The Hare and the Tortoise is a great allegory for patience and dogged determination in the face of overwhelming odds. In the original story the tortoise won.
But when the tortoise represents an out of date, sclerotic culture and the hare represents rapid innovation, should'nt it be the hare that wins? Well that is what appears to be happening in Silicon Valley and strangely it is a member of the tortoise's team that is driving the change.
In this case the tortoise is the Pentagon and specifically its procurement processes which one of its former officials described as "an 18th century, wooden warship that has been out to sea for too long, accumulating such a surfeit of barnacles that it can barely float, let alone operate at full speed." Hmm, that rings a few bells.
Possibly surprisingly it was Ash Carter, the outgoing Secretary of Defence under the Obama administration that recognised this issue and set about trying to change it with a radical new approach to innovation procurement. But it may be less surprising when you realise that Secretary Carter is also a theoretical physicist who taught at MIT and Harvard before occupying a senior post in the Pentagon. He was convinced of the need for a new approach: citing a wonderful example of procurement's failure as the reason. When the F16 was launched, its pilots, barely knew which country they were flying over and had to use DIY kit in order to be certain. In Carter's view not only was that an appalling risk but also a massive procurement failure. He felt that they should have been using something akin to Google Maps long before that sort of product became a commercial reality. But more importantly, in order to make that happen, the procurement process itself had to change. Carter achieved that by setting up a new government department called DIUx; which utilised a little-known loophole called section 815 to massively accelerate a "mission-effective" defence procurement project.
For DIUx, Section 815 was "like Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence" and it has been amazingly successful. It has reduced the average procurement timescale from 5 years to just 59 days. In just 3 months last year, it signed 12 contracts worth $36.3m, with a further $100m lined up: all of them going to small Silicon Valley start ups who would just not have had the patience nor the funding to engage with the old multi-stage process. In return the military has access to a range of brand new technologies, many of which make Google Maps look obsolete.
Every country suffers from over-engineered government procurement processes and there are a number of initiatives, not least in the UK to look long and hard at them. But when we do look and we do inevitably find a surfeit of barnacles let's be brave. Let's follow Ash Carter's example and radically innovate the system, not just tinker around the edges. Who knows, like in the US, it may all get a little hare-rey.
In Silicon Valley’s culture, meetings end either with a decision on whether a deal is possible or, often, with the deal itself. In the Pentagon’s culture, meetings lead to more meetings .....