Tag Archives: Design Thinking

Improving the edgefighter experience

Mav6: At the intersection of design and national security

Too often in the defense industry, we build for an abstracted version of the end-user. We design solutions for edgefighters as viewed through the lens of contractual language written by acquisition professionals who are well removed from the situation-dependent tactical details that can mean the difference between life and death in the field. We develop products for soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines instead of a soldier, a sailor, an airman, and a marine.

Industrial age warfare is over. Modern, information-age warfare is a competition of individuals, not institutions, where technology is relegated to a supporting role – albeit an important one. Within this context the question is not “How can technology ‘leverage’ achieve the desired tactical, operational, or strategic outcomes?” but rather “How can technology help edgefighters to achieve the desired outcomes?”

Today’s operational environments are a chaotic mess by historical standards. And operational diversity demands functional specialization, which in turn demands tools that can be optimized at the lowest common denominator: the individual edgefighter.

As a private citizen, I can customize the technologies in my daily life in a near infinite variety of ways to enhance my productivity and performance, yet edgefighters are seldom afforded the same luxury in the execution of their duties.

I marvel at how poorly designed most military systems are from a pure usability perspective. Even today, there seems to be little recognition in the defense industry that usability impacts performance. The extra split second that it takes to find actionable threat information using a poorly design user interface can make all the difference in the field. And anyone who’s ever tried to squeeze into a HMMWV understands how poor design can effect mission performance.

Thoughtful design with an eye towards end-user specialization doesn’t just win in the commercial marketplace, it’s a strategic imperative in contemporary conflict environments. When the enemy is regularly innovating new threats in a development cycle that measures in weeks, it’s impossible to go back to the well and create new purpose-built countermeasures in time to effect the tactical fight.

This is where good design comes in. Military systems must transcend the idea of application-specific engineering and migrate to the technology-as-ecosystem model, where platforms are designed to co-evolve with the operational environment and the changing needs of users.

Mav6 is committed to the idea of improving the edgefighter experience through great product and solution design that helps the men and women engaged on the front lines of conflict and public safety do their jobs better, safer, and faster. This means building flexible, easy to use solutions that can be customized in the field to accommodate emerging operational needs. There’s nothing revolutionary about this. It’s something the commercial world learned long ago. And if you ask us, it’s well past time for the defense industry to take note.

The innovation flash mob

In today's war, our strategic reserve is the commercial tech base. It's time they joined to fight!

Picasso couldn’t teach his legions of devoted acolytes the mastery of color and composition that differentiates his work. By the same token, true innovation (irrespective of the field of inquiry) can’t be reduced to practice. There are no shortcuts. Sorry Jomini.

But we can create (or at least influence) the conditions under which such flashes of inspiration are likely to manifest. And one of the most important of these conditions is the cross fertilization of ideas. The defense industry presents extra barriers (i.e. security, proprietary information, export restrictions, etc.) to the open, cross-cutting collaboration that provides the seed corn for such innovation hot beds as Silicon Valley. But in a world where competitiveness is increasingly predicated on information-based intellectual capital (as opposed to industrial capital), the companies (and militaries) that sample from the largest pool of ideas will earn an overwhelming strategic advantage.

Following are some additional thoughts on how the Defense establishment can position itself to compete in the all important battlespace of ideas:

1. Explore new approaches to problem identification, problem vetting, and problem solving. To get ahead of the competition, the Defense establishment must accelerate problem AND solution discovery. The best way for this to happen is to place experts with knowledge of the problem space in direct contact with the widest possible cross section of technology subject matter experts (i.e. people who understand the art of the possible). The web is a great vehicle for facilitating this kind of interaction, but it’s not a solution in and of itself. Person to person interaction is far and away the preferred vehicle for facilitating the synergistic group dynamics that underwrite productive brainstorming. Consider by way of example the “innovation flash mob” used by the Nordstrom Innovation Lab to prototype new approaches for improving the customer experience. Check out the following clip…

2. Replace the old industrial model where carefully controlled requirements strictly limit the problem and solution spaces. Life is messy. And contemporary warfare is even messier. It took the British empire over 100 years to learn that imposing “order” on the battlefield only works so long as all the players elect to follow the same set of rules. While we teach improvisation and ingenuity as cornerstones of modern operational art, we continue to plan and equip for wars according to a strictly prescribed (albeit artificial) order. To remain competitive in the irregular warfare environment, the Defense establishment must pursue approaches where more organic problem <-> solution dynamics can emerge, making allowances for the disruptive insights that fail to conform to the “orderly” corporate view of the problem space.

3. I have said it before: problems are the new currency in defense. And job #1 is to actively engage the collective resources of the U.S. (global) tech base to underwrite solutions to these problems. Much has been made of asymmetric advantages enjoyed by terrorists and insurgents in modern global conflicts: speed, agility, invisibility, etc. I would submit that the U.S. enjoys an even more compelling asymmetric advantage – one that, by and large, we have failed to make full use of. The engine that drives the U.S. economic machine is commercial technology innovation. But today, thanks to the Internet, our terrorist and insurgent adversaries enjoy almost equal access to these innovations. DoD must look for opportunities to directly engage the commercial technology marketplace in the problems of Defense. This is easier said than done. By and large, the commercial tech base views Defense as an opaque, inscrutable world, where the barriers to entry eclipse the modest financial returns that a company might expect to realize. The first step to overcoming this impedance mismatch is to educate the commercial tech base (in a  non-FedBizOpps kind of way) to the “jobs” that Defense practitioners need to accomplish. In today’s war, our strategic reserve is the commercial tech base. It’s time they joined to fight!

Design @ Mav6

The Mav6 business model is based around the idea of harvesting insights and inspiration from the edgefighter to create good, cheap, and fast solutions to problems in the battlespace. Following are a couple of charts (courtesy of Sam Harris and Shane McWhorter) that detail our approach. Enjoy!

Some thoughts on the Battle Forge vision

“It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage than a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.” - Niccolo Machiavelli

The following thoughts on the Battle Forge vision are offered by former officer of Marines and current Mav6 General Counsel, Dave Ruppert.

As we see in the national media on issues of social and economic policy, conventional wisdom is placed on “adjusting” conditions in such a way so as to allow the prevailing, conventional paradigm (whatever that might be) to survive. As one example: as the costs of higher education go up and graduates assume more debt, there have been calls to come up with “solutions” that simply relieve the debt or provide more money to pay for rising costs. This sort of thinking, in my opinion, is conventional, lazy, uncreative, and fails to solve the problem. In fact, such thinking and “solutions” only stand to perpetuate the problem. Instead, real solutions should be sought that are focused on creating new systems to “compete” against the prevailing paradigms. In the example of higher education just mentioned, solutions should be focused on creating alternative systems which compete against the juggernaut of established educational institutions. This may mean new online training systems or tax breaks for companies whose workforce is educated using nontraditional educational outlets, etc. In short, by creating an alternative market, the status quo–which many think unchangeable–can be challenged and reformed because it now has a viable competitor. And this creates real value; real solutions; it creates competition. And it is the epitome of the free market concept.

The same holds true in the defense industry. Conventional thinking is that there is a system and players that are set and rigid and that meaningful change just cannot penetrate. “Can’t be done,” they say. This is rubbish. However, short term profit motivations continue to encourage new companies to play inside the already-established ring of the status quo: play “by the rules” and you can get the “scraps” that the big companies are happy to allow to keep the peace. But by doing so, it leaves large defense companies in control of the market: allowed to continue to reap huge profits without much in terms of innovation.

Battle Forge can be the beginning, in my opinion, of that “alternative market of ideas” for the aerospace and defense marketplace: a forum or consortium of small, young, new thinking, revolutionary companies that together can challenge the defense acquisition status quo. At first, Battle Forge may need to focus on general social networking: getting small companies together to share lessons learned, faster and better ways of doing things, networking, whatever. The important thing is to get the momentum rolling toward small company connection: setting up the network. And to set up this network, it need not necessarily involve the sharing of technical data which may fall afoul of security, export, or trade secret fears; focus can simply start with benign, “non-threatening,” subject matter. In short, establish trust amongst the members. Then you could ratchet it up and move into technical exchange.

However, once that network is established, the next phase would be in getting the defense department and the US government to see that this network is, in fact, an alternative marketplace for its needs. If we can empirically demonstrate a collective group of young, like-minded, nimble companies that have the ability to come together and work to provide a viable alternative to the large defense contractors, we can begin to shape real defense acquisition reform efforts at the highest levels. But we have to come to that discussion with a team and demonstrable results behind the rhetoric. And Battle Forge could be that team: the team that provides that “alternative market” to challenge conventional wisdom and bring about real reform to the system.

In defense, it’s the ideas that matter

I had the opportunity to attend TEDxPennQuarter 2011 this past Tue October 18 with some members of the Mav6 team. For those of you not familiar with the TED experience, it can best be described as a celebration of creative ideas across the widest possible range of human interests. At a typical TED conference (typical is almost certainly not the right word…), it would be entirely normal to see a speech by a leading business thinker followed by a one-man “human beat box” show.

If you’re wondering what the point of such an eclectic mix of topics might be, I offer the following explanation: there is tremendous value in being exposed to how creatives from outside of one’s normal business or social context approach innovation. Such exposure forces one to challenge long-held assumptions and beliefs and seek out opportunities to improve (or disrupt) the status quo, which brings me to my point: what can the defense community learn from the TED experience.

From my perspective, there is no industry more ripe for fresh ideas than the venerable defense establishment. I am not saying that the defense industry doesn’t have brilliant, creative people, but structural and cultural barriers inhibit the diffusion of new ideas that cut against the grain. To a troubling extent, the only perspectives that seem to have a platform in the defense community are those that espouse some variation of the corporate view. So what happens when the threat evolves in a manner that no longer respects the status quo?

I am not advocating that we throw away convention in the defense industry. What I am saying is that as a community we need to make a more conscious effort to foster opportunities for the socialization and pursuit of radical ideas and innovations. Maybe we should look to the TED model and invite thinkers from orthogonal industries and disciplines to share their experiences with edgefighters and defense insiders. I can almost guarantee that such cross-pollinization of perspectives will yield unexpected solutions.

It was purely coincidental (I think) that TEDxPennQuarter 2011 took place the week after the 2011 AUSA Annual Meeting and Exposition. While the toys on display at AUSA get a 10 out of 10 for flat out cool, what the defense industry needs more of today is a celebration of the ideas (not artifacts) that will make a difference in modern security environment. Our ability to win this war will be less about an overpowering military arsenal than the ability to rapidly innovate – to capitalize on fleeting opportunities and challenges before our adversaries. And the form that this innovation will take does not follow a predictable linear progression of ideas. It will be sparked by crazy, disruptive ideas interacting with the defense ecosystem.

Can artistry teach us anything about the business of Defense?

Some interesting insight from The Economist. Are there lessons here for transformation of the Defense industry?

Mav6 strategy introspective

I’ve always thought that it’s a bit silly to shroud one’s business plan in secrecy. In my humble opinion, it makes a lot more sense to openly share the strategies and ideas that underwrite a business and leverage the market as an active collaborator in refining these concepts. And if someone can take these strategies and ideas and beat us at our own game, God bless! That means we will have succeeded in our overarching goal to change the Defense industry for the better.

I also find it helpful to periodically restate our business model as a reminder of why we exist in the first place. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day opportunism that feeds an early phase growth company like Mav6. But maintaining a constant awareness of the long-term vision as a filter for daily operations is (at least in the case of Mav6) a business imperative that drives our differentiation in the marketplace and ultimately our future success – even if it means passing on immediate revenue generating opportunities.

So, what is Mav6? We are a company that harvests commercial technology innovations and best practices to create rapid, cost-effective solutions to the problems in defense and security. We do this by leveraging a distributed network of partners to quickly identify the challenges confronted by edgefighters in the field AND capitalize on the “art of the possible” from diverse and unexpected sources. But this is not all that we do. At the end of the day, our mission is not about “concpets” it’s about “capabilities” – quickly and cheaply delivering the capabilities that matter to edgefighters.

This mission requires us to assemble a full spectrum of organic resources and competencies (solution design, rapid prototyping, systems integration, and technology incubation) to take solutions from idea to implementation. The goal is to create a set of integrated products and services that enable Mav6 to become a focal point for the deployment of customized commercial technologies into the defense and security markets. But in order to retain the agility that enables Mav6 to quickly shift from problem to problem, we must strike a careful balance between organic and outsourced resources. Our approach to this dilemma involves aggregating organic subject matter expertise across the entire rapid acquisition value chain to serve as a force multiplier through the timely integration of complementary external capabilities on a just-in-time basis. The trick is knowing how to differentiate between the “organic” and the “external” in a manner that is both scalable and reliable…

Faster by design

Mav6 is a Quick Reaction Capability (QRC) development company. If you think about it, there aren’t a lot of well established rules for better, cheaper, faster in the Defense industry, which is why we’re writing our own playbook. Our challenge is to actively seek out new and better ways of doing things and then document these approaches so that they can be re-used or adapted to new problems.

Sam Harris, a Mav6 PM working out of our Vicksburg office, drafted the following article based on his experiences with the design of the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) M&S Catalog – an online data repository that relates counter-IED technologies to various end-user applications.

Faster by Design

A slow website can try your patience. But a fast website simply disappears into a flow-state of getting things done.

Technologists often try to speed up websites through faster hardware. But consider a recent redesign of the JIEDDO M&S Catalog, a website providing up-to-date information on tools that help our warfighters combat roadside bombs and other “improvised explosive devices” (JIEDDO is the government agency tasked with this mission).

Through several demonstrations, a design team at Mav6 observed that current M&S Catalog users browse through the entire catalog, from one article to the next—first loading a full list of articles, selecting an article to view, returning to the list, and then selecting another article, and so on: click-wait; click-wait.

Figure 1. Legend

Figure 2. Legacy workflow

In all, it took 40 seconds to browse from one article to the next in this legacy workflow.

This is so slow it is distracting. If too many brain cycles are lost between actions, the mind starts to wander and the flow-state is lost. The Mav6 design team identified two ways to speed up this site: (1) changes to software architecture, and (2) changes to the user interface design.

Software Architecture

Rather than hitting the database for each of hundreds of queries, a single comprehensive query now loads all needed information into a single smaller matrix to build the page. Images are now resized in the database rather than in the browser. These two architecture improvements—along with others—were good enough to trim the 40-second process to 12 seconds: a five-fold increase in performance.

User Interface

The Mav6 design team decided to display both the list and the article at the same time—thereby negating the need to reload the list every time the user wants to view another article. Our customers simply click on the next article they want to view and it loads, but the list stays the same. What’s more, we pre-fetch the previous and following articles while the user is reading the current article. When they move on to the next article, it’s already there—in less than 1/30th of a second. Once they’ve downloaded any article, image, or list to their browser, it remains cached in their session: if they don’t close the browser, any article or list they were reading earlier is shown to them again in less than 1/30th of a second.

This user interface design change now reduces waits between article views from 12 seconds to less than 1/30th of a second: a 360-fold additional increase in performance.

Figure 3. Faster workflow

In addition, by incorporating human-readable and unique URL addresses for each page into the design, our customer can use the browser itself to subscribe to, bookmark, and share any page in the catalog, completely removing the need for user accounts on the site. In the redesign, when users first visit the site, they don’t have to register for an account, get their account approved, and then log-in—reducing a several minute task to zero.


The incredible discovery here is that user interface design can actually do more to speed up a website than software engineering, and the two together can do far more than faster hardware—all while more closely meeting the actual needs of the customer.

Mav6′s Big Ideas

Mav6 is a company based on ideas – the different ideas that matter to our military and society. When people ask me to describe Mav6, I almost almost always find myself reverting to a description not of ‘what’ we do but ‘how’ we do it. True value creation in today’s aerospace and defense marketplace is less about product innovation and more about business model innovation, that is, creating the conditions for reliable, cost effective, and rapid innovation across a broad spectrum of potential applications.  Whereas products are obsolete almost as soon as they leave the lab, transformational ideas have a lasting impact.

It’s the Big Ideas that underwrite how we do things that differentiates Mav6 from other companies in the Defense industry – not our capabilities or processes or even products. To know Mav6 is to understand the ideas that function as the impetus for our business operations. Let me share them with you:

Edge Awareness. All of the important stuff takes place on frontiers. Whether its technology, policy, or warfare, staying relevant and ready requires insight and inspiration from the bleeding edge. Leveraging tactical innovations derived from real experiences is the very foundation of competitiveness in today’s fast paced and ever changing world.

Open Everything. Or taking the best of what’s already out there, envisioning the game changing applications that create real value, creating the cultural and technological conditions that enable disparate technologies and ideas to be seamlessly integrated, and making discoveries available to the world to prime the next round of breakthroughs.

Mass Customization. Complexity demands specialization. Managing the unique opportunities and challenges of contemporary operational environments requires custom tools optimized to specific needs and delivered with unprecedented speed and accuracy – all at a scale that can accommodate a rapidly expanding diversity of applications.

Just-In-Time Integration. Operational complexity defies preconceived, off-the-shelf solutions. It’s all about speed and mass – bringing the right tools together at the right time to achieve an objective. The trick is to create the conditions – the standards, architectures, and platforms through which complementary technologies can be integrated and deployed.

DoD needs Big Design Up Front

Evolutionary technology development practices are all the rage. The various agile and extreme programming frameworks have captured the imagination of the commercial software world and are starting to become a major influence on the Defense industry. Based on the increasing usage of the word ‘agile’ in the Defense dialogue, I am expecting to see the type of aggressive oversubscription that has accompanied previous commercial crossover fads like Total Quality Management and Lean Six Sigma. But before DoD and the Defense industry make a wholesale commitment to agile methodologies (to the exclusion of legacy approaches), there are a couple of important points to keep in mind.

Without question, the agile idea lends itself to the type of threat scenarios currently confronting DoD.  In the absence of a steady state operating environment, agile development, where capabilities are continuously optimized around the margins, makes a lot of sense. It gets back to Peter Sims’ “Little Bets” concept that I have discussed in previous posts – start with what you know and evolve in measured steps based on experiential feedback.

But the agile design philosophy doesn’t mitigate the need to think through a problem from start to finish. On the other hand, thinking through the problem doesn’t mean meticulously defining every operational excursion likely to be encountered during the life of a technology. Big Design Up Front (BDUF) is often mistakenly viewed as a counterpoint to agile design. To be sure, the fundamentalist interpretation of BDUF, where an excruciating level of planning overwhelms the adaptation imperative, is at odds with agile precepts; however, I would argue that this should not necessarily be the case.

A marriage of agile and BDUF is required to produce the types of solutions demanded by contemporary military problems. By way of analogy, the reason that jazz works is that it reflects a disciplined and unifying structure around which improvisation can take place. Done right, agile development incorporates a similar pre-considered discipline that can only emerge through the application of a BDUF approach. No amount of evolution can make up for a faulty initial design. And no amount of up front planning can anticipate the complexities of modern military conflicts. Agile and BDUF should not be viewed as competing methodologies within the context of DoD R&D; they are two sides of the same coin.