The Questions Leaders Ask at DARPA

Posted 03.08.2010

Darpa You may not have heard of DARPA, but if you’re reading this article, you use at least one of the things they invented. DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and back in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, they came up with a communications network called ARPANET.  Today, it’s a little thing we call the Internet. That GPS device you use to find the nearest Starbucks?  DARPA invented that too. Simultaneous translation devices, stealth aircraft technology, and coming soon to a highway near you, self-driving robot cars – all invented by DARPA.  Needless to say, they’ve got some pretty smart and innovative people at DARPA. 

DARPA hit my radar screen last week when I was in Monterrey, California to speak to a group of high potential commanders and captains at the Naval Postgraduate School. (Ironically enough, the topic was our Life GPS® model – that’s goals planning system, not global positioning system.)  At the end of my talk, where, as usual, I tossed out a lot of open ended thought starter questions to the group, one of the participants, Captain Duane Ashton, came up to say hello and offer me his business card. Later in the day, I took a look at Capt. Ashton’s card and noticed that he’s a program manager at DARPA. I also noticed that there were some questions printed on the back. Here’s what’s printed on the back of Captain Ashton’s card:

The Heilmeier Questions
  • What are trying to do?
  • How does this get done at present?  Who does it?
  • What are the limitations of the present approaches?
  • What is new about our approach?  Why do we think we can be successful at this time?
  • If we succeed, what difference do we think it will make?
  • How long do we think it will take?  What are our mid-term and final exams?
  • How much will it cost?

As someone who regularly encourages my clients to take the outside-in perspective, I was blown away by the power of those questions and the fact that you can get them all on the back of a business card. They left me with a question of my own. Who is Heilmeier? Glad you asked. George Heilmeier has had an amazing career in technology research, is one of the innovators behind liquid crystal displays and was the director of DARPA in the 1970’s. He’s also the originator of those questions on the back of Capt. Ashton’s business card that any leader who’s trying to drive innovation and out of the box thinking should be asking on a regular basis.

Over the weekend, I sent Captain Ashton an e-mail (thanks for that DARPA) to ask him if everyone in his agency has the questions on the back of their business cards or if that was something he did on his own.  With his permission, here’s his reply:

I would venture to say that many of the DARPA Program Managers have the Heilmeier questions on their cards. In my case, it is a reminder to me and those who also bring their ideas or vision with me on how I must present the idea to the DARPA Director to sell a new start program while at DARPA. The questions help guide me through the landscape to present an innovative idea as a new program, as is the case for my current programs. As you can imagine, it is a lot of work but if it passes the litmus test,  it is an idea worth pursuing if aligned with your passion.

Great stuff.  Thanks Captain Ashton. The captain’s reply leaves me with one more question for you:

Where, when and how could you apply the Heilmeier Questions in your organization? I’d love to get a discussion going among the readership on that.