The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been one of the most innovative organizations in history, with their indelible mark made in areas ranging from the Internet to driverless cars.
As such a standard bearer for innovation, therefore, a recent report from the agency should be well worth reading. It explores just how they have managed to maintain their innovative ways for so long.
“Many organizations innovate in their early years and lose that inventiveness over time,” it says. “DARPA is unusual and possibly unique in maintaining its pioneering spirit and achievements for so many years.”
The report details four main factors that have enabled them to sustain their innovative culture for so long:
- Limited tenure of managers – All DARPA program managers work under the understanding that their stay will be typically a maximum of four years. By giving managers a clear ‘expiration date’, they believe it encourages a sense of urgency to get things done.
- A real sense of purpose – I’ve spoken a bit recently about the importance of finding your purpose, and the report suggests that DARPA employees can really tap into their crucial mission to change the world
- Freedom and autonomy – The third key aspect of their enduring success is the trust placed in employees to do the right thing. The long approval process seen in other organizations is not something you’ll find at DARPA
- Acceptance of risk – It’s become something of a cliche that to innovate you have to be prepared to fail, but DARPA are a good example of where this kind of philosophy really works
This underlying culture manifests itself in many of the more public facing aspects of DARPA’s work, such as the various innovation challenges and competitions they operate, with websites such as Challenge.gov and CitizenScience.gov acting as a community hub for their various projects.
Central to many of these initiatives is as much to discover what doesn’t work as to what does work. It’s a constant learning process of experiment after experiment, with the overall aim of being as transformative as possible.
DARPA are undoubtedly a standard bearer when it comes to innovation, and the report provides an interesting overview of just how they do it. Well worth a read for anyone looking to make their own organization more innovative.