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eli whitney innovation in muskets

What Eli Whitney’s 1798 Gun-Making Contract Can Teach Us About 21st Century Defense Innovation

In 1798, faced with potential war against France, President John Adams directed a threefold increase in the number of ready army soldiers.  At the time, gun-making was a complex craft; skilled gunsmiths worked by hand to create each distinctive weapon.  The young government didn’t have the capability to manufacture the weapons it needed, so Adams turned to private industry for support.

Eli Whitney, the famed inventor of the cotton gin, won one of the 28-month contracts to produce 10,000 “stands of weapons,” enough to outfit 80% of the army with new muskets. As the story goes, after two years of contract performance, Whitney had produced exactly zero guns. Instead, he had focused his attention on building a better system for building muskets. He built the factory and the machinery, trained a labor force for how to use it, and developed repeatable assembly process.  The result was the first weapons system where one musket behaved similarly to another and used interchangeable parts.

Outputs Vs. Outcomes in Defense Innovation

While there are certainly some starting points here for a conversation about acquisition reform, I’m focusing on a different, larger issue: how a narrow focus on outputs can distract us from pursuing the right outcomes.  Our military faces similar challenges today as they did in 1798, sharing  a need to rapidly scale its capability and evolve to multi-dimensional threat. Back then, they did it with more soldiers and more muskets; today we do it with much more sophisticated, integrated weapon systems.

We’re living in a new era for innovation in the Defense industry.  Defense Secretary Ash Carter is shaping and expanding an innovation unit in Silicon Valley (DIUx)—and the Department of Homeland Security is following suit.  Professors at Stanford University have students and soldiers collaborating to identify “hacks” for the way DoD does business. Groups like the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF) are facilitating discussions about major issues the Third Offset, Force of the Future, and Goldwater-Nichols Act Reform.  Earlier this month, the Senate Armed Services Committee released its draft of the 2017 Defense Authorization that splits the Pentagon’s largest office in an effort to improve management of research and development  efforts.

These examples suggest a consensus that fostering innovation in our defense machine is imperative to retaining our “edge” over competitors and obstacles—whether we are providing disaster relief and humanitarian support, or fighting large ground wars.  What government and defense leaders  don’t seem to agree on is where to start. What we really need is a system where we are continually getting better at getting better, where real change can happen faster than in 15-20 year increments.

Disrupting the Dominant Cycle of Thinking

Whitney’s brilliance is that he disrupted the dominant cycle of thinking at the time.  Instead of cranking out thousands of hand-crafted rifles, bayonets, and ramrods, he focused on building a system where new technology could be produced faster.  However, our current collective efforts to increase our technological advantages (e.g., Third Offset) seem more focused on buying better muskets—drone muskets, cyber muskets, nano-muskets, human-musket collaboration, inter-continental ballistic muskets—than building a system of innovation.  That needs to change.

Here’s a DoD-specific analogy for what that actually means.  Consider Innovation as an organizational capability gap.  DoD evaluates these gaps across Doctrine, Organization, Training, Muskets (i.e., Materiel such as equipment, tools, systems), Leadership, Policy, Facilities, and Policy (DOTMLPF-P).  Rather than looking first to innovative Materiel (“better muskets”) as we usually do, let’s first actually sit down and think hard about how we can innovate the way the department trains and equips our personnel to solve the problem in the context of the environment in which they must solve it.

Evolving Faster and More Effectively than the Competition

The ultimate strategy to counter competitors’ advantages (real or perceived) is a sustained, organic ability to improve and evolve yourself faster and more effectively than your competitors—rather than building a new portfolio of technologies.  If our objective is to create a system to get better at being better, there are two logical places to start:

Make the “Ability to Adapt” a factor for readiness.

Being ready to meet the demands of a mission is not simply a matter of assessing whether or not you have the right “kit” for the operation.  There is too much variation in the types of environments, the types of missions, and the circumstances surrounding those factors for you to assess readiness on equipment alone.  You have to assess whether or not the people and processes who will use the kit have the ability to adapt what they have (and don’t have) to fit the needs of the operation.

We need personnel who are ready to integrate themselves and their kit into the operation and be successful.  We need processes that allow them to do that—both in the field and in the headquarters functions that support them.  One way to do this might be to re-purpose some of the procurement budget for exercises. Don’t just assess readiness, test it.  Make these exercises faster to plan, less cumbersome to host and participate in, and cover more mission scenarios.  The more frequently we test ourselves, the better we understand our abilities, our needs, and the more we are inspired to innovate with real purpose.

Make non-materiel adaptability and innovation a tenet of the highest level guidance and plans.  

Strategic planning, policy, and doctrine provide a foundation on which much of the DoD’s ’s operations rest.  Like the mindset of our innovation efforts to date, these high level guidance and plans can also become too focused on “muskets.”  This is problematic because these high-level documents take years to formally update.  What’s published is often “behind the times”—describing situations and solutions that occurred in the past rather than enabling future success in what may be a completely new environment.  Fixing the strategic foundation that guides the way we “do” defense requires: 1) moving guidance, policy, and doctrine away from 3-5-year update cycles; and, 2) maintaining focus on enabling adaptability and innovation rather than focus on musket-based (“Materiel”) solutions.


John DiLuna and Danielle Wiederoder wrote this with me.

providing results in relevant time

Stop talking about ‘Real Time’; ‘Relevant Time’ is what matters

Everyone wants real-time information, real-time updates, the latest and greatest.  Alerts! Give me alerts!  But you don’t need real-time, and neither does your business (probably).  You need Relevant Time.

Relevant Time is the width of your decision-making cycle – the amount of time between when you make decisions about the same thing (your OODA Loop for any military readers).

If you re-balance your investment portfolio quarterly, relevant time for you in this context is 90 days; you don’t need stock price updates any more often than that.  If you’re in the market for a new house, hopefully your real estate agent told you that new listings hit on Thursdays, so relevant time here is a week.  If you only want to read and write emails once a day, you don’t need alerts – you probably don’t even need to set up the Mail app on your iPhone.  The unpleasant secret: even real time is just very minute relevant time.

Thinking about Relevant Time helps keep you focused on whatever is important to you (vs. the merely urgent), can keep information overload at bay, can save your business money by making sure you don’t over-engineer technology and reporting, and generally helps you make better use of the one thing you can’t get more of.

Fun data point: Google search hits for ‘real time’ vs. ‘relevant time’: 318 million to 1 million.

acquisition innovation will yield better outcomes for government services

So you’re an Acquisition Innovation Advocate – now what?

The new initiative announced by the White House to encourage the establishment of Acquisition Innovation “Labs” in Federal Agencies is a great step towards facilitating a culture that facilitates ingenuity and innovation.  One aspect of the initiative urges Departments and Agencies to appoint Acquisition Innovation  Advocates as a means to foster greater innovation, to stand up Innovation “Labs“, — really just a commitment to experiment with better ways to solve mission challenges through procurement, but I’m going to stick with Lab for the rest of this post — and to participate in an established council.  If you find yourself named as your agency’s Acquisition Innovation  Advocate or otherwise leading an Acquisition Innovation Lab, I offer a sample roadmap that has an excellent track record in innovation efforts, especially those with the sense to run like a start-up.

If you want to move your Agency’s Lab forward from “good idea” to “real impact”, you need to overcome inertia: on Day 90, you need to have at least 3 pilots launched. This means you need to have something of value to offer to willing customers with active requirements and procurement problems to solve.  Which means you need a thorough understanding of the requirements in the pipeline, the missions of the owner of each requirement, what they are trying to accomplish with each requirement, and the specific procurement challenges most impactful to each.  And you have to do all of this in the context of your agency mission and strategy.

This probably sounds like a lot.  You might be anxious.  An important way to minimize stress will be to minimize the spin/churn cycle.  If you change an experiment while you’re running it, it’s impossible to assess the result.

Start in a green field.  The FAR isn’t a labyrinth; it’s a giant prairie with some critical fences and some occasional giant rocks.  OFPP and the federal CIO told you to focus on technology procurements.  I wouldn’t limit your opportunity for innovation to just IT.  Focusing on IT and digital is good – these have gotten a lot of attention in recent years – but looking at services more broadly is the biggest opportunity: 2/3 of the federal government’s $437 billion in contracts during Fiscal Year 2015 were for services – and IT/Communications products weren’t even half of the 1/3 that was product/supplies spend (FPDS-NG).  Look at the entire procurement journey – from requirement concept to contract closeout – and be open to trade-offs.  Look at the three major groups of participants – the customer, the procurement shop, and the prospective vendor.

First, lay a strong foundation by setting out to make your innovations a win-win-win for each of the three types of participants – your customer, the procurement office, and the vendors who will offer solutions.  Try to do this in your first two weeks.  Be clear about what your agency wants from this effort.  Is it the cheapest, fastest solutions? Or more about the quality of the service or product (utility & warranty)?  How does the customer experience factor into acquisitions (both from the government program manager and the vendor perspectives)?  This will drive what you measure and how.  Calling in support from an artificial intelligence system that lives in the cloudcan’t help you here.

Take this opportunity to spend a few days re-learning your agency as a buyer. What does your agency really buy? What does the requirement pipeline look like?  Based on this discovery and learning, identify major areas of opportunity.  If these are still IT, great. Run with it.

Second, recruit early adopters as customers for your Lab.  To do this you need to craft your value proposition – why these customers should take a chance on the Lab: be explicit, be objective, and be honest.  Aim to do this by the end of Month 2.  If you want to end up with three strong pilots, you need to start with 20-30 prospects.  An email announcing the experiment is one way to raise awareness.  You should also consider a road show among the customers who already have requirements in the acquisition forecast.  Use these early adopter prospects to build a pipeline of upcoming customer requirements for the Lab.  From this pipeline, you will draw your 3 pilot procurements.  There may be some back-and-forth with customers as you recruit them to participate.

To narrow the list, you first establish criteria for what constitutes a good pilot candidate – measured against the utility, warranty, and experience objectives you laid out in the first two weeks.  Next, you and your team do a first round of scoping these potential pilots.  What mission outcomes is the customer trying to accomplish or enable with this procurement? What’s the customer particular procurement problem, how might you solve it, what would it take, what are the obstacles, etc.?  Force-rank these potential pilots, and then take a couple of weeks to refine the scope of the best half with the customer.  Repeat this down-select process toward the end of month two.  As part of selecting your first three pilots, be sure that you can measure what you need to measure for each in a timely and accurate manner.  You can reduce angst by keeping this part simple; just focus on how each furthers your acquisition innovation outcomes.

Third, select the top three pilots, execute, and “land the plane”.    By Day 90, launch your pilots.  Measure your results. Listen to your customers, the acquisition professionals involved in each pilot, and the vendors who offering solutions (and those who aren’t).  Read between the lines.  Measure impact and perceptions on both sides of the acquisition equation (government and industry).  The people involved will make or break any innovation.

As you think about the pilots, understand what behavior you incentivized or disincentivized?  Are procurements appealing only to well-funded, established companies that can afford to take the risk?  Does the approach encourage competition?  What are the costs to bid on work relative to the award?  What is the impact to the market?  “If my agency continues this behavior…”

This roadmap should get you started on building and measuring your experiments with better ways to solve your agency’s mission challenges using procurement.  Next you need to feed what you learn back into more experiments and start scaling what works.

I love thinking about this stuff, and I’d love to hear what you have to say.