Case Detail

Case Summary

Innovation in Government: U.S. Department of Defense

Case Number: 5-207-251, Year Published: 2007

HBS Number: KEL346

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Authors: Robert C. Wolcott; Michael J Lippitz

Key Concepts

Radical and disruptive innovations, organizational navigation, leadership in government, operations and constraints of an innovation organization, risk management in innovation programs, disruptive innovation, leadership in government, radical innovation


The case compares two U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) programs from the 1970s and 1980s: (1) “stealth” combat aircraft, capable of evading detection or engagement by anti-aircraft systems, and (2) precision attack of hardened ground vehicles from “standoff” distances, i.e., far behind the battle lines. Conceived at roughly the same time, motivated by the same strategic challenge, and initially driven by the same DoD organization, stealth combat aircraft progressed from idea to deployment in less than eight years—an astounding pace for a complex military system—while a demonstrated system for standoff precision strike against mobile ground targets was not fully implemented. The case highlights the critical role of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), part of the DoD, regarded as one of the most innovative entities in the U.S. federal government.

The learning objective of this case is to highlight factors that facilitate rapid, successful implementation of radically innovative or disruptive concepts. Students will be introduced to the organizational realities facing such projects, including: issues of strategic clarity, inter-departmental competition and cooperation, executive leadership, and timing. While some of these elements have a different slant in government than they do in a large corporate setting, comparing the differences in implementation of these programs reveals issues relevant to any large organization seeking to bring innovative concepts to fruition.

Number of Pages: 14

Extended Case Information

Teaching Areas: Entrepreneurship, Management, Non Profit, Organizational Behavior, Technology

Teaching Note Available: Yes

Geographic: United States

Industry: U.S. Federal Government

Organization Name: Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Organization Department: Department of Defense

Organization Size: Large

Decision Maker Position: Research Director

Decision Maker Gender: Male

Year of Case: 1991