Start with The Heilmeier Catechism

Ask yourself 8 questions before you do anything with DARPA.

Almost everyone who builds any kind of ambitious technology faces the following problem:

You've spent endless hours building something that lets people do something completely new. Technical capabilities beyond what was possible before. Perhaps a new type of rocket fuel to get to orbit faster. Or a new brain-computer interface method that might one day enable paralyzed people to walk again.

One problem though. You suffer from the curse of knowledge.

You know more about the thing than almost anyone else alive. And deep knowledge has a downside: you don't know what the people you need to talk to don't know. Especially if you've built the thing with a team of people who share the same deep technical background -- because whether you notice it or not, you’ve already evolved a sub-culture and way of communicating which won't be as clear to people on the outside as it is to you.

Worst part: the curse of knowledge will trip you up even more if you deal with federal agencies. Because while many of the people assessing your work will have a technical background -- perhaps even in the same sub-discipline -- they're inundated with technical types pitching them ideas all the time.

So how do you communicate the value of the thing you built to someone who didn't build it?

Enter the Heilmeier Catechism.

Yes -- a curious name. But in the mid-1970s, DARPA director George Heilmeier came up with a way to help people in the Agency select which projects to fund and support.

In their words, it’s a tool to help people decide which risks are worth taking.

To this day, it still forms part of the Agency's philosophy. Meaning: the opportunity bell should be ringing loud and clear in your head right now. Because if this is part of how the Agency operates at a cultural level, you need to know this.

The good news: it’s just a list of 8 simple questions to sharpen your pitch.

Here they are:

  1. What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.

  2. How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?

  3. What is new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?

  4. Who cares? If you are successful, what difference will it make?

  5. What are the risks?

  6. How much will it cost?

  7. How long will it take?

  8. What are the mid-term and final "exams" to check for success?

Let’s focus on just the first question — because everything else flows from it.


George Heilmeier asks you: “What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.”


This is where the curse of knowledge bites you hardest. Jargon is part and parcel of every science.

That's why you need to go against standard scientific practice. Zero jargon. Explain the thing you're building to an intelligent but non-technical person who knows nothing about your subject.

But wait a minute. DARPA program managers and others are usually super-technical people. In fact, you'd do well to actively find the one person in the Agency with the right technical background needed to understand your pitch.

So why the need for zero jargon?

Because simplification both allows wide communication and helps you stand out. A zero-jargon explanation of what you're trying to do always beats a deep technical explanation.

Don't get me wrong: the deep technical details are ultimately what it's about. But not when your primary goal is to first get people interested.

That's why Heilmeier asks you this question first.

Talk about deceptively simple. The Heilmeier Catechism is a timeless tool for conceptual simplification and overcoming the curse of knowledge. Case in point: the first two busy people I told about this went through it straight away, printed it out and put it on their office wall. It's that powerful.

You should do the same. Answer Heilmeier’s 8 questions about your work — before you do anything with the Agency.

Now -- stay tuned for more. There are big things happening in DARPA, other high-impact federal agencies and the wider world of breakthrough technology.

— Harry Red