A recent episode of Exponential view saw Azeem Azeem speak with Regina Dugan, CEO of new biomedical non-profit Wellcome Leap and former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the U.S. The conversation revolved around the approach to delivering breakthrough technologies.
Below are my notes from the episode, I share these here so that they might inspire discussion. Regina framed the conversation from a healthcare perspective, but I believe the principles are widely applicable.
N.B. Exponential View is one of my favorite podcasts (and newsletter), and I recommend you listen to the full episode.
Ask big 'what if' questions. This led to the mRNA technique being developed ten years ago, which is now contributing to the COVID-19 vaccine development. DARPA was formed to ask these types of bold what-if questions and avoid the kind of surprise the U.S. experienced during the Sputnik era.
Far too often, questions are raised in the form of 'something may not work'; unless it is known, could it be reframed as 'there is no reason for it not to work?'
DARPA has a particular way of running innovation programs. Innovation is often thought of as a linear process, which came about during WW2:
basic research -> applied research -> productization -> commercialization
This makes sense for in-market products, where the focus is roadmap based development. However, this is not very good for getting a breakthrough.
Instead, DARPA folds up all the steps onto itself, which they refer to as pastures quadrant style of work. The premise of this is to:
- Ask big questions - what capability needs to be reached, and what needs to be achieved by science.
- Apply a timebox constraint - problems are restricted to 3-5 years. It's long enough for significant technological/scientific developments, but not so long that it merely becomes an academic exercise.
Perhaps, the point that stuck with me most was around measuring the odds of success for breakthrough projects. Especially because there is a higher degree of uncertainly.
To do so, one must understand what has already been demonstrated previously, leading you to believe it's possible to solve the problem.
Take a mountain and put a flag at the top, then look for flags along the way. These flags are what you work towards, even if you don't know the exact path.
As the saying goes - 'it takes an army' - to make this real go for goals that big enough that no one person will be able to get there by themselves, doing so creates strong cohesion across the full team.
To make exponential progress, and to achieve real breakthroughs, requires aiming for the top of the mountain but having flags along the way to guide you. Breaking away from the linear model of innovation and asking big questions.