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Mission-Led Innovation in a global pandemic


Iain Farley - Deputy Group Business Development Director

For much of the past decade a lot of the most popular new inventions have brought opportunities to increase connectivity, productivity and wellbeing, but many have also come with significant side effects such as the creation of powerful monopolies, challenges to data privacy, and the erosion of democratic free speech. Many promising technologies have not quite delivered on their potential yet, and far from achieving their full potential, such as self-driving cars.

Mission-Led Innovation - image showing lab scientist with pipette and test tubes

But the last 12 months has demonstrated that when the mission is clear and urgent, innovation can be both rapid and hugely effective. COVID-19’s tightening grip on the world over the past year is starting to loosen thanks to a shining example of how innovation can work when the circumstances are right and a laser focus on the mission outcome is in place.

The speed at which COVID-19 vaccines have been designed and created has been unparalleled. It has been driven by three important factors. The first is a reduction in red tape. The freedom to innovate without the burden of bureaucracy has massively accelerated the research and development timeline. The second is collaboration – vaccine programmes have involved multiple individuals, firms, organisations, and countries. Science is instinctively collaborative and that is when it is quickest to achieve results. It is normally cumbersome processes and commercial concerns that introduce elements of competition, slowing things down. But by far the most important variable for success has been the focus on the mission. The innovation process that has delivered vaccines has been entirely mission led – with one outcome alone driving it forward – the need to save lives and protect society against a deadly virus. That above all else has driven results, and in many ways has triggered the two other factors. It’s not simply that this has unleashed innovative thinking, it has driven a scale of innovation that is utterly extraordinary. Not only have several vaccines been developed, approved and implemented in record time (there are still more than 250 others working their way towards trials and regulatory approvals), but an entirely new methodology of vaccine development (messenger RNA – also known as mRNA) has emerged from the process. This is not just solving a problem, or completing the mission, this could be key to winning the war against many deadly diseases in the future.

Would the collaboration and the removal of red tape required to make this possible have taken place without such a clear and urgent mission on which to focus? Possibly not. Take the example of driverless cars I mentioned earlier. The mission here is not particularly evident. Yes, the aim is to develop cars that drive themselves but why? What is the bigger picture win? What is the urgency? The lack of clarity on desired outcomes means there are multiple value chains in play. This makes for a confusing landscape and a web of disparate activity rather than a linear path to a single endgame where everyone contributes. As a result, competition is rife and collaboration has suffered. It is no surprise therefore that progress has been slow and has lacked discoveries with truly transformative potential. Put simply, the impetus for innovation has not been as mission-led in the way COVID-19 vaccine development has. 

What we can take from this is that when the objective is clear, urgent and imperative for people’s safety and security, mission-led approaches to innovation accelerate the delivery of effective outcomes. In the Defence and Security context, ‘missions’ are not always as straightforward – they are ethereal, perpetual, and hard to identify. The ongoing nature of conflict means that campaigns are enduring rather than bounded and they shift focus frequently. Having a clear view of the mission in this environment is essential to provide a way to focus the innovation required to maintain an advantage, even when the endgame is in a state of regular flux. Being mission-led in this context ensures that as the mission shifts over time, the innovation that powers success is always focussed and aligned. Here at QinetiQ, thorough understanding of our customers’ mission is at the heart of our innovation process, enabling the creation, testing and deployment of mission-critical capability at pace.