U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. David N. Rodriguez assembles the Nibbler drone on Camp Lejeune, N.C., May 16, 2017.

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. David N. Rodriguez assembles the Nibbler drone on Camp Lejeune, N.C., May 16, 2017. U.S. Marine Corps / Lance Cpl. Taylor N. Cooper

Innovation needs to go more than skin-deep at the Pentagon, advisory board says

Mid-tier leaders aren’t properly rewarded for risk, the Defense Innovation Board finds.

Defense program managers and other lower-level leaders must make innovation a bigger priority, according to a new report from a top Pentagon advisory group that also says the department is getting in its own way in acquiring dual-use technologies. 

The Defense Innovation Board, or DIB, met on Friday to discuss a series of new recommendations for DoD.  The most important: make officials across the Department responsible for innovation, not just leaders.

DOD’s leaders must “reinforce that all leaders are responsible and accountable for innovation across the Department,” said the report, which was released when the board met on Friday. “The status quo will persist unless there is a shift towards a culture of innovation and risk-taking, driven by empowered senior leadership.” 

Read that to mean that while top Pentagon leaders may be saying the right things about taking more and better risks to accelerate the development of new weapons and capabilities, the system isn’t set up to properly reward middle-tier for risk and innovation officials in their own fields. 

“All leaders must transform processes and procedures under their command to make them faster, easier, more useful, and more inclusive of the entire ecosystem,” the report states. 

Board member Sue Gordon, a former principal deputy director of national intelligence, said in an interview, “It is a philosophical belief of the members of the panel you have to start making line managers responsive to the outcome, not just the thing.”

But that will require the Defense Department to take a new approach to risk and failure. For the past decade or so, the Pentagon has instead created work-arounds that enable it to access outside innovation without having to change much internally. A list of these might include the the Defense Innovation Unit, created in to match up consumer tech startups with potential customers inside the department, and Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, grants to circumvent clunky defense contracting. 

But Gordon said while those work-arounds reflect the direction the Pentagon should go, they can’t take the place of real reform. The Defense Department must do a better job not just buying prototypes but getting new technology into the field. 

“Hacking the system is not a good strategy,” she said. “Things like SBIRs are a great idea to get things in. But if there's no way to pull it all the way through.…Even if it's a great hack, it still has a limitation if you haven't figured out how to get it into the routine battle rhythm.”

When Defense Department leaders talk to lawmakers and at public event, they routinely point to the need to bring dual-use technologies into the military. But here, too, the Pentagon is getting in its own way, the report warns. 

“For instance, a start-up that develops AI for swarm drones could ultimately contract with the Department, but not before spending copious amounts of resources and time to succeed in the commercial space first. This adds risk to the Department by allowing market forces to be the gatekeeper of potentially mission-critical systems, rather than the Department making this determination on the front end to ensure such a system is not overlooked,” it said.

The report adds that the Pentagon is still too prone to vendor lock-in, due to the size constraints of the defense industrial base and the cumbersome process of filing out requests for information. 

“I don't think it's maleficent. I think it's like we see what's available but we can't escape our belief in what's necessary—whether that means we haven't established new processes to consider risk differently, or we just make it impossible for someone who hasn't done it before to do it exactly right,” said Gordon. 

The board, currently chaired by Michael Bloomberg, also features Reid Hoffman, who co-founded LinkedIn, and Mike Mullen. Over the course of its 8 year history, Defense Innovation Board recommendations have gone on to inform Defense Department approaches to enterprise cloud computing and artificial intelligence ethics.