I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for over a year now and I continue to be inspired by this geographic center of mass for innovation. It is no wonder that both the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Homeland Security have both recently announced new programs with offices located in Silicon Valley to tap into that innovative spirit.
The Secretary of Defense’s program is the Defense Innovation Initiative (DII) with the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) positioning the DoD to be more open to the infusing of non-traditional technical ideas and talent. The DIUx set up its Mountain View, Calif., office in August.
Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in a Center for New American Security workshop to provide recommendations to the Secretary of Defense about how to capture and infuse some of the Silicon Valley magic into the Department of Defense. The group of people included members of the DIUx, defense industry associations, think tanks, and entrepreneurs.
The primary observation from the attendees focused on the increased requests from senior federal executives to tour innovative companies which has devolved into little more than a rote parade of military VIPs. While “jumping through hoops” and “dog and pony shows” are common jargon in government, Silicon Valley innovators are fueled by taking action on real problems and quickly pivoting until they discover the optimal solution. However, the aspect that is most ironic to me is Silicon Valley itself was launched by DoD initiatives (See Steve Blank’s talk on the Secret History of Silicon Valley), which means, at least at one time, that DoD knew how to effectively engage innovators and how to channel their spirit into meaningful work.
DoD can’t be an absentee owner of their new vacation property in Silicon Valley; they need to be a fully integrated member of the neighborhood. To be enfolded in the epicenter of innovation, the DoD will have to start out by fitting in with the culture. I’ve seen this opinion echoed in articles online, like Colin Clark’s “Can SecDef Carter Win Over Silicon Valley?”.
One thing I have noticed in my time living in the Bay Area is that many people close out their meetings with the same question:
“How can I help you?”
I have found something hugely powerful in this question as it seems to embody part of the culture that has made Silicon Valley companies so successful. In the asking of this question, it implies the asker is willing to take action and it supposes the receiver knows what they need.
Perhaps the DoD’s path to an invitation to the neighborhood block party is in recapturing the very spirit that helped build the neighborhood in the first place and being ready to answer “How can I help you?”