Attack innovation the ‘special forces’ way

Attack innovation the ‘special forces’ way



Over the past 50 years, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has produced an unparalleled number of breakthroughs. Arguably, it has the most consistent track record of radical invention in history. Its innovations include the Internet, stealth technology and unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. Though the United States military was the original customer for DARPA’s applications, the agency’s innovations have played a central role in creating a host of multi-billion-dollar industries. What makes DARPA’s long list of accomplishments even more impressive is the agency’s swiftness in developing breakthroughs, as well as its relatively tiny size and comparatively modest budget.Its programmes last, on average, only three to five years. About 100 temporary technical programme managers and a mix of contract “performers” — individuals or teams drawn from universities, companies, labs, government partners and non-profit organisations — do the project work.

The annual budget for the roughly 200 programmes that are under way at any given time is about US$3 billion (S$3.7 billion).

With its unconventional approach, DARPA has created a “special forces” model of innovation.

We led DARPA from mid-2009 until mid-2012. Since then, we have been implementing the agency’s model of innovation in a new organisation — the Advanced Technology and Projects group at Motorola Mobility, which was acquired by Google last May.

Our purpose is to demonstrate that DARPA’s approach to breakthrough innovation is a viable alternative to the traditional models common in large research organisations. The DARPA model has three elements:

Ambitious goals: The agency’s projects are designed to harness advances in science and engineering to solve real-world problems or create new opportunities. The presence of an urgent need for an application creates focus and inspires greater genius.

Temporary project teams: DARPA brings together world-class experts to work on projects of relatively short duration. The intensity and finite time-frame of these projects make them attractive to the highest-calibre talent, and the nature of the challenge inspires unusual levels of collaboration.

Independence: DARPA has autonomy in selecting and running projects. Such independence allows the organisation to move fast and take bold risks.


A central reason DARPA has been so successful over time is its unwavering commitment to work in what the late political scientist Donald Stokes of Princeton described as “Pasteur’s Quadrant”.

It entails pushing the frontiers of basic science to solve a well-defined, use-inspired need. Stokes named the quadrant after Louis Pasteur, one of the founders of microbiology.

Most corporate research budgets are devoted to innovations critical to maintaining companies’ competitiveness in their existing industries. The research agenda is dictated by technology road maps designed to ensure that research and development investments produce reliable outcomes.

The work in Pasteur’s Quadrant does not exist on road maps. It results in discoveries that upset the current trajectory and can destroy an existing business. Expecting the research organisation executing the road map to simultaneously deliver breakthrough innovations that challenge the road map is unrealistic. Instead, companies should create a small, dedicated independent organisation to work in Pasteur’s Quadrant.


There are two ways of identifying projects to pursue. One is to recognise that a scientific field has emerged or reached an inflection point, and that it can solve a practical problem of importance.

The other is to uncover an emerging user need that existing technologies cannot address. Both project types can be identified through quantitative analyses.

Quantitative analysis should also be used in execution plans to help clarify the goals of the project and the technical challenges it must overcome. Both the capabilities and the technical solutions may need to be adjusted as the programme proceeds.


Typical methods for planning and tracking product-development projects are not well suited to Pasteur’s Quadrant. Projects in Pasteur’s Quadrant involve fast iterations; planning should be light and nimble.

Progress can be assessed by tracking iterations to see if they are converging on goals, revealing dead ends or uncovering new applications.

Projects with set time-frames; leaders who leave when the projects end; and the scalability, diversity and agility of contract performers have an edge over traditional captive research organisations. All of those things make it possible to recruit high-calibre team members from a broader pool and get them on board faster.

Another benefit of limited tenures is that, combined with a clearly articulated important need and a scientific challenge, they create a sense of urgency. This forces the team to act as a whole to benchmark progress and to continually challenge “how things have always been done”.


The project leader orchestrates the entire effort. He or she determines what pieces of work are needed to produce a specific result, conducts a proposal competition and contracts organisations to do the work.

Project leaders who can successfully lead DARPA-like efforts possess the skills of the best CEOs of science- or engineering-based start-ups. Some project leaders may have held such positions. Others may come from academia, government labs, corporations and non-profits.

They need to have deep technical or scientific knowledge, be natural risk takers and be thought leaders who can create a vision that inspires an entire community.


An advanced technology and projects group must function in ways that differ from the normal company. Adjustments are needed in such areas as staffing, budgeting and protecting intellectual property.

In addition, the group’s breakthrough innovations may lead to new businesses that require major departures for the company — or that threaten existing businesses. For these reasons, the team must operate with some independence from the rest of the company.

Decisions about which projects to pursue must not be made by committee. Breakthrough innovations do not lend themselves to consensus.

Instead, the parent company should establish a multi-year budget with critical mass, ensure that the leaders of the advanced research group have visibility into — and the ability to influence — corporate objectives, and then give them the freedom to select projects.

DARPA’s record of success proves that breakthrough innovations can be produced consistently, in remarkably short time frames, with a small, agile organisation. And our current efforts at Motorola suggest that organisations in the public and private sectors can dramatically increase their production of breakthroughs by adopting the DARPA model. © 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp


Regina E Dugan and Kaigham J Gabriel were formerly the Director and Deputy Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Dugan is currently a Senior Vice-President at Google’s Motorola Mobility business, where she leads the Advanced Technology and Projects group. Gabriel is a Corporate Vice-President at Motorola Mobility and the Deputy Director of ATAP.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: