Blank H4D - Acquisition Research Program
H4D co-founder Steve Blank Shares Entrepreneurial Insights with NPS Students
by Michelle V. J. Johnson | Nov. 5, 2020
On October 7, Hacking for Defense (H4D) co-founder Steve Blank joined the virtual class meeting of our NPS entrepreneurship course piloting the H4D methodology. He spoke to students about the origins of H4D, the challenges the Department of Defense (DoD) faces in implementing the lean startup methodology, and lessons he hopes this collection of (mostly) Air Force contracting officers will take away from their experience.
During his overview of the historical genesis of H4D, Blank explained what he learned as an entrepreneur in the 1980s and 1990s: business plans that work for large organizations do not apply to small startup enterprises. Silicon Valley investors at the time were telling startups that “they were nothing more than smaller versions of large companies,” from how requirements were developed to when customers were considered in the business planning process and more.
As a uniquely large organization, DoD operates with a business model that similarly executes a known plan. H4D and other current defense innovation initiatives show how DoD can benefit from incorporating more entrepreneurial thinking into the bureaucracy. And it’s well documented that this kind of adaptability is needed as threats and technologies continue to develop at paces that far outmatch the organizational speed of traditional defense contracting processes.
After this historical overview of H4D, Blank walked students through the methodology, explaining the processes of problem verification, solution identification, and customer discovery. Each week, students complete two templates that work as learning tools: a mission model canvas (adapted from the business model canvas developed by Alex Osterwalder) and a value proposition canvas for each stakeholder they meet with in their quest to “get outside the building” and understand an issue from multiple people and perspectives.
The mission model canvas (MMC) allows students (or entrepreneurs) a quick way to visualize the opportunity landscape for their solution or business. The MMC maps out stakeholders (aka beneficiaries), what value proposition will solve their problems, how to get buy-in, and more.
The value proposition canvas (VPC) guides learners through the process of getting to know their customer or beneficiary, identifying pain points, pain relievers, key motivations, and more.
In discussing these tools, Blank gave a few tips about how to get to a minimum viable product, or MVP. He particularly encouraged students not to focus myopically on the product, but to carefully consider the role played by specific people who can help or hurt the process of deploying the MVP to end users.
In the too-short Q&A portion of class, student Brett Hagen followed up on Blank’s claim that the defense acquisition process is broken and can be improved by applying the lean startup methodology. Hagen expressed the fundamental disconnect that many acquisition professionals navigate between static congressional budget processes and the need for organizations to make real-time adjustments when circumstances and data change.
Since Blank’s visit, the four student teams have been busy applying these concepts to their customer discovery process, talking with dozens of stakeholders as they dive deeper into their assigned problems. We will share more about how these problems have shifted during this student research process in the coming weeks, as teams turn their attention to identifying potential solutions and MVPs.