How To: Innovating Within the Government

In launching our innovation program, my colleagues and I surprisingly received the most push-back from our most innovative colleagues. “We’re already innovating!” was the common refrain. True dat. We have jaw-droppingly talented colleagues who are doing amazing things to help U.S. exporters.

However, these best practices aren’t often widely shared across an organization with offices in 100 U.S. cities and 80 countries. Given our geographic isolation, we often work in silos. Sound familiar? Indeed, in launching our innovation initiative, bringing like-minded people together has been among the most satisfying results of our collaboration.

We are learning every day and constantly tweaking our approaches. Here are some tips we’ve learned to help you with your innovation programs:

Involve HQ early in the project. We spearheaded this as a “by the field for the field” initiative and were surprised that HQ felt somewhat left out. The fact remains that we can’t implement the proposed ideas without HQ. We took a step back and brought a dozen or so HQ people into the fold so we could both obtain their perspective and ensure buy-in for project implementation.
Loop in the IT Department. Not all, but much, of innovation will involve IT. It is always better to be aware of potential roadblocks sooner rather than later in order to deviate them or resort to Plan B. With the proliferation of free apps and social media tools, as an example, it is critical to get IT approval before using them for myriad reasons. Trust me, we learned this the hard way.
Get buy-In at different levels in the organization. Note: to be successful with an effort like this, you will need strong support from people other than your managers. Corral your key supporters and your creative colleagues. Everyone is busy with their “regular” work so you need to demonstrate the value of the program quickly for success.
Communicate often and smart. This is especially critical if you have opposition to your innovation program. You will consistently need to prove how these new processes/procedures/programs/tools are beneficial and how/why the changes have been implemented. We experimented with using snarky (attention grabbing!) language and including links to interesting reading on a variety of innovation themes. We also tried to use a variety of platforms to communicate our messages, which added to the sense of novelty.
Implementation is key. Make sure you usher the projects toward a decision point with hopeful implementation. If you are not able to demonstrate tangible results quickly, your colleagues will lose interest. Not all ideas will be implemented, but the organization must see that action is being taken for an ultimate decision.
Reach out to other government agencies to discuss innovation programs. Talking with colleagues at different agencies about their programs (and do’s and don’ts) has been educational and affirming. We learned that we’re on the right path with many things and gained tips on how to do things better.


Exclude your interns. Often new (and younger) employees will have fresh perspectives that would greatly enrich operations and innovation programs. Plus, they frequently use tools/shortcuts that you aren’t aware of to make your work easier and more effective.
Forget to say thank you and acknowledge all participants. We are working on a formal award program to recognize and encourage innovation. In the meantime, we send all participants a certificate to tout their participation. Again, people need incentives to participate.
Let detractors sway you…BUT know when to give it a rest. This is arguably the hardest tip. Innovators are by nature disrupters, which can be a challenge to navigate in a bureaucracy. Knowing which battles to fight and when to step back is a key asset to managing an innovation program (and succeeding in work in general).
In sum, we’re still figuring this out. We’d love to hear from you what’s worked and hasn’t – please contact us anytime [email protected]

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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Terrence (Terry) Hill

Great tips on innovation! I’d like to see a day when all innovation labs have one virtual home where they can all collaborate and share best practices. I’d almost like to see an interagency innovation council, but that would probably become too bureaucratic to do any good.

Aileen Nandi

Terry, that’s a great idea! One thing I really admire in Silicon Valley is the amount of knowledge sharing among companies/entrepreneurs. Maybe it’s the “open source” atmosphere, but there are multiple events daily on any given topic where people get together to code, jam, discuss, etc. Much of this is done in the evening “after” work. There’s no reason like-minded people can’t get together to do this in the government as well. I agree that a “Council” will stifle true collaboration.

Jay Johnson

Do – realize that things are likely to change, so be flexible with the specifics as long as you can still make progress towards the larger goal.