“There’s no shortage of things on which I’m asking our R&D and acquisition folks to focus.”

— Ashton Carter, September 2009 (the Pentagon’s top acquisition, technology and logistics executive)

If such a thing as institutional Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder exists, then the DoD most certainly suffers from it. Solving challenging technical problems requires a deep understanding that comes only with ruthlessly sustained focus. There is, however, no real cap on the number of inchoate messes that one can generate, modulo public outrage at cost-overruns or a battlefield failure so epic that even the best propaganda engine could not hope to paper over it.

Despite what the US federal government’s recent profligacy might lead a person to believe, financial resources are finite and creditors will eventually call us to account. Even if cost were of little concern, there exists a finite labor pool of the kind of technical and managerial talent required to convert money into useful systems.

Fools believe that pouring more money into the fire results in a linear increase in productivity without bound. More reasonable folk assume a decreasing ROI for each unit of currency spent beyond some threshold. In fact, it’s even worse than this. Cross another threshold and one not only sees terrible bang-for-buck, but total production for the system actually begins to plummet.

This productive decline takes root in three things. First, a burgeoning budget results in increased scrutiny, causing engineers and their managers to spend an inordinate amount of time justifying their choices and defending funding. Second, as the size of an organization grows, the quality of employees almost inevitably declines, causing top-flight engineers to expend their brain-cycles not thinking deep thoughts but rather cajoling, pleading and fighting to prevent others from making poor design choices or executing shoddy implementations. Third, as costs increase, high level management aims to increase efficiency by compartmentalizing organizations into service-oriented specialty shops, this causing bureaucratic churn that results in a combination of waste and cronyism-based coalition building.

Sometimes a timely infusion of cash provides the necessary activation energy for a project to attain escape velocity. Beyond a point, though, less is more. Patience, humility, determination, discipline and mastery… These are the qualities we need in our engineers and managers. Too often are people enticed by the shiny in the race for the next promotion, the campaign for the next election, that comfy private sector sinecure, or the opportunity simply to avoid rocking the boat because that’s the easy way to coast to retirement. We can’t solve all of everyone’s problems forever right now. The choice is between providing decent solutions of moderate duration for some problems in a moderate amount of time or trying to do it all while delivering nothing at great cost.


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