Hacking 4 MoD: Success, expansion and remote learning

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6 months ago Defence iQ interviewed Steve Weinstein from Hacking 4 Defense (H4D) and the expansion into the UK with Hacking 4 MoD (H4MoD).

Following the news about how H4MoD is changing British Professional Military Education, we caught up with Dr Ali Hawks who oversees the H4MoD programme in order to understand recent development, the impact of COVID-19 and the expansion of the "H4X" methodology to other government problem sets.


Q1. What developments have there been since we last caught up? Also, since then COVID-19 has changed the educational experience for many students. How is it affecting H4MoD students and outcomes?

In the last six months H4MoD has continued to scale and is currently running in four universities. In 2021 we will be launching in eight new universities with the current four continuing to run the course as a part of their permanent curriculum. We have also established relationship with the single Services to continuously source national security and defence problems, along with Dstl and the intelligence community. This relationship has allowed us to meet the demand signal of universities who want to run H4MoD and to meet our goal of H4MoD offered in 24 universities in 4 years.

We have been able to pivot with COVID19 and deliver the courses entirely online as well as deliver our Educator and Problem Sponsor Course, and Problem Sourcing Seminars virtually. H4MoD is a fast-paced multi-faceted course, and it is a part of a large community of educators teaching Lean Startup across the world. Recognising this the Common Mission Project organised the Lean Educators Summit to bring these Lean educators together to learn how they were managing the pivot to virtual learning and course delivery and what tools they were using and to share best practices across this group. Over one afternoon in September hundreds of Lean educators around the globe shared their experience of teaching Lean Startup virtually, which we have been able to incorporate into H4MoD to support universities adapt to online delivery.

It has been one term of delivering H4MoD online and we’ve found some interesting results.

The student teams, who traditionally conduct 10 interviews per week as part of the flipped classroom approach, almost doubled their number of interviews. Calendars had been freed up, travel time reduced, access to government and industry made much easier by jumping on a Zoom or MS Teams versus being booked into Main Building, for example.

They have been able to dive even deeper into each problem, and as such have accelerated as they identify solution pathways and experiment with MVPs. As all have felt, the student teams would probably prefer to meet in person if it was possible but taking the course virtually has not undermined the design of the course or its outputs.

Q2. Following last year’s collaboration between the UK Defence Academy’s Advance Command and Staff Course (ACSC) and Hacking for MOD (H4MOD), ACSC are launching a new Masters of Science (MSc) in Defence Innovation. How is H4MoD changing the landscape of professional military education here in the UK? How do your objectives in military education differ from the university courses aimed at civilians?

H4MoD has been able to capture the existing momentum generated by Air Marshal Stringer and Maj Gen Roe and provide a platform to inject innovative teaching and innovation skills and methods into PME. By offering this course on ACSC we are able to partner with the Defence Academy and King’s College London to systematically build foundational skills and methodologies across the Services and Defence that will enable officers and civil servants to continuously work on Defence problems. What we have seen are now two energised H4MoD ACSC student cohorts who want to use the skills, tools and methods learned in H4MoD in their next job. We have also been excited by the enthusiasm for these students to become problem sponsors and student team mentors to future H4MoD courses across UK universities. This continued engagement with the course and its methodology will provide a high return on investment for Defence as it is a consistent engagement across one’s career.

Our strategic objective across H4MoD, to include the Defence Academy and other university courses, is to develop the talent of mission-driven entrepreneurs to solve the UK’s toughest national security and defence problems at pace.


photo courtesy of The Common Mission Project

Photo courtesy of The Common Mission Project.

Q3. The H4MOD initiative was born out of the H4D initiative in the US. Now that a few years have passed, have the models diverged? How have the programmes adapted over time? What cultural differences or difference in need have been identified? How different are the two models now?

Models: The models for H4D and H4MoD are the same in so far we use the same foundational methodology, but the programme itself is built to deliver value for specific users (the US and UK government, universities, and students, respectively), and therefore has natural differences. We have built H4MoD to meet the specific needs and aspirations of those groups here in the UK. Our advantage is that we have built this programme here from the ground-up, and have developed strong relationships across Defence. This level of buy-in has meant we are building H4MoD as a partnership with MoD, not simply delivering a ready-made programme.

Q4. What are the three biggest misconceptions about defence innovation that you come across the most, or wish you could dispel?

One of the biggest misconceptions we tend to come across is that innovation is divorced from process. Process seems to be a dirty word in this sphere, but it is a disciplined, rigorous, repeatable and scalable process that will allow Defence to continuously source problems and ideas through a pipeline to transition, and ultimately a solution to a problem in the hands of the end-user. One-off activities such as hackathons or challenges generate a ton of great momentum and data, yet without a process to plug it into that momentum and data is often wasted. If the enterprise is able to ingest continuous numbers of problems or ideas and work on the front end of the pipeline, by the time that problem and idea gets to a generative activity such as a hackathon it is on a validated solution pathway, which increases the rate of transition.

The second I would say is that “problems” are thought of negatively. I see them as one of the most exciting parts of Defence because they offer the greatest chance for innovation; without problems an organisation cannot innovate.

Finally, buying things quickly is not innovation. Solving a problem or finding “product-mission fit” for a good idea is innovation. Without understanding the problem we don’t know if what we are buying quickly is solving an actual problem, and that is an investment risk Defence should not take.

Q5. Over the past few years we have seen a proliferation of innovation hubs and job titles. What do you think is currently holding back defence innovation in the UK?

I think there is incredible momentum and appetite for change and innovation in Defence; there is no better time to be in this space than now. The proliferation of innovation hubs and titles is a signal that Defence is willing to try something new, and it’s natural in an organisation to claim that jurisdiction and to organise both budgets and ideas within one place. I don’t believe Defence innovation is being held back, but coherence across these hugely impressive efforts would give enterprise insight into the strategic direction defence innovation is heading.

Acquisition is inherent in innovation; it should not be considered separate. While new innovation initiatives in Defence are building the foundation and ecosystems necessary to deliver enterprise solutions, we should be working to innovate in the core.

Q6. The Common Mission Project which runs H4MOD is expanding to pilot projects outside of Defence in other areas of the public sphere. Which areas do you think you can bring the biggest change to and start to help them solve problems at the pace of a start-up?

We are very excited to start experimenting with pilots in different vectors in which to apply the “H4X” methodology. Currently we are aiming to run a pilot in 2021 with the National Health Service where postgraduate students will work with local NHS trusts in a “H4NHS” module.