Untangling the Government's Innovation Architecture

This article is part of a new series on The Strategy Bridge analyzing some of the issues surrounding the problem of #TechnologyInnovation.

The Defense Innovation Board stated that what the Pentagon has is not a problem innovating, but, rather, a problem adopting innovations. A better understanding of the existing and emerging pathways for rapid adoption of technology helps to solve this adoption problem. Innovation is a term used broadly in today’s business and defense world with a myriad of definitions and understandings. For the purpose of this analysis, innovation simply refers to significant positive change, as defined by Scott Berkun. In a military career, one may see multiple examples in which technological innovation has given a significant advantage to one side or another. Conversely, there are just as many examples of technology and ideas stalled by bureaucracy, delaying and sometimes preventing equipment that could provide warfighters a critical advantage from reaching the battlefield.

A Vought SB2U Vindicator from the USS Ranger flies anti-submarine patrol over Convoy WS12 en route to Cape Town, 27 November 1941. (U.S. Navy Naval History Center/Wikimedia)

Throughout the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II, the Allies synchronized and operationalized tactical level innovations which proved to be key factors in success, while a lack of innovation hindered the German effort. The advent of Air-to-Surface Radar was crucial in helping aircraft locate U-boats from five miles out. However, the surface radar on aircraft and eventually on ships was an incomplete solution; a gap in detection from air persisted when an aircraft came within one mile of the target due to sea distortion. During daylight hours, the pilots could maintain a visual lock on the U-boats, but at night the pilots lost sight. A junior Royal Air Force officer personally developed a searchlight to attach to an anti-submarine aircraft, which the pilot would turn on once radar fidelity was lost.[1] This innovation was immediately operationalized by the Royal Air Force's anti-submarine force. The three key developments that came together for the Allies at the end of 1942 to begin turning the tide of the Battle of the Atlantic were long-range air cover; more efficient radars, direction-finiding equipment, weapons, and communications gear; and more escort vessels.[2] The Germans not only lacked comparable improvements, but also were unable to man new U-boats with properly trained sailors or experienced skippers. In the later part of 1942, the Allies saw a 400-500% increase in German U-boats sunk compared to the first few months of that same year.[3] This strategic victory in the Battle of the Atlantic would not have been possible without innovation at every level, a culture that promoted innovation, and a willingness and system to rapidly operationalize these improvements. A technologically superior force does not equate to a victorious force. How one identifies, scales, and applies the right technology for a situation is the key factor.

The United States Government has continuously looked for more efficient and effective ways to acquire and develop technology. In 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik 2 into orbit, signalling the United States Government that it had fallen behind in the space race. In response, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, creating NASA, and granting it the first use of an Other Transaction Authority.[4] President Eisenhower saw the need to grant NASA more flexible acquisition authorities in order for it to rapidly develop the technological means to lead the space race. Additionally, the launch of Sputnik 2 spurred the creation of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, an organization tasked with ensuring that the United States Government was at the forefront of any future military technological developments. These two serve as the beginnings of the creation of a multitude of innovative organizations across the Department of Defense.

If the Department of Defense has been creating innovative organizations throughout its history, with NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as early examples, why does this problem of adopting innovation persist? This article provides a heuristic framework of typical Department of Defense problems that, when applied to any of the multitude of United States Government entities that exist to aid in technology adoption, will help a Department of Defense element in the rapid development and implementation of new technology in a more efficient manner.

The Department of Defense generally defines a need for new technology in terms of requirements. Others like Steve Blank, in work with Pete Newell, argues that it should instead focus on curating a problem. This is an argument for a problem-based framework—fully understanding the problem statement, identifying use cases, and doing proper market research. Nonetheless, a common set of characteristics define problems facing today’s Department of Defense entities. Focusing on specific characteristics allows for the creation of a framework to apply to the United States Government’s innovative organizations. The five proposed categories are: requirement sourcing, funding, technology horizon, solution methodology, and the United States Government relationship. These categories help objectively define an organization.

The requirement sourcing drives internal projects or customer-based problems. Where does the organization receive its demand signal from? Is it a push from inside the organization or a greater strategic directive, or is it a pull from an outside customer? Organizations span from those driven by Department of Defense requirements documentation and others investing in long term emerging technology that could prove useful. From a customer’s perspective this helps understand how willing an organization will be to an external problem that the organization is not currently focused on.

Each of the organizations have a specific solution methodology in place to adopt and integrate technology into the Department of Defense. The technique by which an organization curates and dissects a problem and then processes a solution defines its solution methodology. Traditional Federal Acquisition Regulation processes and organizational authorities drive the solution process.

These processes tie to the method of purchase or prototyping for a technology, the type and amounts of money required, and how the Department of Defense integrates it into use through the acquisition process. While the Pentagon operates with five major categories of funding, the three that are significant for this discussion are Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E); Procurement; and Operation and Maintenance (O&M). Not all Department of Defense organizations have access to all types of funds, nor do they all have access to significant amounts. Factors such as amount, level of readiness of a technology, and purchasing mechanism dictate the type of funding required for a problem. Additionally, organizations fill roles as funders or enablers, defined by the organization’s ability to internally fund efforts or requirement for external funding from a Department of Defense customer. This is a critical component when deciding how to resource funding.

The type of funding relates to how Department of Defense innovations fit into the innovation technology horizon model. McKinsey and Company refers to a three-horizon framework for companies to assess their growth. Horizon One represents the core business model and support to existing programs, Horizon Two covers emerging opportunities that require further investment or are a significant extension of existing programs, and Horizon Three focuses on long-term growth or disruptive capabilities. This growth model applies as an innovation taxonomy, which provides a useful analysis of the various Department of Defense innovative organizations. Problems range from slight modifications to current products and capabilities to disruptive technologies that may not be fully understood yet. Commercial-off-the-shelf products readily answer some Department of Defense problems, while others require modification, prototyping, or science and research into a specific field.

Finally, the organization’s United States Government relationship defines where it best resources problems from, based on its ties to operational units, defense contractors, academia, or commercial industry. Additionally, this relationship dictates the employee structure at times. How an organization balances its civilians, mix of active duty or reserve military, retired military, federal employees, or government contractors, gives the core of the organization a background and expertise. This expertise provides a certain perspective on a problem and also dictates classification level of problems.

(BMNT Partners)

SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team ONE provides a case study on applying the framework to an organization and a problem. A SEAL team took a problem of underwater diver monitoring to Stanford’s Hacking for Defense class, a class where student teams select and tackle some of the Pentagon’s unsolved problems. The Hacking for Defense team, team aquaLink, chose the problem the SEALs proposed of creating a vital monitoring system for divers that could provide early warning of the onset of diving medical injuries. Through Hacking for Defense’s discovery process and aquaLink’s direct interaction with the operators, the team realized the majority of the operators were much more concerned about solving the underwater geolocation problem. This has been a problem for the community for some time, but not documented by an existing operational deficiency report or standing Department of Defense requirement. aquaLink created a floatable GPS antenna to release at depth and integrate with the SEAL’s navigation system while submerged.

A member of Team AquaLink conducts an underwater test on an experimental GPS buoy as part of the Hacking for Defense course at Stanford University. (Team AquaLink/Stars and Stripes)

Dissecting this problem and analyzing the Hacking for Defense process, one can begin to see the characteristics identified above.

Sourcing: An existing requirement did not outline the problem, requiring an organization with a process for prototyping and discovery. The Pentagon’s documented requirements do not necessarily drive Hacking for Defense’s problems. Although teams of students do have the option to introduce their solutions to problems they have identified, the primary pull for the class comes from newly submitted problems. Student teams self-organize at the beginning of the course and select from a bank of problems based on their own interests.

Methodology: Once the teams form around selected problems, the course begins to iterate on solutions, employing the Lean Startup methodology. The method does not focus on the acquisition process, but instead focuses on the problem’s solution. At the end of the quarter, the team’s goal is to produce a minimum viable product for the Defense problem sponsor.

Funding Enablers: Hacking for Defense serves the role of an enabler for problem solutions. Student teams receive $3,000 in funding to cover travel costs and prototyping and rely on the Department of Defense problem sponsor to determine the best method for acquisition and funding if the solution is viable at the end of the course. Here, in our example case, United States Special Operations Command would have funded any further development or purchasing of products once the class concluded. Students interact throughout the course with the sponsor to begin to map future funding options as part of their course requirements. The type of funding required by the sponsor at the end will vary based on acquisition law.

Horizon: The majority of the minimum viable product the student teams produce fit in the Horizon One and Horizon Two bins for technology. It is not impossible, but, due to course time constraints, they are unlikely to reach into technologies that fall into the category of Horizon Three. The horizon bins outlined here attempt to fit the organization into where it primarily operates. The technology the SEALs were looking for did not have a commercial solution that anyone had identified, nor had the supporting defense contractor provided a solution.

United States Government Relationship: The students in the Hacking for Defense class usually have no military background or security clearance, and the SEALs presented an unclassified problem. The relationship of Hacking for Defense to the United States Government is that of an academic research institution. Academia often provides unique solutions to Department of Defense problems that that larger organizations do not consider. Teams pair with a mentor, a point of contact from the problem sponsor, and a military liaison. This allows regular interaction with the problem sponsor to provide insight into the day-to-day challenges the military’s uses place on the technological solutions.

In conclusion, one can easily apply this framework to any United States Government organization focused on problem solving and technology adoption. The framework provides an ontology that, based on one’s problem or area of focus, helps identify characteristics of the problem that could drive an organizational pairing. This analysis does not seek to prove that any specific organization is superior to the other, rather it provides an initial framework to begin organizing the myriad of technological organizations that support the United States Government. Without specific technology case studies, a determination cannot be made whether any individual factor or category determines the success of the organization. However, this framework provides an initial understanding of these factors to help a potential customer leverage these organizations for rapid development and implementation of new technologies.

George Kulczycki is a U.S. Navy officer and graduate student in the Defense Analysis department at the Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed here do not represent those of the Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

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Header Image: Plywood ribs and foam slats in an innovative architectural design (Chicago Architecture Center/Richard Mehl)


[1] Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won(New York: W W Norton & Company, 1997), 50.

[2] Williamson Murray and Allan Reed Millett, A War to Be Won: Fighting the Second World War(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), Accessed August 2, 2017, ProQuest Ebook Central, 255.

[3] Overy, Why the Allies Won, 52.

[4] Surya Gablin Gunasekara, “‘Other Transaction’ Authority: NASA’s Dynamic Acquisition Instrument for the Commercialization of Manned Spaceflight or Cold War Relic?,” Public Contract Law Journal 40, no. 4 (Summer 2011): 894