Opacity is important to DARPA’s outlier success

Opacity removes incentives to go for easy wins or be criticized by external forces. Reporting requirements also add friction around everything from what you set your targets as. Small amounts of friction can have large effects.

Opacity can also be abused in too many ways to list: getting nothing done, dumping money into stupid projects or unnecessary expenses, giving contracts to performers with whom you have a special relationship, or just straight up stealing. The fact that opacity can be abused in too many ways to list means that a better strategy is to incentivize people not to abuse it.

How does DARPA incentivize people not to abuse the opacity?

DARPA is relatively tiny and flat so it’s actually possible for everybody to know everybody. This means that everybody knows what everybody else is up to and the mechanism of peer pressure can come into play to make sure that opacity is not abused.

DARPA Program managers have a tenure of four to five years, so they’re out regardless of their performance. In my experience finite tenures either make people want to utterly crush it or not care at all. One way to push for the former is just getting self-motivated people with a lot of integrity who really care about what they’re doing, piling even more weight onto needing awesome program managers. The dependence of DARPA on high quality program managers mirrors the obsession with “talent” in other disciplines. Another way to motivate people to make the best of a temporary assignment is to enable them to be as effective as possible. This is one way that Small amounts of friction can have large effects - process can kill effectiveness through a thousand cuts. This observation suggests that overregulation could actually lead to a bad feedback loop of PMs feeling less effective which pushes them to the other end of the behavior spectrum for temporary positions which increases the need for overregulation. Obviously that’s an extreme scenario, but it emphasizes the need for opacity. In a way it’s like a prisoner’s dilemma.

Nominally venture capitalists are incentivized not to abuse their opacity because of carry. Pogram managers don’t have that incentive.

So put yourself in the situation of a Program Manager: you can’t get promoted, you’re out in five years, nobody will know what you’ve done whether you succeed or fail, and you’re surrounded by people who are complete ballers working on amazing things. You can either sit on your butt and do literally nothing, or go all out and try to make something amazing. There doesn’t seem to be any incentive to either hedge bets or make it look like you’re working when you’re not.

The big question then becomes: how do you incentivize people to get into that situation in the first place? The same description that incentivizes doing awesome shit does not make a compelling sales pitch to join. Why do people become DARPA Program managers?

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