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Leadership Lessons from DARPA

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Last week, I had the opportunity to hear the director of DARPA, Regina Dugan, speak at a panel on leading innovation during a conference called American Competitiveness: What Works organized by General Electric and co-sponsored by Washington Post Live. In case you’re not familiar with DARPA, it’s the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. They’re the people who brought you things like the Internet and GPS technology. These days they’re working on an unmanned glider that flies at Mach 20. That’s New York to LA in 11 minutes. (They’re at 3 minutes of controlled flight so far.)

I’ve written about DARPA before, but listening to Dugan participate in a panel on innovation was a little bit like having Picasso on a panel about abstract impressionism. Some of the things she said went over my head, but her perspective on leading a culture of innovation really stuck with me. Here are three lessons about fostering a culture of innovation:

  • Have a clear philosophy, and repeat it regularly. Dugan explains the philosophy at DARPA as a mashup of basic science in service of a driving application. If she said that once in 45 minutes, she said it five times. If you have one without the other she believes you don’t get innovation. It can start from either the direction, however — the science or the application. For instance, DARPA has developed a small drone that mimics the flight of a hummingbird. The driving application was a drone that can fly in any direction. The scientific genesis was the only bird that can hover and fly backwards.
  • Hire smart people who are excited about the mission and like to build things. Dugan says that innovation only comes when you have smart, engaged people who like to build things. To get the engagement, you have to help people see why their efforts matter. You then turn them loose on building things and trying things out. That’s why DARPA has invested in donating 3D printers to 1,000 public schools in the U.S. Making things, she said, is key to innovation.
  • Design the organization for creativity. DARPA is a very lean organization. That enables them to move with speed and keep the decisions moving. As Dugan said, “Urgency inspires greater genius.” Obviously, not everything turns out perfectly on the first try (see the Mach 20 glider mentioned above). Dugan, though, says she doesn’t encourage failure, she discourages the fear of failure. Big difference there. It leads to smart people doing creative and valuable things.

When asked if there’s a sign or motto she keeps on her desk, Dugan said yes. It asks the question, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” The fear of failure, she said, is very constraining.

What would the people in your organization do if they knew they could not fail?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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