Stop Creating your own Innovation Valley of Death and Blaming the Government for it. 

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The Department of Defense (DoD) is facing a unique challenge as it seeks to modernize its capabilities and stay ahead of ever-evolving threats. To achieve this, the DOD is increasingly turning to non-traditional companies for innovative solutions. However, many of these companies are struggling to navigate the complex landscape of government contracting and the unique needs of the DOD. They are creating their own “Innovation Valley of Death,” where promising ideas go to die. This is not a challenge that can only be pushed off to be blamed on the government bureaucracy. This is a dynamic that companies themselves have in their power to change and take #extremeownership over their likelihood of success.

The key to success for these companies is understanding their customer’s mission needs and aligning their solutions with DOD priorities. This requires a deep understanding of the DOD’s strategic goals, as well as the specific needs and challenges faced by different branches and agencies. By taking the time to do their homework and tailor their offerings to the DOD’s unique requirements, non-traditional companies can position themselves as valuable partners in the defense industry and help drive innovation forward.

Understanding the innovation valley of death

The Innovation Valley of Death is a term used to describe the phenomenon where promising ideas fail to make it to market due to a lack of funding or support. I also add that the failure happens because of an inappropriate go-to-market strategy. In the context of non-traditional DOD companies, the innovation valley of death occurs when these companies fail to understand the unique needs of the DOD and how to navigate the complex landscape of government contracting. Both of these factors are not the fault or to be addressed only by the government.

These are entrepreneurship 101:

  • Investing the time, resources, and brainpower to get to know your customers (how they think, what they do, how they operate, how they may use your product/service, etc.)
  • Knowing what the “Buyer’s Journey” looks like: how can they get funding and contracts in place to procure your solution?
  • Considering the factors and processes for fielding and supporting your product/service offerings to the operational units.

Disregarding these causes promising ideas being overlooked or ignored, or worse – turned into innovation theater. This is entirely something that companies can change on their own.

Why knowing your customer’s mission is important

Every new product development/ entrepreneurship book tells your the same thing: build your product/service/offering to meet a specific market segment’s needs – to address their pain points, yadda yadda yadda.  When we start looking at the Department of Defense, the unique nuances of the mission areas often creates a significant barrier, without always being explicitly visible.

Being humble enough to say “I really do not understand some of the nuances of how you guys operate, but I would love to learn” can go a really long way.

When developing products for the Defense industry, it’s essential to understand the specific requirements of the DOD. These can include Denied/ contested logistics, power consumption, man-portable vs. vehicle mounted, vs, aircraft or ship-based systems, environmental hazards, electronic warfare, systems data connectivity constraints, resiliency/redundancy, anticipated use cases and types of operations where this will be employed, etc. just identify a few of the challenges that need to be considered.

Steps to identify your customer’s mission needs

Identifying your customer’s mission needs requires a deep understanding of their strategic goals, mission, and areas of responsibility. The following steps can help non-traditional companies better understand their customer’s mission needs:

  • Research the DOD’s strategic goals and priorities across echelons. Each organization that you may want to work with has published strategic priorities, referenced doctrine and policies, and more.
  • The DoD is made up of people, systems, processes, and TTPs. You need to understand how all of these work together towards accomplishing mission outcomes.
  • Identify the specific needs and challenges faced by different branches, agencies, career fields, or commands. You have to start by genuinely asking about the mission space that the potential customers exist within.
  • Understand the acquisition process and the unique requirements for government contracting. There are plenty of training programs available online; also check out the Adaptive Acquisitions Framework (AAF)
  • Leverage industry associations and other resources to gain insights into the defense industry. Find  opportunities to collaborate and engage with mission customers and procurement organizations, and build relationships
  • Introduce yourself and ask. It is ok not to know everything and asking good questions to learn goes a very long way.

Examples of successful non-traditional DOD companies

Several non-traditional companies have successfully navigated the complex landscape of government contracting and the unique needs of the DOD. One example is Palantir Technologies. They offer data analysis and visualization solutions where no other capability existed. Anduril built capabilities with extensive field experimentation and testing. A few others bridging the tech sector/DoD mission user gap include:

  • Defense Unicorns / Clarity Innovations / Metronome / Rise8
  • SpectroCloud / Harness / Mandiant / Inkly / Xage Security
  • American Rheinmetall Vehicle Systems / AeroViroment / Saildrone

And many more!

Be the Bridge that Can Articulate How your Technology Meets Mission Needs

Leveraging technology is critical for meeting the mission needs of the DOD. That goes without saying. However, the direct thread from the technological capability and mission effects is too often overlooked. Refocus your perspective when discussing your product/service:  you are not just bringing the tech, you’re bringing a capability that enables better mission outcomes. How does it do that? What aspect of “the Suck” does your solution help eliminate? How does it support operational unit lethality, resiliency, survivability, transportability, etc.?


Non-traditional DOD companies must align solutions with DOD priorities, understand its goals and tailor their offerings to its unique requirements. This helps them become valuable partners and drive innovation forward. Blaming bureaucracy is not helpful when companies don’t invest time to understand differences between battalions, companies, wings, and MAGTFs. That is a failure of their own making.

Books and References to Help Your Journey:

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