Dr. Kathleen Hicks, Deputy Secretary of Defense, Visits Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation and Steve Blank Shares the Outcome

Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center Hosted US Deputy Secretary of Defense to Discuss National Security and Innovation

Stanford’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation had the privilege of hosting US Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks. The Deputy Secretary, who can be likened to the Chief Operating Officer of a large corporation with approximately 3 million employees, came to the Center to explore our unique approach to national security and innovation. The discussion also touched on how our curriculum is helping prepare upcoming innovators. Our primary objective for hosting Dr. Hicks was to show how we are supporting the Department of Defense’s objective of building an innovation workforce.

STEM vs Innovation Workforce

During our conversation, we made a significant distinction between a STEM-trained workforce and an innovation workforce. While both are critical, the latter is what is lacking at scale. Innovation involves lean methodologies, speed, urgency, and a culture where failure results in rapid learning. When efficiently utilized, innovation can produce products and services that are both needed and wanted, even with minimal resources.

Connecting STEM with Policy Education

The Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation strives to connect STEM with policy education and to leverage synergies between the two to groom innovative leaders who understand technology and policy. We combine the unique strengths of Stanford and Silicon Valley to solve problems across the spectrum of activities that create and sustain national power.

Resources and Capabilities

Our location in Silicon Valley provides us access to resources and capabilities that make a difference in the world of innovation. These include:

– Insights and expertise of Stanford international and national security policy leaders
– Technology insights and expertise of Stanford Engineering
– Exceptional students willing to help the country win the Great Power Competition
– Deep commercial technology ecosystem in Silicon Valley
– Experience in rapid problem understanding, iteration, and deployment of solutions with speed and urgency
– Access to risk capital at scale


Since the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation’s inception six months ago, we have prioritized six initiatives that we shared with Deputy Secretary Hicks. Rather than Dr. Joe Felter and myself doing all the talking, 25 students, scholars, mentors, and alumni joined us to give the Deputy Secretary a 3-5 minute precis of their work, spanning all six initiatives. Noteworthy presentations included:

– Hacking for Defense Teams – Vannevar Labs, FLIP, Disinformatix
– CONOPS Development
– National Security Education – Technology, Innovation, and Great Power Competition
– Defense Innovation Scholars Program – 25 students now, 50 by the end of the year
– Policy Impact and Outreach – ONR Hedge Strategy, NSC Quad Emerging Technology Track 1.5 Conference
– Internships and Professional Workforce Development – Innovation Workforce Vignettes

Innovation Adoption Across DoD

Deputy Secretary Hicks posed insightful questions for the students and shared her priority of accelerating innovation adoption across DoD. She mentioned that this entails having an organizational structure, processes, culture, and people that work together seamlessly.

Problems with Past and Current Approaches to Innovation

As we listened to the Deputy Secretary, we were reminded of how our adversaries have exploited the boundaries and borders between our defense, commercial, and economic interests. The US government’s piecemeal, incremental, and increasingly less relevant approaches to innovation across the government are insufficient. Our innovation ecosystem needs a radical reinvention that leverages DoD funding, private capital, dual-use startups, existing prime contractors, and federal labs. The transformation should involve:
– Creating a new defense ecosystem
– Making it permanent by creating innovation doctrine/policy
– Creating new national champions in dual-use commercial tech
– Acquiring at speed

Concluding Thoughts

As the Deputy Secretary noted, most if not all of these changes are necessary. However, given the DoD budget is essentially fixed, creating new Primes and new national champions becomes a zero-sum game. Bringing about the changes outlined in this discussion will require Congressional action. Fortunately, the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation stands ready to collaborate with other organizations and stakeholders to drive the necessary change.

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