Avascent First Person: Former Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Ward on Disruptive Engineering
Keeping things simple can quickly get complicated, especially in aerospace and defense.
About Lt. Col. Dan Ward
Former Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Dan Ward is one of the leading advocates for breaking with conventional approaches that create excessive complexity in the quest to overcome the toughest engineering and design challenges.
His two books, F.I.R.E.: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation (2014), and The Simplicity Cycle (2015), lay out his approach to managing and containing complexity that he developed during two decades as an Air Force engineering officer, including service in Afghanistan.
He is an advisor to Avascent and a frequent lecturer on innovation and design at venues ranging from SXSW Interactive to the British House of Commons.
Dan spoke with Avascent about the nuances of simplified engineering and design processes as well as how smaller budgets and shorter schedules are under-appreciated approaches for even big defense programs.
What is F.I.R.E.’s (Fast Inexpensive Restrained Elegant) relevance to the A&D sector?
The fundamental premise of F.I.R.E. is that innovation doesn’t have to cost so much, take so long or be so complicated. Small teams, short schedules and tight budgets – that combination tends to correlate with our best outcomes and there’s a causative relationship. Actually, it’s not just about having constrained resources. It’s about valuing those constraints, establishing them on purpose and embracing them instead of trying to solve problems by adding more time, money, and complexity.
How Do You See The Tension Between Process And Outcomes Playing Out?
Process is neither the problem nor the solution. Really the focus should not be on compliance but on delivering meaningful outcomes and capabilities. Checking all the bureaucratic compliance boxes is important, but it’s less important than whether I deliver a good outcome.
In industry the outcome is usually profit. In the military, I think the equivalent to profit is national strength. We are trying to make America stronger, now and in the future. Spending a lot of time and money developing new technology that’s not relevant to the current fight may result in a high performance weapons system that doesn’t actually make the country stronger… which is a pretty bad outcome.
How does this factor with exports?
High-speed low cost systems are easier to share with our allies, whose pockets aren’t as deep as ours and whose capacity for managing complexity is often limited. Plus, these systems are more likely to be fielded on an operationally relevant timeline, which is hugely important. Bottom line: they tend to make us and our alliances stronger.
When we go with a big, complicated, fragile system that doesn’t play well with others it does set up barriers with our allies. These systems are harder to maintain, harder to integrate, and harder to train on… to say nothing of harder to purchase in sufficient quantities.
Can the principles in F.I.R.E. be used for big platforms, such as aircraft carriers?
Absolutely. The Virginia-class submarine fits the F.I.R.E. pattern perfectly. The Virginia class ended up being half the cost of the Seawolf sub which had come before it – only $2 billion dollars instead of $4 billion dollars. Still expensive, but just about the cheapest modern submarine you can imagine.
Here’s the thing: for any given decision, even on something like an aircraft carrier, we generally get to choose between the faster approach and the slower approach, the more expensive option and the less expensive one. If our guiding principle is spare no expense then that’s going to drive us in a particular direction.
Or if our approach is more restrained like the F.I.R.E. approach then it’s going to drive us in a different direction. It turns out that the restrained approach tends to produce high performance systems that are reliable, maintainable, robust, flexible, adaptable and ready on an operationally relevant timeline.
But if we adopt the “spare no expense, take our time” approach, we end up with systems that are more fragile, harder to use, less relevant.
Are some parts of the F.I.R.E. acronym more important than others?
I always like to point out FIRE is not four ideas, it is one idea: restraint. The idea is to apply this preference for restraint across the whole spectrum of decision making. So whether we’re talking schedule, budget, complexity, team size, tool selection, process definition, that it really comes down to taking a minimalist approach. That means focusing on speed, thrift and simplicity whenever we can.
Look at something like the MRAP, where the Army said we want this fast, we don’t care how much it costs. Guess what, they got it fast and it was expensive. I wonder what would have happened if they had said we want it fast and also constrain your costs? And also build it in a modular way?
Given those constraints, I think we could have made some good design decisions up front that would have produced MRAP’s just as quickly but at a fraction of the price… and the modularity would have made interoperability and upgrades easier and cheaper too.
How do you manage the tension between speed and cost in a community not used to it? What’s the tradecraft?
It’s important to do this stuff with the other members of the community, not to them. It needs to be a collaborative effort, and we can’t just charge in and insist everyone immediately embrace constraints that they haven’t had to deal with previously. So the tradecraft involves communication, empathy, listening, and building trust.
The key is to establish credibility as a technical leader – demonstrating that you know the mission, policy, and regs… plus that you have a solid grasp of what tech can do, and then connect those dots.
Interestingly, the regs are very much on the side of this constrained approach. When you look at the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR), there are multiple emphatic statements in favor of simplicity, flexibility and speed. Anybody who says the FAR is overly restrictive or doesn’t allow this stuff probably hasn’t read the FAR.
If you could insert yourself into the process, what’s the position to effect the most change?
The program manager. For any individual project there’s one program manager who’s responsible for organizing and leading that team and making or guiding a lot of the decisions. They are the pivot point for a lot of this. So a lot of my writing is trying to get into the program manager’s head.
How would you make life better or easier for a program manager?
The best way to make life easier for a program manager is to give them a small team, a tight schedule and inadequate budget. It simplifies their life a lot. It gives focus, it gives speed and it takes away the pressure to delay. In a bureaucracy there is a lot of pressure to not make a decision. When we have a short schedule the pressure is reversed. Often times the difference between alternative A and alternative B is not as great as it seems to be, so we don’t need more time or more analysis. We just need to decide.
Don’t we have to embrace complexity though?
The baseline level of unavoidable complexity in the world today is higher than it was even 10 years ago much less 50 years ago. Having said that, there’s the baseline level of unavoidable complexity and then there’s all the complexity we could (and should) avoid. That’s the delta that I’m looking to address.
The most important line in my book The Simplicity Cycle is simplicity is not the point. A lot of simplicity gurus and advocates go wrong when they overvalue simplicity, when they over-apply it and they hold up simplicity as an intrinsic virtue that’s always good everywhere.
Often times, simplicity can be underwhelming. I think that’s why a lot of people distrust simplicity, because it’s oversold. We need a certain amount of complexity in our life because that complexity does convey value.
What’s the practical way to apply this?
It begins with an awareness that it is possible to create by subtraction. We get into this mode of creating by addition and adding new pieces and parts and functions… There’s a way to create by taking away.
Sculptors for example do that. They take a big block of material and they carve it down to something that’s more than what it was before even though it’s physically smaller and weighs less.
On the last project I led in the Air Force we made a regular practice of asking the question, “What if we do less?” about every aspect of the project. What if our meetings were shorter, what if there were fewer of us in the meetings?
We found out by shortening, consolidating and accelerating some of our meetings, our communications went up. When we applied that question to our technologies and our test plan, we were able to fly sooner, we learned faster, and it let us fly twice as often. I like that it’s a question, not a statement. It’s more of a dialogue.
Can less be more, particularly in the context of budget cuts?
Budget pressure does tend to have some benefits, if we handle them correctly. One of the fundamental principles in F.I.R.E. is constraints foster creativity. When we don’t have a lot of time, when we don’t have a lot of money we are forced to think differently and prioritize.
Put innovation and resources in the context of the Third Offset.
There’s a belief that there’s a positive correlation between spending and innovation. The data just doesn’t support that assertion. In fact, the most innovative products tend to happen during peacetime and during times of reduced budget.
That’s when we get creative innovative military technologies and that’s been observed for decades. I would love to see this as an opportunity to reset our orientation and say what the things are we can do to help foster innovation. Spending buckets of money on large, expensive, slow programs is not the best way to do that.
You’re probably better off building small teams, giving them short schedules, small amounts of money and then letting that team have ways to build on their previous successes.