A Look at How DARPA Approaches Innovation

Many people perhaps identify the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) with its most famous investment, ARPANET. Of course, ARPANET, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, was the genesis of the modern internet. However, DARPA has quietly had a hand in a good number of other innovations that have come to define modern life; everything from packet-switched networks to GPS to speech recognition. It is worth looking at how DARPA operates and how it has consistently made so many impressive leaps.

What should be noted is that DARPA explicitly does not dabble in incremental changes. According to Jay Schnitzer, former director of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, DARPA only deals with projects that are “revolutionary.” The emphasis is on “high technical risk, and high focus investments.” It is also interesting that despite the pedigree and name, DARPA views itself as an “investment firm” which just happens to make costly but high-yield investments in technical breakthroughs, rather than an R&D lab.  

Despite these sky-high goals, DARPA still happens to be an organization firmly rooted in realism. It takes potentially overwhelming and dazzling concepts but envisions them as concrete projects with palpable milestones. It also selects and scopes projects with a series of seven questions that are worth repeating here:

  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • How is it done today and with what limitations?
  • What is truly new in your approach which will remove current limitations and improve performance? How much will performance be enhanced?
  • If successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the mid-term, final exams or full-scale applications required to prove your hypothesis? When will they be done?
  • What is the DARPA “exit strategy?”
  • How much will it cost?

It should not be surprising that internally DARPA carries many attributes of a startup. First of all, it maintains itself as a lean, flat organization with roughly 140 technical staff at a given time. Second, it draws on talent from the very top of the technical and scientific pool. Finally, rather than encourage tenure and end up with long-term staff with the eventual effect of idea stagnation, it has a fairly frequent rotation of personnel that are technically diverse and experienced in different types of knowledge organizations.

DARPA is perhaps one of the strongest examples of public money being employed to realize long term value and innovation. Though many well established private organizations carry on impressive research initiatives, it can be argued that much can be learned from DARPA’s juxtaposition of idealism and practicality as well as its dedication to creating the most optimal environment in which to innovate.

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