So, you have a great idea... what are you going to do about it?

To paraphrase T.E. Lawrence, everyone dreams, but not all act to make those dreams possible. This idea – to dream, to act and add value - is what gripped me to join the Hacking for MoD (H4MoD) programme. As a military officer undertaking the Advanced Command and Staff Course at the UK’s Defence Academy, electing to be part of one of the first UK courses provided an opportunity to learn Lean Start Up methodology whilst solving a real-world Defence problem. The journey was exciting, hugely rewarding and testing – and I am a better officer for it. 

The Silicon Valley-born innovation business methodology that frames the course – Lean Start Up - has evolved to mitigate the high failure rates of start-ups with incredible success. Under H4D in the US and now H4MoD in the UK, it has been adapted for mission-driven organisations to solve some of the nation's toughest national security and intelligence community challenges at speed. 

I was part of a joint team of five Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force students who over 8 weeks simultaneously learnt how to apply Lean Start Up whilst using it to solve a complex Defence problem.  To ‘learn’ and ‘do’ at the same time sounds crazy (it certainly raised eyebrows when this was explained to us!), but it is amazing how a team can perform given the right conditions.

The teaching practice - Lean LaunchPad – was a high-octane, no-nonsense approach that injected pace by meshing two concepts: ‘flipped learning’ which first focusses on individual students self-learning the basics, before learning as a group how best to apply the methodology and a ‘learn by doing’ approach focussed on a live problem. Coupled together, they stimulated deeper learning, richer insights and provided a creative environment for ideas. 

Don’t be fooled, this method does not have you sitting around on bean-bag seats discussing lofty ideas with no purpose, but drives a cycle of learning, where insights are validated through iterations of problem-solving and beneficiary-driven experimentation and testing. This includes brutally honest but necessary feedback from the H4MoD mentors questioning the rationale of your decisions.

Our team’s problem was to improve the Royal Air Force Air Operations Controller course first time pass rate from c30% to c85% - a significant challenge. These are the people who control military air traffic at airfields, route aircraft in congested and contested airspace and direct fast jet interception of hostile aircraft. The increase in the global volume of air traffic and consequent congestion of airspace made improving the inefficient pass rate of Air Operations Controllers a key problem for the RAF to solve.

Validated by extensive research and 125 interviews across industry, Defence and academia, our team devised a pre-Course Minimal Viable Product (MVP) designed to better prepare potential controllers for the demands of the formal Air Operations Course. The result - not only did the sponsor agree to scale and implement the MVP (reducing waste of at least £786k per year), they also pledged to address each of the ‘pains’ the team had identified across the Air-Controller system – these included improving the student selection process, student preparedness for the course and knowledge transfer during the course - as well as addressing wider cultural and environmental pains.

This experience sparked in me an appetite for innovation and has changed my approach to problem solving by providing a proven set of practical tools which I can now use with confidence to translate ideas into stuff of value for Defence. 

As a future Commanding Officer, I intend to use it to make a positive difference to the people I will have the privilege to command so they can confidently carry out difficult and dangerous work in a world challenged by new complex threats and disruptive technology. 

However, meeting this challenge is a team sport. Defence cannot do this on its own if it is to compete across domains and in environments that will test it like never before. It needs a diverse cadre of bright, keen and inquisitive minds and intrepid entrepreneurs, powerfully networked with industry and Defence to crack some wicked problems. 

So, challenge made and gauntlet thrown down. If you accept it, the H4MoD Lean Start-Up adventure will test and excite you in equal measure – and the prize is worth it. You will develop cutting edge skills, an innovative attitude of mind and an unparalleled network - importantly, you will make a difference. If that interests you, then hopefully the following reflections of my experience are of some use: 

Data rules. The Lean Start-Up approach is anchored in 'validated learning' through high-tempo beneficiary-driven experimentation and testing. It is easy to lose track given the pace you'll be going, so have a plan and be disciplined in its capture - data is king - and you'll rely on it to inform your pathway decisions. 

Hone your people skills. 'Getting out of the building' is critical to testing hypotheses and gathering data, but it takes courage, effort and heaps of emotional intelligence. Plan your interviews, be inquisitive and actively listen - you will reap the rewards. 

Become a synthesiser. You are in the insight business, so open your mind to diversity of thought. Think broad (across the humanities, social and natural sciences) as well as deep - and draw from the diversity of your network and your team. You'll be surprised at what you come up with if you can join the dots.

Tool up. Get familiar with the 'Mission Model Canvas' and 'Value Proposition Canvas' - they are the principal tools that will keep you honest. Don't try and make the data fit your assumptions, let it speak for itself and be guided by it. Your product will be of limited value if it is based on flawed assumptions and poor quality data. 

Fail and learn. You will eat plenty of 'humble pie' – but don’t enjoy it; the idea is not to go out to fail, but to learn quickly when you do. Think of it as experience: fail fast, 'bank' the insight and move on with confidence – with the right attitude, it should fire in you a ruthless determination to succeed.

Focus on the right problem. Problem discovery is critical - it will determine your beneficiaries, the value proposition and the integrity of the mission model. Quite often, the stated problem isn't the real problem - systems thinking may help narrow it down, but ask the necessary Socratic questions to get to its root, otherwise you'll be chasing rainbows.

'Be' the Beneficiary. Innovation is gaining value from the exploitation of novelty - but that value is relative to the beneficiaries’ needs and wants. Work hard to really understand the beneficiary archetype and that the product-mission fit is genuine - do they really want what you are offering and will it add genuine value? If not, pivot and move on – pursuing something nobody wants is a fool’s errand.

Where there is friction, there is traction. This is an intensive programme and your team will find it stressful - especially early on in the discovery phase when trying to make sense of the problem and attempting to shortlist potential beneficiaries. The team needs to be disciplined in its approach, ruthlessly focussed and radically honest with each other. Set rules from the start, learn when to lead and when to follow and create an environment where you get the most from each other. Creative tension is all part of it - and when momentum starts to build having found you are onto something... its pure magic. 

Good luck…


Check out the Defence Academy's Cormorant's Nest here, and you can view the original article on the Commission website.