‘Love the Problem’ and Other Tips From Government Innovators

The basic recipe for innovation is one part technology to three parts sweat and tears.

That is to say that agencies looking to transform their operations need to pay attention to the people, processes and other factors that can either undermine or advance their innovative initiatives.

At a recent GovLoop virtual summit, “Accelerating Agency Innovation,” senior government leaders shared their insights on how agencies can bake innovation into their ways of doing business.

Here are some highlights from what they said.

Fall in Love With Problems, Not Solutions

Here’s what you may get wrong about innovation: It’s not the solution you should be enamored with, but the problem.

“A key part of innovation is not just coming in with the solutions, but understanding your customer’s needs,” said Sanjay Koyani, Chief Technology Officer of the Labor Department’s Office of the Chief Information Officer.

That’s because the solution should fit the need – but oftentimes, it goes the other way around.

Instead, intensely focus on the problems that customers and constituents face. Test your assumptions, double-check their real needs and “fall in love” with the problem, not the solution. This way, you set up a stream of problem-solving that meets changing needs and adds continuous value.

Bring out the Dragons on Your Staff

First, there was Shark Tank. Now there’s the Dragon’s Lair.

In the spirit of the reality TV series, the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps created the Dragon’s Lair in late 2020 as a way to spark innovation through competition in the workplace.

In each “episode,” soldiers from across the Army have pitched their innovative ideas to a panel of civilian tech experts and military leaders. Future episodes will be open to contestants from across the other services, said Lieutenant Colonel Kristin Saling, EN/49, Deputy Director, People Analytics, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army (ASA).

“We’re seeing a lot of organizations set up their own little innovation cells, and really empowering them to look at their processes, and figure out what can we do,” Saling said.

Manage the Disruption

Even small innovations can disrupt a workforce, so agencies must navigate that uncertainty to ensure the lasting effectiveness of any reform, said Jeff Shilling, Chief Information Officer and Chief of IT with the National Cancer Institute.

“You have to find that happy spot where you’re being as innovative and disruptive as your culture can handle,” he said.

That means leadership needs to buy into the full consequences of reform, understanding that innovation may cost more before it costs less. And employees must trust the organization, identify with the new approach and accept a certain degree of ambiguity.

Focus on the 4 P’s of Data

“Now you know, I’m always careful when I talk about data,” said Angelo Tony Riddic, Chief Information Officer for New York state. “Because data are just points.”

“Raw data points do not mean we have solutions,” Riddic said.

To create solutions, data requires the four P’s, or the pillars of New York state’s IT: people, process, product and policy.

  • People must understand and be trained on data.
  • The data must run through an analytical process that turns it into information.
  • A product helps with that process.
  • And it all needs to be operated within guiding policy.

Take a Page from NASA’s Playbook

Last year, NASA invested in 23 “early win projects” to showcase the power of digital transformation, including reducing the space glove inspection process from days to 45 seconds.

“We recognize that NASA can’t keep doing what we have always done and still expect to be innovative,” said Jill Marlowe, NASA’s Digital Transformation Officer. She outlined the agency’s playbook for digital transformation:

  1. Ignite transformation by setting a clear and compelling vision.
  2. Connect innovators to share diverse talents and ideas.
  3. Drive adoption of minimum viable solutions through integration.
  4. Facilitate adoption.

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