Boosting Innovation — Organically

In the U.S. Commercial Service within the International Trade Administration, as our exporters’ needs change, so must we. Though it might seem an oxymoron for a U.S. Government agency to tout its innovative approaches, the reality is that we – and our U.S. clients — face myriad issues on a daily basis that require customized solutions. From helping a shipment of apples clear customs in South India to resolving a biotech regulatory barrier in Europe to assisting a small cloud reseller land deals in Ghana, we regularly tweak our services to assist each company with its unique set of issues. A “one-size-fits-all” technique does not apply to international trade.

To capitalize on our entrepreneurial bent and to share and communicate even better across an organization spanning 80 international and 100 domestic offices, we launched the CS2 (Commercial Service Crowdsource) initiative. CS2 was designed to provide employees at all levels in with a voice to propose and vote on ideas to change and/or improve how we help U.S. exporters. CS2 brings solutions to management, thereby creating a win-win for all. We structured CS2 as a quarterly “Pitchfest” competition, taking a cue from the dynamic venture capital industry that spurs much of the innovation we witness today. Colleagues are encouraged to submit short written proposals which are subsequently “crowdsourced” in a democratic voting process. The top three ideas then move on to an Oral Pitchfest for the final winner.

This effort, driven by field employees representing both the international and domestic units of our organization, enables colleagues from across the organization to participate in decisions that will impact how they work with companies and colleagues. We have a cross-section of colleagues from HQ in Washington, DC and the field (as far as Australia) to serve as “Interested Innovators” to judge the oral pitches to determine the final winner. CS2, designed by the field for the field, also involves headquarters in the implementation process. After the winning idea is selected by the “Interested Innovators,” it goes through a process for piloting (if necessary) for an implementation decision.

We began with the “B2B” theme as it impacts the very core of how we help U.S. exporters and then moved on to “commercial intelligence” for the second pitchfest. We had hundreds of colleagues participating through submissions, votes or judging. We garnered tremendous feedback from the field: for many employees, it greatly enhances their abilities to convey their thoughts and vision with others in a 2000-employee organization spread throughout the world. Many commented on how “fun” it was for them.

We got ideas. That’s evident. To succeed with this grassroots innovation effort, we need to demonstrate that the winning ideas have been implemented. Therein lies a challenge worthy of another blog topic altogether. Some colleagues are waiting and watching to see if CS2 is yet another flash-in-the-pan project. I don’t begrudge these doubts – we’ve seen several similar initiatives come and go without any tangible results.

In sum, what’s the recipe for successful organic innovation? We’re still tweaking the ingredients, but it goes something like this: good idea+resources+management support+implementation=sustainable innovation program. This is a work in progress, but hopefully our exporters will reap the benefits.

Aileen Nandi is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Thanks for including Australia (downunder) in the process.

I would just add one more ngredient to your list;

“good idea+resources+management support+ a champion (or 2) +implementation=sustainable innovation”

Good luck.