By Tamara Carleton.
Many innovation experts look to DARPA as an ideal role model for disruptive innovation. How does this American government agency get it right, and what can you learn for your own innovation practices? The DARPA Hard Test gives you a simple practical diagnostic that you can use for any innovation project or idea.
DARPA—which stands for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—was established in 1958 after the Russians shocked the U.S. government by launching the world’s first artificial satellite called Sputnik. Since then, DARPA has operated with a clear mission of high risk and high reward R&D. DARPA funds and often help accelerates technological inventions to the prototype stage. Over the years, DARPA’s inventions have included ARPANET (the predecessor for the internet), GPS, aircraft stealth technology, tele-robotic surgery, voice recognition technology, 3-D mapping, and more.
While companies typically aren’t in the position to act like DARPA with a comparable budget, the agency does provide many lessons that can translate in your own context.
Let me tell you about the term “DARPA Hard”. DARPA Hard essentially characterizes an idea that has to be hard enough—call it difficult, challenging, complex, and complicated—that only DARPA would take it on. What is the equivalent of DARPA Hard in your team? In your company?
Based on research I conducted at Stanford University, I discovered that DARPA Hard focuses on four important dimensions that, together, reveal an ambition to think and do big. These dimensions are: (1) far-reaching, (2) technically challenging, (3) multidisciplinary, and (4) actionable. While each dimension is important in its own right, it is the combination that matters most and leads to truly culture changing and visionary innovation.
Far Reaching ideas are those in which a solution requires a completely new mental model, passing through a paradigm shift. Technically Challenging ideas consist of ideas that are almost technically impossible without becoming “magical”. Multidisciplinary ideas are ones in which the solution requires multiple bodies of knowledge that rarely exist within one industry. Finally, Actionable ideas enable the right people to see a path to the impossible and can make progress beginning today.
I then expanded these four dimensions into a DARPA Hard Test that lets you measure how your project scores in terms of its disruptive potential. The test itself is composed of four scales, and each scale measures a dimension ranging in interval from one to seven, with seven being the highest score. These scales capture the spectrum of ideas possible across all four dimensions. Some ideas, such as putting a man on the moon, score high because they are ambitious across all dimensions. Other ideas, such as launching Apple’s iPhone 6, score low intentionally because the product’s goal is to introduce slight feature improvements over the prior model, not change or create a new industry.
You could use the DARPA Hard Test in multiple ways. One common way is to provoke a conversation with your team about how your idea could—and perhaps should—change the state of the field by an order of magnitude. Another application is to challenge your team to consider the next level of an idea that, if successful, would be a major step beyond what existing science and technology can permit. This is what truly entails being DARPA Hard.
In my work with innovation groups around the world, I have found that teams benefit most when they score multiple projects with the DARPA Hard Test, identify common scoring ranges across the R&D portfolio, and then discuss the nuances for what “low” versus “high” scores feel like within their organizational context. (For those who prefer more strict assessments, I have defined each scale’s end points, along with multiple examples scored by experts.)
Curious to learn more? Look for the expanded article about the DARPA Hard Test in an upcoming special issue on Driving Cultural Transformation in Research-Technology Management (RTM), edited by two dear colleagues and myself. RTM is the award-winning, bi-monthly journal of the Industrial Research Institute.
You may also find instructions, templates, and more for the DARPA Hard Test in a free how-to guide called the Playbook for Strategic Foresight and Innovation.