Lean Startup As A National Security Imperative

Originally published by HuffPost on October 27th, 2017.

This is post nine in our 13-part Lean Startup Co. Education Program series. A curated collection of pieces designed to cover topics ranging from cross-functional teams, to embracing failure, complete with real-world stories from our diverse roster of clients and insights from our Lean Startup Co. Labs Faculty.

Tanks, Planes and Planning for the Future: Lean Startup Lessons from the DOD

One of the biggest obstacles for innovators in the corporate world is lack of buy-in from leadership or others. Too often, enterprises look at Lean Startup as “not for us.” Those in the retail industry relegate it to manufacturing; those in banking say it might work in healthcare but not as well in finance. It’s not surprising that Department of Defense agencies look at the concept of Lean Startup as belonging to the commercial world; everyone else seems ready to pass on the concept, so why not? In reality, Lean Startup and the concepts of rapid experimentation and feedback can fit into any organization with positive results. In fact, military organizations have been using these concepts for almost a century now, and the historical use of and current need for Lean Startup methods in U.S. defense offers several lessons for entrepreneurs and enterprises alike.

Lean Startup Works in Uncertain Environments

Here’s something the U.S. DOD has in common with plenty of commercial enterprises: it is currently operating in a time of great uncertainty. Both national security and commercial productivity and success are being constantly disrupted by technology. The fast evolution in technology and the ability of competitors (or competing nations or enemies) to leverage it means that the way business is run (or nations are kept safe) has to change too.

How will the United States fight and defend itself in the future, given that so many threats are cyber in nature? How do the tenants of the U.S. defense model, which include resources such as aircraft carriers, fit into this defense? Lean Startup experimentation is a way to address these questions and find suitable answers, just as it’s a way commercial organizations in any industry can discover needs and define solutions that keep pace with evolving markets, technologies and trends.

The Best Tech Doesn’t Always Win

Erwin Godoy, the Former Special Advisor for Innovation to the Director of Plans and Programs for the National Geospatial Agency, says Lean Startup experimentation isn’t a maybe for defense — it’s a must. He knows this because history illustrates another time in national defense when technologies were changing rapidly and countries were dealing with high levels of uncertainty. It occurred during the interwar period between WWI and WWII. Godoy talks about how both the U.S. Navy and the German Army put principles of rapid experimentation and feedback into action. For the German Army, the results were early victory over France and Britain despite having access to the inferior technology.

Germany was prohibited from rearming by the Treaty of Versailles until the 1930s. That means in the two decades following WWI, it was not able to keep up with mobilization and technological changes occurring in the military organizations of other nations. To counteract its disadvantage, Germany poured efforts and resources into what it could accomplish: intellectual exercises and leadership development. When they could only work with paper models and develop doctrine, they put their effort into perfecting that doctrine based on what they observed in other militaries. In WWII, when Germany invaded France, it was able to outmaneuver and defeat French and British tanks with inferior tanks but a superior methodology.

The lesson here is that rapid experimentation and feedback makes it possible to overcome many challenges, including perceived resource failures.

An Abundance of Resources Can Be Your Obstacle

Godoy points out that Germany before WWII was an underdog, and that actually worked in its favor in being successful with Lean Startup methods. Having an abundance of resources and plenty of money, says Godoy, can actually be an obstacle to Lean Startup adoption. Military and commercial institutions alike have a tendency to throw money, people and other resources at a problem if those resources are abundant, and that means the problem isn’t always properly addressed.

One way to avoid that issue is to start small, which is what Godoy said the U.S. Navy did during the interwar period. Leadership within the ranks knew that air power was going to be a major component of future success, but they had a hard time getting superiors to agree. Battleships had been winning wars for centuries, and it wasn’t until experiments showed that aircraft could sink battleships that many people began to warm to these ideas. With plenty of battleships and naval might to go round, people wanted to remain secure in the success of yesterday. It actually took military innovators who were willing to be court-marshaled (and some were) to turn the tide.

If you’re looking to turn the tide in your commercial organization without being fired or threatened with disciplinary action, consider starting small. Many innovators recommend starting small but thinking big, and Godoy said that starting small and looking for quick wins is what eventually succeeded in the Navy.

Discover Before You Define

Finally, Godoy says that trying to retrofit new technologies and solutions to old models is a common fail-point for Lean Startup in the military. Instead of asking for requirements so a solution can be built, you have to start with discovery those requirements. They probably aren’t the same as they historically were; in the 1930s, innovators knew battles wouldn’t be fought with battleships forever. Now, we know they won’t be fought with aircraft carriers forever. Something new is coming. And that’s where Lean Startup principles work: they help you discover how best to deal with what’s coming.


Written by Heather McGough.


Yesterday we wrote about Creating A Culture Where Every Function is an Innovator’s BFF. Do you want your company to be more effective at innovation? Create a culture where cross-functional teams work together on how to get to yes.

If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your large, complex organization, Lean Startup Company can help. We offer live and virtual training, coaching and consulting to empower people and companies to solve their own problems using entrepreneurial management, no matter their industry, size company, or sector of the economy. Email us.

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