DARPA PMs need to think for themselves, be curious, and have low ego

Yes, on its surface this sounds like a platitude, but because so much of the §ARPA model revolves around program managers, it’s worthwhile to dig into why the personality traits actually matter.

PMs need to think for themselves because at the end of the day, everybody they talk to has only a piece of the puzzle so the PM needs to both put the pieces together and precisely argue for the feasibility of the final picture. When you are surrounded by smart, opinionated people the easy option is to either 100% accept what they’re saying because it’s eloquent and well-thought through or reject it outright because it sounds crazy or goes against your priors. Thinking for yourself allows you to avoid these traps.

PMs need to be curious because building a complete picture of a discipline requires genuine curiosity to ask questions nobody else is asking. The best DARPA program managers are the ones who can look at an entire literature in an area and notice a systemic bias. Additionally, the ‘serendipity hatch’ during program execution means that a program manager needs to be open to random outside solutions. Many people falsely claim they are curious, but DARPA PMs will have an earnest discussion with people who approach them with the craziest ideas.

Scientists working on DARPA programs usually describe PMs as funding ‘their idea’ in a proud way. At the same time, people looking at DARPA programs from the outside describe the program as clearly the PMs idea. A high ego would lead to a program manager imposing their will on every piece of the program, killing curiosity and the benefits of Top down problems and bottom up solutions.

According to ARPA-E and DARPA - Applying the DARPA Model to Energy Innovation - When people want to “leave their mark” it can be problematic.

Web URL for this note

Comment on this note