Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Changing Culture through Visionary Thinking: Applying the DARPA Hard Test for Innovation

Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Changing Culture through Visionary Thinking: Applying the DARPA Hard Test for Innovation

Article excerpt

Changing an accepted organizational culture can feel like rolling rocks uphill. It can seem impossible to escape the inertia built up over decades of accrued behavior and entrenched beliefs. Yet an evolving, dynamic culture is critical to success in today's world. How do leaders find the right balance between reinforcing a strong existing culture and stretching people's ability to accept change?

We can find a model of successful cultural change practices in an unlikely place--a US government agency. My research into DARPA--the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency--explores how the agency has steadily pursued radical innovation since its founding 57 years ago (Carleton 2011). DARPA uses its program visions as a way to drive quick change without upsetting the organization's broader internal balance. The focus on vision at a program level empowers DARPA's dense layer of middle managers, called program managers, to consider new ways of working and thinking. In particular, DARPA has embedded the concept of "DARPA Hard" within its organizational culture, so much so that this term has established an internal standard for ideas intended for big change. For those looking to drive similar breakthrough success, I believe "DARPA Hard" can be a powerful tool to drive change.

How DARPA Works

DARPA was born out of crisis. The Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 took the United States by surprise, generating a sense of urgency that approached panic. The prospect of falling behind the Soviets in the space race spurred quick action. The American government responded by creating a new federal agency under the US Department of Defense (DoD) with a mandate for disruptive innovation--not just to win the space race but prevent any future technological surprises. Today, DARPA serves as the DoD's primary innovation engine, focusing on projects that are "finite in duration but that create lasting revolutionary change" (DARPA 2015).

Operating with a sizable budget--just over $2.9 billion for fiscal year 2016 (DoD 2015)--the agency has built a strong record of wins, including the development of ARPANET (the precursor of the Internet), speech recognition, shape-alloy material science, aircraft stealth technology, mechanical exoskeletons, bionic arms, telerobotic surgery, medical ultrasound, and the Global Positioning System (GPS), among other world-changing innovations. The catalog is so impressive that many R&D groups have looked to DARPA as a proven model of successful disruptive innovation (Bonvillian 2006; Belfiore 2009). That DARPA has been able to plant innovation so thoroughly into its culture is remarkable because, at its core, it remains a federal agency--one that manages to circumvent its own inherent bureaucracy.

At DARPA, every employee contributes to the agency's cultural ethos and helps define its vision. That vision can be captured in the phrase "DARPA Hard," which I heard repeatedly during my research into the agency's culture. While the phrase was coined within the last decade, the fundamental concept has existed since DARPA's founding in 1958. "DARPA Hard" sums up both the kind of work DARPA does and the way program managers approach their work.

As a description of DARPA's work, DARPA Hard characterizes the kinds of ideas the agency pursues--challenges so complex, complicated, and difficult that only DARPA will take them on. DARPA Hard ideas are high risk and high reward. These are big visions, beyond the agency's existing capability. DARPA Hard ideas sit at the intersection of multiple fields, or aim to create an entirely new discipline or paradigm. They promise to profoundly change how people think or behave. These ideas are far-reaching, technically challenging, multidisciplinary, and above all actionable. Taken together, in the context of the agency's culture, these dimensions lead to truly culture-changing innovation.

The Four Dimensions of DARPA Hard

For program managers, DARPA Hard crystallizes the expectation that they will introduce new visions regularly and then act on those visions to catalyze radical change in their technical areas. …

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