- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Ben FitzGerald
Best Defense guest columnist
The Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) recent attempts to build next-generation weapons systems have not gone well. There is an alphanumeric soup of projects: FCS, EFV, F-22, F-35, LCS, ADS that have been cancelled, run over schedule and budget or cannot be deployed. But this is the same DOD that has built and equipped the most technically advanced military in human history, responsible for stealth technology, precision munitions, global positioning systems, and the Internet.
How can the same government department be responsible for so much success and so much failure?
Lt. Col. Dan Ward, an active-duty engineering officer in the U.S. Air Force, has been thinking about these sorts of questions for more than a decade. In F.I.R.E. he blends analysis from his personal experience, notable technology projects, and popular culture to describe how “Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained and Elegant” methods can foster innovation and yield better technology outcomes. Ward argues for projects that are smaller with tight budgets, short schedules, and few requirements that yield better outcomes — less hubris and more success.
Ward has written frequently and influentially on technology program management for several years. He is perhaps most well known for his acquisition analysis of the Death Star program — as he puts it, an ultimately futile project so challenging it required the personal presence of a Sith Lord to get it back on track. The good-natured wit and orthogonal approach to analysis evident in Ward’s short-form writing abounds in his first book.
F.I.R.E is a pleasure to read, making it a rarity in the business and management genres. Its success is in no small part due to the author’s humility, enjoyable digressions, and lighthearted approach to a potentially prosaic topic. Ward does not espouse a simplistic formula that guarantees success. He describes F.I.R.E. as a philosophy (appropriately taking only two paragraphs to address his thinking on restraint), then unpacks that philosophy through a series of ‘deliberately incomplete’ principles. These heuristics are intentionally non-prescriptive, as Ward explains, “F.I.R.E. presupposes that wisdom lies in the hearer and doer rather than in the rule itself.” No two situations are exactly the same and good decision-making trumps blind adherence to process every time, especially when talking about the DOD acquisition process.
The F.I.R.E. principles are supported by a series of examples that represent the bulk of the book’s 240 pages. A more traditional book would use case studies from the author’s personal experience to burnish their reputation. Ward has the confidence to avoid this temptation (his only reputational goal appears to be establishing his impressive geek credentials), drawing instead on examples ranging from the author’s acquisition of a new dishwasher to little known military projects, NASA, Star Trek, Firefly, and other intergalactic exemplars. The result is far more enlightening and enjoyable than a regular management book and also avoids cheap and easy shots at recent DOD challenges — other than a short discussion of issues with the F-22, but, well, it’s hard for anyone to be that restrained.
The informal nature of the book should not be confused for lack of seriousness or purpose. F.I.R.E. should be required reading for anyone who develops, supports, or uses military technology, whether they are in the military, government, or industry. There are also important insights for national security leaders, law- and policymakers, and anyone concerned with improving DOD acquisition outcomes. But really F.I.R.E. has broad appeal for anyone who wants to build technology successfully or is just curious about why people find steampunk so appealing.
Ben FitzGerald is the director of the Technology and National Security Program at CNAS. He explores the interrelationship of strategy, technology, and business as they relate to national security. You can follow him on the twitter @benatworkdc.