It generally makes sense: more success is good; less success bad. Simple metric. Ensures taxpayers’ dollars are well invested. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA)—all about “high-risk, high-payoff research programs to tackle some of the most difficult challenges of the agencies and disciplines”—turns that metric on its head. When it comes to research and development for the intelligence community, too much R&D success may spell failure.
REVOLUTIONARY, not just transformation
IARPA’s about building revolutionary capabilities. No. Really. We (too) often hear about programs and projects reaching for transformational outcomes. The “revolutionary outcomes” characterization is simply a product of rhetorical inflation. Transformation isn’t catchy enough. Let’s have a revolution! But revolutionary capabilities represents the bar at IARPA. They’re serious about it. IARPA R&D “is about taking risks rather than going for quick wins or sure bets,” announces its website. “In high-risk research,” IARPA continues, “failures are inevitable. Failure is acceptable so long as the failure isn’t due to a lack of technical or programmatic integrity and the results are fully documented.”
Embracing failure, however, doesn’t mean free-for-all. In fact, as Government Executive’s Charles Clark reports, productively embracing failure means hyper-scrutiny when it comes to progress on contract investments. Clark reports that Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity Director Jason Matheny, selected by DNI Clapper in 2015, spends most of time scrutinizing investments. Matheny tells Clark that “a fourth of [the IARPA] budget is test and evaluation.” While most agencies would sound the alarm if program failures dropped below the highest percentiles, Matheny, Clark reports, is uncomfortable with success rates most would consider just passing. “Matheny actually considers his team’s success rate too high,” Clark explains. “‘It’s at 70 percent, but should be at 50 percent’ . . . otherwise ‘the problems we’re picking’ are too easy.
The outcome of this kind of carefully managed ambition is noteworthy. “IARPA has transferred to intel agencies such products as Babel,” writes Clark, “which translates speech recognition software into any language within a week. There’s also Aladdin, a video recognition tool that augments searches on YouTube beyond the existing subject tags to locate, say, ISIS martyrdom videos.”
As much as we hear about transformational and revolutionary solutions we hear about leaders ostensibly willing to accept failure on the road to success. However, that approach means, as well, a good deal of moral courage. For Matheny and IARPA, that means “We’re proud of our failures, they’re not hidden but recorded, assuming they’re the product of ambition, not mismanagement.’” That mentality’s difficult to achieve, and as much as it’s about courage, it has to be about excellent management, devoted employees, and jaw-dropping results.
So while IARPA’s approach may not be right for every office, organization, and agency, it’s certainly worth seriously considering, it’s certainly worth carefully reflecting: are you just talking about failure, or are you really embracing it.