Was the shift from ARPA to DARPA a focus change or a process change?

It’s clear that ARPA became DARPA in 1972 because of the increased scrutiny on military spending both in the government and outside of it and Most of DARPA’s outlier output happened before 1972 when it was ARPA.

The question is whether this was due to a change in DARPA’s process or its focus.

The process argument, espoused by Dominic Cummings’s Arpa-PARC paper, is that after 1972 there was both increased demand that programs have a waiting customer and that increased spending scrutiny embodied by things like The Heilmeier Catechism and Every program at DARPA is intensely technically scrutinized by the tech council hamstrings program managers. It is true that Small amounts of friction can have large effects.

The focus argument is that we just don’t see or appreciate as many of the things that come out of DARPA because they are specifically for military use and have less broad applicability. There are DARPA-style ideas that DARPA doesn’t pursue.

The focus vs. process question is important because it determines whether there is anything to be learned from how DARPA works today. If the changes in process that occurred after 1972 are the direct cause of the drop-off in outlier output, then analyzing the DARPA process today is worthless. If changes in focused caused the drop-off in outlier output, lessons from today’s DARPA remain valuable. In reality, it is probably a mix of both.

It is clear that The definition of the ARPA model has changed over time. The visceral excitement that comes out of (recent) former program managers when they talk about their time at DARPA suggests that there are many things to be learned from the current organization that is not just Cargo culting. At the same time The majority of changes in the ARPA model over time have involved adding more explicit process. How can we resolve these two ideas? I would suggest that the solution is to Pay attention to DARPA’s informal process and ignore formal process

One tangential reason for the change in outlier output is that DARPA can’t attract as many amazing people because they have better options (DARPA Employees aren’t paid very much compared to what they could be) or don’t want to work on explicitly military things. If this were the case, it would severely affect output because the ARPA model is so heavily dependent on great PMs. The dependence of DARPA on high quality program managers mirrors the obsession with “talent” in other disciplines. However, there are still super high quality people in DARPA so this cannot explain everything.

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