Executive Coach Executive CoachExecutive Coach
Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

Leadership Lessons from DARPA


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.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.