Product Innovation Trends

Create breakthrough innovation — “special forces” style

“…In recent decades there have been many attempts to apply the DARPA model [of innovation] in other organizations…All those efforts—or at least the ones with which we’re familiar—have had mixed results or failed. These disappointments have led people to conclude that the successes of this extraordinary agency simply can’t be replicated outside the Department of Defense.

“We disagree.”

So say Regina Dugan and Kaigham Gabriel, former directors at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) — the organization that has produced an unparalleled number of breakthroughs, including The Internet. Arguably, it has the longest-standing, most consistent track record of radical invention in history. The two have since gone on to successfully implement DARPA’s model of innovation in the private sector, proving that this approach isn’t unique to government-run agencies.

In their article published by Harvard Business Review “ ‘Special Forces’ Innovation: How DARPA Attacks Problems,one of the five included in our Innovation Bundle, Dugan and Gabriel detail the methods organizations can apply to their research and development projects.

Traditional approaches to corporate research and development have difficulty consistently delivering breakthrough innovations. Compromises are often made that may reduce risks to existing business, blocking the breakthroughs that lead to true innovation. The elements to the DARPA approach can be broken down into three main principles:

  1. Have ambitious goals: Design projects to solve an urgent problem, calling on the latest scientific and engineering advances, demanding focus and inspiring genius.
  2. Assemble temporary project teams: Bring together the best minds for the job, then put them a tight deadline. This approach has a better chance of attracting the highest-caliber of talent and inspires high levels of collaboration.
  3. Teams have full independence: Project teams should report to an officer with broad authority over resources and decisions should never be made by committee.


If your team is looking for new approaches to innovation, read this article for the in-depth story of DARPA’s successful approach to innovation. Download your free copy today. Offer expires April 30, 2015.

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About the Authors:

Regina E. Dugan and Kaigham J. Gabriel were formerly the director and deputy director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Dugan is currently a senior vice president at Google’s Motorola Mobility business, where she leads the Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group. Gabriel is a corporate vice president at Motorola Mobility and the deputy director of ATAP.