How To Innovate Like DARPA

darpa innovationWithout DARPA there would be no internet. That and GPS, drones, self-driving cars, computer mouse, voice recognition and a host of other innovations that started as military projects and then made their way to society.

With a reputation as an innovator of the highest order, how does DARPA stay innovative?

DARPA’s approach to innovation

Their approach to innovation mimics the Special Forces, because it puts a premium on doing great work that combines possibilities with pragmatism. In a new report released this month, the agency revealed how it creates cutting-edge, world-changing innovation.

The most important factors that define the DARPA creative culture and explain its long and continuing history of innovation are:

Limited tenure and the urgency it promotes

DARPA doesn’t like to keep its employees around for long. It has about 220 employees in six offices, most of whom hold their jobs for four or five years. DARPA employees have their “expiration date” printed prominently on their ID badges, giving them a reminder that time is limited.

A sense of mission

DARPA, founded in 1958 in response to the Russian launch of Sputnik, exists —“to prevent and create technological surprise”—expresses its role in promoting the security of the United States and the safety and success of military personnel. This vital mission draws people to the agency. Program managers talk about the call to serve, about giving back to a country that has been good to them.

DARPA gives people a chance to shape the future, an ambition that drives innovation; it’s the benefit of thinking big.

Trust and autonomy

A prerequisite for innovation is trust. At DARPA, ideas trump hierarchy. Information Innovation Office Director John Launchbury says, “There are no marching orders. The marching orders are: create innovation.”

Risk-taking and tolerance of failure

If you’re working for DARPA, you are likely be asked to take on a grand, seemingly impossible challenge. No idea is too crazy. Like all innovative places, DARPA is open to failure. In 2011, the organization gave one of its biggest awards to an employee whose high-speed rocket project failed.

“If you don’t invent the Internet, you get a B,” said program manager Matt Hepburn.

Expanding on these themes a little bit…


  • Flexibility, ability to quickly exploit emerging situations is the highest priority
  • Emphasize high technical risk, high focus investments
  • Competition for ideas, reward for quality performance
  • An investment firm, not an R&D lab, no established constituency
  • Methodically search for and exploit externally generated ideas
  • Proactive program management


  • Flat, small organization, no long-term investments in facilities or themes
  • Constant rotation of programs, program managers and Directors (provided by industry, other government agencies, customers)
  • Highly flexible contracting and hiring capabilities

Is DARPA’s approach to innovation for everyone?

No. It’s not a traditional approach, but companies like Google, and now Facebook, have tried to emulate DARPA’s approach to innovation by bringing in it’s former Director because DARPA is focused, as formed head Regina Dugan says, on doing epic shit; most businesses are not. It’s the main reason they kick people out after four years, because people don’t go to DARPA to build a career; they go to do a project, do something epic, and then leave.

In the video below Regina Dugan, former head of Darpa and Google ATAP, speaks at Google I/O about the work that ATAP was doing at the time:

Bottom line: DARPA’s approach to innovation can work for any type of organization that is stagnating because it is based on speed and being bold. As they say, dare to innovate how you innovate.