Creating Innovation: Four Tips from DARPA
Companies usually say they want to build a culture of innovation, but saying and actually doing are two different things. Those that are serious should take note of the recently released innovation blueprint developed by the ecosystem at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
What does DARPA know about developing breakthrough technologies? It’s interesting that DARPA focuses on technologies that “changed the world,” instead of making “incremental improvements.” According to Biological Technology Office program manager Matt Hepburn, the mindset is, “if you don’t invent the internet, you get a B.” No joke, DARPA did indeed play a role in developing the Internet, along with an impressive list of other achievements.
DARPA’s top factors that contribute to a culture of innovation:
- Limited tenure and urgency. The employment period of the majority of employees is four or five years, and their “expiration” date is even printed on their ID badges. In other words, make every day, every hour count. New people with new ideas are always becoming part of the mix. It’s not a culture where employees are marking time until they can retire. And, you probably won’t hear: “That’s not the way we’ve always done it.”
- Sense of mission. Dating back to the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the mission remains straightforward: to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security. While there are commercial applications, the ultimate sense is of being a vital part, albeit small, of an essential, larger mission. After all, don’t we all want to feel our lives contribute to something bigger?
- Trust and autonomy. Micro-managing stifles creativity and innovation. “Get the best people, then trust them,” says Microsystems Technology Office Director William Chappell.
- Risk-taking and tolerance of failure. Here, failure is an option. The viewpoint: “If none of our programs fail, we’re not stretching far enough.” Of course, the how’s and why’s a project failed are analyzed.
The FDA recently approved a DARPA-funded project—an advanced prosthetic arm (nicknamed the Luke arm after Luke Skywalker’s bionic hand)—with commercial deployment anticipated in late 2016. The device was designed by Segway creator Dean Kamen, founder of DEKA Research and Development, with funding from DARPA. If you’re interested, there’s an early TED Talk where Kamen previews the prosthetic arm for injured soldiers.