Innovate Like DARPA

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is known for innovation. Aside from being the people who invented the Internet (thanks, in part, to legislation sponsored and funding secured by Al Gore when he was a Senator), they also invented GPS, stealth technology, and drone technology, among other things. Yet they’re a relatively small budget ($3 billion) agency. How have they done this?

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review attempts to provide the answers, and tell businesses how to have moves like DARPA. They identify three key components: ambitious goals, temporary teams, and independence.

OK, I know what you’re thinking. “THREE BILLION is a SMALL budget? Plus, we don’t do cutting edge tech R&D innovation. How does any of this apply to associations?”

Creating “innovation teams” or “innovation initiatives” is definitely a trend in associations. But a lot of them go nowhere. And I think the reason may relate to some of what HBR identifies in what DARPA does – and we don’t do.

DARPA picks a particular problem. They don’t just tell people “go innovate…something. You know, anything. Whatever looks interesting.” No. They give their teams a specific problem to solve. To quote HBR:

The presence of an urgent need for an application creates focus and inspires greater genius.

What particular, pressing, defined problem your association is facing right now? “Come up with a cool idea about something” does not work. “We need to figure out how to keep our retired and retiring Boomer members engaged in ways that are meaningful to them and us” does.

DARPA also gives their teams limited time. It’s not “get to this whenever you like.” They have deadlines, and they are expected to meet those deadlines, which forces them to come up with and rapidly assess potential solutions to those defined problems.

Is there a sense of urgency to the problem you’ve identified? Does your staff respect deadlines and take them seriously? If not, why not? What can you do to fix that? What other tasks might have to come off people’s lists of responsibilities in order to make space for your innovation project?

DARPA uses ad hoc teams, with members from outside the agency. This allows them to get the best minds to address their problems and invite and incorporate fresh perspectives. Again quoting HBR:

In other words, the projects get great people to tackle great problems with other great people.

Who is allowed to have a new idea in your association? What happens then? What are you doing to generate diversity of perspective? How are you incorporating ideas from your volunteer leaders, members, and other audiences and stakeholders? From your competitors? Do projects have an end, where people can feel a sense of closure and accomplishment? Does anything actually happen with their great ideas?

What other tips do you have to share with your association peers about successful innovation?