very tolerant of technical failure if the payoff from success will be great enough.
- Orientation to revolutionary breakthroughs in a connected approach: DARPA historically has focused not on incremental but radical innovation. It emphasizes high-risk investment, moves from fundamental technological advances to prototyping, and then hands off the system development and production to the military services or the commercial sector.
- Mix of connected collaborators: DARPA typically builds strong teams and networks of collaborators, bringing in a range of technical expertise and applicable disciplines, and involving university researchers and technology firms that are often not significant defense contractors or beltway consultants.
Amen to that.