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Defense Innovation Board Recommends Culture, Strategic Capital Improvements

Board members caution that culture can be at odds with forward movement connected to National Defense Strategy priorities.

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Members of the Defense Innovation Board recommended improvements around culture, talent and making it easier to work with startups to better position the Defense Department to overcome the “valley of death” in technology innovation.

The recommendations came during a July 18 public meeting in which the board discussed the findings from its task forces assessing two areas: the National Defense Science and Technology Strategy and strategic investment capital.

Science and Technology Hinge on Culture

The National Defense S&T Strategy released in March prioritized defense technology developments by forming a collaborative approach with academia, industry and international partners. In response, a task force considered whether the strategy is sufficiently meeting National Defense Strategy priorities. The board ultimately recommended:

  • Urgency around technology development by making it easier to collaborate across the defense ecosystem.
  • Accountability in leadership to prioritize outcomes over process and developing an implementation plan for the strategy.
  • Developing a talent strategy for more diversity in the workforce.
  • Two additional studies to identify ways to lower the barriers to innovation and map the incentives to instill an innovation culture.

According to Task Force Chair Mac Thornberry, science and technology strategies should enable servicemembers to have the entire nation’s best capabilities available to them. However, when it comes to the plan, obstacles could hinder success, the report noted.

“We have our doubts,” said Thornberry. “There is a culture that makes it very difficult to draw on the best of the whole country to assist and enable our warfighters.”

For military personnel to obtain a technological advantage, “a sense of urgency, strict accountability for outcomes and inspiring talent” must be present. Currently, Thornbery said, these aspects are missing.

In the report, the task force calls for more precise planning for future conflict. “The 20th century defense innovation ecosystem will not win a 21st century conflict,” the report said.

Modernizing the Acquisition Landscape for Startups

Five approved recommendations from the second task force summed up to caring “about industrial base competitiveness as much as warfighting readiness.”

Members discussed three areas within the “valley of death” in which technology projects get stuck in the process or do not materialize past initial funding. DOD wants to invest, but does not know how to act, the report noted, as it is unlikely that investments can scale from one side of the valley to another and succeed in the current system.

Chair Will Roper explained how reforms in each of the three components of the valley — the investment, middle and procurement sides — would improve operationalizing technology more quickly for the national security mission.

While money exists on the investment side of the valley, he said there is little desire to “make winners” on a systematic and sustainable basis, he said. To be a better partner, DOD must become “more expeditionary and accommodating to external stakeholders.” Additionally, it should take action to set itself up for investment success instead of relying on small cadres of passionate government entrepreneurs.”

The task force also recommended an “oasis of funding” be made available for successful prototypes in the middle side of the valley. This would allow companies to receive financing and productize projects.

Lastly, the task force had several recommendations for the procurement side of the valley, which Roper briefly touched on in the meeting. Suggestions include reducing headquarters oversight, shifting focus to modern industrial practices and approaching IT differently.

The report pointed to recent successes that are primed to move the needle for these efforts, including Defense Innovation Unit’s recent reorganization and the acquisition authority given to U.S. Special Operations Command.

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