AGSM MBA students find lean solutions to solving complex problems

When Common Mission Project Australia and UNSW approached AGSM Adjunct Professor Phil Hayes-St Clair with the idea to launch the Hacking for National Security program in Australia, he was immediately interested. 

| 12 Jul 2021

When Common Mission Project Australia and UNSW approached AGSM Adjunct Professor Phil Hayes-St Clair with the idea to launch the Hacking for National Security program in Australia, he was immediately interested. 

As a former Australian Army soldier, AGSM MBA alumnus (2013), and serial entrepreneur, Phil could see the program’s potential impact reaching beyond the AGSM MBA and into the wider community.

As a new elective in the 2021 AGSM @ UNSW Business School’s MBA program, the Hacking for National Security program challenged students to apply concepts of practical entrepreneurship to complex organisational problems within the Department of Defence. 

“We think this type of program holds significant opportunities for important industry, like environmental and climate related issues. These are big systemic issues, but when you apply a different lens to them, sometimes you can find new and interesting alternative solutions for the same issues,” Phil says. 

Originally developed by the Common Mission Project for Stanford University, California USA, the Hacking for National Security program aims to engage the world’s brightest minds to combat critical challenges facing governments and wider society today. 

Bringing new concepts to complex organisational problems

While start-ups benefit immensely from The Lean Start-up methodology, many larger organisations find it challenging to work around existing structures to solve problems this way. 

The Hacking for National Security program encourages participants to find new ways for Lean Start-up concepts to work for more complex structures like those in Defence. 

“It was clear that you can solve a whole bunch of really complicated multifactorial problems using these methodologies. Not just in consumer technology or healthcare, but in government where structures are often quite complicated, and far-reaching,” Phil says.

“UNSW asked us to pilot the US version of the Hacking for National Security program and inform Common Mission Project’s adaptation of it for Australian organisations. We then looked at how this could also be adapted to Defence, and the Australian Government more generally.”

The Common Mission Project (CMP) team worked with researchers at the Defence Science and Technology Group (DSTG) to define problems, from which Phil selected several as interesting for AGSM Full-Time MBA candidates to work on; and students explored those problems through conversations with Defence scientists and uniformed personnel in Army, Air Force and Navy. 

“We wanted students to apply Lean Start-up principles by asking questions to learn more about the problem and getting ‘outside the building’ to help Defence find alternative answers to critical questions faster. Essentially, they would become problem experts so that they could add a very different lens to find solutions,” Phil says.

The ambition was to shorten the time it took to obtain critical information, and Phil says the first group of AGSM MBA students was able to establish the importance of the problem for Defence and to obtain useful insights about the problem dimensions. 

The benefits of an objective view

The first program ran with two teams, including four students from AGSM and two from the UNSW School of Population Health. Each team was tasked with a different problem from a Defence Problem Sponsor. 

“AGSM team looked at what happens when there is a technical loss of communication in a wartime or national disaster situation. So, they had to look at what else can be done to reinstate that communication, and also what happens in the meantime, when communications go dark,” Phil explains. 

Over 12 weeks, the students had to work to understand the intricacies of the problem and get buy-in from the sponsors to dive deeper and make a real impact.

“Entrepreneurs, or in this case our program participants, don't carry the same biases as do larger organisations. They can ask questions without fear of it impacting their career and the internal status quo. They don't know what they don't know. So, they can add a level of objectivity and curiosity where that might not be the cultural norm inside the organisation.” 

Phil helped coach participants through the challenges that come with being in this position. For instance, how their perspectives may be viewed against existing frameworks, navigating internal politics and pushing the boundaries that come with achieving change. 

“What is achievable in 12 weeks can often take a year or two to do in a normal business context. This is a really powerful informational asset that Defence and the Australian government could use to adapt their processes and make their systems more efficient.”

As the Hacking for National Security program was taught as an elective subject, it attracted students who were genuinely curious about what it took to solve complex problems differently. 

Phil said the program helped participants discover important things about their work style, their strengths and even potential new career directions post-MBA – which is why a lot of people study at AGSM. It was a win-win for both participants and sponsors. 

“The organisations that are partnering with the university have a very small amount of additional overhead and get a lot of benefit from the program. And the students benefit because they get real-world experience and a chance to build industry networks that will help them take their next steps after business school.”

Based on the success of AGSM @ UNSW Business School’s pilot of the program, Defence is launching D.Start Catalyst, which will take the Hacking for National Security methodology into more university courses. 

Its aim is to energise Australia’s educational and entrepreneurial ecosystem to be aware of the Defence and national security problem space, create new defence-focussed ventures, and, where appropriate, consider careers in Defence or defence industry. To learn more about D.Start Catalyst, click here.

Reaching beyond Defence

While the first participants have only just finished the program, Phil sees the potential to run the Hacking for National Security program across more UNSW faculties and government departments. 

“This is an agnostic approach that can be used by local councils, state governments, not-for-profits, and companies, large and small, that are trying to do good things around the country,” he says.
 
“We've got a really significant remote and rural population in Australia. How do we solve problems that affect them? How do we solve problems in agriculture? There are some really interesting ways that this methodology can be used across the board.” 

The program has proven that it has potential to be extremely valuable for both program sponsors and participants and demonstrated the multifaceted gains of bringing fresh thinking to established organisations. 


To learn more about AGSM’s globally ranked MBA program, click here.

To find out more about AGSM @ UNSW Business School, click here.