DoD doesn’t want to end up like Theranos, so it’s being cautious about ‘fail fast’

The Defense Department has spent the last few years trying to be like Silicon Valley. Sometimes that includes some weird pairings like generals in beanbag chairs, coders in jeans and hoodies pacing the Pentagon and top brass talking in venture capitalist lingo.

But DoD’s leader in research and engineering says the Pentagon needs to at least moderately temper the way it mimics the cradle of the United States’ cutting edge technology.

“We need to remember that our goal is always, ultimately, mission impact,” Michael Griffin, undersecretary for research and technology, said Thursday during DoD’s 2019 Lab Day at the Pentagon. “That demands balancing speed with diligence and quality. It’s not actually speed that matters; it’s velocity. Velocity is a vector combining direction and speed. I don’t care how fast you’re going if you walk over the cliff.”

The tone is slightly cautious compared to some of the language coming out of Congress, the military services and the Pentagon, where rapid capabilities offices abound, streamlining acquisition is the new goal and other transaction authorities are considered an exciting way to get companies prototyping as soon as possible.

But, on a day focused on speed and innovation, Griffin reminded the scientific community of its roots.

“If we identify a step in the process that’s not adding value we should get rid of it,” Griffin said. “But we don’t want to eliminate the value added work of due diligence, peer review; all the sorts of things we grew up with. Peer review is never optional. Not ever.”

Griffin added, “I don’t care if you award a contract in an hour, a day or a week. If the credibility of the ideas being offered in that contract have not been carefully reviewed by independent authorities, it’s not ready for prime time. Peer review is not the Shark Tank, going  after the popular TV show.”

That line recalls memories of Theranos, a biotech startup that raised more than $700 million and was described by the Securities and Exchange Commission as an elaborate years-long fraud. Before former Defense Secretary James Mattis worked for the administration, he advocated for and served on Theranos’ board of directors.

DoD does not want to be doing business like Theranos or with companies like it. Griffin made that clear differentiation during his speech. DoD is not a venture capitalist firm and therefore will ensure oversight over its investments even as it works to pick up the pace to compete with near-peer competitors.

“How often have we seen in science the crisis of irreproducibility: laboratory results which are claimed, but cannot be reproduced independently,” Griffin said.

Griffin also warned about buying too much into the Silicon Valley culture.

“The phrase ‘fail fast’ irritates me,” Griffin said. “It implies that all failures are created equal. They are not. Failures which result from not fully understanding subtleties in the laws of nature. Those are great. We want to understand those. We want to understand why a new design can’t work in ways that we didn’t understand before we tried out and were not amendable to analysis. If you fail because you ignored previously known laws of physics apparently known to everyone but you, or you fail because you didn’t exercise good judgement in program management, that’s not an acceptable failure.”

Griffin said DoD needs to better understand how it’s failing and why it’s failing and distinguish between failing fast for good reasons and failing fast because of stupidity.

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