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November 10, 2022

Organizing for Success in the DoD

This post is excerpted from the 2022 DevOps Enterprise Forum paper Organizing for Success by Trent Hone, Gene Kim, Dr. Steve Spear, Col. Brian Beachkofski, LtCol Max Reele, Captain Jay Long, Major Jesse Cooper, Rick Jack, LtCom Andres Otero, LtCol John Schreiner, Col Jeff Worthington.

Winning the future fight requires fully unleashing technical capabilities across the US Department of Defense (DoD) and other government agencies. Developing software at speed and scale is crucial to that effort.

In February 2022, Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks charted a path forward by releasing the DoD Software Modernization Strategy, arguing that “delivering a more lethal force requires the ability to evolve faster and be more adaptable than our adversaries.”

However, government software efforts lag behind. Commercial industry delivers software much faster with impressive results. Amazon dominates the marketplace by performing an order of magnitude more deployments per day now than they did a decade ago (over 136,000 deployments/day, up from 15,000).

In March, SpaceX deployed just “one line of code” to defeat Russian jamming in Ukraine.  China is acquiring weapons systems “five to six times” faster than the United States. Operating at greater speed and agility is absolutely essential to winning the future fight.

After surveying approximately 30 government software efforts, some key attributes as to what is going wrong are clear.

First, it is not a technology issue. Instead, it is organizational—most DoD software efforts are not achieving desired war-fighter outcomes because they are not organized to succeed. Our findings reinforce prior research that indicates the greatest challenges with DoD software are “non-
technical challenges dealing with regulations, organizational culture, and process.”

Success in deploying software with speed, quality, and security requires three things:

  1. Clear, clean, and low-friction lines of authority: Software organizations must have a clear objective and, ideally, one boss: a singular command authority with oversight over the entire process. That authority must nurture an innovative environment and make the essential tradeoff decisions regarding priority, level of effort, and definition of mission success. We must create the digital equivalent of combined arms teams that integrate all relevant organizations—networking, security, platform development, application development, IT operations, etc.—under a unified command. Only then will we be able to move with the necessary speed.
  2. High proximity to warfighter outcomes: The feedback loop between software development and mission outcomes must be tight and quick to allow rapid learning, decentralized execution, and appropriate focus on the end goal. Developers should be embedded with end users (operators) and end users should be embedded with the development team.
  3. Increased investment in software development and mission-specific infrastructure platforms: Delivery of value is massively accelerated when developers have access to platforms and infrastructure that aid their daily work. This liberates them from the idiosyncratic problems of environments they deploy to—a single approach may not work in all circumstances, but more must be done to improve the developer experience across DoD if we are to accelerate deliveries and more consistently succeed. We say “mission-specific infrastructure and platforms” because these services must be incentivized and optimized for mission outcomes, just like the user-facing applications being hosted on them.

To organize this way is within the DoD’s control—congressional action is not a prerequisite—and can be resource neutral. We urge that these organizational concepts become the foundation for a joint doctrine for building, deploying, and employing digital capabilities.

Many organizations constrain the potential of the people within them. Instead, we need to organize so that we can fully unleash the potential of our existing skill and initiative, enhance our ability to learn and adapt, and achieve mission outcomes more rapidly and efficiently. Organizing for success is crucial; as Former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, one of our advisors, declared, “If these software groups don’t succeed, we will lose the future fight.”

To read the full report, please download the Organizing for Success paper here.

- About The Authors

Trusted by technology leaders worldwide. Since publishing The Phoenix Project in 2013, and launching DevOps Enterprise Summit in 2014, we’ve been assembling guidance from industry experts and top practitioners.

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