Increasing Flexibility and Agility at the National Reconnaissance Office

Lessons from Modular Design, Occupational Surprise, and Commercial Research and Development Processes

by Dave Baiocchi, Krista Langeland, D. Steven Fox, Amelia Buerkle, Jennifer Walters

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Research Questions

  1. Would the National Reconnaissance Office benefit from building modular satellites?
  2. What lessons might be drawn from how chief executive officers, military personnel, and health care professionals (among others) respond to surprise?
  3. Are there lessons for government in how industry structures its research and development processes?

To help the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) become more flexible and agile in an increasingly uncertain world, RAND sought answers to two key questions. First, would the NRO benefit from building modular satellites? RAND researchers developed a method for evaluating whether a system is a good candidate for modularity and applied it to systems both inside and outside the NRO. The authors found that NRO space systems do not appear to be strong candidates for modularization. Second, what lessons might be drawn from how chief executive officers, military personnel, and health care professionals (among others) respond to surprise? RAND developed a framework to categorize professionals' responses to surprise and then conducted discussions with representatives from 13 different professions, including former ambassadors, chief executive officers, military personnel, and physicians. The authors observed that all interviewees used common coping strategies. The authors also found some differences in response to surprise that depend on two factors: time available to respond and the level of chaos in the environment. The report concludes with recommendations on actions that the NRO can take to improve the flexibility of its hardware and the workforce.

Key Findings

On Modularity, Response to Surprise, and Promotion of Organizational Innovation, the Authors Reached the Following Conclusions

  • Modularity provides flexibility, but at a cost.
  • There are different classes of modular systems, where each class provides different levels of functionality and up-front costs.
  • Based on a set of criteria that RAND researchers developed to gauge the suitability of a particular system toward modularity, National Reconnaissance Office space systems do not appear to be strong candidates for modularization.
  • Tacticians, who must generally react within seconds or minutes, often must first overcome fear and anxiety. A typical protocol is to control panic, buy time, and then revert to fundamentals learned in training.
  • Strategists, who have days or weeks to react, generally face immediate feelings of anger and an impulse to overreact. A similar process for coping is employed: control emotions, take some initial enabling actions, quickly assemble key staffers, and disseminate a coherent longer-term response.
  • The level of chaos in the environment also affects people's response to surprise.
  • The most complex and chaotic situations are caused by other humans, rather than something in the environment.
  • The biggest surprises tend to come from third parties.
  • Innovation occurs for many reasons, each requiring a different approach.

The Authors Observed Three Common Lessons in These Disparate Topics

  • Modularity and innovation are not goals in themselves.
  • Strategic planning would be beneficial for all three areas discussed.
  • Solutions in all three areas require not just hardware, but also people and organizational structures.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Investigating the Suitability of Modularity Toward National Reconnaissance Office Space Systems

  • Chapter Three

    Occupational Surprise

  • Chapter Four

    Organizational Mechanisms That Increase Responsiveness

  • Chapter Five

    Conclusions

The research described in this report was prepared for the National Reconnaissance Office. The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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