Steve Blank Here’s What Happened When Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks visited Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation


It was an honor to host US Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks at Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.  (Think of the Deputy Secretary of Defense as the Chief Operating Officer of a company – but in this case the company has 3 million employees (~1.4 million active duty, 750,000 civilians, ~800,000 in the National Guard and Reserves.)

She came to the Gordian Knot Center to discuss our unique approach to national security and innovation, and how our curriculum trains the next generation of innovators. The Deputy also heard from us how the Department can better partner with and leverage the U.S. innovation ecosystem to solve national security challenges.

Our goal for the Secretary’s visit was to give her a snapshot of how we’re supporting the Department of Defense priority of building an innovation workforce. We emphasized the critical distinction between a technical STEM-trained workforce (which we need) and an innovation workforce which we lack at scale.

Innovation incorporates lean methodologies (customer discovery, problem understanding, MVPs, Pivots), coupled with speed and urgency, and a culture where failure equals rapid learning. All of these are accomplished with minimal resources to deploy at scale products/services that are needed and wanted. We pointed out that Silicon Valley and Stanford have done this for 50 years. And China is outpacing us by adopting the very innovation methods we invented, integrating commercial technology with academic research, and delivering it to the Peoples Liberation Army.

Therein lies the focus of our Gordian Knot Center —connect STEM with policy education and leverage the synergies between the two to develop innovative leaders who understand technology and policy and can solve problems and deliver solutions at speed and scale.

What We Presented
A key component of the Gordian Knot Center’s mission is to prepare and inspire future leaders to contribute meaningfully as part of the innovation work force. We combine the unique strengths of Stanford and its location in Silicon Valley to solve problems across the spectrum of activities that create and sustain national power. The range of resources and capabilities we bring to the fight from the center’s unique position include:

  • The insights and expertise of Stanford international and national security policy leaders
  • The technology insights and expertise of Stanford Engineering
  • Exceptional students willing to help the country win the Great Power Competition
  • Silicon Valley’s deep commercial technology ecosystem
  • Our experience in rapid problem understanding, rapid iteration and deployment of solutions with speed and urgency
  • Access to risk capital at scale

In the six months since we founded the Gordian Knot Center we have focused on six initiatives we wanted to share with Secretary Hicks. Rather than Joe Felter and I doing all of the talking, 25 of our students, scholars, mentors and alumni joined us to give the Secretary a 3-5 minute precis of their work, spanning across all six of the Gordian Knot initiatives.  Highlights of these presentations include:

  1. Hacking for Defense Teams – Vannevar Labs, FLIP, Disinformatix
  2. CONOPS Development
  3. National Security Education – Technology, Innovation and Great Power Competition
  4. Defense Innovation Scholars Program – 25 students now, 50 by the end of the year
  5. Policy Impact and Outreach –ONR Hedge Strategy, NSC Quad Emerging Technology Track 1.5 Conference
  6. Internships and Professional Workforce Development – Innovation Workforce Vignettes

If you can’t see the slides click here

Throughout the over 90 minutes session, Dr. Hicks posed insightful questions for the students and told our gathering that one of her key priorities is to accelerate innovation adoption across DoD, including organizational structure, processes, culture, and people.

It was encouraging to hear the words.

However, from where we sit..

  1. Our national security is now inexorably intertwined with commercial technology and is hindered by our lack of an integrated strategy at the highest level.
  2. Our adversaries have exploited the boundaries and borders between our defense and commercial and economic interests.
  3. Our current approaches – both in the past and current administration – to innovation across the government are piecemeal, incremental, increasingly less relevant and insufficient.

Listening to the secretary’s conversations, I was further reminded of how much of a radical reinvention of our civil/military innovation relationship is necessary if we want to keep abreast of our adversaries. This would use DoD funding, private capital, dual-use startups, existing prime contractors and federal labs  in a new configuration. It would:

Create a new defense ecosystem encompassing startups, scaleups at the bleeding edge, prime contractors as integrators of advanced technology, federally funded R&D centers refocused on areas not covered by commercial tech (nuclear, hypersonics,…). Make it permanent by creating innovation doctrine/policy.

Create new national champions in dual-use commercial tech – AI/ML, Quantum, Space, drones, high performance computing, next gen networking, autonomy, biotech, underwater vehicles, shipyards, etc. who are not the traditional vendors. Do this by picking winners. Don’t give out door prizes. Contracts should be >$100M so high- quality venture-funded companies will play.  Until we have new vendors on the Major Defense Acquisition Program list, all we have in the DoD is innovation theater – not innovation.

Acquire at Speed. Today, the average DoD major acquisition program takes 9-26 years to get a weapon in the hands of a warfighter. We need a requirements, budgeting and acquisition process that operates at commercial speed (18 months or less) which is 10x faster than DoD procurement cycles. Instead of writing requirements, DoD should rapidly assess solutions and engage warfighters in assessing and prototyping commercial solutions.

Integrate and incent the Venture Capital/Private Equity ecosystem to invest at scale. Ask funders what it would take to invest at scale – e.g. create massive tax holidays and incentives to get investment dollars in technology areas of national interest.

Recruit and develop leaders across the Defense Department prepared to meet contempory threats and reorganize around this new innovation ecosystem. The DoD has world-class people and organization for a world that in many ways no longer exists. The threats, speed of change and technologies we face in this century will require radically different mindsets and approaches than those we faced in the 20th century. Today’s senior DoD leaders must think and act differently than their predecessors of a decade ago. Leaders at every level must now understand the commercial ecosystem and how to move with the speed and urgency that China is setting.

It was clear that Deputy Secretary Hicks understands the need for most of if not all these and more. Unfortunately, given the DoD budget is essentially fixed, creating new Primes and new national champions of the next generation of defense technologies becomes a zero-sum game. It’s a politically impossible problem for the Defense Department to solve alone. Changes at this scale will require Congressional action. Hard to imagine in the polarized political environment. But not impossible.

These are our challenges for not just the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation but for our nation. We’ve taken them on, in the words of President John F. Kennedy,  “not because they are easy, but because they are hard. because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

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