A version of this article – co-authored with Raj Shah and Joe Felter – previously appeared in Defense One.

(UpdateAfter this article was written the Secretary of Defense fired every member of all 40+ defense advisory boards and will start anew. Hopefully the suggestions in this post will help inform how they reconstitute the boards.)


Last week the Biden administration delayed seating several Trump appointees to defense advisory boards. It’s a welcome signal that incoming leaders recognize these groups are essential, not just patronage jobs. But the review needs to go much further than that.

One of the many changes the Department of Defense needs to make is to reimagine the role and makeup of its advisory boards and ask them for 10x advice, not 10% advice.

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The Defense Department is at a crossroads. Incremental improvements are no longer good enough to keep up with China; the Pentagon needs substantive and sustained changes to its size, structure, policies, processes, practices, technologies, and culture. The last administration asked most of the Pentagon’s 40-plus boards for advice on small improvements — with a few notable exceptions, such as the Innovation Board’s Software Study and the work of the National Security Commission for AI — the latter an independent effort chartered by Congress.

This is no longer sufficient. The DoD needs to ask for big ideas, boards who can deliver transformative advice, and it needs to reshape its boards to provide them.

What’s an Advisory Board?
DOD’s Advisory Boards are comprised of individuals outside of the organization who can provide independent perspectives and advice. An advisory board has no official role in managing – they can’t hire, fire, or order people to do things.  All they can do is offer advice.  But with the right membership and senior support, they can have tremendous impact. In the past decades, advisory boards have challenged conventional thinking and nudged leaders towards major policy changes.

Most of the DOD advisory boards are in the services or agencies. For example the Army and the Air Force each have their own Science Board, the military academies each have an advisory board they call the “Board of Visitors.” The office of the Secretary of Defense has 7 advisory boards: Policy, Innovation, Science, Business, Military Personnel Testing, Women in the Services, and Sexual Assault. (Steve had the pleasure of serving on one – albeit for a short time.)

Different Advisory Boards for Different Times
In times where the status quo is sufficient – when your company or country is the leader –  advisory boards are asked for advice about improvement – how to improve your existing systems. You appoint advisors who have detailed knowledge of existing systems and have long term institutional knowledge and connections. And you generally discourage Ideas that might disrupt the status quo.

However, these are not normal times. Incremental improvements no longer assure that our country can compete. For example, rapid innovation in new technologies – cyber, AI, autonomy, access to space, drones, biotech, etc. – is no longer being led by military/government labs, but instead comes from commercial vendors – many of them Chinese. The result is that unlike the last 75 years, the DOD can no longer predict or control future technologies and threats.

So it’s time for DoD leaders and staff to hand off requests for advice about incremental improvements to consulting firms and refocus their advisory boards on critical competitive issues.

The first order of business is overhauling the boards’ membership to support this turn toward rapid innovation. In the past, the DOD has had some extraordinarily effective advisory boards. During the Cold War examples included the Jasons, the Gaither Committee, the Land Panel, and numerous others. More recently the Defense Innovation Board had admirably carried that torch. Unfortunately several advisory boards have become moribund resting grounds for political apparatchiks.Today’s challenges demand the DOD’s advisory boards appoint the best and brightest regardless of party.

We believe the new administration can quickly refocus their boards in three steps: 1) reset the membership of the current DOD Advisory Boards to support rapid innovation 2) Think strategically about the future, and 3) Set high expectations for engagement and implementation.

Reset board membership and structure to support rapid innovation and transformation

  • 1/3 DOD insiders who know the processes and politics and help ensure non-standard solutions actually get implemented. They can steer the board away from dead-ends or incremental solutions.
  • 1/6 crazy DOD insiders – the rebels at work. They are the Uniformed and civilian leaders with great ideas that have been trying to be heard. Poll senior and mid-level managers and have them nominate their most innovative/creative rebels
  • 1/3 crazy outsiders. Innovators and technologists with new, unique insights in the last two years, who are in sync with the crazy insiders to build 10x solutions
  • 1/6 outsiders who represent “brand-name wisdom”. They provide top cover and historical context. Connectivity to large institutions required for implementation at scale

Once the new members are in place, DoD should ask for big and bold ideas in several key areas, including:

Think strategically about the future

  • Technology and innovation: Given finite budgets, how best to evaluate, choose, and scale a plethora of new technologies and new operational concepts?
  • Business practices: Examine and explore entirely new ways of building commercial partnerships and influencing the private sector.
  • Policy: Ensure we understand our adversaries and how they are fusing together military, economic, and private markets to challenge us. What issues require educating Congress and DOD leadership?
  • Human capital: How should we reshape the DoD’s personnel architecture to attract more technologists and fit into today’s more sclerotic career paths?

Finally, DoD leaders should ask for more than ideas; they should engage and lead the boards. They should set high expectations for engagement and implementation, and work up and down the chain to ensure recommendations are achievable. Do we need new authorities, laws, organizations? Do we need to reprogram existing budgets? Acquire new ones?The boards should report to the principals of their sponsor organizations, who should regularly review whether the boards have delivered real value to the mission.

Americans are ready to answer the call to service to help the DoD and the nation reform and strengthen.  The Biden Administration and DoD leadership have the rare opportunity to completely rethink and reset its Advisory Boards.  Successfully taking on this challenge will not only repair strained ties between the public and private sectors but is essential to the future defense of our nation.

Lessons Learned

  • Flush all the political appointees from the advisory boards. (Update: Done- fired everyone not just the new appointees..)
  • Replace them with people with the experience and expertise needed to help the U.S. keep its competitive edge
  • DOD leadership needs to ask and act for transformational, contrarian and disruptive advice
    • And ensure they have the will and organizations to act on it
  • Move requests for advice for incremental improvements to the consulting firms that currently serve the DOD

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