May 17, 2021

In 1974, NASA researcher Stan Sadin wrote down a simple framework for thinking about technology. The seven technology readiness levels, shortened to TRLs, were adopted by the organization over the next decade. A new version with nine levels was finalized about 30 years ago and quickly spread across the government, most notably the Defense Department, and then on to the industrial base. 

(image credit: NASA website)

He couldn’t have known it at the time, but Sadin ignited a quiet revolution in development of government-funded technologies. His TRL framework solved an important problem for large organizations by allowing a technical team to explain to collaborators and stakeholders the maturity of a particular technology. Up to that point, managers who needed to prioritize investment in specific technologies to accomplish mission objectives lacked a common language for doing so. Spanning dozens of projects, these managers could not be technical experts in all of them. Instead, they wrote long, complicated explanations of their proposed projects, and the resulting confusion led to avoidable delays, cost overruns, and other issues. 

The TRL system works because it unlocks the ability to compare and therefore smartly invest across many projects. The simplicity is the value.  

The Defense Department immediately saw the value of the TRL system. Program managers in the Pentagon faced similar challenges, and those problems weren’t limited to technology. The military also had to think about the scaling up of production. They therefore created a parallel Manufacturing Readiness Level, or MRL, to further enable effective investment decisions. 

Prior to the development of the MRL, evaluations and comparisons of proposed capabilities were not consistent. As it states in the DoD MRL Deskbook, the Pentagon “did not use a uniform metric to measure and communicate manufacturing risk and readiness.” In other words, there was no comprehensive system for thinking through the risks across multiple projects and programs despite the massive budgets at stake. The improved process (shown below) effectively harmonized TRL and MRL. 

(image credit: DoD MRL Deskbook)

TRL and MRL were important innovations for the federal government. They helped address specific limiting factors in the development, acquisition, and sustainment of new capabilities. Unfortunately, they are now inadequate to the emerging challenges the government faces. The global set of threats ranging from space to cyber, climate change to terrorism, China to Russia, cannot be met. America needs new tools to tap into the massive commercial investments being made in the next generation of technologies.

Unlike in previous eras, the government is no longer the primary funder of new technologies. In the late 1980s, government and business contributed roughly equal amounts of research and development. Barely 30 years after that, business outspends the government by a factor of two, especially in the later stages of applied research and development. This trend is likely to continue, if not accelerate.

This is a massive shift toward business-driven technologies that fundamentally changes the role of the federal government from driving development to expanding its focus on adapting and adopting the most relevant commercial capabilities. This is the “full spectrum innovation” discussed extensively in the 2018 Congressional hearings on Promoting a DOD’s Culture of Innovation. Even the head of DARPA acknowledges that it is the application of these new technologies, not their development, that limits our nation’s ability to keep pace with adversaries as well as partners. 

Thanks to the adoption of TRL and MRL, the government was able to improve its overall capacity to develop and scale new capabilities. Now, with adaptation and adoption of commercial capabilities at the forefront, a similar framework must be used. We need an Adoption Readiness Level, or ARL. 

An ARL system would serve the same function of providing a common metric for assessing and discussing maturity, risk, and readiness.  It would provide a simple framework for innovative non-traditional companies, that by definition are not familiar with the dense, intimidating federal system. 

What might an ARL system look like? It would still be looking at the world from the perspective of the government. The ARLs would be focused on a solution to a validated problem with buy-in from key stakeholders. It would progress from an initial concept all the way through to a deployed capability. Each ARL would be expressed in simple, descriptive statements such as:

  1. I know what I’m going to work on
  2. The problem is real and my solution idea makes sense to solve it
  3. I know what to build to solve the problem 
  4. I know who will commit resources to this project
  5. I am confident that I can build a fully functional solution
  6. My organization and leadership will support solution adoption
  7. I have everything I need to run operational trials
  8. The solution is deployed and in operation 

Recently we saw the promise of this approach in our partnership with AFWERX, one of the Air Force’s innovation programs. A software prototype for improved billeting was developed in Kadena Air Force Base. The local leadership couldn’t afford to drive the maturation and adoption of this promising capability, so the team stalled out at ARL 4 (“I know who will commit resources to this project”). AFWERX then stepped in, connecting the local team with a sponsor at Air Force Services Center in San Antonio. The small team convened with programmatic, contracting, and security experts to get buy-in; develop a plan to scale the prototype; and secure funding (ARLs 5, 6, and 7). 

An Adoption Readiness Level framework would solve an important problem for the federal government. It would clearly capture the essential elements of a project, focusing on the ability of the organization to adapt and adopt a commercial capability rather than wasting resources on a redundant defense-unique version. This would unlock the enthusiasm, creativity, and budget of the federal government to meet the global set of threats facing our nation and the world.

Main image credit: Christopher Burns/Unsplash