Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Part 3

Note: This is a continuation of my Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner posts about the power of including innovators in strategic decision-making.

It took George Heilmeier an afternoon to convince Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger of the value of DARPA’s six “silver bullets”, capability-changing technologies that could guide system designers for the next decade:

  • Create an “invisible aircraft”.
  • Make the oceans “transparent”.
  • Create an agile, lightweight tank armed with a tank killer “machine gun”.
  • Develop new space based surveillance and warning systems based on infrared focal plane arrays.
  • Create command and control systems that adapted to the commander instead of forcing the commander to adapt to them.
  • Increase the reliability of our vehicles by creating onboard diagnostics and prognostics.

“Invisible aircraft” refers to the stealth technology that led directly to the F-111A Nighthawk and is good illustration of how innovators can influence events by focusing on business objectives.  In those days, half of the aircraft in a strike mission were there, not to fire weapons, but to detect and disrupt enemy radar.  Reducing aircraft radar cross-sections by a factor of 10,000 would lead to a ten-fold reduction in radar detection range and a corresponding increase in mission effectiveness.  Classified research in stealth technologies – mainly materials science – had been under way since the 1950’s, but DARPA’s idea was to use stealth as the primary criterion for aircraft design.  Performance and stability are the first casualties in this kind of design, so George knew that, not only would he have to integrate all of the component technologies it would take to produce a flyable, battle-worthy airplane, he would also have to convince the Air Force – run by and for pilots – of the usefulness of this way of designing an airplane.  Pilots understandably wanted to think that aerodynamics would be uppermost in the minds of designers, but DARPA wanted to turn that principle upside down.

The world changed after that.  By the 1980’s many high-performance military planes operated so close to the their performance envelopes that they were difficult or impossible to control without computerized assistance.  There was, in fact, a sort of dark  murmur among military pilots who understood both avionics and computers.  I was directing software test and evaluation oversight projects for the Director of Defense Test and Evaluation at that time.  One of our systems was an advanced fighter aircraft that was being retrofitted with computerized flight controls.  Some of the test pilots had done graduate work in computer science, and were clearly comfortable shifting between flying jet fighters and thinking about computer software.  One of them had a poster taped to the wall of his cubicle.  It showed a mocked-up  pilot’s eye view from the cockpit of a military  airplane that was clearly spiraling into the ground.  On the heads-up display was a graphic that looked something like this:

>>ATTENTION. FATAL ABORT.

>>GENERAL EXCEPTION FAULT 1080XX.

>>PROGRAM ABEND AT LOCATION 001001010111011.

>>RESTART PROGRAM? Y/N

We were talking about an operational test that he would be flying the next day, but all I could do was stare at the poster. I was a software tester.  I knew that fatal error messages like this were common. They came bundled with the price of the software. Most graduate students knew it, too. I thought to myself “This is the bravest guy I have ever met.”

In approving the silver bullets Schlesinger had promised to keep Pentagon staff off  Heilmeier’s back, but the Air Force resisted DARPA every step of the way:

During this period, the Air Force was not at all supportive of DARPA designing and building aircraft and would not cooperate with us.  We needed their help but received none.  As a last resort, I went to see AF Chief of Staff, Gen. David Jones to plead the case. When I entered his office, I was shocked to see that the general, who had refused to help us in no uncertain terms, was present.  I thought that the program was dead and me with it.[1]

Jones listened to George’s pitch, turned to his reluctant General and said, “We’re going to help these guys.” It was not a question.  Whether this was a directive from Schlesinger or a result George’s powerful presentation is not really important.  The Air Force cooperated from that point on, and on the morning of December 1, 1977, George watched from the end of a runway at Edward Air Force Base as the first prototype of a stealth aircraft took off.

Tying a technology agenda to business goals empowers both sides, and it puts both the passive and active resistors in an organization in a bind.   The cost of resisting change is to put their own goals at risk, often with unpleasant career consequences.  It also allows technology leaders to form new agendas that bypass an unmovable bureaucracy.  Here is how Heilmeier summarizes these lessons:

  1. When you really believe in a concept and the people involved, practice “no excuses” management.  The meaning of this is that you must remove all of the bureaucratic impediments to success.
  2. “Breaking glass” and going around the bureaucracy can be done if you believe in your cause and refuse to quit.
  3. In a game changing initiative, a small group must take on a larger group who won’t always “play fair”.

The danger in this approach is  that success depends almost entirely upon personal commitments, and those commitments can easily be undermined by a change in leadership.  When that happens — as I know from personal experience —  entrenched interests  come roaring back, hell-bent on toppling whatever was achieved.  The time frame for achieving goals has to fit within the tenure of the “small group” because worlds will inevitably come crashing together.

I will have more about this is a later post.


[1]George H. Heilmeier,  “A Moveable Feast – Kyoto Prize Lecture (SD Version)” 2005

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