A large defense contractor is in the process of revamping their technology strategy. They want to see more return on investment, which totals more than $1 billion annually across headquarters and its business units. This money is meant to deliver the next generation of technologies their customers need. Recently, however, their success rate has been dropping. Company leadership worried that they would not have the required capabilities to meet future national security needs.
The Chief Technology Officer finally stepped in, telling his staff to revamp its internal strategy. Here’s what they did:
The CTO’s team quickly discovered there were no obvious answers. The problem was not talent. The company has some of the finest engineers in the world. The problem was not morale. The company has a rich legacy of developing revolutionary products. The problem was not resources. The company had not deviated from its normal level for funding research and development.
After they interviewed all the stakeholders, dimensions of the problem became clear: The company’s process for managing its tech strategy was broken and getting in the way of its ability to move in an agile way. Activities and information weren’t connected, and there was no protocol for how to move through the research and development process.
Connecting the Dots
For years, the company relied on a process-heavy annual planning cycle. This involved an extensive campaign of needs finding, working groups, staff meetings, and planning sessions. The traditional process also focused heavily on generic technology areas with little to no connection to specific military or commercial needs. The result was a list of strategic themes that were all vaguely worded solutions.
This strategy overwhelmed people. There were so many priorities, focus areas, and key technologies that no one actually knew what was important to leadership. Most activities that appeared to be connected in strategy documents and on PowerPoint slides were in reality independent from each other. Additionally, the information gathered across the company to guide investment decisions was not being used at those critical moments. Finally, no one knew how to follow up with relevant experts or users. Several times a year, people gathered for internal workshops or conferences but that was not sufficient to ensure lasting and meaningful exchanges. Everyone was busy, so questions often went unanswered. Basically, the tail was wagging the dog. Something needed to change.
Tweaking the Process
In response to what they’ve learned, the company is shifting to a more problem- and user-centric approach. The emphasis is now on actively fostering important upfront conversations, not passively providing information without context. This breaks down into three important lines of effort: connections; analysis; and agility.
Emphasizing connection allows the decision-makers to quickly answer their questions with relevant user groups and technology experts. In the past, specific technologies were combined into “areas” to make them easier to prioritize. Now the developers of the technology strategy ensure plenty of facilitated conversations among user representatives, technologists, and program managers — a critical aspect of shaping new technologies as they’re being incubated.
The internal investment process is also changing. The company is streamlining analysis of technology proposals. Rather than complicated submissions that emphasize technical aspects, the company is shifting toward simpler frameworks that balance technology against organizational constraints and customer demand. This allows the people reviewing submissions to make better informed trade-offs while saving time (for both parties).
Thanks to the emphasis on direct attribution and comprehensive analysis, the company has unlocked a new level of agility. Technologists, managers, and users are naturally forming tighter feedback loops that improve the quality and utility of the resulting technologies.
Thousands of smaller decisions are improving returns in tangible ways rather than waiting for one big decision each year.
That advantage accumulates quickly across millions of dollars of investments.
There is no silver bullet to ensure a company commercializes its next great technology. Key tweaks to current process can significantly improve the odds, however. Ensuring connectedness, simplifying analysis, and increasing agility will help any company better invest its resources as it tries to invent the future.
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William Treseder is Senior VP, Product at BMNT, an innovation company headquartered in Palo Alto, CA; with offices in Los Angeles, Boston, San Diego, London and Washington.