Lean Innovation Problem Solving With Peter Newell
Peter Newell is a nationally recognized innovation expert whose work is transforming how the government and other large organizations compete and drive growth. He is the CEO of BMNT, a Palo Alto-based innovation consultancy and early-stage technology incubator that helps solve some of the hardest real-world problems in national security, state and local governments, and beyond. He is also a founder and co-author, with Lean Startup founder Steve Blank, of Hacking for Defense (H4D)®, an academic program that engages students to solve critical national security problems and gain crucial problem-solving experience while performing a national service. Pete is a retired US Army colonel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. From 2010 through 2013 he was the Director of the US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) charged with rapidly finding, integrating and employing solutions to emerging problems faced in the battlefield. This experience gave him a unique perspective on how to anticipate competitive challenges and head them off quickly, whether on the battlefield or in the board room.
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Pete Newell 1:14
Well, thanks so much. Great opportunity to chat.
James Taylor 1:17
Now, I’ve been speaking, messaging this week and last week with some friends who are really on the frontline of defending Kyiv. In Ukraine just now. They’re using US and UK Top technologies like Javelin Stinger missiles and these small Turkish made drones. But it’s just the I think the big very kind of creative in their tactics. So one of the first quick questions and maybe this is a kind of a strange question to start with. But from your perspective, what is the relationship between innovation and creativity.
Relationship Between Innovation And Creativity
Pete Newell 1:48
So the key others, a great example of people in crisis will reach out and grab whatever they have in hand, and happen, modify or adapt that accelerate the accomplishment of whatever mission that is, and if you’re on the streets, defending your home, your neighborhood, your city and your country. So, so it is the three minds that can look at things that were intended for a radically different purpose and combine them into something that actually does something quite different. You don’t want to that was at the heart of innovation. Most times, that’s, that’s in fact, what we do. Sometimes it’s taking old tech and mixing it with new tech, to perform a completely different operation that somebody had imagined it sometimes it’s dreaming up some new, new tech to solve a new problem. But, mostly it is the creativity that comes from those combinations that actually achieves that acceleration that you’re after.
James Taylor 2:55
Now, we had a little while ago, we had that your collaborator, Steve Blank on the show as well as Eric Ries the author of The Lean Startup. So from your perspective, what does a lean innovation process look like? When do you apply it to more than a government agency or military or defense contract? How does this differ from maybe many people who are listening or watching this just now who come from a startup or big business background?
The Lean Startup
Pete Newell 3:19
What attracted me to the lean methodology, when I first went across it, is the fact that it forces you to do iterative customer discovery, not necessarily development discovery, which forces you to create an MVP is often used that MVP to test a number of theories and validate or invalidate it, validate or invalidate them along the pathway to actually developing a product that solves a problem for people. From my standpoint, the I used to say it this way, you know, when I tried to solve a problem for somebody on a battlefield, I realized over time that the first honest conversation I had with somebody about the problem they asked me to solve didn’t happen until I handed them a potential solution. And then at that point, is when we started talking about what the problem really was. Because as they would look at it, and say, Well, I really expected something that was a little different than you know, are actually meant. Yeah. So this process of, of creating Mbps and getting the first best, fastest thing you can find into somebody’s hands to drive a conversation became kind of a mantra, particularly during my time in the rapid equipment course. So of how we work through emergent problems. And what we realized it was those conversations that taught us what the right problem was, and then what the right potential solution was, based on what was actually going on. What Steve and I also recognized overtime was the discovery by itself, a lien wasn’t a complete story, it really was our ability to discover new and emerging problems and curate them into things that were actually workable, that that fed the lien process actually made it that much richer, you know, you know, the outcomes are just phenomenal.
James Taylor 5:23
So that’s an interesting word curation process. You know, that work you did as the head of the US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, you built a curation process to help these technology solutions to be deployed more rapidly? Can you go a little bit more detail into what that curation process actually looks like?
Pete Newell 5:39
It’s actually a couple of things that I focus on problems. And that’s the way we teach hacking for defense or hacking for the climate or, or how I work with government agencies and in large companies is we tell them to stop talking about solutions. Let’s discuss the problem that they set out to solve. And what we have learned over time that I learned in Afghanistan was that most of the problems you are first handed are wrong. And it just it for whatever it is, is often is a symptom of a problem. Sometimes it’s an idea of masking radius masquerading as a problem, but the problems are wrong. The second issue we have is oftentimes the problems are dependent or closely aligned with the pace of emerging technology, which, simply means that, that I can look at a problem and the underlying attack and tell somebody that don’t bother doing three years’ worth of r&d on a solution for that problem because the text will change so fast, that it’s going to cause the problem to change faster than you can produce solutions for it, pull out a credit card and buy something for him. Because there’s not going to last you and I think so as we work through this curation problem, we actually discovered that many people were loading their innovation systems with problems that were ill-formed, we’re not necessarily supporting and they weren’t prioritized. And what you saw was, you know, a problem that came from, you know, the highest general or somebody with the loudest voice. And when you looked at the problem, it simply was not ready to be on the innovation platform. It was clogging the pipeline. Then we looked at things and said, Okay, you know, if you give me a problem, the first thing I want to know is, is the person who provided me the problem and expert in the impact of the problem. It’s like, do they sit right next to where the problem occurs? Or are they seven deaths and three bureaucracies away from it, and they really don’t have an eye on the impact on the ground? The second thing we look for is, does this problem have a senior leader champion in by senior leader champion? It was? Is there a senior leader out there who has the authority and the budget and the will to do something about the problem? If they see a potential solution? And then obviously, we would look at okay, if I’ve got I’ve got an expert in the problem. How long has that expert been in a job? And how long are they going to stay? Just think about it. If I’ve got an expert, which is you know, there’s nothing stronger than a passionate expert, somebody really wants to solve a problem. But if they change jobs, three months into the process, so you have a story. So so we literally came up with I think 36 data points, we looked at whatever the problem to decide whether the problem was ready to put onto a platform and actually use our assets to do something about
James Taylor 8:42
it reminds me a little bit of this Peter Drucker, the management theorist who said that the main problem in problem decisions is that they could have spent too much time focusing on the usefulness of the problem not asking the question, and not spending enough time with the questions. I think Albert Einstein said a slightly different way around this once asked him if he had an hour to solve a problem, how would he solve the problem? He said I spent the first 55 minutes thinking about what the question should be. Once I knew that then it could open up. So there’s, so what I’m hearing you’re doing in this kind of curation is your kind of blending, kind of asking more catalytic deeper questions, with almost kind of design thinking, does it kind of design thinking kind of process going on really kind of get empathy with that person, the other side that’s experiencing that problem and try and get close to that those people that are experiencing those
Pete Newell 9:33
problems? That’s exactly why I think when we really dug into innovation as a process, and we kind of labeled a collection of activities and methodologies and disciplines, you know, in a strange so that the output of a design thinking session, create data that’s valuable to the next step. And we simply don’t do design thinking for the sake of doing design thinking it really is intended for a purpose. And the discipline comes from connecting all those activities into something that over time narrows the number of things you’re looking at, and, and allows you to actually come up with a solution.
James Taylor 10:17
So on that process of narrowing the kind of evaluation and the prioritization of innovative ideas. I think I’ve read before you’ve also used McKinsey’s three horizons model. Can you describe how that works, how that may be useful for other people that are involved in doing kind of innovation work, and how they can use that to kind of prioritize what to focus on?
McKinsey Three Horizons Model
Pete Newell 10:39
Yeah, one of the things we wanted to know and I think, Steve, started, as we started talking about, you know, the difference between horizon 123 work, and recognizing where the problem fit, we actually added a fourth, we actually call the horizon zero. And I’ll come back to explain that, in the process of curing problems, we wanted people to understand whether they were working on something that was simply an incremental change that improve the efficiency of the current system, whether it was something that would change the current system or something that would just make the current system go away. So horizon, one is an incremental improvement of the rather efficient system was out there, Horizon two was a replacement of the system that actually produce whatever we’re doing federal horizon three was a holy grail was stopped doing any of them and do something else. We added her Horizon Zero, which basically said, Don’t do this. You know, it’s outside the scope of what you should be doing and doesn’t belong at play, don’t touch it. Because as we looked at the large programs, I remember looking at one intelligence agency, they had 214 innovation projects they were tracking, of which maybe 5% had actually been through some sort of curation process. And we really dug into it, there were a whole bunch of Horizon Zero things we look at, say, the tech that you’re trying, the problem that you’re trying to solve involves a tech that is on a 10-year trajectory. You’re not going to solve that this year because it is a hard science issue that has so many other things that Pastore the other thing that we wanted to help people understand is different levels, there’s a different focus of innovation if you’re at the lowest and we call it tactical level, you’re trying to solve things in a very short timeframe using essentially whatever and versus an organization that is chartered with, you know, really finding horizon three, what’s, what’s the next weapon system going to be or what is the next business model is going to be to completely change the world. And you don’t want to confuse the two, but what I found with a lot of young innovators is they all thought they were gonna be the next Elon Musk, and they were looking for the thing that was gonna change the world where they didn’t have the reputation, they didn’t have experience, they didn’t have the backing, and quite frankly, the tools necessary to do what it was they were trying to do. But they’re all hungry for that experience.
James Taylor 13:21
So that almost that those high back kind of level three years, I think in America, you have DARPA is one of your agencies in the UK, we’re just about to start something similar. I think it’s good to Harper is not very original, in terms of what it says a name. But and then obviously, you got work going on GCHQ in the UK and other places, you created something else as well, you can co-create something else which focus a little bit more on those horizon 01 And two, which is called Hacking for defense. And you I’ve read things you’ve written about it before where you said one of the parts of the problem you’re trying to solve was this, that you call it the frozen middle, in, in the military and or in organizations as well. So first of all, can you tell what the problem you’re trying to solve with hacking for the defense was? And how are you solving it with hacking for defense?
Hacking For Defense
Pete Newell 14:12
You know, hacking first started out with an asked by a government client who said, we’re struggling, having a conversation with people in Silicon Valley about something important to the government. We can’t get people to talk to us and especially the guy asked me to prove that there was a way to get people in Silicon Valley interested in having a conversation like that. I had, you know, I was not long off of the battlefields, Afghanistan and Iraq, but I understood problems. One of the things that I learned, you know, one of my many trips to Silicon Valley was that the fact that I had a checkbook was not attractive in the valley. The fact that I had the wickedest versions of problems, that people weren’t Problem Solving was, and that was my collateral. So I learned that if I brought a problem to the table and could articulate that problem both as a military issue and as a commercial issue, I would have a roomful of people who would want to talk to me. So we use that. To go after this prove it is we simply bought a bunch of Stanford students over spring break and set you on a team. And your job is to articulate this problem in a manner that is attractive to people in Silicon Valley from a team, we articulate that problem as a two dual-use problem, which means a solid commercial base, and a military. I know he wants you to pitch it to a bunch of venture capital folks. And if they get excited and take it out of your hands and send it to the portfolio companies, you get an A, and it was absolutely smashing. It was it was phenomenal. We were doing the outbreak for that time. And we’re talking a bunch of high-level people. And we basically said, Listen, we borrowed Stanford students over spring break, to do this. And it’s not, it’s not scalable, it’s not sustainable, because quite frankly when they go into school, they’re busy. They have other classes. And you know, one of the students who had nothing to do with the military circling back around and said, Wait a minute, there’s been a class at Stanford, it would have taken. And then we realized, you know, roof out, within nine months, we wrote, the educators guide for a lot, the first class at Stanford, the students are looking for an opportunity to apply everything they’ve learned in university, to work on a problem, a real problem with real people, that gives them real experience that helps them get a real job. And the Stanford students will tell you, they take this class, it is the hardest class, they’ve taken the Stanford quarter. But it’s also the most professional reward. So we went from, you know, that discussion to realizing there were four value propositions. One was to the government, people who brought problems in because what you don’t one of the things we find out is that the first pivot in the course is always when the students look at the government. And so your problem will be solved in the wrong time. And then there’s a lot of headway made toward what’s the right problem? Who the right people, what are the potential solutions? Is there a pathway we can deliver that solution? So the process of we use something called the mission model canvas, which is a version of Alex Osterwalder Business Model Canvas, the process of developing that Canvas produces the richest market research, you can get your hands on it, you just you can’t produce it, you know, in any other manner. But the the output of the program was students really excited to work on something that was real, where they were treated as as entrepreneurs and potential startups, the university was able to provide an academic course that was attractive and that didn’t exist in the past. The industry came to the table and said, We’re willing to mentor the students and get involved because quite frankly, they want to hire the students. They really want the talent that comes out of a course like that. And what they say is, we don’t only need in the future, but it looks like that, then we want more of those. So the four value propositions met in the middle was force. The the course, you know, very rapidly expanded the United States in the UK, you have I don’t have 1214 universities teaching that course. Now. You actually have one called Hacking for police now. So you have one involved policing, you have one for sustainability. The UK Ministry of Defense, Defense College, national creative degree programs, the Minister of Finance in national security innovation with a capstone course in that degree program is hacking for defense class for military officers. So many cases, even UK has taken what we did in us and expanded on in some cases, I think they’re doing federal that we are
James Taylor 19:14
I just saying that and you mentioned students at Stanford and these other universities, other places. What about the people we’re already within? They’re enlisted. They’re there. They’re in one of the militaries and I’m thinking here particularly of my wife’s brother, was in the British Special Forces, the SES. And until he was killed, he was killed in combat. But I think about someone like him. This is someone that didn’t do very well at school. Then they went into the military, and he learned three, or four languages. He excelled. He just kind of flew he found his, his purpose, his passion. And I think about someone like that, who’s that maybe a 21-year-old who joined you know, one of the forces that parts of the military when the uncertainty Tree, all the Defense Intelligence Services, and they really want to serve and they want to they kind of also got this hacking mindset as well. So how can you get it? So it’s happening not just within the universities, but actually with someone that’s already serving and they’ll be will be serving for a while maybe they’re that person that they’re kind of hierarchy or that in that messy middle of the organization? How do you make a culture of innovation within the services?
Pete Newell 20:22
So we were asked the same question, I thought, one of the agencies that bought us a problem for the very first Stanford course with me and said, I’m gonna give you a problem for your course. And he said, quite frankly, solving one problem here for me is really just not helpful. I have 1000s. And what he said was, I’ll do this for you, but you’re going to you’re going to do, I’m going to create something like that for for my workforce. That has expanded to the point where, where we run what we call mission acceleration programs, inside larger organizations, where we were we will work with the organization to curate a number of problems, and then work with them to assemble teams multiple times from the middle of the organization. And we do the same thing we make sure the problem is important, it’s valid, it’s got an expert, it’s got to see another champion. And then we take teams of people from the organization through almost the exact same process we would take students through, it’s much compressed, I would say it’s much more violent. But then the organization looks at them at the edge and says, you know, we’ll, we’re going to fault that we’re not going to do that, but we’re going to send that back. And they actually start to produce things based on what those those teams are doing. And we probably take probably a dozen agencies right now that were involved within that process. To your point on young people, and I had this conversation last night with somebody who said, there was a, I was on a panel where somebody said, you know, you have to do your time. And that’s interesting young guy, call me afterward. And he says, You know, I’ve applied to a bunch of different organizations, and I keep getting this, this patriarchal, you gotta do your time, you got to come in and, and I said, I get it, that you want to do the time, but you want to do it 100 times as fast as everybody else. And is that I want the experience, I want to do this book, but I don’t want to wait 10 years to learn the tools are into it. Folks who come from a special operations background tend to learn at 10x speed because they’re provided the experiences or the opportunity to get the experience much faster than the rest of the world does. That that’s that’s the true difference between the two parties. We’re finding that particularly within larger organizations, the teams that we bring through this process, some of them fleet up much faster. Because it’s an experience thing as you go through this process of doing interviews and building MVPs and you learn there’s a subtle change between I gotta be successful all the time between that and learning that I need to fail which means I need to test an MVP that is wrong. To give me the confidence on the one that I selected that is right. And getting them to understand that getting things wrong eventually will teach you what the best solution for something else. But that’s that’s a big change for somebody comes out of a government bureaucracy.
James Taylor 23:30
Absolutely. Last week, I was in Dubai and I’m on my flight over to the UAE I read New York Times Nicole Pearl Ross really great books on cyber warfare called this is how the the tell me the world ends really happy title for a flight. Now one thing to read on an airplane. The gentleman who’s sitting next to me on the flight said what is that book that looks like the terrible book to read, you know, with everything going on in the world just now. But something she was speaking about in the in the book was a basically focused on information security, cyber, cyber that that whole world. And she was saying, you know, for America, the big threat is a cyber Pearl Harbor, not a not a currency, a shooting kind of war in that way. Now, one of the things that she was really pushing in the book was seeing some of the reasons that she felt in the US had fallen behind countries like China or Russia on certain elements in that, that battle that that race. And one of the things she was pointing to was that so many of those kind of bright young things. They say, I’m gonna go, I want to work for Google, I want to work for Facebook, I want to work for for those companies. So this is a talent thing we’re going to talk about here. How can organizations like the US Army or the NSA or GCHQ, for example, in the UK, what can we be doing now to attract that brightest and the best not just from the kind of hardware side but the content from the software from the coding side? How can we make it this this is something to really to aspire to and to see where you would aspire to joining Google or Facebook because it can be about the money.
Pete Newell 25:06
No, it’s often really about the mission. I think all of them after this, the the idea that, you know, 300, some odd hacking organizations have banded together to take on Russia simply was not meant for a whole lot of people working in their basements, you know, 24 hours a day doing something because they’re excited by doing it. And then I call it the challenge of recruitment. is, one is the military is the government was already full of people who would do if they were given the tools or choices, yep. Because being an innovator or an entrepreneur is not a professional inside large organizations, we tend to chase them away. Yeah, and we lose that passion and excitement, yet we’re starting to see places was an opportunity that says, Listen, you don’t have to serve full time. You don’t even have to be a reservists, we’ve created these places where you can rapidly assemble to work on something, you know, in your spare time, or when you’re not, but but that for me, I already have working together, creates a language between them, that makes it much easier to recruit them when you need to. Yeah, and I think, you know, for instance, like to go back to the hacking for defense classes. It’s such a rich environment of students, professors, people in the industry, people from venture, they it all comes to one place and over time, we find that the students, you know, take that class continue to work with a government sponsor, well, after the class downs, fully 70% Stay engaged in the problem for long term. Some of them actually go on to work in the government auditors go on to work in places like Facebook and Google, yet, they keep showing up with that class. I want to be a mentor, I want to be an assistant I want to do whatever it is that just I think they’re driven by their passion for service, that they just want that opportunity. So we spent a lot of time coaching, you know, our government clients, how do you take advantage of that, you know, lower the barriers that prevent people from helping you, but also internally prevents you from bleeding your talent when they learn how to do this, because because you have no place to put them once was the really good.
James Taylor 27:26
It’s funny, I saw when when stuff started to happen in Ukraine, someone sent me the link for the telegram group is the at army of Ukraine. And it went from almost from no one to I think I’ve got 300,000 members now, who only sent daily missions of things that they’re going to do and mostly kind of like, obviously, cyber kind of ops. And it’s interesting, just kind of seeing that there’s a real passion within that there’s because in some of these are Ukrainians, either these are people and other people are just because they just feel aggrieved, or what’s kind of going on and they want to do something to help. Maybe they can’t offer up their home to a Ukrainian family fleeing, but he said I have the skills I could use the skills for to affect some change. So it’s a fascinating area. Pete, thank you so much for coming on today. If you want to learn more about hacking for defense, you’re you know, you’ve got some books and writing coming out really soon as well. All your other projects, where should they go to learn more about you and the work you do?
Pete Newell 28:20
So you can go to B and then t.com? Yeah, and you can see, you know, essentially, we write prolifically about what we’ve learned. So there’s a great collection of articles and other things that we could read about the processes and about how they apply and about the effect on him. For hacking for defense, you can go to common mission.us Or in the UK, common mission.uk. And you can get a great understanding of what’s going on inside the classroom, both in terms of attacking defense problems, National Security, Homeland Security, climate, policing, sustainability, this literally I think there are 100 universities around the world now teaching some form of this. Also great stories and that people who’ve become involved and some of the companies that are doing really cool stuff afterward.
James Taylor 29:14
Well, Pete, thank you so much for coming on to the super creativity, podcast and sharing your knowledge your experience in the work you’ve been doing. Thanks so much for coming on today. While syndromes thanks for the invite. You can subscribe to the super creativity podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcast while you’re there. Please leave us a review. I would really really appreciate it. I’m James Taylor. I knew been listening to the super creativity podcast
Lean Innovation Problem Solving With Peter Newell