Most of us know that DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) brought us GPS, speech recognition, drones, nanotechnology, self-driving cars, ballistic missile defense and (of course) the Internet. What doesn’t get as much coverage is the thinking and strategy that enables a governmental entity to innovate at scale and lay a foundation for pretty much every technology we consider cool today. How does DARPA do it? It’s by asking beautiful questions, then wrapping an enabling strategy and operations around the steps towards answering the questions.
“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.” E.E. Cummings
DARPA’s first Grand Challenge in 2004 was considered a failure. The goal of the Challenge was to develop an autonomous robot capable of traversing unrehearsed off-road terrain. None of the self-driving cars that entered the competition in the first year finished the course. In 2005, Stanley from Stanford, was the only vehicle that finished the course. A short 2 years later, six of the cars that entered finished. The news now is that every major tech company is working on self driving cars, with the expectation that we will have fully autonomous cars by 2020. The competitors who responded to DARPA’s Grand Challenge and the leading tech companies working on self-driving cars all set down this path of discovery because DARPA dared to ask a question. A beautiful question. A catalytic, ambitious and actionable question that made everyone think about cars differently. Beautiful questions do that. PS: The actionable part is key here. The premise of self-driving cars has been around for awhile, the required technology (LiDAR, sensors etc) was never available until more recently.
Just asking beautiful questions is not enough though. Some companies ask beautiful questions but never answer the questions. DARPA asks the question in the Why?, What If?, How? format suggested by Warren Berger in ‘A More Beautiful Question’ and, beyond asking the beautiful question, wraps good strategy around the process of answering. This is evidenced in the DARPA problem statement from 2007, which states
“A basic challenge for any military research organization is matching military problems with technological opportunities (the WHY)…(2) some emerging technologies may have far-reaching military consequences (the ‘What If’) DARPA focuses its investment (the ‘How’) on this ‘DARPA-hard’ niche- a set of technical challenges that, if solved will be of enormous benefit to U.S. National security, even if the risk of technical failure is high”
Even Google/Alphabet borrows the DARPA methodology and sometimes the ideas, as evidenced by Google Glass and DARPA’s Soldier Centric Imaging Via Computational Camera’s program, and your company can too.
Almost as important as the question is the strategic approach that DARPA takes. DARPA itself is not an R&D lab but is more of an investment firm with a flexible structure enabling it to 1) capture opportunity quickly by 2) looking for high risk-high reward opportunities that it then 3) program manages with the involvement of the technical experts, technical experts who are now working with machine learning/AI systems that enable DARPA stay 10–15 years ahead of the market.
How can your company do this? How can your company stay well ahead of the competition as a driver of technology? What questions are the other players in your industry asking? Are you asking better and deeper questions or just doing the same things?? Is your strategy focused on different approaches to solving the tough problems in your industry?
It’s about asking the “Why? What If? and How?” questions that are ambitious and actionable and enabling your people to answer these questions believing that failure is OK but success moves the industry forward in leaps and bounds. That straightforward. But the question is, are you/your company willing to ask the beautiful question(s)? Are you?
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