Novel approaches to research and development are needed for the U.S. Army to stay competitive in the race for technology-driven supremacy.
Yet 10 years or longer has been typical in going from “statement of need” to “initial operational capacity” using the Pentagon’s regular procurement process.
The glacial pace has sparked a number of Pentagon reform initiatives, including creation of the Army Futures Command (AFC). In turn, AFC has tapped The Texas A&M University System to help forge a better path for moving technology from basic theory to battle ready.
The university will test a process called “Agile Technology Development.” Based on principles used extensively in the software industry, the Agile approach is intended to discover and nurture new technologies quickly, bringing various products to the prototyping stage.
Agile veers off the traditional linear research path and gets feedback early and often from subject experts and stakeholders in academia, industry and the military — including battle-tested Army soldiers themselves.
Agile is an iterative process — a continuous repetition of design, test, learn and adjust. The intent is to innovate toward what are called “minimum viable products.” Those can be useful algorithms, software codes, prototypes or simply lessons learned in answering particular research questions.
Nancy Currie-Gregg, a former U.S. Army colonel and former NASA astronaut, is leading the initiative to embed Agile into five key research initiatives.
She is a Professor of Practice in Texas A&M’s College of Engineering. At NASA, she led reform efforts in the Space Shuttle Program Safety and Mission Assurance Office following the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster. Her varied experience helps her understand how to alter entrenched ways of doing things within organizations.
M. Katherine Banks, Texas A&M System’s vice chancellor of engineering and national laboratories, signaled a change in approach to the five research initiatives. She mandated that full-time engineers be hired to lead the operation of each research team. The norm would be to rely primarily on faculty members, whom inevitably have competing responsibilities.
While key faculty will help set the high-level strategy for each team, daily decision-making will fall to the full-time research engineers. They will lead teams who will organize themselves and work collaboratively.
Authority is pushed down the organizational chain as far as its practical. Every team member is measured on the progress of the team as a whole.
The Agile approach is well-suited for addressing complex problems with unknown solutions. Research teams are taught to sprint through task lists, experiment frequently and pivot when efforts in one direction prove futile or raise new questions.
Traditional military procurement processes are far different, relying on carefully scripted academic grant protocol. The work typically spans years of development and refinement. Too often, the end users are not brought in for feedback until nearly the end.
Historically, the development of nearly every major Pentagon weapons system includes a multi-million dollar horror story involving something overlooked until close to the end, Currie-Gregg said. Often, she said, it is something that could have been corrected with the early involvement of real-world operators.
The Agile approach will help accelerate past a crucial period of development that’s known in research parlance as the “valley of death.” The term is descriptive for the struggling, middle stage of a project — between early, well-funded academic research and when private industry sees profits on the horizon.
The Agile approach is a perfect complement to the Bush Combat Development Complex, which will feature an Innovation Proving Ground, an outdoor lab of relevant conditions and instruments to precisely track the performance of prototypes.
“A regular lab doesn’t have fog and smoke and blowing wind and dust, but we will,” Currie-Gregg said. “And we’ll have everything we need to measure and evaluate how products withstand conditions analogous to those faced by warfighters.”
Outside experts from throughout the country will visit the Bush Combat Development Complex regularly and participate in experiments and demonstrations called I2E2s, which stands for Innovation and Integration Evaluation Events.
While advancing research in particular areas, Texas A&M also will analyze the success of the Agile approach itself and make recommendations on its value for other military applications, regardless of whether they come via universities, private industry or the military’s own research labs.
Lt. Gen. James Richardson, deputy commander of Army Futures Command, praised Texas A&M’s Agile approach in a recent briefing with the university’s leadership.
“You are hitting on all of our points; you’re leading the way,” Richardson said. “I wish all of our lab directors were sitting here with us right now.”
What sets Texas A&M apart? Agile Technology Development
What is Agile?
The aim is to speed up the period from basic discovery to viable product or capability through an “iterative” process. That’s a process of testing, feedback and refinement – followed by more testing, more feedback and more refinement. The idea is to sprint toward success or failure, not toil for years.