PM hiring is part of a feedback loop between the organization and the outside world. PMs are hired to explore a specific area that DARPA should be exploring but isn’t yet. Even though it works on disruptive technology, DARPA needs to be responsive to changes in the world - whether it’s new possibilities (technology push) or new needs (technology pull.) Innovation orgs need to be aligned with their money factory This buffering between the outside world and hiring is one of the ways DARPAs director is important.
From day one there is a feedback loop between a new program manager and the other program managers. ‘Onboarding’ at DARPA is a super informal process that involves mostly oral traditions and shadowing. Informal onboarding is normally terrible best practice but most organizations don’t limit themselves to Dunbar’s number. DARPA is relatively tiny and flat. Program managers get significant informal feedback from other PMs as they hone their program design. This feedback includes whether something is ‘in scope’ for the organization (There are DARPA-style ideas that DARPA doesn’t pursue) and whether the design is precise enough. High quality informal feedback depends on other PMs actually caring, so this is another reason DARPA PMs need to think for themselves, be curious, and have low ego.
There are multiple levels of feedback loop between the PM and the research community during program design. (steps 1&2 of The DARPA execution framework boils down to showing that thing is not impossible, showing that thing is possible, and then making that thing possible) The tightest loop is informal conversations with individual researchers and groups about where they see blockers and possibilities in the area that the PM can then incorporate into their program design. The PM then uses workshops to set up feedback loops between those possibilities - an idea might be good but an enthusiastic proponent could gloss over a major hole that needs to be filled. Finally, small projects test the riskiest parts of those possibilities against the world before the PM incorporates them into the program design. DARPA PMs use seedling programs to ‘acid test’ the riskiest pieces of a program idea. The workshops also set up feedback loops between previously unconnected groups of researchers focused on the program area that hopefully create new ideas and (ideally) new research communities.
PMs also set up feedback loops between different parts of an industry - academia, startups, and big companies. A large part of a DARPA program manager’s job is focused network building. ::new:: My personal experience suggests that the feedback loop is not as tight between DARPA and the startup and VC world. DARPA created a specialized position just to try to help commercialize technologies coming out of their programs. However, they don’t seem to have a strong grasp on §Startup Constraints.
Feedback loops enable the PM to adjust, kill, or start projects as necessary during the execution of the program. Frequent contact with performers working on a project enables both the performer and the PM to incorporate new information into decisions on whether they should make small adjustments to the project’s goals and how that propagates into the rest of the program design. PMs also use this information to decide whether to kill the project completely or start a new one. It is relatively easy for DARPA PMs to re-deploy funding. Failed projects are also part of a feedback loop:
The failure (of a performer) triggers a discussion in which the first question is whether the goals were correctly specified and how they might be redefined in the light of the research that has already taken place
The ARPA model also uses long-term feedback loops to maintain high quality PMs and research collaborations. A players hire A players and B players hire C players so high quality program managers make other high quality program managers want to join. Low friction interactions with DARPA and money that enables performers to do things they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise keeps ideas coming from the community.