How DARPA creates and sustains innovation

How DARPA creates and sustains innovation

Agencies that struggle to innovate and create a forward-thinking culture might take a few tips from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which attributes its success to longstanding agency values.

The brains behind the development of the internet, GPS technologies, unmanned aerial vehicles, stealth aircraft and the brain-computer interface for artificial limbs, DARPA credits its success to a culture where the urgency of the mission requires trust, autonomy and risk taking.

Describing itself as an anti-bureaucracy, DARPA follows these principles:

Short stays. The majority of DARPA employees are hired for four to five years.  They even have an end date printed on their ID badges, so they know how long they have to accomplish their work. A continual flow of new team members who are ignorant of past failures also imports fresh ideas and more innovative technology.

Vital mission. The opportunity to change the world by preventing or creating “a technological surprise” inspires the staff and encourages program managers to innovate for the future and security of the country. Projects that protect warfighters, citizens and the cyber infrastructure fuel the drive toward innovation.

Two-way trust.  DARPA only hires people it can trust and, in turn, empowers project managers who are passionate about an idea and committed to seeing it through to make decisions.

Tolerance of failure. Because DARPA depends on new and bold ideas, it is tolerant of failure and willing to take risks. And while there is a careful vetting process for proposals and project funding, DARPA often rejects ideas because they are not far-reaching or transformative enough rather than too risky. Projects that don’t work out still generate new technologies and processes that are absorbed into the innovation ecosystem.

The right program manager.  Combining vision, passion and practicality, DARPA’s program managers oversee budgets and schedules, solve technical problems, facilitate collaboration and help the program meet its goals while staying current on the state of the art. Because they transitioning their new technology to development for actual military or civilian use, program managers are also responsible for creating relationships and communities that will ensure the project stays active after DARPA’s involvement ends.

Read the “Innovation at DARPA” report here.

About the Author

Amanda Ziadeh is a former reporter/producer for GCN.


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