The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) just celebrated its 65th birthday earlier this month, and DARPA’s director of the Mission Services Office explained this week that the agency has a unique model and culture “you can’t create overnight.”

During MeriTalk and ACT-IAC’s Digital Transformation Summit in Reston, Va., on Feb. 22, Jason Preisser offered up some of the “secret sauce” to how DARPA has been a Federal leader in digital transformation since 1958.

“We have our own unique approach to digital transformation,” Preisser explained during his closing keynote speech.

“For us, the key components for true success in digital transformation is a strong understanding of organizational culture and structure while retaining that laser focus on mission,” he said.

“We’re going to tell you about how we do some of this,” Preisser said, adding, “Some of the secret sauce so you can take some of this back to your home organizations, and possibly employ these practices and methodologies as you work to continue to build your own digital transformation programs.”

He said that DARPA’s culture is what sets them apart in the Federal IT world.

Notable in that culture, Preisser said, is fostering a culture that always says yes, and openly accepts both risk and failure.

He also said that a big part of the agency’s digital transformation success stems from its fast and defined timelines for employees.

Preisser explained that DARPA only has about 200 career staff. It also relies on an additional 1,100 employees who are outside contractors with industry expertise, and who are brought in to work with the agency for a short stint of two to three years.

That helps the agency to hire a “fresh and diverse group of individuals,” he said.

“I’m hopeful you’re able to see ways you can apply our strategy and approach to your own unique organizations,” Preisser said. “It’s a model that can be replicated.”

Along those lines, Preisser said his agency worked closely with the team at the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) to stand up that entity less than a year ago. Preisser said the ARPA-H director was embedded in DARPA for several months to better understand how the culture, structure, and mission operates.

“DARPA just celebrated 65 years, so it’s not a model or culture you create overnight, but we have been instrumental in helping [ARPA-H],” Preisser explained. “We’ve been helping them with all the little things and even the big things.”

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.