Hacking for Defense

How lean educators and battlefield tacticians solve big problems.
Hacking for Defense
Image credit: David H. Wells | Getty Images

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Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor
Entrepreneurship Adjunct Professor and Author
8 min read
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Silicon Valley has given modern life many improvements, search engines, social connection, smartphones, online shopping, health monitoring, rideshares, and more. It’s changed daily life. Can you imagine getting along without a smartphone, which are only fourteen years old? 

One less known but powerful outgrowth from “the Valley” is the way problem solutions and creative innovations are changing the world in subtle ways. Fifteen years ago, one digital founder, , documented his final startup by writing a book about the process called The Four Steps to the Ephiphany’.  In it, he described a customer development process and, in so doing, began the phenomenon of lean, evidenced-based planning.  

He chose a Swiss consultant’s one-page tool, the business model canvas. This “BMC” canvas has nine components, and, when completed, constitutes a full model that can be scaled and replicated.  Core to its design is the product-market fit, or the relationship of a to its customer segment, each dependent on the other. 

Once understood, tested, and successful it took by storm.  The old traditional plan of fifty years became obsolete, and no longer were guesses used to make assumptions but rather validated facts confirmed or did not confirm the viability of an idea.  A team could hold-up spending and hiring until a target market showed there was a demand for the proposed product or service. Validation involves hundreds of customer inputs as the entrepreneur completes a list of activities to fill in the model components — customer relationships, distributions channels, key partners, activities, resources, and revenue and cost sources.  

Some well-known businesses resulting from this “lean” validation process (lean is a term coined by Toyota Motors to eliminate waste) are AirBnB, Uber, Dropbox, Zappos, Amazon, and Facebook, all household names.  They used the new platform of the world wide web to market, coordinate, or innovate a new way of doing something needed. The real story is what is happening now as the process leaked-out of business schools to find much larger applications. Fifteen years later, our culture is experiencing creative change. Witness the decline of shopping malls, deliveries by drones, cell phone navigation, telemedicine, and mass online education. Nothing less than a digital revolution is gripping everyday life, as the richest man in the world started selling books online from his garage in 1994 and then expanded his inventory to a plethora of “everything”. 

Enter an Colonel who played an important role in the Afghanistan-Iraq conflicts as head of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (AREF), Pete Newell. Reacting to constantly changing battlefield conditions, Pete learned on the fly how to innovate, create workable solutions to real problems of life and death. He essentially developed his own method to evaluate, brainstorm problems, and execute innovative solutions in crises. He had little choice as his unit had to deploy over 170 products during a three year period. One miraculous was the MRAP, Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected, a large vehicle designed to deflect explosive land mines through a “V”-shaped hull. Once it replaced the lightly protected Humvees in theater, its innovative construction saved countless soldiers' lives.

A funny thing happened to this 32-year combat veteran at retirement. His experience from operations in Panama, Kosovo, Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan came with him into the world of business schools.  At Stanford’s Design School he recognized the situational challenges because he had lived them in war but simply used different terminology to explain them. Professors were surprised that an Army officer had such innovative and functional problem-solving skills, while at the same time Pete was struck by the imaginations and desire of the young students.  At an adjoining desk, one student expressed his desire to put commercial satellites in low-orbit positions, and today Payam Banazadeh operates Capella Space with revenues of $18 million providing real-time, high-resolution Earth imaging.

These days Pete bases in Austin and operates two companies that provide consulting services “to help customers solve problems at startup speed”, BMNT (Beginning Morning Nautical Twilight) operates H4D, the problem-solving language developed by BMNT, a “lean” curriculum used in over 47 universities, a H4Xlab accelerator, the Defense Innovation network and FOCOM funding to sustainable technologies. A second non-profit called Common Mission trains entrepreneurs in national security using the Lean LaunchPad method. It’s director, Alex Gallo, a West Point graduate, served in the same infantry brigade in Iraq commanded by Pete, spent several years on the House Armed Services Committee as a permanent staffer, and teaches terrorism at the National Security Institute, Georgetown University, and CSIS, the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Steve and Pete call the course Hacking for Defense, which “curates” (Pete’s word) a unique interaction between Army generals and bright students to solve some big and carefully chosen problems. 

One useful product invented by Hacking for Defense is “seeing through walls” from Boise State University.   The project challenged students to identify humans through radio frequencies, and they  “hacked” to design Lumineye, a small device that can sense humans through walls.  It’s lightweight and compact, can detect moving and still people more than 10 meters away, and already is helping first responders.  Its student team interviewed more than 120 potential users including soldiers, local, state, and federal law enforcement, firefighters, and search-and-rescue workers. Customer interviews are at the heart of lean’s customer development process and invariably reveal “pains” and “gains” from the target “personas” (who have the problem). Hacking for Defense, now sponsored by the Department of Defense, has morphed into a form of national service taking the best and brightest students and giving them the opportunity to design solutions to real-world problems in their chosen field of study. Common Mission has been surprised by the student interest and enthusiasm to help their government. Millennials are socially conscious, believe in changing communities for the better, and are passionate about the planet, environment, social justice and poverty, and their mindset fits the program well.  

Offered at the engineering school at Stanford University, Hacking for Defense has taken complex technical problems and applied the Steve Blank method to connect the bright and motivated students to work through solutions to DOD problems. The Business Model Canvas (created by strategist Alex Osterwalder) has been turned into a Mission Model Canvas, renaming revenues mission achievements. They use the same value proposition that interacts with beneficiaries instead a market as the customer segment. This practice of interacting generals and other strategic leaders with young engineering students has been a huge success. Among participating, universities are Georgia Tech, Georgetown, Indiana University, Ohio State, Pitt, UC Davis, Airforce Academy, USC (CA), University of Texas, Texas A & M, UVA, University of So. Florida, and more. One example that jumped out was a program at the University of West Florida for a Next Generation of K-9 Surveillance uses a guided “fur missile” (dog) tactical camera system providing video feed to the people who need it. It was this that cornered and captured ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria. 

Colonel Pete has taken what he learned about innovating at speed on the battlefields into the civilian world of boardrooms. His team at BMNT works with not only government agencies, but established companies and other large organizations, helping them think like startups to innovate solutions and find way to accomplish missions.  Today, he has introduced his lean launch method to forty universities in the U. S., seven in the U. K. and received Congressional grants to help streamline defense missions. BMNT fields requests from the Homeland Security Dept., foreign governments (Australia is one), and curates the best students as well as the best problems to make it all work. Pete says without choosing this right mix of intelligent students and actionable problems the creative magic would not exist.  Hacking for Defense has fashioned solutions to national security problems by leveraging Silicon Valley’s innovation methods (Blank’s lean launch) to engage students in customer development with high-ranking government officials.  This model, like other educational standards, can be replicated, and now focused on the environment (Hacking4Oceans), local communities (Hacking4Local), and foreign policy (Hacking4Diplomacy).  

Originally, Steve Blank’s design was applied to existing companies through a student, , who added agile or incremental development, then introduced to medical schools to improve medical procedures, and finally through Pete Newell’s serendipity has merged battlefield experience with “lean” entrepreneurship to solve these large and strategic challenges. Hacking for Defense is the little known story of the best application of business startup thus far as a partnership to solve important problems.  

Bright, young Millennials have provided a new kind of voluntary national service. Semper Fidelis!

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