What Defense Acquisition can learn from Apple

MilSpace on the iPhone

Why do people love apple?  Why do they line up around the block days in advance to buy an iPhone? Why is there a dating site set up exclusively for apple users to date other apple users?  Is there something I’m missing?  Since when does a personal computer preference say to someone of the opposite sex, “hey, I’m the one for you”? Even the military is falling in love with the company.  The Army is in talks with Apple to employ a number of its products for warfighting applications and recently launched a contest to encouraging development of military apps. Efforts by the military to better adopt mobile technologies, including Apple technologies, have been covered on this blog and elsewhere. By embracing commercial technologies, is the DoD taking advantage of a innovative opportunity or admitting that in some domains, Defense Acquisition just can’t get the job done as well?

Granted, Apple makes cool consumer electronics in contrast with the complex warplanes and ground systems of the Defense industry.  But the next frontier in technology will be driven by software, networks, and mobile devices, and the Defense industry would be foolish to not leverage existing consumer capabilities for military applications.  If Defense Acquisition is going to learn how to make these future products successfully, it might as well emulate the best in the business. Here are a few quick thoughts on why Apple has been successful in its latest endeavors and the lessons Defense Acquisition can take from those successes.

(1) User Interface is Paramount

The iPad was not the first tablet pc.  It wasn’t even Apple’s first attempt to build a tablet.  Yet, sales of the iPad reached 1 million sold in just 28 days and increased to 3 million after 80 days.  The iPad succeeded where previous tablets had failed due to its focus on user interface.  The concept for the iPad had been around for nearly a decade before Steve Jobs decided it was ready from a user interface point of view.  He knew that a truly revolutionary tablet couldn’t just have a functional keyboard; it had to have a keyboard that could be good enough to replace a traditional keyboard.  It couldn’t simply be light and flat; it had to be so light that users wouldn’t mind holding it for extended periods of time.

User interface also applies to system of systems that compose Apple’s products.  The individual devices are great on their own, but what really keeps and holds customers is an understanding that different Apple products are expected to simply work well with each other.  It doesn’t matter if the user is a teenager trying to make absolutely sure she can get to her latest Miley tracks no matter whether she’s at home, in the minivan, or at school (tsk.) or if the user is a professional photographer using Apple products to manage complex, data-sensitive workflows.  It just has to work.

What can Defense Acquisition Do?
– Support early human factors engineering and human systems integration (see chapter 6), disciplines meant to ensure the people of a system are considered when the systems is being developed.

– Focus less on technical requirements and more on detailed use cases that take into account actual human characteristics and limitations.  Require test and evaluation to use actual humans in prototype systems; avoid simulations where feasible.

– Invest in better web/software interface design.  Has anyone tried updating their TSP enrollment on MyPay?  It’s lots of fun.

(2) It’s About the Software

As a quick glance at the latest technology marketing quickly shows, the competition between mobile devices is not just about hardware – it’s about the apps. Even before iPhone and iPad, Apple distinguished itself from other computer companies by consistently producing great interfaces in its operating systems and by offering simple but powerful programs guaranteed to work with their base platforms.

Apple has made some difficult decisions in the past, most notably with regard to their exclusion of multitasking in earlier iPhone models and more recently barring flash from the iPad.  If sales are any measure, then these decisions were wise.  Apple understood that it was better to offer customers a product guaranteed to function to the high standards of their other products than to try to cram in too many capabilities.

What can Defense Acquisition Do?
– Restrict requirements creep.  If a platform was badly planned from the beginning, kill it and forge a new path rather than band-aid hopeless technology.

– Develop more in-house software competency.  The Army’s Apps 4 Army Challenge is a great idea, but why isn’t there a permanent pool of software geniuses ready to build great software for the military?  DoD is finally getting the message that it needs to recruit crack coders to combat cybersecurity threats, but those same capabilities are needed to build more benign software for weapons and information systems.

(3) Connect Management and Leadership

Managers keeps the cogs of an organization turning; they make sure people get paid, disputes are resolved, and discipline is levied.  Leaders, on the other hand, inspire change through vision.  Apple CEO Steve Jobs gets leadership.  He is as comfortable speaking in broad, glowing terms about a new product as he is answering personal emails about technical details at 2AM in the morning. His vision permeates his company and his products (or as Simon Sinek explains, Apple employees all start off by answering “why?” before they get to the “what?” and “how?” of products).  Of course, Steve Jobs the man is not Apple; he is only the current incarnation of what the company represents.  But from that company, consumers can continually expect consistent products, delivered on time and up to the standards it sets for itself.

What can Defense Acquisition Do?

– Establish a program manager earlier during development.  Program managers are given overall responsibility for programs’ cost, schedule, and budget.  They are supposed to make critical design decisions, but they don’t take over programs until after most important requirements are set.  This structure disconnects program managers from the “why” of their programs and incentivizes them to manage only, not to lead.  Program managers should at the very least be given a seat at the table during pre-acquisition phases of development.

What Else?

Defense Secretary Gates has been repeatedly applauded for his efforts to reform Defense Acquisition.  But then again, didn’t Secretaries RumsfeldCohen, and Perry all try their hands at “reform”?  Change defines leadership, so maybe continuous attempts at reform reflect constant improvement.  But in the technology sector, Apple seems to consistently represent as close to a sure thing as has been seen in consumer electronics.  Are the two industries too different to compare, or might there be principles that apply to both?

What else can Defense Acquisition learn from others’ successes?  Leave your ideas in the comments.

Posted on 6 Jul 2010

Photo: army.mil

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