EDITOR'S NOTE: Anyone who’s tried to effect change in a not-so-forward thinking business environment knows the challenges. Unique ideas get ground down to sausage-think. Bureaucracies and buy-ins drag project timelines down to a seeming eternity. And by the time a plan is set, or a “new” product is launched, it’s no longer relevant to the marketplace, or it’s outdated. If that’s a common challenge in large companies, imagine what it’s like for the US Department of Defense to pivot on policy or production. In this mega-agency, there appears to be no space for the rapid iteration and process agility that define the necessary characteristics of a cutting-edge tech start-up. Yet, that level of tech innovation is what the DOD is trying to achieve. And it is failing, badly. A Pentagon official charged with the task of driving DOD innovation just resigned. Not only has the Pentagon lost its technological edge to rivals, he claims, but trying to innovate in this slow and oversized behemoth of an agency is like “defying gravity.” It seems as if he’s saying that adopting the latest innovations is akin to putting the cart before the horse. What’s needed, he warns, is “structural change.” Not the latest product, figuratively speaking, but a revamp of the entire production process. It sounds as if America’s military and national security tech dominance is under threat. This time internally.
A Pentagon official whose role was to drive technological innovation at the Department of Defense (DoD) publicly announced his resignation on Monday, warning that the department needs “structural change” if it is ever going to “regrow its thinning technological edge.”
Preston Dunlap, who served as the first Department-level Chief Architect Officer in the Federal Government and as the founding Chief Architect Officer of the Department of the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Air Force for the last three years, warned in an interview with Bloomberg News that the Pentagon is “falling behind” in the technology battle with U.S. adversaries.
In his resignation letter, Dunlap said, “By the time the Government manages to produce something, it’s too often obsolete; no business would ever survive this way, nor should it.”
Dunlap explained that he has led the creation of more than $70 billion of Space Force and Air Force research, development, and acquisition programs, in addition to accelerating “innovation, adaptability, and commercial practices across the Department for our operators.”
Despite his best efforts, Dunlap said getting the Pentagon to adopt the latest technology is like “defying gravity.”
“Similarly, driving innovation and change in a large organization – let alone the largest organization on the planet, the Department of Defense – is hard, really hard. But not impossible,” he wrote.
“There are any number of forces at work in a large organization: friction, sand in the gears, the frozen middle, bureaucracy, tradition, culture, stovepipes, analysis paralysis, risk aversion, programming and budgeting, and so on. The System is generally set up to pull everyone and every idea down to the status quo. Driving change requires defying gravity.”
Dunlap described the Pentagon as “the world’s largest bureaucracy,” adding that the “beast of bureaucracy” is “energized to reject the potential of innovation at every turn.”
In order to regain its “technological edge,” Dunlap argued that the Pentagon must adopt the “mentality and capability” of Silicon Valley, specifically Elon Musk’s SpaceX – an approach that Dunlap said allowed him to reach a number of goals during his tenure at the DoD.
“Ultimately, my team and I proved that we can defy gravity and change can happen – even at the largest employer in the galaxy and even with small but highly capable teams. But, we shouldn’t be satisfied. We need this kind of progress at scale. And we need it now, not tomorrow. Or it will be too late,” he warned. “So let’s be careful to not…compete with each other, when we should be competing with China.”
“Ironically as I’m writing this, I received notification that the phone lines are down at the Pentagon IT help desk. Phone lines are down? It’s 2022, folks,” he added.
Originally published on American Military News.