Finding Room for Failure in the Pentagon

November 2, 2016

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Mike Grimm’s first startup had just failed.  He’d just blown his entire annual budget in a single day.  His sole investor wasn’t happy.

Mike was a mid-level manager in the army, a major.  He was responsible for planning and resourcing training events for army forces stationed in Hawaii.  His “investor” was his boss, the commander of all army forces in the state.  Mike’s “startup” was really an idea.

It was 1977.  A spate of terrorist attacks and hostage crises had rocked the world over the past several years.  Like most innovators, Mike’s idea was borne of a problem — one that he had the imagination to solve.  He was a helicopter pilot, yet Mike could see that helicopters weren’t relevant to this new type of conflict.  Terrorist attacks and hostage crises unfolded over mere hours, often on far-flung corners of the globe.  Helicopters were slow and carried little fuel, making it impossible for them to reach a remote crisis before it was too late.

Mike wanted to make helicopters relevant again, by training crews to load their helicopters on airplanes for transport to distant locales, where they would rapidly unload, reorient themselves, and fly ground troops to conduct precise rescue missions.

With the fearless aplomb of of an entrepreneur, Mike planned a complex, unprecedented training event to demonstrate his concept — a dramatic, simulated hostage rescue on another of Hawaii’s islands.  He pitched his idea to disparate groups, convincing an Air Force squadron to provide transport airplanes and a local infantry unit to act as the rescuers.  With short notice, the helicopter crews and rescue force would be alerted to the breaking “crisis.”  With minimal time to plan, the helicopters, crews, and rescue force would load onto transport aircraft and fly to an airfield on the embattled island.  There, they would quickly unload, reorganize with the ground troops on the helicopters, and fly to the hostages’ remote location for the thrilling rescue.

At least, that was the plan. The demonstration devolved into an unmitigated disaster — a long, compounding line of failures.  The rescue force and the aircrews were woefully untrained, slow, and flew in broad daylight, making their approach painfully obvious.  If the hostages were real, they would have lived just long enough to realize the rescue never stood a chance.

Now they were in the operation’s post-mortem — an “after action review” in military parlance.  Mike’s boss, the general commanding the army forces in Hawaii, stood in front of a crowded room and decried the operation as a failure, arguing that the army shouldn’t be attempting or preparing for missions like that simulated in the exercise.  Mike Grimm was undeterred.  With a candor and boldness rare in the hierarchical military, he rose to his feet and launched into a defense of the idea, “Respectfully sir, that’s not correct…”

Mike’s instincts proved prescient.  Two years later, in 1979, protesters stormed the United States’ embassy in Tehran, Iran, capturing 66 American hostages.  Eager to rescue the hostages as the crisis dragged on, President Carter ordered an ambitious rescue mission, similar to Mike Grimm’s training exercise.  The mission was beset by difficulties — largely because the aircrews lacked training for such a mission — and ultimately ended in tragedy, when a helicopter collided with a refueling plane in the Iranian desert.  The operation’s staging site was consumed with fire and chaos, killing eight and destroying seven helicopters and a C-130 cargo plane.  Americans awoke to pictures of burnt American aircraft in the Iranian desert.

A high-ranking officer at the Pentagon remembered Grimm’s idea and recognized its potential to prevent another disaster.  The military leadership directed Grimm to organize a secretive task force, a specially-trained aviation unit built around his idea, in preparation for a second rescue attempt.  The mission never happened, as the hostages were released in early 1981.  Still, version 2.0 of Mike Grimm’s big idea had been born.

The fledgling unit continued to iterate on Mike’s idea through the 1980s and 1990s.  They pioneered capabilities that are now cornerstones of America’s peerless aviation and special operations forces, eventually growing into the army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR).

The story has the same broad outline of Silicon Valley’s well-known startups: a determined, visionary founder launches a risky venture and perseveres through failure to grow a successful, transformative enterprise.  Apple started in a garage and went on to change the way people across the world communicate.  Grimm’s startup was founded in a small government office in Hawaii and grew to transform the way the U.S. military fights wars.  Beyond their similar plots, the ventures shared something deeper — a philosophy of relentless iteration and an entrepreneurial spirit.

usasoc-ex
Modern day special operations forces demonstrate the type of operation pioneered by Mike Grimm. (Source: USASOC)

The world has changed rapidly in the decades since Grimm’s exercise, leaving many of our institutions like his helicopters in Hawaii — capable but increasingly unable to reach the problems in time. Luckily, the successes of Grimm and other innovators from industry show that long-standing government organizations like the military aren’t destined for perpetual tardiness.

Embracing Failure

“Fail fast, fail often.”  It’s an oft-repeated maxim in Silicon Valley.  This can mean cutting losses early — freeing resources for more promising projects — or being flexible enough to learn from mistakes and adjust — compensating for the tendency of initial plans to be flawed and incomplete.

Grimm’s exercise in Hawaii was the first failure in a long line of messy experimentation and learning.  Even after his core idea was validated and his secretive task force stood up, it was not clear how to make long-range, precision helicopter operations work.  New challenges emerged — difficulties in maintaining surprise and navigating with only a compass and stopwatch over long distances.  Throughout the 1980s, the task force tackled these challenges, experimenting with cutting edge equipment — like night vision goggles and GPS — and combining it with innovative new flying techniques.  There were more mistakes, including tragic crashes and training accidents.  Still, the organization persevered, adjusting, learning, and improving from each.

Similarly, 10 years before the iPhone, Apple released the Newton, an ambitious personal digital assistant (PDA) that was widely derided for poor battery life, a grainy screen, and frustrating handwriting recognition.  Apple noted the shortcomings and carried forward refined versions of the Newton’s best ideas into its most blockbuster products of the past decade: the iPhone and iPad.

The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Paul Selva, has noted that this iterative approach is often at odds with the military’s hierarchical culture, observing that, “innovation is only good if you’re right. Failure is not an option. Asking the hard questions is only acceptable if you know the answer and none of that fosters innovation.”

Selva could have easily been describing Mike Grimm’s boss.  It’s tough to be critical: “Fail fast, fail often,” is a scary proposition when a single failure can cost you your career.  Grimm’s boss seems even more reasonable when you consider the statistics:  In industry, as many as three in four startups fail to break even on the money invested.

Despite the bleak failure rate, industry stays successful because a small percentage of companies deliver outsized success.  A single Uber or AirBnB can cover hundreds or thousands of failed investments.  Small, individual risks are distributed across a large population, ensuring no single failure bankrupts the system while providing a market to spark, identify, and refine disruptive ideas.  Government agencies often take the opposite approach, making a single, staggeringly expensive bet on a single program — one far more likely to be a Pets.com than an Amazon.com.  Despite unique challenges, government institutions can embrace the underlying philosophy of industry’s approach with techniques like rapid prototyping and internal experimentation, separating successes from failures before the stakes have reached potentially catastrophic proportions.

In industry, failure builds innovation into the system — slow, anachronistic companies simply go out of business, to be replaced by newer, more innovative ones.  The numbers are stark: 88 percent of the companies on the Fortune 500 in 1955 were not on 2014’s list, meaning they went bankrupt, merged, or no longer ranked among the giants.  Taxi companies seemed safe in the status quo for decades but are now existentially threatened by Uber and Lyft.  Kodak invented rolled film cameras and, in their heyday, employed over 145,000 people.  Stuck on the successes of yesterday, they were late in recognizing digital photography’s impact.  In 2012, they filed for bankruptcy after 132 years of business — supplanted by nimble startups like Instagram.

Large public organizations like the Department of Defense, the Social Security Administration, and the Department of Homeland Security do not have the relatively mild option of going out of business.  The government equivalent is a lost war, scores of starving elderly Americans, or a devastating terrorist attack.  It seems logical for people like Grimm’s boss to squelch risky ideas in their infancy, but doing so trades small, low-cost failures for the risk of a catastrophic, irreversible one when the public is most in need.  Amidst mounting challenges, the military and government must find room for the small failures — or accept the inevitability of far larger ones years, months, or weeks from today.

 

Sean Cochran served in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment for six years as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, experiencing the success of Mike Grimm’s idea firsthand.  He recently finished a graduate degree at the Harvard Kennedy School and is currently a strategist at the U.S. Army’s headquarters in the Pentagon.  The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of any agency, organization, or the United States government.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andy Dunaway

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3 thoughts on “Finding Room for Failure in the Pentagon

  1. DoD has both the sandbox and production environment. The issue is not finding room for failure, but rather knowing which room that one is in. Organizational success does require daring experimentation in the sandbox, but just as critical is the discipline for continuous process improvement in the production environment.