31 August 2009

TSPR, Trust & Strength

In the late 90's, before I really had any idea what was going on in the world of defense acquisitions, some in the DoD tried an approach called Total System Performance Responsibility (TSPR). It came and went largely unnoticed by little ole me. Now, like Total Quality Management and other past attempts at making things better, TSPR has become a bad word among military technology circles.

Since people are still throwing spears at it, I figured I should know more about it than I do. It turns out, the basic idea was to reduce the government's involvement and allow contractors to do things their own way, as efficiently as possible, without undue influence or involvement by the government.

Maj Henry Pandes wrote a pretty good article about it, if you want to read more. James Gill wrote a short response to Maj Pandes' article. Also a good read.

Unfortunately, many people today seem to have decided that the problem with TSPR was that it involved too much trust. Trust is bad, they conclude. We can't trust those slimy contractors. They're bad, they're bad!

Hold on. Let's not get the wrong conclusion here.

After a bit more investigation and reflection, it seems to me that the problem with TSPR wasn't trust, but rather ignorance. Instead of reasonable delegation, we turned it into abdication. The government wasn't merely hands-off, it was eyes-shut. Anyone surprised that didn't work out very well?

The truth is, I think the government should trust contractors more than we do (as I've written elsewhere). But that doesn't mean we should take the "wake me up when it's ready" approach. We can still be involved and informed, without turning it into excessive meddling.

More to the point, trust isn't weakness, naivete and stupidity. Trust requires strength, judgment and wisdom. A lack of trust indicates, among other things, a lack of trustworthiness and a significant degree of unreflective foolishness. Yeah, I said it - foolishness. Real rogues trust their partners, 'cause that's a smart and strong thing to do.

The TSPR approach may have been fatally flawed from the start, or it may have been a good idea badly executed. I still don't know. But what I do know is that if we think the lesson of TSPR's failure is to not trust people, we've learned a horribly wrong lesson.

29 August 2009

Team Rogue in the Danger Room

For those who haven't heard yet, Wired magazine's Danger Room blog did a very nice post about Team Rogue and our FIST approach to acquisitions.

They even sort of made it sound like the SECDEF is an advocate of the FIST approach. OK, it didn't sort of sound like that... it totally sounded like that. What else does the phrase "high level advocate" mean?

Anyway, it's fun to see our ideas getting this kind of visibility.

28 August 2009

Cancelling Projects

From a justice perspective, it's important for an accused person to have a good lawyer. Even if the defense attorney thinks the client is guilty, they are still supposed to provide a robust defense and make the strongest case possible.

Unfortunately, program managers often act like defense attorneys for their projects. They sometimes act as if their job is to keep the project alive, and defend it to all comers... even if the project is a dog and needs to be cancelled.

The program manager (arguably) knows the most about the health and viability of the program. If it's heading over a cliff, aiming for irrelevance or otherwise doomed, the PM is usually among the first to know, and should speak up. Sadly, this does not always happen.

PM's are not defense attorneys. Their job is not to keep the program alive and out of jail. It's to guide and shepherd the development. And if the program needs to be cancelled, the PM should lead the charge.

27 August 2009


You might have heard the saying "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." Here's a different twist on it:

"If you don't plan to fail, you've failed to plan."

As I've said elsewhere, failure is inevitable. It shouldn't be a surprise that things don't work out the way we'd hoped. So, rather than trying to prevent and avoid all failures, we should have a plan to deal with it, learn from it, respond to it.

In The Mythical Man Month, Brooks writes that software programmers should "plan to throw one away." That sounds like planning for failure to me. I think it's a pretty good idea.

26 August 2009

Best Practices - NOT

When it comes to flying, using flapping wings with feathers on them is clearly a best practice. I mean, just look around. Most of the flying creatures you see have flapping wings with feathers.

The ostrich, penguin and bat are notable exceptions - there we find feathered wings that don't fly, and flying wings that don't have feathers. And of course there are insects too - flapping wings with no feathers, just like a bat. So perhaps it's the flapping wing that's really the best practice, not so much the feathers.

But in fact the early aviation experiments involved both flapping wings AND feathes (think Icarus). It's not all that different than cargo cults.

However, it turns out that in order for people to fly, we're actually better off with fixed wings or rotary wings. Just something to think about when it comes to imitating "best practices."

25 August 2009

Twitter Is Mission Critical

I've been pushing for greater adaption of social media (and other Web 2.0 stuff) for a while now. I recently came across the CogBlog, which had this great comment on the US military's current approach to computer network security and operations.

To fight kinetic wars, the military gives its soldiers armor and modern weapons and trains them to exploit the native battlefield infrastructure and terrain. In contrast, to fight information wars, the military attempts to encase its soldiers in impenetrable bubbles that insulate them from the “information battlefield.” The analogy in kinetic space would be to encase our soldiers their vehicles and equipment in giant “hamster balls” and have them roll as best they can across the native infrastructure and terrain.

Exactly! When we decide to block off the most important and interesting parts of the internet, not allowing military types to use them to accomplish the mission, we're basically putting people in hamster balls, which doesn't exactly help.

24 August 2009

One Man's Poison...

One of the fundamental beliefs of the process-centric, best-practices-oriented worldview (such as Hammer’s Business Process Reengineering concept) is that imitation is the highest form of performance.

I’m not saying this is necessarily what the theory recommends, at least not explicitly. It’s just what happens when the theory is put into practice. When the organization’s highest values include compliance and conformity, when the organization rewards following best practices rather than discovering new ones, then creativity, imagination, accountability and initiative are stifled, no matter what the theory says.

The late Michael Hammer described BPR as an “antidote” to chaos and conflict. If chaos and conflict need an antidote, I guess that makes them a poison. And sure, in excessive quantities, they probably are. So is alcohol. On the other hand, an absence of chaos and conflict might not be the right answer either, anymore than prohibition was a good idea. Dee Hock, the wildly successful founder of Visa, talks about “the chaordic organization,” which is a combination of chaos and order. Not a balance, necessarily, because how do you “balance” chaos? Rather, it’s a harmonious coexistence between chaos and order. There's no room for such harmony in BPR.

As for conflict, Jerry Harvey argues that our main problem in organizations is not how to handle conflict, but how to handle agreement. Specifically, how to handle disingenuous agreement, in which people go along to get along and end up on the road to Abilene. Let me say this clearly: Dr. Harvey is right. Dr. Hammer is wrong. Conflict doesn't need an antidote. Neither does chaos.

So, I’m deeply disinterested in driving out conflict and chaos (or administering the antidote). In fact, in the kind of work I do, I insist that there be some chaos, some conflict, some confusion. These strike me as essential elements for discovery, creativity and rigorous performance.

23 August 2009

FIST Handbook - Updated

Team Rogue and I put together an updated version of the FIST Handbook (pun intended - sorry!), which collects the best of our articles from Defense AT&L.

Unfortunately, the file format has some incompatabilities with Lulu, so the version you can download on RoguePress is out of date. The new version is 12Mb, and rather than try to email it, I stuck it on Rapid Share. You can download your own very version right here.


21 August 2009

UAV Pizza Delivery!

Looks like we're getting closer to my vision of UAV's delivering coffee, pizza and Chinese food. A report from Inside The Air Force recently announced that officials at Rockwell Collins project commercial unmanned aircraft being approved as early as 2012.

UAV pizza delivery - I'm telling you, it's coming! (and I love the phrase "groundswell of non-naysayers").

* * *
Inside the Air Force
August 14, 2009


Officials at Rockwell Collins see unmanned and manned aircraft sharing airspace across the globe by as early as 2012, one of the company's top managers for unmanned aerial vehicle control technologies announced this week.

While presenting numerous UAV control technologies being pioneered by the company, Dave Vos, Rockwell's senior manager for unmanned aerial system control technology, claimed that industry is quickly building a "groundswell of non-naysayers" who will work out the challenges associated with flying drones in the same airspace as manned aircraft on a routine basis.

The "2012 is the time line that we're all looking to, to allow and enable anyone who has a new business case and has managed to raise venture money . . . to go and exploit putting unmanned systems in commercial airspace," said Vos during an Aug. 12 briefing at an unmanned vehicle conference in Washington.

20 August 2009

SOCOM Truths

A former classmate of mine is about to deploy with the Spec Ops guys, and he just sent me an excerpt from a briefing about SOCOM acquisitions. It contained the following truths:

FASTER Does Not Have To Increase COST/RISK

I've always said that SOCOM is one of the shining stars in the defense acquisition community. Their track record of delivering on time, on schedule, AND being operationally effective is quite impressive. Embracing FISTy truths like these probably has a lot to do with that.

19 August 2009


Hey true believers!

The latest action-packed issue of Defense AT&L is posted online - click on over to read my contribution, The Courage Imperative.

I have to admit, I'm a little nervous to see what sort of reaction this one generates. It's a bit, um, pointed... (yeah, unlike all my others, right?)

JFK endorses FIST

President Kennedy's vision for landing a man on the moon is exactly what FIST is about:
In a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon. If we make this judgement affirmatively, it will be an entire nation, for all of us must work to put him there. This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, material and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel.
- John F Kennedy, 1961

18 August 2009

OODA Is Not A Donut

One of John Boyd's most popular contributions to modern thought is the OODA loop. It is used in everything from business and marketing to combat operations. I'm not going to go into a whole thing about how cool it is and how insightful. All I want to say for now is that this donut diagram is NOT an OODA loop:
In fact, Boyd was emphatic that the OODA was not a linear, first you Observe then you Orient kind of thing. The OODA donut above is not an OODA loop. The diagram below is what it really looks like:

So please, don't use the donut diagram. It's a simplistic representation that misses the whole point of the thing.

17 August 2009

Disrupting Class

Ive been reading Clayton Christensen’s Disrupting Class, and it’s fantastic. I really enjoyed his previous books (The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution), but this one is my favorite so far. Even if you haven’t read the first two, don’t hesitate to pick this one up – he and his two co-authors do a good job of establishing the necessary foundation for their ideas.

The book is all about education, but both the examples and the implications apply nicely to technology development, which is really where he got his start. One of the main takeaways for me is the difference between a sustaining innovation and a disruptive innovation. Sustaining innovations are all about improvements, getting better at doing what we do.

He gives the example of IBM mainframes getting bigger and more powerful in the 70’s. Disruptive innovations are all about doing things differently, for people who are “non-consumers” of the original capability (think Apple marketing computers to kids as toys in the early days, instead of to companies like IBM was doing). Interestingly, disruptive innovations are generally worse than the state of the art (those toy Apple computers couldn’t do a fraction of what an IBM mainframe could do)

So, the F-22 is a great example of a sustaining innovation. It’s “the most capable” jet fighter, with the stealthiest stealth and the boomiest bombs. It is largely what the traditional “consumer” (i.e. the AF) asked for. And these little FISTy UAV’s are disruptive innovations. They don’t do as much as a manned fighter. They’re less capable in a lot of ways. And they’re targeted to “non-consumers” of jet fighters… i.e. the guys on the ground, soldiers and marines, etc.

The book points out that traditionally-minded organizations typically “shape every disruptive innovation into a sustaining innovation – one that fits the processes, values and economic model of the existing business…” So it should be no surprise then that the AF only had officers controlling UAV’s, while the other services (the “non-consumers,” in Christensen’s lingo) allow enlisted troops to control and operate their own UAV’s.

His book explains so much of what’s happening in the world of innovation. I look forward to finishing it, and heartily recommend it for anyone who’s interested in improving education or, more broadly, understanding the mechanisms of introducing change.

14 August 2009

Simplifying UAV Controls

Over at MIT, a small group of grad students recently figured out how to control UAV’s using an iPhone, instead of the “complex, suitcase-sized controller that soldiers must haul around to control hand-thrown Raven (UAV’s).”

As reported at Wired’s DangerRoom blog, “In six weeks, we went from the idea to a real flight test,” using MIT’s indoor robot range... The total cost? $5,000 for a new, commercially available, quad-rotor robot — plus the cost of iPhones for her crew… It relies on only the iPhone’s existing gear, and the phone can still be used for regular calls, web-browsing, texting, etc.”

Hmmmmm– a small team of talented people, working on a shoestring budget ($5K? Really?) and a cannonball schedule (6 weeks!), successfully use existing, familiar, mature technology as a way to simplify the operations of a previously complex endeavor. Now, where have I heard that formula before? All in favor of launching a 10 year, $2.7B project to confirm their findings, say “Kick me!”

Interestingly, the MIT crew touts the iPhone “Drone Control App” as having some cool real-world uses. “Not only would a iPhone-like controller make soldiers’ jobs much easier, it also opens up UAVs to a whole new, non-military market. If robot control is cheap and intuitive, people might find all kinds of new uses. Cummings’ own favorite: “Being able to launch one out of the window and fly it down to the Starbucks, to tell me how many people are in line, so I know when to get coffee.””

Sure, it’d be cool to send out a pocket-sized UAV, controlled by an iPhone, to scout whether the line at Starbucks is long. But a website with a Line Cam would do jus as well. What would be really cool is if the little drone could handle ordering, paying and hauling a cup of java back to home base. Now THAT’s a killer app. Moving atoms around is something the internet just can't do for us (yet?).

Second thought - I probably got that backwards. The killer app is for Starbucks to field a swarm of UAVs that can fly around the city and deliver coffee, which you ordered via your location-aware iPhone. The UAV swoops in and brings you coffee (or pizza, chinese food, etc) to your precise GPS coordinates. UAV delivery is coming, I tell you, it's coming...

13 August 2009

USAF gets FISTy with new Light Attack Fighter

As reported at the DEW line (and other places), the AF sent out “a request for information on July 27 that calls for first aircraft deliveries to start in Fiscal 2012 and the first operational squadron to activate a year later.”

Let’s see, requesting information in Jul 2009, for deliveries to start in FY12 (which starts in Oct 2011, a little more than two years from now), and an operational squadron just one year later… now we’re talking! The question of course is whether we’ll be able to stick with these short timelines, well-focused mission and emphasis on simple, mature technology, but this project definitely seems to be off on the right foot.

A similar phenomenon is happening in the area of light mobility airlifters. We’re talking about picking up 60 of these “cost effective” aircraft, with an initial operational capability date of FY12.

Strikes me as precisely the approach to capability acquisition we should be taking. I hope it sticks!

12 August 2009

UAV's: Imagine The Possibilities

In the Jul 09 issue of National Defense magazine, Col Eric Mathewson, director of the Air Force's Unmanned Aerial Systems Task Force discusses some of the things UAV's will never do: "There's no way you can replace an F-35 or F-22 or something like that... No way."

In related news, "Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, the Air Staff's head of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, said it is not unrealistic to imagine an unmanned aerial vehicle as successor to fifth-generation fighters-the F-22 and yet-to-field F-35-in our national military strategy, however he added that UAVs still require some technology maturation before they would be ready to assume that mantle. (AF Magazine Daily Report, 27 Jul 09 )

Which reminds me of a quote I heard somewhere, that went something like this: When the esteemed and aged expert says a thing can be done, he is most certainly right. When he says it cannot be done, he is most certainly wrong. (can anyone help with that reference?)

11 August 2009

Bad Power Point

Holy cow there's a lot of bad PowerPoint out here. In fact, there are almost no good presentations.

It's not a new problem. I found an article from 1985 titled Let There Be Stoning, complaining about boring presentations and suggesting that such people should have rocks thrown at them. I wouldn't go quite that far, and I dislike the part in the article where the guy describes his public criticism of a particularly bad presenter. But seriously, something needs to be done.

Nobody likes to sit through a dense, convoluted presentation, do they? And yet, the standard approach is exactly that. It hit me the other day that we design our presentation slides the same way we design weapon systems - complex, endless and ineffective.

I think a big part of the problem many of us never got any training on how to create good presentations. It just wasn't part of the curriculum when we were in school. And yet, that's a big part of the job. It seems to me that it's incumbent on us as professionals to educate ourselves on how to communicate effectively.

And I nominate Garr Reynolds' Presentation Zen book & blog as a great starting point. If you give presentations, please please please read his blog, get his book, and start doing things differently...

10 August 2009


Several times in recent days I've found myself wanting to jump up and run screaming out of a meeting. Fortunately, my military training kicks in and prevents me from making a scene (actually that's probably unfortunate - one of these days, I should probably do it).

What stimulates such a response? Rampant cynicism, explicit statements of a preference for process over talent, descriptions of the workforce as "elementary schoolers," disparraging comments about the value of consensus and praise for top-down dictation of mandatory actions, enthusiastic condemnations of situations where people have been "given too much flexibility, and scoffing at the idea of hope. It's the sort of thing the villian would say in a movie or a book... except this is real life.

That last one really got me. I'd heard people say "Hope is not a strategy" before, but never with such venom.

Personally, I think hope is essential. Hope is a discipline. Hope is good. We should combine hope with planning, talent and thought, to be sure. But there is something foolish about throwing hope out the window and stomping on it with such enthusiasm.

And so, I persist in my hope that things will change. I hope I will be able to make a difference. I hope I'll succeed in nudging things in a good direction, a more human direction, where people are led and not pushed around... where people are treated as professionals, are trusted.

I've got a strategy to make this happen. I've got a plan. And hope is at the heart of it.

07 August 2009

Is Lean FISTy?

I've mentioned Lean and Six-Sigma in several previous posts, and wanted to spend a little time exploring one question in particular: Is "Lean" FISTy?

If you read yesterday's post, you probably know the answer is "It depends." There are certainly some areas of overlap between the two approaches, and some common underlying values. But they're not exactly the same thing. Let's take a look at some of the attributes of these two approaches. Please understand that although I'm taking a somewhat binary approach below, the comparison isn't strictly an either/or in every case.

Lean is a process-oriented methodology.
FIST is a person-centered value set.

Lean is about value-chain efficiency and manufacturing. It values repeatability and focuses on program commonalities.
FIST is about effectiveness and creation. It values originality and emphasizes program uniqueness.

Lean strikes me as potentially introverted, focused on removing waste from processes in order to maximize value for the customer.
FIST is emphatically extroverted, focused on ensuring the capability is "affordable, available and effective." It has a higher tolerance for "waste."

Despite protests to the contrary, Lean strikes me as somewhat myopic - not in theory, but in practice. Lean is supposed to be strategic, but when it's actually implemented, human nature tends to devolve it to narrow applications (i.e. implement a change that saves my unit $10 even though the change costs the overall organization $20).
FIST, on the other hand, is systemic, and takes into consideration the human element of decision making and problem solving.

Lean's focus on removing waste is probably good. Lean's over-definition of waste might also be good. It focuses on optimization
FIST has a tolerance for what Lean calls waste, and maybe even an affection for waste. FIST is not particularly interested in optimization (which it views as impossible anyway). Instead, FIST is about near-term sufficency as a strategic objective. The ability to rapidly deliver a capability for a short/near-term need is itself a strategic capability.

OK, this is just a quick sketch of some differences. Lean and FIST do indeed have some things in common. And Lean has much to commend it, particularly in areas where the work is well-bounded, repeatable, etc. It makes sense to apply Lean to situations like invoicing, manufacturing, maintenance, etc. But in other areas, where the work is not repeatable or well-bounded, the FIST approach can still serve to guide decision making and problem solving.

06 August 2009

Dan's FIST

Returning the favor, here's a shot of Dan prepping for the brief at DAU last week.

The Answer

One of the truisms of program management is that the answer to just about any question is "It depends." So I had to chuckle as I was leaving one of the buildings on the Defense Acquisition University campus and this little marble pillar caught my eye.

There it was, engraved for all time, the answer to every program management question.

Class dismissed.

05 August 2009

Gabe, with magnets

I whipped out my handy-dandy camera phone and snapped this picture of Gabe last week, at our FIST presentation. The whiteboard behind him is covered in little FIST magnets. I still have a hundred of those things - send me your mailing address if you want some, and I'd be glad to send you a handful.

04 August 2009

FIST Presentation

Gabe and I recently had an opportunity to do our FIST (Fast, Inexpensive, Simple, Tiny) presentation for the Defense Acquisition University. It was a fun time and a great audience. They even let us take home some of the cool posters they made to advertise the show.

The more time I spend in DC, the more convinced I am that this message needs to get out there. There is such an infatuation with complexity among military technologists, and there's a widespread belief that things would be better if we just had more money, more time, and bigger teams. And don't get me started on the preference for formal processes, control and mandatory activities.

While the FIST ideas generally get a good reception and seem to resonate with our audiences, I'm coming to see exactly how counter-cultural these ideas are. We've got quite a fight ahead of us if we're going to try to get wider acceptance of the FIST approach. Wish us luck!

03 August 2009

Cards @ Zazzle

I just got a set of skinny business cards from the nice people at Zazzle.com. I love how they came out, and I love the unique dimensions. I also love the custome service.

See, the first set I ordered had a problem with the printing. It was actually sorta my fault - I forgot to delete one of the default lines (it said "quotation/headline"). That line printed on top of my email address and made it hard to read. But Zazzle let me return the cards and sent me a new set, no problem at all.

Anyway, aren't they cool? You know you want some too...