Why the Government Isn’t a Bigger Version of a Startup - War on the Rocks

How do leaders in government think about and organize innovation in a way that makes a difference?

The answer is that, yes, government agencies need to be more agile. And yes, they need to fix the systemic internal issues that hinder their own innovators’ contributions. But, in addition, what they are missing is a comprehensive plan to build a 21st-century defense innovation ecosystem — reintegrating the military, academia, and private enterprise. To harness both their own internal innovators and this new external ecosystem the Defense Department needs what I call an innovation doctrine to organize their efforts to rapidly access and mobilize talent and technology. The Pentagon can build a mindset, culture, and process to fix this. This doctrine would let the country again capture the untapped power and passion of the best and brightest to leapfrog adversaries and win wars.

Without a clear explanation of why this had been done, startups, which were already being funded by ever-increasing pools of venture capital, abandoned cooperation with the Defense Department and focused on high returns on social media and commercial applications. The commercial applications of big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, drones, robotics, cyber, quantum computing, and biotechnology are the core foundations on which the Pentagon needs to build the weapons of the 21st century. Yet the development of these advanced technologies is now being driven by commercial interests, not the Defense Department.

America’s adversaries understand this. China is tightly integrating its defense establishment with startups, companies, and academia in “military-civilian fusion.” Russia, Iran, and North Korea have also fused those activities.

Reconstituting the tightly connected military-academic-commercial ecosystem that the Defense Department once had requires the Pentagon to relearn skills it once had, overcoming decades of avoiding the political and social issues of what it takes to rally the nation against a common threat. Today, every government agency, service branch, and combatant command is adopting innovation activities (hackathons, design thinking classes, innovation workshops, et al.) to tap into the creativity of a new generation of soldier — born into a digital world, comfortable with technology, and willing to improve and enhance America’s ability to fight and win.

The Government Can’t Act Like a Startup

However, those activities are not enough. The government isn’t a bigger version of a startup and can’t act like a startup does. Innovation activities in government agencies most often result in innovation theater. While these activities shape and build culture, they don’t win wars, and rarely deliver shippable or deployable products.

Startups dream in years, plan in months, evaluate in weeks, and ship in days. At times this means startups operate at speeds so fast they appear to be a blur to government agencies. It’s not that these companies are smarter than Defense Department employees, but they operate with different philosophies, different product development methodologies, and with different constraints.

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