Steve Blank has had a diverse professional career. He reels it off to me in numbers: “Four years in the US air force during Vietnam working in electronic intelligence, eight startups in Silicon Valley in twenty one years, four IPOs. And currently, eighteen years in academia”.
Best known for his part in the founding of the Lean Startup movement, Blank developed an approach which “for the first time ever gave early stage ventures and corporate innovators a methodology and how to think about innovation and entrepreneurship” he explains, as we stand chatting in a busy corridor at the Web Summit in Lisbon.
His method was built on the premise that startups are not simply smaller versions of big companies: they need a different set of tools and processes to get things right. It’s “experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition” wrote Blank in 2013 in an article for the Harvard Business Review. Away with traditional, overly speculative business plans – in with talking to your potential customers at an early stage, and re-working your idea again and again until you know it’s going to be a success. Accept that your original premise is, initially, nothing more than an “untested hypotheses”.
This is something big companies could benefit from too – in part as a way of keeping up with startups, adds Blank. “Large company executives are skilled at managing large execution machines. I found the process, I have rules, I know how business works. I’m great at that. Innovation? Not so much”, he says, arguing that big companies are at a structural disadvantage today because of technological changes, and competition from startups which are inherently more flexible. “Startups can break the law. If you think about Uber, Airbnb, Tesla, they’re all law breakers from day one. If a hotel chain came up with the idea for Airbnb they’d have lasted about an hour before getting sued”, laughs Blank.
In an unusual meeting of worlds, Blank has gone on to apply this methodology when working with US government agencies – namely the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Department of State. Originally at Silicon Valley’s Stanford University, Blank’s courses Hacking for Defense and Hacking for Diplomacy are now taught at multiple universities in the US. For Hacking for Defense, Blank partnered with two former army colonels and reached out to the DoD and intelligence agencies to ask them for “their toughest problems…then we’ll see if we can recruit students to solve them”.
Blank explains that there is now a bill in front of Congress to amend the National Defense Authorization Act – which if successful would permanently fund the class. But why is this helpful for the DoD? “It turns out that if you’re a government agency – let’s say an intelligence agency – even if you execute your current mission or guidance given to you by the DoD, your capabilities decline, even if you execute pristinely” explains Blank. He says this is thanks to security breaches, changing global dynamics and better technology on the part of adversaries, “so even though you’re executing and you’re doing what the plan says, your capabilities are declining. This is why we need to continually innovate – to replace diminishing capabilities. That’s just to stay even. Then we need further innovation so we can create new capabilities that we haven’t even thought of before”.
The DoD may have been using a programme which was able to read a certain type of smartphone, but as soon as new one comes out on the market the programme could be rendered useless. This has intensified in recent years not only due to the speed at which technology is advancing, but also its accessibility around the world: “in the US we used to own all the core capabilities. We were the only ones who had drones, cryptography etc, but all of a sudden you can buy that stuff off the shelf”, adds Blank. Add to this the large number of adversaries the US has today – state and non-state actors – and keeping ahead is an immeasurably harder task than it was in the last century. “Both companies and government agencies are facing what nowadays we call continuous disruption. The equivalent is if you’re a retail chain like Macy’s, Amazon is coming right at you and you’re a proxy like all the other retail chains being disrupted. We can afford to have Macy’s go out of business in our country. We can’t afford to have part of our government being disrupted like that”.
There is huge variety in the student projects, from a mapping programme designed to help the US and partner nations improve communication and situational awareness of illicit maritime activities in Central and South America, to a system combining an app and wearable technology that helps clinicians detect the behavioural or cognitive decline of veterans with PTSD. Hacking for Diplomacy, the programme which works with problems provided by the Department of State, has seen an even more broad range of solutions. This includes a formula to quantify the effect that a satellite or launch vehicle has on space debris, and a Facebook chat bot – linked to over 150 international organisations such as the Red Cross and UNHCR – which refugees can message questions to about the rights and services they are entitled to.
Steve Blank explains that he started these courses because he felt that his Lean Startup students at top universities had little interest in the activities of government. “Sadly, unless you decide to start a career in policy or political science you see it as someone else’s problem” says Blank, “so I thought at best I could at least have the best and brightest understand the problems that their governments are working with”. But the courses proved popular, and there has been a remarkable unexpected consequence – over forty per cent of students who took one of the courses are still working with their government sponsors after graduation. “These are kids who could go to Google or Facebook or anywhere, but have decided to get engaged with the government”, Blank finishes, triumphant.