How to Be a Top Federal Disruptor

Disruption is going to happen whether we like it or not. The modern lexicon puts the descriptor of disruptor on equal footing with the innovator. Over the past few decades, most of contemporary life has been disrupted, sometimes for worse, but often times for much better outcomes. You’re probably reading this article on a super-computer you can hold in your hand and video chat with anyone anywhere in the world. If I would have told my grandfather this, he’d ask me if I’d gotten into his liquor cabinet.

The likes of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Snapchat, etc., have completely disrupted how we share and consume information. Mobile devices change how we conduct our daily activities ranging from dating to banking. These fundamental shifts in technology force many organizations to radically redesign everything about their business models and processes.

But there is one holdout that will be dragged into disruption kicking and screaming. It’s your federal government.

But disruption is happening, and I’ve had the privilege of recently working for two disruptors in the federal government.

Fedscoop recently announced its list of the Top 50 Leaders in the government IT community, of which, hidden deep down the page, are the most important—the 15 nominees for “Top Disruptor” in the federal government. Of the 15, I have had the privilege of promoting both the person and the works of Mike Madsen, partner at Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) at the Department of Defense, and Craig Fischer, at Treasury’s Bureau of the Fiscal Service. Mike is a key disruptor at DIU, and he was when we worked together at the Section 809 Panel, a panel designed to bring much-needed change and hopefully speed to defense acquisition. Craig works diligently to increase adoption of next-generation technologies and apply them to federal financial management across the government.

Both taught me some key lessons on how to be a disruptor, and I’d like to think I helped them in making their disruptive natures more high-profile and accepted. Here are some of my observations in hopes you turn yourself into the disruptor you dream about:

Don’t Be Afraid To Think Differently About How You Operate.

Ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. What if you did small tasks differently? Ask yourself if the assumptions you have are based in thoughtful consideration or just vestiges of the past. Try not to work in the box of what you think your organization is allowed to do or has historically done. If you find yourself spending a large portion of your time on tasks that aren’t focused on your intended outcome, it’s probably time to disrupt things. You have more control than you think in how you can structure your federal sub-organization. Get an attorney on your team and really take the time to understand the authorities that are given to you under current law. I’d bet you’d be surprised by the flexibility you have, especially regarding what’s referred to as back-office functions, how you structure your teams or how you conduct your day-to-day operations.

Find A Way To Move Faster.

Throw your checklists out the door. If a normal process is designed to make sense out of complex systems, government processes are designed to turn humans into robots. I get it. Before the turn of the century, most jobs weren’t digitally accomplished, so you didn’t have any good way other than long processes and approvals to ensure you had everything under control. But senior government leaders who have trouble letting go of the past must adopt a more flexible way of managing operations. I’m not talking about just making the status quo more streamlined, but a fundamental shift of culture and thinking into one that values speed. This is the point where you expect me to talk about Agile methodology and complex product development models. Nope, I’ve observed a much simpler way to get to speed. To do that, I have a three-word final recommendation.

Stop Wasting Time!

Let me repeat that. Stop wasting time! Is your organization not fully staffed? Do you find yourself constantly having to engage in process workarounds because you don’t have enough resources? Are your deadlines viewed as more of an option rather than a hard goal? You’re probably stuck in the past, trying to operate as if time is not a factor and you have massive amounts of people waiting to complete the hundreds of steps in your approval process. You don’t need more staff, you need to change the way you operate. Take steps to standardize your data, processes and procedures as much as possible. But don’t stop there. Consolidate them and automate as much as you possibly can. This will start to enable you to move fast, which also means you have the chance to change course much quicker, be innovative and get the mission done cheaper and faster. Want an easy-to-understand example? Stop going to or scheduling so many pointless meetings. Find a way to collaborate and make decisions without waiting to get everyone on the same call or same room. That’s an incredibly wasteful habit.

It’s true. The government is not a small company that can simply change its operating model and streamline its processes overnight. And it’s not monolithic; there is a complex and convoluted web of legal authority and opinions — overlapping branches and organizations. All of this is designed to provide oversight and regulations and policies — and underlie the notion that change doesn’t happen in government. But being resistant to disruptors and not respecting the value of time in even the smallest of tasks has negative consequences. It can be a drain on resources, negatively affect your ability to retain talent and adversely affect our role of being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.

We Can Do It.

I’m confident that we can get better. However, it’s going to take a little disrupting to get to the next level. I challenge Fedscoop and you to double the number of federal disruptors for 2019 by becoming one. Because we will need many more mavericks, rogues and disruptors not afraid to ask, “Why are we doing it this way?” That way, we can transform our federal government into one that meets the expectations of its citizens in a cost- and time-effective way.

You can follow Shayne L. Martin on Twitter and LinkedIn. He is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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