Quitting may be the key to success
A view from Scott Ross

Quitting may be the key to success

It sounds counterintuitive but short tenures encourage people to take risks, bring new skills into the group and ensure ideas are fresh.

In our industry, we continually strive to increase the pace of innovation, and reap the rewards from doing so. While opportunities are nearly unlimited, those truly innovative "moon shot" ideas that have the potential to change the world have become less frequent and substantially more difficult to deliver as we mature.

Coming up with game-changing ideas is a significant problem and, as we have seen recently, even titans of technology such as Apple could be accused of starting to fall into a cycle of incremental improvements instead of delivering the groundbreaking change we are so used to expecting. 

Perhaps it is time to look outside the walled garden of the digital industry for inspiration. And, as a technologist, I believe the first place to look may be an organisation that has not only been delivering transformational innovation for nearly 60 years but one that we owe our very existence to.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was founded in 1958 in response to the launch of Sputnik by the former Soviet Union. Its mission was clear, if not a simple one: maintain the technological superiority of the US military and prevent technological surprise. Operating with a small budget and outside of traditional bureaucracy, its legacy of innovation is awe-inspiring. Arpanet (precursor to the internet), GPS, speech recognition, the mouse, drones, telepresence, robotics and accelerometers are only a small fraction of the technologies Darpa has fostered that directly impact our lives. The key to Darpa’s success is its innovation model, which, in its own words, has four critical factors:

  • A limited tenure and the urgency it promotes.
  • A sense of mission.
  • Trust and autonomy.
  • Risk-taking and tolerance of failure.

The first of these points is fascinating and, at first, seems completely counterintuitive in our industry. The majority of Darpa’s employees hold their positions for no longer than four to five years and, in some cases, only two years. Further still, this isn’t a behind-the-scenes decision – an employee’s "expiration date", as Darpa refers to it, is prominently displayed on their ID badges as a constant reminder that time to accomplish important work is limited. 

Former employees cite this feature as one of the most important parts of their time in the organisation, as it encourages people to get something done, not just simply build a career. In its innovation report, Darpa director Stefanie Tompkins comments: "The longer you’re in one place, the more tendency you have to become risk-averse. You start to refine what you’re doing as opposed to throwing out what you’re doing and starting fresh."

This approach to tenure not only creates the cultural imperative to work at pace but allows the rapid introduction of new skills into the organisation to better explore new areas of development. Darpa’s annual employee turnover rate of nearly 25% would be considered disastrous for most marketing and technology companies but, again, this is used to its advantage: "At Darpa, people think more about the downside of having a long-term technical memory: that some of what is remembered may be wrong or outdated and stand in the way of important innovation. Long-time employees sometimes use the fact of a past failure to prove something can’t be done… Hiring people who are ignorant of past failures sometimes opens the door to breakthrough success."

This approach may not be appropriate for every aspect of our industry, but it is difficult to argue with its results in the field of innovation. More importantly, when you begin to look deeper into the employment trends in our field, including increased contracting and ever-shortening tenures of those in leadership positions such as chief marketing officer, this approach may not actually be as radical a change as it initially feels.

So next time you find yourself given a mandate to transform your business or products, you should take a leaf out of Darpa’s book and make your first action to fire your team and tender your own resignation – with three years’ irrevocable notice, of course.

Scott Ross is chief technology officer, international of DigitasLBi
@scottfjr