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What the Pentagon can teach us about innovation

Anyone who knows me will know that I can’t let a good drone story go by without commenting, although this is a (longer than usual) commentary around change management more than it is around drones.

The Pentagon recently announced the successful launch of 103 micro-drones from F-18 jets, and the subsequent intelligent swarm behaviour of these drones. The intention to do this was in the UAV news last year during very early tests.

The trick here is one of asymmetric warfare. Most major military equipment – imagine a front-line tank or battleship – was designed to combat other similar forces. They will have limited capability to target very many enemies, let alone fire at them. In the right situation, 50 cheap speedboats could theoretically take out a $100+ million front line combat vessel. That’s a very big problem (and opportunity) for any established military to deal with.

Rather than take the usual commentary path here, I want to focus on the organisation that did this test – the Strategic Capabilities Office. We usually hear about DARPA (focused on breakthrough future technology) in the news, not the SCO.

The Pentagon has worked out that there’s a mismatch between their large multi-decade development programs and a rapidly changing exponential world. The F-18s that dropped these drones were, ironically, conceived in the 70s. The F-18 has undergone very many modernisations & refinements but, very broadly speaking, this airframe has been in service for 40 years. The kick-off contract for the more recent F-35 was signed in the mid-90s, deliveries are expected through to 2037, and the operational life should (theoretically) be some decades past that date.

The Pentagon has tackled this mismatch by forming a dedicated organisation, whose role is to disrupt and work outside of the usual long-timeframe procurement processes – and one that takes a much more immediate pragmatic view than DARPA does.

To quote:
“The engineers at SCO do this using one of three approaches — by taking something designed for one mission and making it do a completely different mission, or by integrating systems into teams — “I can’t solve the problem with system A or system B but by connecting them together I can,” Roper explained — or changing the game by adding in commercial technology.”

There is probably a nice lesson here for any large, established, organisation that is faced with uncomfortable and very real challenges within increasingly nimble markets. Sure, look ahead to invent the future (i.e. the DARPA strategy) AND ALSO re-purpose existing things in new ways, connect things that have not been connected before, and reach out to cheap commercial technology to fill strategic gaps while you work on that big future-facing idea. There’s much that can be done with a bit of pragmatic re-thinking (and sticky tape).


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